The Newsletter 83 Summer 2019

The changing nature of resistance: East Timor on the international stage

Hannah Loney

On 7 December 1975, Indonesia launched a full-scale land, sea and air invasion of the former Portuguese colony of East Timor. It took several years, and the loss of hundreds of thousands of civilian lives, before Indonesian forces gained control over the territory.

On 26 March 1979, the Indonesian Government declared East Timor “pacified” and established the militarized state structure that would administer the territory until 1999. There were a number of shifts in the policies governing the administration of East Timor, but Indonesian rule largely relied upon the constant and pervasive presence of the military, and the government’s ability to minimize international awareness of the situation there.[1] Even with these features, many East Timorese remained committed to the idea of national self-determination, yet the shape and form of their opposition changed across the twenty-four-year period. My book—In Women’s Words: Violence and Everyday Life during the Indonesian Occupation of East Timor—explores women’s experiences of, and participation in, the development of a culture of resistance in East Timor.[2]    

In 1989, the Indonesian President Suharto visited East Timor and declared the territory to have “equal status” with other provinces. Despite this declaration, the Indonesian military’s presence remained high, and security forces responded heavy-handedly to growing public expressions of discontent. At the same time, links were being fostered between East Timorese students studying in Indonesia and Indonesian pro-democracy activists around a broader movement for democratisation and political change. The common enemy was Suharto’s regime and the common rhetoric was the developing language of universal human rights. The nature of the East Timorese resistance changed too, as a new generation of East Timorese who had grown up under Indonesian rule began to express publicly their opposition to the occupying regime. From a leftist inspired national liberation movement, the East Timorese resistance began to appeal more directly to the international community and became increasingly adept at utilising the language of human rights to frame their concerns.[3] These developments were particularly important for the way in which East Timorese women engaged with, and contributed to, a broader politics of resistance.

Several events within East Timor signalled a shift in the nature of opposition towards peaceful yet more public expressions of defiance that were increasingly aimed at an international audience. The violent repression of these protests by Indonesian forces, paradoxically, had the effect of accentuating their visibility and potency in international networks. The visits to the territory of Pope John Paul II on 12 October 1989, and US Ambassador to Indonesia, John Monjo, on 17 January 1990 precipitated large, peaceful public demonstrations, which were followed by violent crackdowns by Indonesian forces.[4]

The most well-known of these protests was the Santa Cruz demonstration, which took place in Dili on 12 November 1991 after a funeral procession for a young student, Sebastião Gomes.[5] Indonesian security forces lined the streets while demonstrators – including many women – marched from the Motael Church to the Santa Cruz cemetery. Along the way, banners were unfurled calling for the United Nations to intervene in East Timor, pledging support for the resistance leader Xanana Gusmão, and advocating for East Timor’s right to national self-determination. Once the protestors reached the cemetery Indonesian forces opened fire, killing an estimated 270 young people. Many hundreds of others were detained or disappeared in the military crackdown that followed. The massacre was captured on film by a foreign journalist, who was present for the planned visit of a Portuguese parliamentary delegation. The footage was smuggled out of the territory in the days following, and subsequently broadcast on television stations around the world. These events marked a watershed moment in East Timor’s modern history, and permanently changed the way that the international community perceived the Indonesian occupation.

The grave and memorial of Sebastião Gomes.

The clandestine resistance continued to grow throughout the 1990s, with many young East Timorese taking great risks to deliver information to international solidarity networks and to hold demonstrations when foreign delegations were present in the territory. These changes to the nature of the East Timorese resistance were also impacted by mounting tensions in the Indonesian political landscape. The Asian Financial Crisis of 1997–98 produced high rates of unemployment, and rising food prices exposed the corruption and economic mismanagement of the Suharto regime, leading to mass protests across the country. The popular Reformasi movement, which used as its rallying cry the condemnation of Corruption, Collusion and Nepotism (Korupsi, Kolusi dan Nepotisme, KKN), triggered the resignation of President Suharto on 21 May 1998 and the subsequent collapse of the New Order regime.[6] The new Indonesian President B. J. Habibie introduced far-reaching reforms that dismantled many of the foundations of the former regime. These measures provided the space for civil society to organise in Indonesia and, although to a lesser extent, opportunities for public discussion to also become available in East Timor.

Within this changing political climate, several women’s organisations were established in East Timor. Drawing upon the opportunities provided by political developments in Indonesia and the associated capacity for civil action, these organisations facilitated a number of public forums for East Timorese women to come together to share their experiences of violence and suffering. As my interviewees described, these gatherings were a source of inspiration for many of the participants, and proved critical in both affirming and deepening their commitment to independence. They were also demonstrative of a pronounced shift in the nature of opposition to Indonesian military occupation. Combined with a spirit of shared survival and resistance, international attention to the brutality of Indonesian rule after the Santa Cruz massacre and the changing political climate in Indonesia, paved the way for East Timor’s transition to independence. My examination of women’s experiences of the changing, and increasingly international, dimensions of the East Timorese resistance sheds new light upon the intersections between the local and the global in East Timor’s independence struggle, as well as the gendered dynamics of agency, violence and resistance.   

Hannah Loney is a Gilbert Postdoctoral Early Career Fellow in the School of Historical and Philosophical Studies at the University of Melbourne. Her book, In Women’s Words: Violence and Everyday Life during the Indonesian Occupation of East Timor, 1975–1999, was published with Sussex Academic Press in 2018.


[1] Fernandes, C. 2011. The Independence of East Timor: Multi-Dimensional Perspectives: Occupation, Resistance, and International Political Activism. Sussex Academic Press.

[2] Loney, H. 2018. In Women’s Words: Violence and Everyday Life during the Indonesian Occupation of East Timor, 1975–1999. Eastbourne: Sussex Academic Press.

[3] Webster, D. 2013. ‘Languages of Human Rights in Timor-Leste’, Asia Pacific Perspectives 11(1):5-21.

[4] See CAVR. 2013. ‘Part 3: History of the Conflict’, Chega! The Final Report of the Timor-Leste Commission for Reception, Truth and Reconciliation (CAVR), Vol. 1. Jakarta: KPG in cooperation with STP-CAVR.

[5] See ‘11: The Santa Cruz Massacre’, in Pinto, C. & Jardine, M. 1997. East Timor’s Unfinished

Struggle: Inside the East Timorese Resistance. Toronto: Canadian Cataloguing in Publication Data, pp.188-99; and ‘Chapter 7: The Santa Cruz Massacre’, in Rei, N. 2007. Resistance: A Childhood Fighting for East Timor. St. Lucia: University of Queensland Press, pp.48-53.

[6] See Aspinall, E. & Fealy, G. (eds) 2010. Soeharto’s New Order and its Legacy: Essays in Honour of Harold Crouch. Acton: ANU E Press.