The Newsletter 83 Summer 2019

Remembering terror and activism in the city

Vannessa Hearman

In October 2017, Timor-Leste’s National Centre of Memory (Centro Nacional Chega!, CNC) designated sites of historical memory in Dili, the country’s capital, as part of a project titled ‘Dili City of History’ [Sidade Istoriku]. The CNC was formed in 2017 to deal with the legacies of past violence and human rights abuses, mostly committed during Indonesian rule from 1975 to 1999, that were documented by the country’s truth commissions. Many of the sites are former military and police headquarters where the Indonesian security forces detained and tortured East Timorese accused of supporting independence.

The Indonesian invasion of 7 December 1975 transformed Dili from the then Portuguese Timor, formerly described in travel accounts as being a sleepy backwater of some 14,000 people, into a military operations centre.[1] Portuguese statistical reports showed the territory’s population in 1974 to be around 635,000.[2] The Indonesian army assumed control over many former Portuguese installations, continuing to use some in much the same way as the Portuguese had, such as the Balide Comarca (the city’s prison) and the Lahane hospital. Other buildings, however, were repurposed into becoming killing and interrogation sites of East Timorese civilians, and soldiers fighting in the Falintil forces (Forças Armadas de Libertaçao Nacional de Timor-Leste, Armed Forces for the Liberation of East Timor). In July 1976, East Timor was ‘integrated’ into Indonesia as its 27th province, but remained closed to visitors until 1989, as Indonesia fought to defeat the pro-independence forces. As well as operating detention and torture sites, the army introduced new security and surveillance systems, including the prevalent use of spies and informants.

The displacement of an estimated 108,000 East Timorese over the course of the Indonesian occupation,[3] contributed to inward migration into Dili. Suburbs such as Kuluhun, Becora, Bemori and Santa Cruz swelled with migrants from districts such as Baucau, Los Palos, Bobonaro and Viqueque, escaping military persecution in the rural areas. Some youths who migrated to these suburbs were drawn into the clandestine movement in opposition to Indonesian rule. The guerrilla movement active in the rural areas of East Timor, so symbolic of the struggle against Indonesian rule, relied on the communication and supply links maintained by the clandestine network. Memoirs by East Timorese activists Constancio Pinto and Naldo Rei recount aspects of this work, such as in the couriering of letters, cassette tapes and photographs between the armed resistance and the outside world, and the protection of Resistance leaders such as Xanana Gusmão in Dili’s safe houses.[4] There is much still to be documented of how the clandestine youth lived in and used this city as a site of activism.

My research project on the sea voyage in 1995 of the only asylum seeker boat to have reached Australia from East Timor, has led me into discussing with my interviewees their experiences of living in Dili in the 1980s and 90s. The passengers of the boat, the Tasi Diak [Good Sea], were young people who were born and had grown up during the Indonesian occupation – some whom had survived the 1991 Santa Cruz Cemetery massacre in Dili when the army killed 271 people at a funeral march. The interviews I have carried out in the past two years with them suggest that life in the city was not only about being in the grip of terror. The city’s residents chafed against the authority of the Indonesian army and a network of informants, and expressed their dissatisfaction through low-level civil disobedience such as stone throwing and harassment of Indonesian settlers and public servants. Despite the threat of repeated detention, youths threw stones at Indonesian security forces and kept a close eye on the mau’hu, a term used locally to refer to pro-Indonesian East Timorese spies. The research is still currently underway, but these life stories seem to suggest that, in their activism, youths involved in the clandestine movement took advantage of certain characteristics of the city. High population density and mobility in particular suburbs enabled them to pass by unnoticed, and they monitored the security situation by hanging out in public places. 

Motael Church, the oldest Roman Catholic Church in Timor-Leste. In 1991 a group of young independence activists demonstrating against the Indonesian occupation took sanctuary in the church. The Indonesians stormed the church and shot activist Sebastião Gomes, which would eventually lead to the Santa Cruz massacre.

After Dili’s near destruction at the hands of the Indonesian army and East Timorese militias in 1999, the East Timorese government and private sector have refurbished many former Indonesian administration buildings. Dili is a rapidly changing city. Historical sites are under threat of disappearing due to redevelopment and changing land use. The Hotel Turismo, a historic hotel built in the 1960s where pro-independence youths had protested for independence was included in the CNC’s list. But it was demolished in 2010, rebuilt without preserving any original features and renamed.[5] The Indonesian Embassy’s new Cultural Centre has erased traces of the old Dili regency police headquarters (Polres) where East Timorese were routinely detained.[6] 

In some instances, buildings have been repurposed, rather than destroyed, as were Indonesian era monuments. In 2009, the Indonesian Integration Monument and its surrounds were turned into the 5 May Park, commemorating the historic 1999 agreement between Indonesia, Portugal and the UN to hold the independence ballot. The CNC has printed a coloured map showing its historical sites and conducts tours for students, such as to Gusmão’s former hideout in Cacaulidu. The East Timorese non-government organisation, Youth for National Development (JDN) runs historical walking tours for visitors to Dili. The CNC’s Historical Sites project strives to preserve the historical memory embodied in the city’s physical structures, as did the National Directorate of Cultural Heritage (DPNC)’s recording of Portuguese era architectural legacy some years earlier.[7] In a time of rapid change and high population mobility, interviews with the city’s residents, past and present, deepens our understanding of how the urban setting provided opportunities for youth to come together and become politically active.

Vannessa Hearman is a historian and senior lecturer in Indonesian Studies at Charles Darwin University, Australia.


[1] Briere, E. 2004. East Timor: Testimony. Toronto: Between the Lines, p.84.

[2] Joliffe, J. 2001. Cover Up: The Inside Story of the Balibo Five. Melbourne: Scribe Publications, p.46.

[3] CAVR. 2013. Chega!: The Final Report of the Timor-Leste Commission for Reception, Truth and Reconciliation (CAVR). Jakarta: KPG in cooperation with STP-CAVR, p.502.

[4] Pinto, C. & Jardine, M. 1996. East Timor's Unfinished Struggle: Inside the Timorese Resistance. Boston: South End Press; Rei, N. 2007. Resistance: A Childhood Fighting for East Timor. St Lucia, Qld.: University of Queensland Press.

[5] Murdoch, L. 13 March 2010. ‘Heartbreak goes on at the hotel that has had more than its share’, Sydney Morning Herald;

[6] Centro Nacional Chega! 2017. Dili Sidade Istoriku: Da Memoria a Esperanca map. Dili: Centro Nacional Chega!. See also Chega! Final Report, p.2204.

[7] Miranda, F. & Boavida, I. (eds) 2015. Património Arquitetónico de Origem Portuguesa Dili. Dili: Direcão Nacional Patrimonio Cultural.