For our final KYD No. 12 teaser, Jill Jollife returns to East Timor after a long absence.
Want to read the rest of Jill’s insightful article? You can get your hands on Issue Twelve on 7th January.
After a long absence I’m back in East Timor on a hit-and-run reporting raid to probe new issues and grapple with memories: Balibó, corpses, East Timor’s so- called China syndrome and its relations with Australia are on the agenda.
I set off first for Balibó with my young friend, Elvis Sarmento Guterres, in a car rented from Sebastião and Sandra da Silva’s car yard in Dili’s west. Sebastião is a fine Timorese artist whose car rentals bankroll his painting. I needed to hire a car with a driver and he recommended Roberto, a cheery, cheeky chappie in cargo pants and a back-to-front baseball cap. He and Elvis size each other up slowly, sideways, like dogs cautiously circling and sniffing, then bond instantly. For the duration of the 140km drive to the border they talk incessantly in Tetûm, cracking jokes, most of which are about East Timor’s prime minister Xanana Gusmão. I’m not sure whether they’re derogatory or admiring – they certainly seem hilarious.
Travelling westward along the coast we come to the old prison at Aipelo, used by the Portuguese in colonial times to disembark deportados – political dissidents also known as ‘red legionnaires’ – who were transported from Lisbon to exile in this most distant of colonies. Rebellious local chiefs (liurais) were also imprisoned, some dying here. By the time of the Indonesian withdrawal, the historic building was falling down and overgrown with weeds. In a prime example of opportunism the Indonesian administration signposted the site as evidence of Portuguese cruelty, which it was, but it paled into insignificance compared to Indonesia’s torture record in East Timor.
I ask Roberto to stop because I can see that a restoration is underway – the building has been cleaned and partly repaired and the weeds have gone. Some Timorese youths seated outside tell me it was initiated by the Secretariat of Culture, responsible for heritage buildings. Although the old Indonesian sign remains (perhaps overlooked), there are some new signs outside with histories of the liurais who perished: Dom Felix Damião Ribeiro of Aileu, Dom Feliciano Pires of Laleia and Dom Caetano of Balibó, as well as a commoner called Manu Hada who fought in the nationalist revolt quashed in 1912.
The seaward view from the Aipelo prison is of the Ombai–Wetar Straits, a deep seawater channel key to international complicity in Indonesia’s 1975 invasion. Michael Richardson of the Age published a story in August 1976 on talks in Washington where senior United States officials warned Australian prime minister Malcolm Fraser and foreign minister Andrew Peacock of American interest in East Timor being under a ‘friendly, anti-communist’ government for reasons of direct strategic importance to the US.
Quoting American officials in South-East Asia, Richardson wrote that their interest lay in maintaining access to the deep-running Ombai–Wetar Straits between Dili and the offshore islands of Ataúro and Wetar for safe passage of its nuclear submarines. It is the only deep-water passage between the Indian and Pacific Oceans through which America’s nuclear submarine fleet can pass undetected. In the busy Malacca Straits off Singapore, submarines are obliged to surface during transit and can be photographed by satellites. Washington had backed the Indonesian invasion over alarm at the prospect of independence under the left-leaning FRETILIN (the Revolutionary Front for an Independent East Timor), as had then Australian prime minister Gough Whitlam.
Richardson wrote nine months after the takeover, when Australian leaders were worried by public disquiet in response to atrocity stories coming out of Dili. Under the Portuguese colonial dictatorship, access to the Straits had been guaranteed. In 2008 control of the Ombai–Wetar Straits was to become an issue again in an unexpected context.
Jill Jolliffe is a freelance journalist and author whose best-known book is Balibo (Scribe, 2009). She held the Macquarie University post of John Dunmore Lang Achievement Fellow throughout 2012.
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