Two Sides of Indonesian Rule in Timor


This impoverished town by the shimmering tropical sea mirrors the triumphs and failures of the Indonesian army in its battle to win the hearts of the people of East Timor.

The women of Liquica talk in whispers of the people gunned down by the army at a Christian cemetery in the capital Dili on Nov. 12. Some say they now live in fear of their lives. Young men have been rounded up by the army.

In the heart of the town, a school that the military helped improve bustles with the activity of neatly dressed children.

“We can build schools and hospitals, but what about freedom of the spirit and the soul?” asks Father Rafael dos Santos, the Roman Catholic priest of Liquica’s church.


Rafael said life in the town of around 5,000 people was different under the Portuguese, who left East Timor in 1975 after three centuries of colonial rule. Indonesia troops moved in the same year, and the territory was annexed in 1976.

“Now we live under pressure,” the 47-year-old priest said.

Witnesses said youths in the town were being rounded up and questioned about their movements Nov. 12, when the army opened fire on 3,500 mourners who had met at the Santa Cruz cemetery in Dili to mourn a youth killed earlier in clashes between pro- and anti-Indonesian factions.

The army says 19 died in the firing, with about 90 injured.


“We heard that more than 180 people died. We are afraid to talk to you because of the army,” a widow said.

Her husband disappeared after Indonesian troops swept into the territory in 1975, as civil war broke out, to stop an independence movement.

A seamstress earning $2.50 a week to feed her six children, she lives in a house with a tin roof, four pictures of Christ and the Virgin Mary and two beds.

Her children said they had been threatened by soldiers for wearing rosaries to school but they did not know the reason.


Merkina, of mixed Timorese and Portuguese blood, wonders how she will feed seven children as she waits for her jobless husband after another fruitless day’s search for work.

Older residents of the town speak nostalgically about Portuguese rule, but their views conflict with statistics of a huge increase in per capita income and the number of schools, hospitals and roads since the Indonesians arrived.

Gabriel is a symbol of the success of that change.

Picked up by the military and put through school, the 24-year-old is now employed on one of the many military road projects.


He is smartly dressed, unlike many of the youths in town who wander the streets with dirty jeans and unkempt hair.

“They made my life,” he said in fluent Indonesian, adding that he hopes Timorese would soon begin accepting Indonesian rule and try to benefit from it.

A foreign nun in East Timor for several years said some people settled personal scores by wrongly accusing their enemies of being linked to Fretilin, the East Timorese guerrilla movement fighting for independence, and that this had fueled hatred between East Timorese.

Diplomats said Fretilin’s numbers have dwindled to fewer than 100 and that it is a brutal army rule and lack of economic opportunity that has deepened the hatred of Jakarta’s rule.