In Dili, Indonesia’s future means trying to forget about Timor-Leste’s past

Indonesian President-elect Prabowo Subianto, a former military officer, has been linked to alleged atrocities in Timor-Leste.
Ahmad Syamsudin
Dili, Timor-Leste
In Dili, Indonesia’s future means trying to forget about Timor-Leste’s past Hugo Fernandes, who serves as director of the Centro Nacional Chega!, a museum of memory that occupies a former prison where Timorese resistance fighters were incarcerated during the Indonesian occupation, is pictured at the institution in Dili, Timor-Leste (East Timor), March 27, 2024.
Julião Fernandes Guterres/BenarNews

At Timor-Leste’s museum of memory, Hugo Fernandes supervises exhibits chronicling resistance and oppression during the Indonesian occupation – an era when Prabowo Subianto, now Indonesia’s president-elect, is alleged to have overseen atrocities.

Fernandes runs the Centro Nacional Chega! museum, a former prison in the capital Dili that dates to when Timor-Leste was a Portuguese colony. Faded photographs of Timorese resistance fighters and messages scrawled on the walls by prisoners who languished here during Indonesia’s brutal 24-year rule line its galleries. 

Despite the shadows cast by history, the impending ascent to power of Prabowo, a former army special forces commander who was declared the winner of the Feb. 14 Indonesian general election, has been greeted with diplomatic decorum in this tiny young nation of 1.3 million people also known as East Timor.

“Prabowo’s specific actions remain unclear due to limited information,” Fernandes, the museum’s director, told BenarNews. “Accusations of human rights violations have persisted, but concrete evidence and verification are difficult to obtain.”

“Chega!,” which means “enough! in Portuguese, stands as a testament to Timor-Leste’s efforts to navigate the delicate path between preserving the memories of its dark past and promoting reconciliation with its giant neighbor next-door.

“There are differing voices within the nation,” Fernandes says. “Some activists advocate for answers regarding past atrocities, while others emphasize the importance of moving forward with Indonesia.”

This combination photo shows scenes from Timor-Leste’s dark past under the former Indonesian occupation that are displayed in exhibits at the Centro Nacional Chega! Museum in Dili, April 3, 2024. [Julião Fernandes Guterres/BenarNews]

In 1999, East Timor voted overwhelmingly to break away from Indonesian rule, through a United Nations-sponsored referendum. Before and after the vote, pro-Jakarta militias engaged in widespread violence and destruction. East Timor gained formal independence in 2002 after a period of U.N. administration.

The occupation, which followed after Indonesia invaded East Timor in December 1975, was marked by famine and conflict. The number of deaths attributed to that era ranges from from 90,000 to 200,000, the Commission for Reception, Truth and Reconciliation in East Timor reported.

This figure includes nearly 20,000 cases of violent deaths or disappearances. The commission’s findings indicate that Indonesian forces were responsible for about 70% of these violent incidents, set against the backdrop of East Timor’s population of around 900,000 in 1999.

And according to the Genocide Studies Program at Yale University, “up to a fifth of the East Timorese population perished during the Indonesia’s 24-year occupation … a similar proportion to the Cambodians who died under the Khmer Rouge regime of Pol Pot (1975-1979).”

Timor-Leste President José Ramos-Horta speaks to a BenarNews correspondent at the headquarters of the National Police of Timor-Leste in Dili, March 27, 2024. [Julião Fernandes Guterres/BenarNews]

Since 1999, the relationship between Timor-Leste and Indonesia has evolved, with Jakarta acknowledging its former province as a “close brother” and supporting Dili’s bid to join the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

Timor-Leste President José Ramos-Horta welcomed Prabowo’s election win and expressed readiness to collaborate with Indonesia’s upcoming new leader.

“Very pleased, very pleased,” Ramos-Horta told BenarNews when asked about Prabowo’s victory. 

As a young man, Ramos-Horta, now 74, was a founder and leader of Fretilin, the armed resistance movement that fought to liberate East Timor from the Portuguese first and then the Indonesians.

He said he had personally called Prabowo, now Indonesia’s defense minister, to congratulate him, and that the ex-general planned to visit Timor-Leste before his inauguration on Oct. 20.

Prime Minister Xanana Gusmão, a former guerilla leader who spent years in an Indonesian prison, was also happy with the news, Ramos-Horta said.

“President-elect Prabowo will contribute a lot, first to Indonesia, continuing stability and prosperity in Indonesia, and then in the region, as well as strengthen relations with Timor-Leste,” he said, adding Prabowo had “many friends” in his country, including his own brother, Arsenio.

When asked about Prabowo’s human rights record in Timor-Leste, Ramos-Horta said, “That is past. It’s already almost three decades, and we do not think of the past.”

Lt. Gen. Prabowo Subianto (left) poses with Maj. Gen. Muchdi Purwopranjono, his successor as chief of Indonesia’s special forces (Kopassus), after a handover ceremony in Jakarta, March 28, 1998. [Reuters file photo]

Prabowo was a key figure in the military operations that crushed the East Timorese resistance.

The Timor-Leste National Alliance for an International Tribunal (ANTI), a coalition of civil society organizations, survivors, and families of victims, said reports had implicated Prabowo in a 1983 massacre in Kraras.

Some estimates said that  200 people were killed there, earning the area the nickname the “town of widows.”

In a statement released in November, the alliance said that as the head of the Indonesian army’s special forces command, Prabowo had directed actions resulting in severe human rights abuses and crimes, including the establishment of pro-Indonesian militias blamed for post-referendum violence in 1999.

Pro-Indonesia militiamen run through the streets with assault rifles during clashes with pro-independence supporters in the provincial capital of Dili, East Timor, Aug. 26, 1999. [Firdia Lisnawati/AP file photo]

In addition, Prabowo is linked to a 1991 massacre at the Santa Cruz cemetery in Dili, where some 250 peaceful demonstrators were killed, the alliance said.

In 1998, Prabowo was discharged from the military after a council of honor officers found him guilty of several violations, including involvement in the abduction and disappearance of pro-democracy activists during the 1998 student protests that led to the downfall of Indonesian dictator Suharto.

Prabowo, 72, has denied any wrongdoing and said he was only following orders from his superiors. He has never been tried in a civilian court for the alleged crimes.

Prabowo’s presidential campaign team said that witnesses, including religious figures in Timor-Leste, had denied his connection to the Krakas killings.

Naldo Rei gestures outside his home in Manleuana, Timor-Leste, March 27, 2024. [Julião Fernandes Guterres/BenarNews]

For many Timorese, the memories of Indonesian occupation are hard to erase. 

Naldo Rei, 50, a former child guerrilla-fighter who was repeatedly imprisoned during that period, said he could not overlook Prabowo’s human rights record.

“While I don’t want to meddle in Indonesia’s internal matters, when it comes to human rights issues, Prabowo has a very distressing track record,” Rei told BenarNews, his soft-spoken and gentle demeanor belying his resistance years.

Rei spent his youth evading capture in the Los Palos jungle after the loss of six family members, including his father, to Indonesian military action.

In the early 1990s, he sought refuge first in Jakarta, then in Australia, before settling in an independent East Timor.

Rei, who is the author of “Resistance,” a memoir detailing his experiences, voices apprehension about the trajectory of Indonesian democracy.

“Prabowo’s victory, from my perspective, squanders the democracy that the people have fought for,” he said. “How many lives have been lost? He and other generals have blood on their hands.”


Januario Soares, a second-year medical student at the National University of Timor Lorosae, represents a growing sentiment focused on the future.

“Indonesia has chosen its leader. We need to focus on the future,” Soares said as he sat in the shade of a mahogany tree outside his campus in Dili.

He believes strengthening relations between the two countries is vital.

“The civil war left us divided, and in that division, we inadvertently opened our doors to Indonesia,” Soares said. “What followed was a period of violence against our people, a scar in our history.”

Yet, when it comes to Prabowo’s role in that history, Soares admitted he did not know much.

“The Indonesian people have made their choice. Perhaps Prabowo is the best among the contestants; that’s why they chose him,” he said.

Soares said he opted for a pragmatic approach toward the past, focusing on improving the quality of life and seeking benefits for the present and future.

“People change over time, and I believe Prabowo has changed too.” 

Natalina da Costa, a student at a secondary school in Dili, weaves a Timorese traditional cloth known as tais at the Tais Market in Colmera, Dili, Timor-Leste, July 7, 2023. [Julião Fernandes Guterres/BenarNews]

Damien Kingsbury, a political expert specializing in Timor-Leste, said Timorese leaders were obligated to maintain a delicate diplomatic stance due to the small nation’s reliance on Indonesia for imports and its aspirations to join ASEAN, the Southeast Asian bloc. Indonesia is one of ASEAN’s founding members.

“Of course, Ramos-Horta must be diplomatic,” said Kingsbury, a professor at Deakin University in Australia, who has written extensively on Timor-Leste and Indonesia.

“He is president of a small country that has an unhappy history with Indonesia and does not want to create any possible problems,” he told BenarNews.

Kingsbury pointed out that while Ramos-Horta, a Nobel laureate and prominent diplomat, is well-versed in the language of diplomacy, there is a generational gap in awareness of the nation’s tumultuous past.

“Younger people may not be aware of events of 20, 30 and 40 years ago, but that does not mean they did not happen,” he said.

“It must leave a bitter taste in the mouths of many that Timor-Leste’s leaders need to be polite to Prabowo.”


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