Regional Divisions

Ati Nurbaiti, The Jakarta Post, Dili

In this seaside capital, where invaders have come and gone, you get what you want to hear — that the perception of regional divisions is rubbish and will eventually blow over.

For generations of Timorese went through so much before voting firmly for separation from Indonesia in 1999. There is busy talk dismissing the notions of “west” and “east” apart from all the swirling rumors. Activists campaign that citizens of this four-year-old nation are one.

Heated debate ensues about who is fanning these divisions and spreading weapons, causing the shooting of fellow Timorese by armed groups outside the control of the military chief, perched atop hills outside Dili — and why?

Snippets of the daily buzz: Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri is the main suspect, as he has been widely criticized for his policies; he refused offers of loans from the World Bank, is stubborn in oil negotiations with Australia and has rejected plans to privatize electricity, etc. He must be battling to stay in power.

The finger of suspicion then points to Australia — Canberra’s troops in the hills must be protecting the armed rebel commander here and his men (it’s an assignment to contain the group in its Maubisse base, an Australian official said).

Or maybe it’s the charismatic President Xanana Gusmao himself seeking more power as he does not run the government; and he has made unhelpful remarks on “west” and “east” himself.

Others ask, is it the opposition seeking to ally with disillusioned military members, including suspects in smuggling operations?

Not to be left out are the Indonesians — the files on generals suspected of crimes against humanity conveniently vanished in the looting of the attorney general’s office.

Worse still: Is it the UN looking to extend the benefits of a “conflict project” in a doomed “failed state,” whatever those benefits might be?

While they speculate, everyone must look out for themselves because no one is quite sure where danger lurks in Dili.

And it then becomes clear that not everybody can afford the soothing, politically correct language of “we are one”.

“You’re a foreigner, you won’t be hurt,” says one man who raised the language of “east and west,” respectively “Lorosae and Loromono”.

People from the “central” regions have disappeared in this new terminology. Since February, when dismissed soldiers openly accused their commanders of discriminating against recruits from the west — because former freedom fighters were mostly from the east — townspeople have had to look constantly over their shoulders. One could be targeted for having a distant uncle in the Falintil.

“This is worse than 1999, when the enemy was clear,” says one resident.

Amid such heightened uncertainty, where does one look for shelter, other than the tarpaulin tent kind? They seek it in old bonds, says a researcher, the kind that guarantee your security.

Townspeople from the “east” have fled the capital; maybe it’s this ugly sign of “ethnic cleansing” that explains the declining incidence of crime in Dili rather than the presence of the multinational troops, as some say here.

Locals and researchers here point to the bonds of clan, inter-marriages, the church-based affiliations — which are not quite a daily issue but which now have become crucial in the search for safety.

There were other, often overlapping, bonds formed by necessity of struggle and survival under Indonesia.

Researcher Nug Katjasungkana cites the intricate structure of the Indonesian Military in East Timor, beyond the standard of its commands elsewhere, and the ties formed in the counter, clandestine resistance movement for 24 years, with the Falintil guerrillas as the more obvious targets in the forests.

Members of the movement included faceless typists and drivers, and model students awarded overseas scholarships, who would jump ship and apply for asylum once outside Indonesia, becoming worthless traitors to know-it-all Indonesians.

The members only became more prominent in the euphoric period after the resignation of Soeharto — thus exposing themselves, their families and neighborhoods to their “clandestine” identity considered close to the Falintil, Nug said.

In the June 11 edition of The Age daily, Tom Hyland cites the report of the country’s truth and reconciliation commission which examined the varied impact of Indonesian rule on the population.

“The tactics of plotting, secrecy and scheming that have now come to a head have their roots in a regime where secrecy meant survival,” he wrote.

The Commission for Reception, Truth and Reconciliation which documented experiences of violence from 1974 to 1999 had reported that the pervasiveness of the system of spies and informers, spreading rumors and misinformation as weapons of war, “sowed deep suspicion among the East Timorese population, and social bonds and cohesiveness were casualties of this undercover element of the conflict”.

It added: “Many East Timorese were forced to play a dangerous double game.”

Old suspicions are beginning to dictate daily life again; no one wants to be scarred all over again.

Hyland cites a study in the medical journal The Lancet in 2000, based on a survey of 1,033 East Timorese households.

“It found that 97 percent had experienced at least one traumatic event during Indonesia’s occupation. Three-quarters had experienced combat and more than half had come close to death. Twelve percent had lost children to political violence; 39 percent had been tortured; 22 percent had witnessed the murder of relatives or friends.”

No wonder friends and neighbors flee or quietly reassume those former bonds — their only guarantors in a nation with now almost nonexistent law enforcement.

Hushed conversations express concern that the old instinct to survive is shaping this growing discourse of regional divisions. As Dili families flee to eastern homelands, the capital is deprived of different voices, Nug said, with few media having adequate resources to provide balanced information and views.

It’s even true among the educated and activists, one said,

“We’ve discussed the issue, but friends were not quite open. We can talk and preach, but we cannot provide guarantees,” the person said.


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