The Betrayed People

'Funu': The Unfinished Saga of East Timor

by Jose Ramos-Horta, preface by Noam Chomsky
The Red Sea Press, 207 pp., $9.95 (paper)

East Timor Violations of Human Rights: Extrajudicial Executions, 'Disappearances,' Torture and Political Imprisonment, 1975–1984

Amnesty International Publications, 92 pp., $3.50 (paper)

Timor: A People Betrayed

by James Dunn
Jacaranda Wiley (Brisbane, Australia), 416 pp., $19.95 (Aust.)


“The church bears anxious witness to facts that are slowly leading to the ethnic, cultural and religious extinction of the people of East Timor.”

—From the statement of the apostolic administrator and Council of
Priests of the diocese of Dili, January 1, 1985.

At least a hundred thousand people have died since Indonesia invaded East Timor in December 1975, and probably many more. No one knows exactly how many. Some estimate that the invasion and ten years of war and military occupation may have wiped out as much as one third of the population, estimated at about 680,000 in 1975. Many have died from famine and disease, while others have been killed by aerial bombardments and fighting with the Indonesian army. Many have “disappeared” after arrest or have been summarily executed. Of those who remained, thousands have been taken to live in “resettlement centers” under army surveillance. Between eight and ten thousand Indonesian troops are said to remain in East Timor, facing an armed resistance that has been continuous.

The present strength of resistance is difficult to assess, however, since East Timor has been virtually sealed off from the outside world since 1975. Incoming and outgoing mail is checked and phones are tapped. No Timorese are allowed to leave, and no one may enter without special military authorization, which is rarely granted. The few people who are allowed to visit are employees of international humanitarian agencies, who cannot speak out without jeopardizing their work, or diplomats and journalists, whose movements are restricted to prevent them from finding out what is really happening.

The lack of information is also partly the result of East Timor’s geographical and historical remoteness. Timor is a small island of 13,094 square miles at the extreme eastern end of the Lesser Sunda island chain, 364 miles off the north coast of Australia. The Portuguese were the first Europeans to land there in the early sixteenth century. As others before them, they were attracted to the island’s rich supply of sandalwood. The Dutch gradually supplanted Portugal in the East Indies and settled in the western parts of Timor. The Dutch and Portuguese parts of the island soon developed quite separate identities. In East Timor, one indigenous language, Tétum, became the lingua franca together with Portuguese. By the early 1970s a third of the once-animist population were reported to be baptized Roman Catholics. Before the Indonesian invasion, some 80 percent of the people in East Timor lived in small hamlets on the island’s upland slopes, cultivating rice, corn, and root crops, and herding water buffalo, goats, and pigs.

West Timor became part of Indonesia with the rest of the Dutch East Indies in 1949, but Indonesia under President Suharto showed little interest in the eastern part of the island until Portugal’s Caetano dictatorship fell in April 1974. The new government in Lisbon was committed to self-determination in the Portuguese colonies, and began the process of decolonization in East Timor. Indonesia launched its…

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