Page 1451 - Week 05 - Wednesday, 10 May 2006

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Indonesian rule in East Timor was marked by extreme violence and brutality, two of the worst examples of this being the Dili massacre and the Liquica church massacre. On 12 November 1991, East Timorese pro-independence protestors had gathered at the funeral procession of a student who had been shot dead by Indonesian troops. As the procession entered the cemetery, Indonesian troops opened fire. Of the people demonstrating in the cemetery, 271 were killed, 382 wounded and 250 disappeared.

On 6 April 1999, hundreds of East Timorese and Indonesian militia, soldiers and police attacked several thousand refugees sheltering in the Catholic church in Liquica, having slaughtered several civilians nearby the day before. The refugees had sought shelter in the churchyard from earlier militia attacks. According to an unpublished report commissioned by the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, the attack left up to 60 people dead, although the precise death toll is still unknown. It was the Timor independence movement and its continued protest that forced the international community to act, and it is to our shame that our government at the time was not more vocal in its support of a free and independent East Timor.

On 30 August 1999, 98 per cent of East Timorese registered voters went to the polls, the result of which was unanimous support for the beginning of the transition towards independence. Following the announcement of the result, pro-integration militia and the Indonesian security forces launched a campaign of violence, looting and arson. In the rampages of September 1999 the Indonesian military destroyed 75 per cent of East Timor’s infrastructure. They targeted the infrastructure of education, burning schools, looting the nurses institute and destroying the National University of East Timor.

It was, as Jim Aubrey states, the endurance and courage of the East Timorese people that enabled them to continue in their struggle for independence. No greater example can be given than that of East Timor’s university students. Despite having a university destroyed, students fanned across the country to work for the vote for independence. Many were killed in the violence that followed. Students went to regional areas to teach classes in burnt-out buildings, to keep the children learning and the schools open. They also organised classes for tertiary students when no other education facilities were operational.

When I think of Australian university students, I think of young men and women with radical thought, with the time to question the status quo and the drive to challenge directly. I believe that these are universal truths of students. However, what is markedly different is the status quo and how the challenge takes form. East Timorese students organised schools where there were no buildings. They organised voter registration where their fellow students were killed for doing the same. They would not be defeated, despite the violence inflicted on them.

On 20 May 2002, 27 years after invasion and several centuries of colonial rule, East Timor became a fully independent country. The determination and bravery of the East Timorese had prevailed. This new nation was only born because of the strength of character. The strength of mind of the East Timorese people was put to the test every day for over 30 years, but they were triumphant.

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