Subject: IT: Overcoming trauma part of the agenda

Irish Times Saturday, January 15, 2000

Overcoming trauma part of the agenda

Details are emerging of what life was like under Indonesian occupation for some East Timorese women. David Shanks reports

EAST TIMOR East Timor is "at a new stage of history" having liberated itself from Indonesia. But "we are walking into the darkness", a Timorese woman was quoted as saying recently of the daunting prospect of nation-building from destruction.

The new stage may see many Timorese women liberating themselves from their men and from a history of domestic violence which was reinforced during 24 years of repressive occupation.

In a pretty Cotswolds village near Oxford an informal conference last weekend tried to chart a new road for a new country. East Timor, however, is overcast by "very strong discrimination patterns", said Carmel Budiardjo of the Indonesian Human Rights Campaign Tapol.

But social concerns were cramped into an agenda that included more immediate worries; for instance, that a "new colony" or "another Cambodia" might be created in East Timor by a well intentioned but dysfunctional international community.

A Timorese Chinese woman told the story of her sister, who as a "comfort woman" was forced to have sexual intercourse with a succession of Indonesian soldiers. She had four children by four different soldiers.

Many Timorese women were forced into prostitution or to serve as concubines by Indonesian officers. They had then become pariahs among their own people, said Ms Budiardjo,who has been campaigning from Britain since the late 1960s, when she was released as an Indonesian political prisoner.

There had been encouraging reports in recent months, another speaker said, of women taking over traditionally male roles.

For one Timorese man it was a matter of getting people to ask themselves how they could be liberated from the brutalising influence of the Indonesian occupation. The question was "how to teach people to understand human rights".

Emphasis was laid on trauma counselling, but the discussion was short on detail, suggesting a depth of difficulty and pain. Although a quarter of those attending the conference were from Britain's 40-strong East Timorese exile community, only a handful participated actively, confirming the impression that the victors feel defeated within themselves.

Reflecting that the Timorese fighters were not saints, one of them recounted privately that under pressure of battle the Falantil rebel army sometimes cut off wounded or dead Indonesian soldiers' feet at the ankle to get their boots.

The Timorfest 2000 conference was reminded of East Timor's traditional feudal system of luirai (local chiefs) which subordinates village women, allowing them to talk at meetings but not to decide.

Florencio Fernandez (28), who works and studies business in Oxford, said, however, that the luirai system would exist only in a symbolic way in the future. As more Timorese acquired education, for which there is a thirst among the young, chiefs would be judged according to ability, not heredity.

The idea that the Timorese were being treated as a project rather than a people was implicit in several contributions critical of the United Nations transitional administration and foreign non-governmental organisations. Savio, a young Timorese, complained that the UN was not giving enough recognition to the pro-independence National Council for Timorese Resistance (CNRT).

The UN had a radio station but it did not allow the CNRT to use it on the grounds that the CNRT was "a political organisation". As a result, he said, there was no communication between the Timorese leadership and the largely mountain-dwelling people. "There is no radio, no TV, and no newspaper."

After last autumn's rampage by the Indonesian proxy army of militias, "you can't even find a piece of paper or a pen" in Dili. And it was more expensive to hire a car in the Timorese capital than in Australia, he said. He complained, too, that the UN administration was hiring drivers from Indonesia, instead of perfectly capable and more needy Timorese. He hoped that "another colony" was not being created in Timor, as many ordinary Timorese felt.

Tom Hyland, of the Ireland East Timor Campaign, was among those advising against biting the hand that feeds. The UN and the NGOs were " the only show in town", he counselled.

The conference was called by a Liberal Democrat activist, Roger Willott, "to take Irish solidarity as a role model". It discussed winding up the British Coalition for East Timor, an often uncohesive organisation composed of groups rather than individuals, and the formation of a body more in keeping with the new reality and more representative of the exiles.

Jeremy Corbyn, a British Labour MP, spoke about a campaign to extend the EU embargo on arms sales to Indonesia beyond next Monday.


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