Revisiting 1983: Thirty years on

1983 was a remarkable year in East Timor’s modern history. A renewed Fretilin-led resistance emerged from the shadows under the leadership of Xanana Gusmao with news of a ceasefire and negotiations between the occupiers and the resistance. Later that year came the removal of Timor’s ‘troublesome priest’, Monsignor Lopes, a Timorese uprising, Indonesian military campaigns and an infamous massacre.

In Australia the new Hawke Labor Government worked steadily to overcome its own Party policy supporting East Timorese self-determination. It hoped that an Australian Parliamentary delegation visit to Timor in July would undermine continuing Party and broader community disquiet about the Indonesian occupation.

CHART hopes to cover many of these topics during 2013. We start here with an introductory look at the tumultuous events marking the end of the ceasefire in August-September 1983.

General area of Kraras massacres, September 1983. [Base map source: Google]

General area of Kraras massacres, September 1983. [Base map source: Google]

The killing of 14-16 Indonesian soldiers at Kraras/Bibileu* on August 8 1983 and the subsequent September 1983 ‘Kraras massacre’ of a large number of civilians by Indonesian military forces became internationally-known soon after – but the detail was disputed.

A brief survey of accounts now available (see list below), largely drawn from Timorese eye-witness testimony, still leaves some unanswered questions about these important historical moments.

Uprising and massacre
Media reports in 1983 of the August 8 killings left much room for doubt about the nature of the event (see pages 9-12 of this contemporary compilation). Later credible Timorese-sourced reports claimed the killings were a spontaneous response to Indonesian military violation of local women.

There now seems little doubt that that the killings were indeed part of a resistance-planned uprising in the eastern zone. This is shown in direct testimony from Xanana Gusmao (Niner) and the person who led the attack, Ular Rihik/Virgílio dos Anjos (Jolliffe, Grimshaw) and other resistance figures at that time (Chamberlain).

The massacres of civilians by Indonesian military from about September 17 1983 are documented in some detail by Jolliffe, Pilger and CAVR (Timor-Leste’s Commission for Truth). Not surprisingly, the actual numbers of dead and disappeared remain elusive. There were several separate events and the evidence comes from multiple sources, some of whom were traumatised survivors from killing sites. A total figure of around 300 dead is oft-quoted, including the single largest massacre at Tahu Bein/Wetuku River where 80-180 were killed in cold blood.

The questions
Answers to some questions which arise from reading the available texts will help future generations understand this landmark event:

1. While Xanana admitted to a planned uprising in August, was Ular’s August 8 attack at Kraras/Bibileu premature; an error in communication or judgement? And/or was it a reaction to Indonesian provocations (such as violations against local women)?

2. Were formal Falintil resistance members directly involved in the August 8 attack or was it only villagers and Timorese defecting from Indonesian-controlled paramilitary units?

3. Was the uprising the cause of the end of the ceasfire or was it simply the first shots fired in a threatened Indonesian offensive against the resistance?

4. Why did it take the Indonesian military a full month to begin its reprisals in the Kraras/Bibileu area?

5. Is there any doubt about evidence that the Indonesian reprisal operations in the Kraras/Bibileu area were directly commanded in the field by Prabowo Subianto?

6. Do the lists of Timorese dead seen by Jolliffe and held by Pilger still exist and have steps been taken to ensure they survive and are accessible to future generations?

7. What has become of legal investigations into the massacre and has anything else been done to identify/mark the killing sites and memorialise those who died?

Indonesian sources?
Click to enlargeThe answers to some of these questions may eventually come from Indonesian sources – but the latest Timor offering from a significant Indonesian military figure suggests ‘not yet’.

Retired Lieutenant General Kiki Syahnakri has recently launched his Timor story. Syahnakri, a fluent Tetun speaker, served several times totalling some 12 years in Timor from late 1975. His last posting was as the Indonesian martial law administrator, 7-27 September 1999.

This book requires proper scrutiny for what it might add to insights on Indonesian military thinking and actions on Timor. On the Kraras/Bibileu story, however, Syahnakri is sadly lacking:

The Cararas (sic) Incident resulted in the immediate collapse of the spirit and positive thoughts about peace and dialogue. The Korem Commander, Colonel Poerwanto, was very disappointed and angered by the attack and cancelled the efforts for Peaceful Contact. According to retired TNI Brigadier-General Johanes Haribowo – who was the Korem chief-of-staff during the Peaceful Contact period, Xanana admitted that he did not know the reason for the attack and killings at Cararas. He truly was not involved in the incident. On the contrary, he suspected that a third party was behind that incident. Moreover, it cannot be excluded that foreign forces were successful in infiltrating the Fretilin group and setting in motion the Cararas Incident. And so, the opportunity and hope to end the East Timor conflict through peaceful dialogue was obliterated. Peaceful Contact was in dissaray and failed. Armed conflict, violence, and killing by both sides occurred again.

The  ‘Cararas Incident’ refers to Ular’s attack on August 8.  ‘Peaceful Contact’ was the preferred Indonesian label for the ceasfire period. Note no specific mention is made of the Indonesian reprisals against civilian Timorese.

A full translation of this part of  Syahnakri’s book can be found here.


Accounts providing or referencing primary source materials

Chamberlain, E. The Struggle in Iliomar: Resistance in rural East Timor – 2008, revised. Extract only.

Chega! (Report of the Commission for Reception, Truth and Reconciliation). Dili, 2005. Chapter 3 (pp 100-106); Chapter 7.2 (pp 168-173)

Grimshaw, Z. Interview With Comandante Ular Rihik/Virgílio dos Anjos of Timor Leste. 2009. (pp 8-9)

Jolliffe, J. Balibo.  Scribe, Melbourne. 2009 (pp. 302-323)

Niner, S. Xanana. Leader of the struggle for independent Timor-Leste. Australian Scholarly Publishing, Melbourne, 2009. (pp 88-104)

Pilger, J. We helped them descend into hell. 1999


* Note on Kraras/Bibileu: Jill Jolliffe has best described the difficulties of identifying the map location of these events (see her detailed Note 19, p.377). In short, Kraras is a relatively flat area or plain, not a population centre, immediately north and west of Viqueque town. Bibileu is one of a number of small population centres holding former residents of ‘old’ Bibileu, originally located on Mount Bibileu, who were relocated by the Indonesian military in earlier years.

Credits: Many thanks to Ernie Chamberlain for his translation of the passage from Syahnakri.

10 Responses to Revisiting 1983: Thirty years on

  1. Aboeprijadi Santoso says:

    Last April I did a little research on the Kraras (some write ‘Craras’) massacre. I haven’t finished my writing on this, but here are a few notes on the topic.

    1. As Jill Jolliffe remarks, it’s not exactly clear what, where Kraras is. It would seem to me it refers to a region, while the site of the massacre is in and around the village called Bibileu.

    2. On your point no.4, yes it took about a month before the Indonesian Army began its reprisals. Some locals I interviewed said, there was an army officer/ physician hiding at the top of a tree (I photographed the tree) and witnessed the killing of some Indonesian soldiers by the so-called paramilitary (Hansip: civil defense team). Only a few days later, he went down and much later reported what he saw to local Army command (Koramil). If so, it’s hard to conclude that the Army’s reprisals were the cause of ending the cease fire. I inclined to believe that the bloodbath was an aspect of struggle within the Indonesian military top. The ceasefire was initiated during the command of the military chief Gen. Mohammad Jusuf, who was known as a highly placed officer with welfare concern for his soldiers, but he was never close to Suharto, nor was he, like some other generals, involved in Timor operation since 1974-75. That was precisely the moment when Suharto needed a greater loyalty and reliability of the corps and he replaced Jusuf with Gen. Benny Moerdani. The Kraras massacre was thus the responsibility of Benny.

    3. On your point no.5, I’m pretty sure the killings were the responsibility of Captain Prabowo Subianto. Some locals I met said they never saw Prabowo in the area by then, but they did see two local Hansip team-leaders, only second to Prabowo, led the killings. These two Timorese were very close to Prabowo.

    4. I suspect some eyewitnesses of the massacres already moved to other places. Researchers should stay somewhat longer in Bibileu, Viqueque and other places nearby to find them.

    Aboeprijadi Santoso, senior journalist, formerly with Radio Netherlands.

  2. Ernie Chamberlain says:

    Herewith some thoughts regarding Question 5 ie : “Is there any doubt about evidence that the Indonesian reprisal operations in the Kraras/Bibileu area were directly commanded in the field by Prabowo Subianto?”
    In early 1983, Captain Prabowo Subianto was serving in Jakarta as the deputy commander of Detachment 81 – the elite Kopassandha counter-terrorist unit (Kopassandha was retitled Kopassus in late December 1986). In March 1983, Prabowo “fell out” with senior Kopassanda officers – and the then Army Intelligence chief General Moerdani (who very soon after was promoted to Army Commander), over Prabowo’s plan to arrest Moerdani and other senior officers who Prabowo claimed were planning a coup against President Soerhato (ie Prabowo’s father-in-law). Prabowo was assessed as suffering “stress” and sent overseas for several weeks. Returning to duty with Detachment 81, Prabowo was deployed to East Timor in late August 1983 commanding a Kopassandha unit cover-named Chandraca 8 – comprising mostly Detachment 81 personnel. According to Ken Conboy (Kopassus – 2003): “On 28 August, Chandraca 8 landed in East Timor and quickly shifted to Viqueque. To maximize coverage, they divided into four teams – named Bravo 1 through 4 – and choppered into the central highlands.” In her most recent book (Balibo – 2009), Jill Jolliffe relates several witness accounts of Prabowo’s activities in the Viqueque area in the second half of 1983. In a March 2000 interview in Asiaweek magazine, Prabowo denied that he was in the Kraras area at the time of the killings (see Jolliffe, J. , “Torture evidence …, The Age, 26 April 2001). It has been suggested that Prabowo commanded Kostrad’s 328 Battalion in the Viqueque area in 1983. However, 328 Battalion only arrived in Timor under Prabowo in December 1988 – ie replacing Kiki Syahnakri’s 514 Battalion in the “Bibileu Complex”. As an aside, at the time of the Kraras killings in 1983, Major Kiki Syahnakri was the second-in-command of 744 Battalion – ie from mid-1981 to some time in September 1983. As with 745 Battalion, 744 was an “organic” “Timorese” battalion. In Syahnakri’s recent memoir, he related that: “In September 1983, after the Cararas Incident, I was sent to attend the Officers’ Continuation Course (Suslapa) in Bandung. In truth, I was not at all comfortable with that posting because I had to leave East Timor when the situation was not stable. There were indications that Fretilin’s strength was growing with the “loss” of two armed Hansip platoons that had joined the Fretilin group. The atmosphere in East Timor after the Cararas Incident was indeed quite tense, especially among newcomer circles ((ie non-Timorese)).”
    Prabowo Subianto currently leads the Gerindra (Great Indonesia Movement) Party – and was a vice-presidential candidate in 2009. He now plans to run for President in 2014 – and his human rights record as a TNI officer, including in Timor, can be expected to again be examined in the media.
    Ernie Chamberlain

  3. Ernie Chamberlain says:

    Prabowo and Kraras: further to my earlier comment on Question 5:
    Prabowo Subianto’s early ABRI service in East Timor is well-known. As a lieutenant, he commanded the Kopassandha element (Nanggala 28) that – together with elements of 744 Battalion (1/B Company) commanded by Major Yunus Yosfiah, clashed with Fretilin President Nicolau dos Reis Lobato’s group near the village of Dare Mulo – (see Subroto H., Operasi Udara …, 2005, pp.21-24 for detail). Nicolau Lobato was reportedly shot and killed by a Timorese soldier of 744 Battalion, Sergeant Johanis Maudobe, on 31 December 1978 (see also footnote 403 in The Struggle in Iliomar – 2008).

    Prabowo also apparently visited the Kraras area in early 1983:
    “In mid-April 1983, General Moerdani – as ABRI Commander, briefly visited East Timor and met with Governor Mário Carrascalão at Baucau airport on 13 April. Moerdani reportedly told Carrascalão that Brigadier Soetarto (Kodam Udayana Commander) and Colonel Purwanto – with any necessary assistance from Governor Carrascalão, would continue with the peace discussions for a further three months and resolve matters peacefully. (Carrascalão, M.V., Timor – Antes do Futuro, 2006, pp.195-198). However, on Moerdani’s departure, Colonel Purwanto confided to Governor Carrascalão that Moerdani’s visit had ‘killed his career’. Eight days after the meeting at the airport in Baucau (ie on 21 April 1983), Colonel Purwanto reportedly told Governor Carrascalão: ‘What I feared most is already happening. The peace process is already being sabotaged by Captain Prabowo Subianto, son in law of President Soeharto. He was in Craras [sic]. He came to Timor from Jakarta and left without giving me notice or advising of the reasons that brought him here. No civil or military personnel are authorized to enter this territory without my knowledge. He’s up to something’.” (see – The Struggle in Iliomar – 2008, revised)

    Question 4: ie – Why did it take a full month after the Falintil attack at Bibileu before the ABRI reprisals in the Kraras/Bibileu area?:
    Following the killing of the ABRI engineers at Bibileu on 8 August, Purwanto was reportedly called to Bali for discussions at Kodam IX/Udayana. Plans and instructions would have flowed back-and-forth between Jakarta-Bali-Dili. Towards the end of August 1983, Colonel Purwanto (Danrem 164 – ie the East Timor Military Commander) was replaced by Colonel Rudito. The changeover of Danrem 164 from Purwanto to Rudito may also have delayed ABRI’s field operations. As noted earlier, the arrival of Prabowo’s Chandraca 8 group on 28 August 1983 may have been the catalyst for action. According to then Governor Mário Carrascalão, Colonel Rudito burst into his office and declared that 1,500 villagers had been moved to Klerek Mutin and 32 shot in reprisal for the dead 16 ABRI engineers – saying: “For every one that they kill, they will pay with two or three – that way they will learn faster.” – (Carrascalão, M.V., Timor…, op.cit., 2006, p.232).

  4. John Waddingham says:

    Worth noting here a new review of the Syahnakri book in the Jakarta Post.

    The review suggests there may be other interesting hitherto unrevealed facts in the book – one of which is Syahnakri’s account of direct disagreements with Prabowo. See:

    Thanks to ETAN for drawing attention to the review; see:

  5. For the interest of your readers, I have translated a section in Syahnakri’s book on his 1995 disagreement with Prabowo’s plan to form a pro-integration ‘counter mass’ (massa tandingan) to oppose the pro-independence demonstrations in Dili. Of course, Syahnakri’s version of events is subjective, tendentious, and stresses his “humanitarian concerns”.

    Syahnakri translation (p.192-198)

    I also include here a section from my work: “The Struggle in Iliomar – Resistance in rural East Timor” ie Annex E that describes ‘Gada Paksi’ which, I am reasonably sure, was a component of Prabowo’s ‘counter mass’ plan and a ‘precursor’ of the 1998-1999 militia groups in Timor. The date of Gada Paksi’s founding is not completely clear however; it may have been in 1994.

    ‘The Struggle in Iliomar’ Extract

  6. James Dunn says:

    This the best collection of accounts on this Kraras atrocity so far.

  7. Anonymous says:

    The defecting units from Viqueque and Kraras are often referred to as Hansip (see Syahnakri, for example), but were actually Ratih. The two were different in that they had different conditions of work, arms, and payment. Hansip had been set up from the beginning of the occupation and was in many areas known throughout for its brutality. Ratih on the other hand seems to have been made up mostly of Timorese who had been Falintil and then surrendered following the fall of the base areas in 1978.

  8. Ernie Chamberlain says:

    Anonymous (above) is correct. In their separate interviews with the late Major/Colonel Ular Rihik (VIrgilio dos Anjos), Ular explained to both Zelda Grimshaw and Ernie Chamberlain the status of his Ratih unit. See the attached extracts from Zelda Grimshaw and Ernie Chamberlain.

    A footnote in Chamberlain’s “The Struggle in Iliomar – Resistance in rural East Timor” – 1998, relates:
    “A Falintil fighter, Ular Rihik had surrendered to ABRI in 1979 and joined Ratih in 1981. Ular Rihik’s unit was the special “Titus” platoon of the Railakan Ratih company commanded by Falur Rate Laek (Domingos Raúl) – a former Falintil fighter who had surrendered to ABRI in 1980. Concurrently, Ular was also secretly the commander of the Falintil Miplin battalion, and Falur was commander of its 2nd Company (author’s discussions with Falur in Dili, 8 April 2005). 19 of Ular’s men were involved in the attack.”

    Attempts have been made to get an Australian war widow’s pension for Sra. Madalena (Ular’s mother) on the basis of her husband’s (Sr.Celestino dos Anjos) WWII service with the Australian Z Special Force in Portuguese Timor. Sr. Celestino was murdered by ABRI in the Kraras Massacre period in 1979. Regrettably, that application for a pension was rejected by the Australian Department of Veterans’ Affairs in early 2012.

  9. Ernie Chamberlain says:

    In August 2012, Opini Timor included an article: ‘Cararas Massacre survivors call on new government to pay attention to them’ – as follows (photograph of survivors and supporters omitted):
    Dili-Spokesperson of the Cararas massacre victims, Efrem Dos Anjos Carolino Marques, called on the new government to pay attention to the orphans and widows of the Cararas massacre in Viqueque District. Marques urged the Timorese Government to cooperate with Indonesia’s Government to bring the perpetrators to trial at the International Court.
    He also urged the new government to consider the Cararas’ victims as national heroes of the country and not to discriminate against them. Marques made the statement on the 29th anniversary of the Cararas’ massacre on 8 August. (*)
    Source: CJITL

    Regrettably, the writer of the article has incorrectly cited the date of the “Cararas Massacre” as “8 August” 1983 – which is the date of the attack by Ular’s group (ie Virgilio dos Anjos) on the ABRI engineers at Bibileo. The Kraras Massacre/s – in my understanding, began in early September 1983 – several weeks later.

    • James Dunn says:

      I agree with that Ernie. I still don’t quite understand the gap between the event and the reprisal action. Regards, Jim.

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