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.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.
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?
The 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.
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.