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After a long absence I’m back in East Timor on a hit-and-run reporting raid to probe new issues and grapple with memories: Balibó, corpses, East Timor’s so-called China syndrome and its relations with Australia are on the agenda.

I set off first for Balibó with my young friend, Elvis Sarmento Guterres, in a car rented from Sebastião and Sandra da Silva’s car yard in Dili’s west. Sebastião is a fine Timorese artist whose car rentals bankroll his painting. I needed to hire a car with a driver and he recommended Roberto, a cheery, cheeky chappie in cargo pants and a back-to-front baseball cap. He and Elvis size each other up slowly, sideways, like dogs cautiously circling and sniffing, then bond instantly. For the duration of the 140km drive to the border they talk incessantly in Tetûm, cracking jokes, most of which are about East Timor’s prime minister Xanana Gusmao. I’m not sure whether they’re derogatory or admiring – they certainly seem hilarious.

Travelling westward along the coast we come to the old prison at Aipelo, used by the Portuguese in colonial times to disembark deportados – political dissidents also known as ‘red legionnaires’ – who were transported from Lisbon to exile in this most distant of colonies. Rebellious local chiefs (liurais) were also imprisoned, some dying here. By the time of the Indonesian withdrawal, the historic building was falling down and overgrown with weeds. In a prime example of opportunism the Indonesian administration signposted the site as evidence of Portuguese cruelty, which it was, but it paled into insignificance compared to Indonesia’s torture record in East Timor.

I ask Roberto to stop because I can see that a restoration is underway – the building has been cleaned and partly repaired and the weeds have gone. Some Timorese youths seated outside tell me it was initiated by the Secretariat of Culture, responsible for heritage buildings. Although the old Indonesian sign remains (perhaps overlooked), there are some new signs outside with histories of the liurais who perished: Dom Felix Damiao Ribeiro of Aileu, Dom Feliciano Pires of Laleia and Dom Caetano of Balibó, as well as a commoner called Manu Hada who fought in the nationalist revolt quashed in 1912.

The seaward view from the Aipelo prison is of the Ombai–Wetar Straits, a deep seawater channel key to international complicity in Indonesia’s 1975 invasion. Michael Richardson of the Age published a story in August 1976 on talks in Washington where senior United States officials warned Australian prime minister Malcolm Fraser and foreign minister Andrew Peacock of American interest in East Timor being under a ‘friendly, anti-communist’ government for reasons of direct strategic importance to the US.

Quoting American officials in South-East Asia, Richardson wrote that their interest lay in maintaining access to the deep-running Ombai–Wetar Straits between Dili and the offshore islands of Ataúro and Wetar for safe passage of its nuclear submarines. It is the only deep-water passage between the Indian and Pacific Oceans through which America’s nuclear submarine fleet can pass undetected. In the busy Malacca Straits off Singapore, submarines are obliged to surface during transit and can be photographed by satellites. Washington had backed the Indonesian invasion over alarm at the prospect of independence under the left-leaning FRETILIN (the Revolutionary Front for an Independent East Timor), as had then Australian prime minister Gough Whitlam.

Richardson wrote nine months after the takeover, when Australian leaders were worried by public disquiet in response to atrocity stories coming out of Dili. Under the Portuguese colonial dictatorship, access to the Straits had been guaranteed. In 2008 control of the Ombai–Wetar Straits was to become an issue again in an unexpected context.

Manuel Viegas Carrascalão, the colourful patriarch of one of Timor’s leading political families, passed through the Aipelo prison, but survived. Those who died were victims of the practice of chaining prisoners to the walls; at each rise of the tide they were immersed in seawater. It was their lot to ‘live’ standing in saltwater, which they also drank in the absence of a clean water source.

There is a dramatic parallel with Peniche prison on Portugal’s Atlantic coast, where from 1949 to 1960 Communist Party leader Álvaro Cunhal suffered similar torture – like Aipelo prison, Peniche was designed to be flooded during the tidal rise.

I am happy that the Aipelo prison restoration is honouring at least some of Timor’s dead.

We resume the journey. The road between Dili and Balibó is lively with tooting mini-buses, weaving motorbikes and bicycles, buffaloes, goats, and people just plain busy with the stuff of living: evidence of the healing process of recent years. When I travelled the road in September 1999 in the days after Indonesia’s retreat I saw no moving creature along the entire 140kms, no matter how far I peered into the fields on either side. No birds flew and houses lay abandoned; there was only the occasional stench of buffaloes wantonly slaughtered and dumped in ditches. Around a quarter of a million people had been deported by this route in the days before, to militia-controlled camps in Atambua, West Timor.

Arriving at the Nunura river bridge between Maliana and Balibó, memories of 1975 merge with those of 1999. Balibó is engraved forever in my mind not only because five colleagues were murdered here, but because on a ridge close by I had experienced my own baptism of fire: a concerted, close barrage of mortar rounds on a fading September evening in 1975.

A month later Group Ume, one of the commando units responsible for the Balibó slaughter, entered the town via the Nunura bridge. In 1999 it was on this bridge, after driving through the eerie landscape, that a man whispered to me: ‘There was a massacre at the police station… Many dead!’ Townsfolk described 47 deaths carried out under Indonesian command, of families forced to watch their loved ones hacked to death with machetes by Timorese militiamen.

In the Age, I wrote that the 1999 massacre was a test case which would determine whether or not the United Nations could deliver justice for East Timor. Nearly 14 years later the culprits walk free, despite Interpol warrants issued for war crimes. They were never served because Timorese leaders and the UN lack the will. This country is craving justice.


In Balibó I walk up to the old Portuguese fort from which the murdered newsmen had filmed Indonesian helicopters and warships. The last time I was here Australian peacekeepers occupied the space, but now the building is bare, and I get a good look at the historic cells which were also used to imprison rebel liurais. There are four of them, of which only one still has bars on the window. They are abandoned and strewn with rubbish, but expert restoration like that happening at Aipelo could create a tourist asset.

Jon Sterenberg of the Victorian Institute of Forensic Medicine working to exhume bodies

Superficially, Balibó is little changed since the Five died. Greg Shackleton’s description of its streets lined with bright flame trees and ‘spectacular flowers’ still holds true and its weather is magnificent, catching cool sea breezes which moderate the tropical heat. I am saddened to see that the house in which they were killed (known as the ‘Chinese house’) is without a roof and occupied by squatters. Its walls are scrawled with graffiti and it looks like it might soon collapse altogether.

The house in which the men slept the night before they died stands strong. It was bought by the Victorian Labor government in 2002 and re-opened as a community centre for the people of Balibó and a memorial to the Five, Roger East and the Balibó citizens killed in 1999. It was inaugurated by the premier Steve Bracks in October 2003 in the tearful presence of the Balibó families, who are also still seeking justice.

There to cover the story, I too wept from beginning to end, surprising myself: I didn’t know this 1975 pain was still there. A 2007 Coroner’s inquest in Sydney into the death of Balibó Five cameraman, Brian Peters, found that he and his colleagues were killed by Indonesian commander Yunus Yosfiah and one of his soldiers, Cristoforus da Silva. It recommended their indictment on war crimes charges and extradition from Indonesia. Because the Coroner’s powers are limited, the case then passed to the Australian Federal Police (AFP) with a brief to re-interview witnesses before seeking the extradition. Five years later the families have no substantial news of progress by the AFP and remain in limbo.

The killing of the Five was the prelude to East Timor’s own killing fields experience and corpses have been discovered regularly since Indonesia’s 1999 withdrawal. Recently, a new mass grave with 12 bodies has been uncovered, with speculation from a Timorese police chief that these are different corpses, with ‘very big’ heads and ‘long bones’.

Another would-be expert suggests ‘the likelihood that they [are] Chinese’. They are skeletal and of unknown date. It is a sensitive issue – UN police closed an investigation of the last mass grave uncovered several years ago under a Dili airport tarmac, ignoring families grieving over missing loved ones. Five bodies were removed from the site before it was closed over; I think of this whenever I land.


The categories of East Timor’s missing are various: those shot during Indonesia’s 1975 paratroop landing; those killed in the 1991 Santa Cruz massacre; those taken from prisons for execution between 1975 and 1999; guerrilla fighters killed in combat in the mountains in the same time-frame, and those killed during Indonesia’s scorched-earth retreat in 1999. Whenever bodies are found, hopes rise among relatives anxious to know which category they may come from. East Timor’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission estimates that around 180,000 people died in the occupation years, so there are many to be accounted for. By the time I land in Dili, the official corpse count has risen.

I visit Superintendente Calisto Gonzaga, chief of Criminal Investigations. He confirms that the newly discovered grave is not in the compound of Xanana’s office as reported, but in the public space in front of the Palácio do Governo, the government palace. It is at the base of a 1960 Portuguese monument to mark the fifth centenary of the death of Henry the Navigator, the godfather of Portugal’s great colonial adventure. I photographed it in 1975 when FRETILIN held rallies there and fiery speakers used its base to harangue the crowds.

Gonzaga tells me the number of skeletons now counted has risen, first passing from 12 to 52, and now to 72, still digging. He is a bit desperate about what to do with them: for now they are being taken to the morgue of the national hospital.

I ask him if there are any further clues to their identities. ‘We cannot comment on the bones,’ he said. ‘We need forensic experts here – this case is a big one. I am speaking to Prime Minister Xanana to organise an international unit from our region.’ Pressed further, he says that a woman whose husband had been killed by the Indonesian army at the site had contacted police to find out more. We speak, too, of a statement by respected personality Marito Reis that one of the corpses resembles boxing hero Tomás Américo, who was murdered by pro-Indonesian militiamen in 1999. The superintendent adds that some artefacts have been found with the bodies: European-style china bowls, spoons, glasses and some military boots.

Gonzaga believes the corpses are quite old and predate the monument’s unveiling in 1960. He thinks it impossible that they date from 1999 and repeats a story circulating around Dili. The government palace is on the site of a cathedral built by the colonial government before World War II, and bombed by the Allies in November 1942. Locals point out that the city cemetery was at that time right in front of the cathedral. The corpses, they say, are from it.

Despite all these sensitivities, the mass grave is still accessible so I wander down. There are around 11 skeletons that haven’t yet been moved. The monument commands a grassy swathe either side of it and a large pit has been opened around its cupola-like base, from which skeletons protrude – some are just the crowns of skulls, while a few plastic bags marked FORENSIC are filled with smallish bones. There are a couple of complete skeletons, showing horizontally out of a wall of mud. No clothing fragments are visible (as there were on the airport corpses). In two cases the limbs look quite long, but could be of tall Timorese. There are no ‘very big heads’ visible.

There are two problems with the pre-WWII theory: one is that the bodies are clustered around the base of the monument and it is hard to imagine the devoutly Catholic Portuguese erecting it directly over them in 1960.

Secondly, if the cemetery was directly in front of the cathedral, graves were most likely pulverised in the ferocious 1942 attack. It was carried out by the American Air Force’s 22nd Bomber Group, departing Batchelor airfield in the Northern Territory with mixed Australian and American crews in eight B-26 Marauder bombers. On 3 November, they dropped several tons of bombs on the centre of Dili from 8000 metres, accurately pinpointing the cathedral. RAAF Hudson aircraft on a raid to Bobonaro the next day reported that central Dili was still burning.

Like this attack, Indonesia’s 7 December 1975 paratroopers landing on Dili is well-documented, with diagrams of the Java to Dili flight plan published by Indonesian journalist-cum-spy Hendro Subroto in his 1996 work Perjalanan Seorang Wartawan Perang, (‘Travels of a War Correspondent’). The designated landing site was precisely the open grassy area in front of the government palace. According to Subroto:

[T]he troops were fired upon sporadically from the ground. FRETILIN’s tracers were like lightning bugs in the dark of night. The paratroopers, still floating in the air, return fire. So, that day there was a fierce battle between airborne troops with the FRETILIN.

There are other eyewitnesses to a battle at this site. Two Timorese–Chinese men, who later that day witnessed the death of journalist Roger East, lived in the nearby Toko Lai building. They testified that at dawn they saw FRETILIN troops picking off paratroopers as they floated down, and that angry Indonesian reprisals followed. These first victims of the invasion, Timorese and Indonesian, were perhaps hastily buried under the memorial to Portuguese colonial might. The other main options – that they are victims of the Santa Cruz massacre or of the 1999 scorched earth withdrawal – seem more remote, despite the testimony of Marito Reis regarding the martyred boxer.


The face of Dili is changing rapidly under the explosion of projects associated with China, from Timorese government buildings to gated communities for wealthy expatriates. East Timor’s ‘China syndrome’ began in Portugal, on 25 April 1974. Early that morning Lisbon residents turned on their radios to the voice of rebel balladeer Zeca Afonso singing Grândola, Vila Morena, his ode to the peasant farmers of the sun-baked Alentejo province. It was the agreed signal for war-weary officers of the Movimento das Forcas Armadas (Armed Forces Movement/MFA) to roll tanks into the streets of Lisbon and end western Europe’s longest-standing dictatorship. People emerged from their houses, embracing the soldiers and presenting them with red carnations: the ‘flower revolution’ was underway. A group of Timorese scholarship students witnessed those events: Roque Rodrigues, Estanislau da Silva, António Carvarino, Vicente dos Reis, Abílio de Araújo and Rosa ‘Muki’ Bonaparte. They were not of the same political complexion as the largely pro-Moscow insurgents, but they wanted East Timor’s colonial status to end and the coup leaders were promising this.

Like many young people in the 1970s, the Timorese considered the Soviet brand of communism obsolete. They favoured the ultraradical Maoist party, the MRPP (Movement to Reorganise the Party of the Proletariat). As Asians, Maoism seemed a better fit for East Timor. Returning to Dili they helped found FRETILIN, the party that would dominate the ex-colony’s future for years to come and play a leading role in its military struggle against the Indonesian army. Mari Alkatiri and Rogério Lobato, two other Timorese nationalists who had passed regularly through Lisbon and favoured the MRPP, were also prominent. Lobato’s Maoist dedication extended to leading a FRETILIN delegation to visit fellow-thinker Pol Pot in Cambodia in 1977, at the height of the killing fields.

By early 1975 MRPP slogans were plastered around the East Timorese capital, declaiming: ‘Democratise the Schools!’, ‘Serve the People!’ and ‘Death to Traitors!’ By mid 1975 Indonesian special forces groups were operating deep inside Portuguese Timor, and in late November the town of Atabae fell after prolonged bombardment. On 28 November FRETILIN leaders made a unilateral independence declaration in a bid to win UN support.

China gave immediate diplomatic recognition, followed by five ex-Portuguese African colonies, plus Cuba and Benin. José Ramos Horta, Mari Alkatiri and Rogério Lobato were sent abroad to lobby on the international stage, beginning Timor’s protracted military and diplomatic struggle. Horta was not a Maoist, but was sympathetic to China, and the group beat a regular path to Peking.

By 2002 Indonesia had withdrawn from East Timor, after two rounds of democratic elections under UN supervision. A new, formal independence declaration was made at midnight on 20 May, 2002. The ex-Portuguese colony became the Democratic Republic of East Timor, led by President José Ramos Horta, with Mari Alkatiri as Prime Minister, heading a FRETILIN parliamentary majority. The young Maoists of 1975 were well-represented, with Roque Rodrigues as Defence Minister, Rogério Lobato as Interior Minister and Estanislau da Silva holding the Agriculture portfolio.

Although it had turned its back on Timor during its long resistance war, China was once again the first country to extend diplomatic recognition. China’s ongoing drive for strategic influence in South-East Asia was boosted by the new leaders’ ongoing sympathy for Beijing. For decades it had been vying with Taiwan for diplomatic recognition from South-East Asian and Pacific nations: Kiribati, the Cook Islands, Tonga, Nauru, Vanuatu, Tahiti and Papua New Guinea have all been subject to Beijing’s proposals for investment projects by state-run companies, or other sweeteners. Most recently Beijing has wooed the Fijian military dictatorship of Frank Bainimarama.


Today Chinese projects and officials enjoy privileged status in East Timor, a cause of disquiet for many citizens. When independence was declared in Dili in 2002, Beijing announced that its gift to the new nation would be to construct a foreign ministry building and a palace for Xanana Gusmão, who had been elected president. Eagerly accepted by the government, the offer resulted in two ugly new Dili buildings which paid not the slightest homage to Timorese cultural values and left unemployed Timorese angry at the use of Chinese-imported labourers. Similar Chinese building projects have continued apace.

China’s territorial ambitions in the South China Sea have been widely aired lately, but its strategic leapfrog across much of South-East Asia to an influential niche in East Timor – thanks to the old Maoist connection – has been ignored. This leap southward has won China potential influence over sea lanes vital to Australia’s economy. In 2006 Kate Reid-Smith, a Mandarin-speaking PhD scholar at Charles Darwin University, warned, in a paper on Sino-East Timor relations, of a future scenario in which strategic sea lanes to Australia’s north, essential for overseas trade shipments, might be blocked in a crisis, ‘especially if China were to militarily support Timor-Leste in imposing maritime restrictions along the Ombai–Wetar Straits’.

In 2011, WikiLeaks released a batch of 2008 US diplomatic cables, including those on a Chinese bid to collect intelligence on the Ombai–Wetar Straits, drawn from a cable to Washington by Hans Klemm, then US ambassador in Dili, on information from deputy prime minister José Luís Guterres, a non-Maoist FRETILIN leader. He had briefed the diplomat on an offer by Chinese defence firms to supply the government with radar equipment to monitor shipping in the Ombai–Wetar Straits. ‘The only catch was that the facilities were manned by Chinese technicians,’ Guterres reportedly told Klemm. He feared the facilities were for spying.

The transit of American submarines through the Straits has been subject to ironclad security for decades, and the Chinese proposal may well provide the back story to Australia’s 2011 defence treaty with the US to base rotating contingents of US marines in Darwin.

Dili leaders’ Beijing sympathies contrast with their brittle relationship with Australia. Prime Minister Gusmão was angered by Julia Gillard’s announcement, without consultation, that Australia might open a refugee detention centre in Dili – anger shared by many citizens – while years of haggling over oil issues (the latest over the Sunrise field) has soured relations. Although Woodside Petroleum, not Canberra, determines whether or not oil will be piped onshore to Timor as the government wants, rather than be processed by a floating facility, the Timorese confuse Woodside’s refusal with Australian bad faith. Repressed anger towards Canberra over oil issues has festered since 2002 and is liable to continue, to Beijing’s advantage.

The importation of Chinese labourers comes with the importation of prostitutes to serve them, luckless women trafficked from all over Asia. They attract pimps and enforcers, both Timorese and Han Chinese, who hold an increasing grip on organised crime.

Dili is at core a charming tropical capital, set on a bay and surrounded by mountains, but its degradation by racketeers and property developers is now systematic. Avenida Nicolau Lobato, which runs eastward between the government palace and the swimming beaches, is the strip where this is most apparent. Fortunately my favourite shop has survived. It stocks the sort of bric-à-brac I have found in other Portuguese ex-colonies: pencil sharpeners shaped as stylish Victorian-era hats, sepia postcards and Tokyo Nights hair pomade. Nearby is a former hotel hosting a range of shady businesses, by night a gambling joint. One day I noticed a Chinese man in a suit pulling an unhappy Timorese teenage girl from a car. She was awkward in a sparkly dress and high heels. He shepherded her into the building, shoving her in the back whenever she hesitated.

Further down the road is the Plaza Hotel, used as a barracks by the Aitarak militia group in 1999. We reporters found its floor covered in blood, human hair and piles of women’s underwear. Since then it has occasionally been a brothel, but hoteliers have now reclaimed it.

Tjia Soh Siang belongs to the local Hakka-speaking Chinese community, which in Portuguese times supported the Taiwanese government. A devout Catholic, he runs a successful accounting business and has a good relationship with the Chinese embassy and Ambassador Tian Guangfeng. He tells me there are now 7000 Chinese citizens registered in Dili.

‘Are we talking triads or officials?’ I ask.

‘Who knows?’ he replies, ‘They’re all connected… Maybe they’re K14’, referring to one of Asia’s best-known gangs of triads, Asian secret societies equivalent to Italy’s Mafia.

Such is the boom in business between Timor and China that the Shanghai-based Greenroad International Logistics Company earlier this year cancelled stops at Indonesian ports to run its fortnightly cargo ships directly to Dili. Tjia is fearful for Timor’s future, fretting: ‘If we’re not careful they’ll take us over!’


Back in Australia I ring Superintendente Gonzaga and ask for the latest corpse count: ‘172 and still digging,’ he replies. He cannot reveal if they show signs of violence, listens to my World War II counter-arguments and agrees they may be from the 1975 paratrooper landing after all.