Timor Leste—East Timor—comes to mind on that day in 1992 when I watched with awe many dignitaries and members of the Asian Pacific Conference on East Timor make a case for the annexed province of Indonesia to become an independent nation-state.
The event was in 1992 at the Malcolm Center in the University of the Philippines College of Law. It was an event of wonder and self-realization as well. For here was a land and a people that have sacrificed so much: life and limb for the sake of liberty.
Their colonial history is one of gate-crashing while the feasting was going on. The invaders and colonizers and occupiers came uninvited.
First were the Portuguese.
Second were the Dutch during World War II.
Third were the Portuguese again.
And then this: the Indonesians invading East Timor right after they declared their independence from Lisbon when Lisbon effectively abandoned this territory; Indonesia annexed East Timor and declared it its newest province, occupying it ruthlessly.
We think here of giants gobbling up the small creatures.
Might is right—and size is right as well. The bullies must be so happy on that day the Indonesian military came and took possession of all the things the East Timorese held sacred and significant, true and good, beautiful and liberating.
I was writing up my ethnographic work on the struggle of the Filipinos throughout history at this time and I wanted to see first-hand what struggle was all about and here came the APCET upsetting my romantic and idealized notion of how to struggle for what is right and just and fair.
I was also struggling with the way I was to put flesh that work in the form of an ethnographic and socio-historical novel, the first of such a work that I know of in the history of dissertation writing at the University of the Philippines. I wanted to push scholarship to its limits and explore its many possibilities. Even then, I had thought of the Dangadang—and Dangadang was to consume me from 1992 onwards even as I watched East Timor—also Timor Leste—evolve into one of the eleven countries of South East Asia. Dangadang is state of war—it is a state of struggle.
And East Timor was at that state at that time.
I had thought of the case of East Timor as the case even if in the Philippines we had social problems as well. There was the secessionist movement in the South and Mindanao was just close by, close to East Timor, close to Indonesia.
But UP being the bastion of all that was needed to fight for the basic rights of peoples provided a home for the coalition of human rights and people’s rights advocates from the nation and from the international community.
In the conference that ensued at the Malcolm, we heard the plea of the people of East Timor, the wrenching testimonies of those who have seen the atrocities, the accounts of those who had been victimized by those nights of terror in land of East Timor.
At one point, the Catholic church of Dili was the only one of the few voices left that had some sense of what was rational in the aftermath of the killing spree and the systematic brutality against the Timorese people in this part of South East Asia. The other one, of course, was the clandestine movement that always reminded the people of the long watch, of the long nights, of the need for them to hold on to each other.
The East Timorese are island people, insular, and ever-free, with their freedoms bounded only by the waves in the high seas surrounding them and the mountains shielding them from harm and from the elements.
But in their caves were histories wrought in fine thought, the mind that can roam wild and imaginatively, polished in so many ways even as it interacted with other minds by force of commerce and cultural exchange and diffusion.
The Indonesians turning the East Timorese into the new Indonesians did not have a force in the thought of the East Timorese. It did not have a place in the East Timorese imagination.
This colonial project did not make sense in the imagination of those who thought of East Timor as a land of the free and the brave and the daring and the believers of a God that redeems. Did Indonesia fail to see their sad and sorrowful experience from the Dutch in its act of annexing East Timor and making it as its newest province? Did it not learn from the painful lessons of history of colonization and expansion and occupation?
Even as the East Timorese fought for their liberty, they had their faith from the ancestors holding them in solidarity with each other; they also had the Catholic faith that the first colonizers brought and has remained entrenched in the hearts of the many.
Today, East and the Philippines share that distinction of being the only two countries in Asia with largely predominant Catholic population. (To be continued)
Pub, INQ, V1N25, Dec 2005