Bangkok Post - Saturday, January 29, 2005
For 25 years, Bishop Carlos Filipe Ximines Belo fought for independance for his native East Timor. Now, he says, the challenge is to remember the lessons learned
There were times when it seemed that there was no hope. In the years after 1975, when Indonesia occupied and annexed the former Portuguese colony of East Timor, the tiny territory of 700,000 people lost almost a third of its population to killings, starvation and epidemics.
The 1980s held some of the darkest times, said Bishop Carlos Filipe Ximenes Belo, in town for the Bridges series, 'Dialogues Towards a Culture of Peace' hosted by the International Peace foundation.
'Timor was totally closed. We had no media there,' he said. Leaving the territory was difficult, and there was little news from the outside world. 'But on the ground there was this movement of the guerilla fighters and the church speaking about the identity of the East Timorese people. So little by little we realised the hope for the people.'
Belo's 1996 Nobel Peace Prize was an unexpected one. He shared the award with Jose Ramos-Horta, exiled leader of Fretilin, the Revolutionary Front of Independent East Timor, an armed resistance group. Belo and Ramos-Horta were largely unknown outside their home country at the time. International media and advocacy groups hailed the award as a new chance to turn a spotlight on the plight of East Timor, a situation that went largely ignored by governments for decades. Indonesia would be forced to behave, the logic went, because now the world would be watching.
In September 1999, the East Timorese went to the ballot box and, by an overwhelming margin, voted for independence. Given its prominence in the world spotlight, it is all the more difficult to understand what happened after the referendum.
Embarrassed and furious in the face of democratic defeat, Indonesian military-backed militias burned villages to the ground. They tortured, raped, and murdered. Belo was in his home with six friends on September 4 as the militia were terrorising Dili. Men sprayed bullets from all sides of his house, shattering glass from windows and doors, and set the place on fire.
'[Friends] shouted 'Please, Bishop, lay down, under the table.'' But Belo did not get down. He was walking and working, making calls to Jakarta and Europe. Eventually, he told his friends to go out to the garden. 'And from the garden we saw the house finish with flames.'
Belo himself was not surprised at the scale of the violence. When a UN-brokered agreement between the Portuguese government and the Indonesian military earlier that year put the Indonesian police in charge of security in East Timor, Belo knew immediately that such an arrangement would be dangerous. While he has said that 'international intervention in 1999 saved the people of East Timor from annihilation,' he has also pointed out that the intervention came 'too late to prevent the devastation'. In the two weeks it took to get any peacekeeping troops to East Timor after the referendum, 2,000 people were killed and hundreds of thousands lost their homes.
'Unfortunately, the international community were not aware of the real situation on the ground,' he said.
Belo sent his first letter requesting help to United Nations Secretary General Javier Perez de Cuellar on February 6, 1989. De Cuellar never answered. Five years later, his successor, Butros Butros Gali, sent a reply, offering to try to see how to help.
In the meantime, East Timorese flocked to the Catholic Church in overwhelming numbers. By some estimates, conversions to the faith increased four-fold. People were suffering, they felt helpless, and they saw in the Catholic Church a means to channel their voices. 'The hierarchy [of the Church], we spoke openly about the human rights abuses, about respect, about dialogue.' When Belo was eventually able to make trips to meet with world leaders, his parishoners gave him letters to deliver that said, 'We are suffering.'
In some ways, Indonesian soldiers helped galvanise the resistance against them.
When the Indonesians entered East Timor in 1975, they conquered the territory little by little. When they entered a village they told its people that they had to choose one religion, out of the five major religions in the country at the time. To not choose a religion was tantamount to declaring oneself a communist, an unacceptable alternative.
Many of the villagers asked to be baptised. 'But later we had to re-evangelise, to give more doctrine, more instruction, because all of them they become Catholics only in the name, but really their lives were still the animist life,' Belo said. 'And even now we have the problem that already, many of the young people don't go to church. I hear from the parish priests that sometimes the churches are almost empty. Because now, in the era of democratisation and freedom, they feel that they need no more of religion.'
Though Belo is a man of deep religious faith, his view of humanity has been deeply coloured by his experience with oppression. We assume human beings are essentially good, Belo said, but he came to realise that we are 'not so good'.
'I experienced this when I visited the prisons. I met young people tortured and beaten. I talked to women who had been raped and violated. When I went to the hospital, I met some of them there, lying down, totally black and beaten. And some of them disappeared.'
The East Timorese people are still haunted by these memories. Yet somehow, the bulk of the rhetoric one hears from its leaders revolves around forgiveness. For Belo and many of the East Timorese that he meets, however, that forgiveness needs to come with a measure of something more.
'We lost our friends and sons and wives. There is this kind of combination. Okay, forgiveness, but at the same time they hope some justice should be done.'
Belo has criticised wealthy nations for cutting levels of international aid to East Timor too quickly, for forgetting too soon. But on November 1, 1999, after foreign peacekeeping troops had finally made Dili safe again, Belo spoke to a crowd in the streets, celebrating the feast of Our Lady of Fatima. 'Independence will be empty if East Timor just waits for others to help,' he said. 'If you don't work hard, you'll be like beggars. You will be holding out your hand for help from other countries.'
Five years later, have the East Timorese lived up to Belo's challenge to become self-sufficient?
'No. But I am convinced that really, there is no other way to build up the country. The East Timorese have returned to their native land , their villages, to work. We are an agricultural country, still living in the traditional culture with the main crops of rice and maize.'
At the same time, he said, 'If we encourage them to go back to village, it's also necessary for government to build up infrastructure.'
In 2002 Belo's own hard work caught up with him. After several requests citing health problems, Pope John Paul II reluctantly accepted his resignation as Bishop. Belo has been away from East Timor for over a year now, which has allowed him access to good medical care, and he's excited to return home after his time here in Bangkok.
In the meantime, he continues to campaign for a better world. He speaks of a need for universal education for peace _ a curriculum for students in every city of the world that would teach them about conflict resolution and productive dialogue.
'We must have hope and perseverance. For us it took 25 years, and in many parts of the world they're still working for peace.'