Reveille for Timor, apology from Australia: Courage or Cowardice in Public Life

Dec 10, 2020

In common with other countries, Australian rejuvenation after the Covid pandemic depends not only on a vaccine, but also on a language for humanity, as in advocating the return of human rights principles and displays of courage in public life.

Such practice is therapeutic, an almost certain contribution to mental and physical health. By contrast, spying and cowardice are corrosive, eat the soul and have nothing to teach.

Displays of courage derive not only from character traits. In Greek, Medieval and Renaissance cultures, and in the lives of the materially poor but morally rich Timorese who fought for their independence, courage is linked to cultures of selflessness, of curiosity and creativity in which virtues of friendship, loyalty and humour combine.

You do not have to be a wowser to explain the ethical dimension of Timorese struggles for freedom. Courage, friendship, and mutual respect provide cement to bind households, communities, and nations. That story is the opposite of the charade that masquerades as justice in the ACT court where a Director of Public Prosecutions, Attorney General Porter and his lawyers pursue Bernard Collaery and Witness K.

A call to raise spirits and conjure visions of a socially just future lies in the pages of Dr. Vacy Vlazna’s book East Timor, Reveille for Courage, the story of her work as a volunteer in Timor before and after the 1999 independence referendum.

In a post Covid year, instead of looking for a return to normal entirely from ideas about economic recovery, much can be learned from brave Timorese in their struggle for independence.

As though poverty’s struggle was their training ground, the Timorese resistance arose from having no resources. Vacy records that in 2002, medical services were almost non-existent, there was only one doctor to 20,000 people. The WHO says the ideal is one to 1,000. In Australia there are almost four physicians to 1,000 people.

In that same year, in and around the town of Betano, there was no optician, no dentist, no playing fields, no cinema, no Rotary club, no gymnasium, no colleges or training programmes, no paid employment.

When delegated to assist in re-opening East Timorese University, Vacy had two computers seething with viruses, no desk and no email facilities. She refers to her meeting with secondary school teacher Francisco Pinto, a face gauntly sculptured, big brown eyes, moustache, cinemascope smile and matching heart. He had chosen to work on half pay. He had no resources like paper and pens. There were no chairs in his classroom, so students sat on the few surviving desktops and windowsills.

The massive power imbalance between Timor Leste and Australia is a David v. Goliath story once acted out at the Sydney Olympics. In the entrance of athletes, tumultuous cheers met the arrival of the large contingent of Australians. Then came four Timorese, Martinho de Araujo, Aguida Amara, Calisto da Costa and Victor Ramos. They marched beneath a banner which read ‘Independent Athletes’. A commentator said these brown people who had come from Timor were dancing not marching.

Four athletes represented a country which had endured centuries of colonization and decades of violence. During the years of Indonesian occupation, as many as one third of the population were killed. In the Santa Cruz massacre of 1991, over five hundred young Timorese were slaughtered. In January 1999, after training in West Timor, militias terrorized the civilian population. Terrified people filled church grounds all over the country.

As with their protection of young Australian soldiers in World War II, the Timorese who struggled against Indonesian troops and uncontrollable militia, displayed what I know as the gift relationship, as in commitments made to others without expectation of reward. Nelson Belo, student leader of East Timor Solidarity, was involved in clandestine activities since he was thirteen. Arrested and imprisoned four times, he had spent two years of his young life in jail but continued to take every action to promote the cause of Timorese independence.

In Vacy’s judgement, ‘There was a profoundly understood code of resistance among Timorese that was well outside our comprehension; everyone who took up the struggle knew full well they had written their own death sentence.’ For his advocacy of freedom for his people, nineteen, year-old pro Independence youth Jorges Bonaforte was macheted to death outside Police Headquarters.

Generosity combined with unobtrusive courage characterized the various religious orders, shepherds, and stewards for an otherwise powerless people. If the Catholic Church is searching for ways to redeem its reputation, they could recall and publicize the selfless services of nuns in Timor, including Carmelite sisters whose main requisite was to be tiny and smile with their whole heart, or the Salesian Sisters who sponsored youth groups, the Mary Knoll Sisters who provided health and education programmes not only in Timor but around the world, their dedication a way of life. Vacy makes special mention of the activities of a Little Company of Mary nun, Sister Joan Westblade.

A story of dignity and courage in response to violence must identify Timorese citizens and thereby an opportunity to enjoy the poetry in their names as they are pronounced: Jose Ramos Horta, Mari Alkatiri, Xanana Gusmao, Estanislau Da Silva, Abel Guterres, Nelson Belo, Jose Belo, Maria Domingos Alves, Bishop Belo, Padre Gelasio.

Australians who breathed human rights principles also made significant contributions to the struggle for Timorese freedom and are part of history. These wonderful characters include the ‘2/2 and 2/4 commandos’ who in the 1940s opposed Japanese invaders. More recent activists include the late Dr. Andrew McNaughton, Gareth Smith, John Martinkus, Kevin Baker, Rob Wesley Smith, Sisters Susan Connelly and Josephine Mitchell, Andy Alcock, Jude Conway, Jefferson Lee, Stephen Langford, Vacy herself and the late James Dunn, that brave, altruistic, former Australian Consul in Dili, ‘the revered elder of the Australian solidarity movement for East Timor.’

This Reveille for Timor is a wake-up call for Australia to recognize the contrast between Timorese courage in resisting Indonesian violence versus ideas about the value of cheating which in 2004 made a high-ranking Australian Cabinet Minister and his security chiefs think it was a good idea to obtain commercial advantage by permitting the bugging of East Timorese government offices. Yet, after sixteen years of covering up this spying episode, and to somehow justify it, court proceedings continue in secret against lawyer Bernard Collaery and Witness K.

Recalling Timorese courage and hearing the Australian government apologize for the 2004 bugging exercise would be an invaluable way to end 2020. At that point, the government should also cease the unjust, unfathomable prosecution in that ACT court, an initiative equivalent to a human rights vaccine to protect and benefit all Australians.

Stuart Rees OAM is Professor Emeritus, Univ. of Sydney, recipient of the Jerusalem (Al Quds) Peace Prize and author (2020) of Cruelty or Humanity, Challenges, Opportunities, Responsibilities. Bristol: Policy Press

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