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  • Another Go at Life: Dili, East Timor.
  • Simon Philpott


Dili has been a capital city for two and a half centuries, firstly for the Portuguese colony of Timor, then as a city in an Indonesian province under occupation and today as capital of the Democratic Republic of Timor Leste. However, throughout these transformations little has been published on what many have taken to be an unprepossessing small city located at the edge of an unspectacular shoreline. When mentioned at all, Dili is invariably described as a dusty, neglected colonial outpost, a curious relic from a time when Portugal was a major maritime power. In the mid 19th century Alfred Russell Wallace described Dili as a ‘most miserable place.’2 In his 1915 novel Victory Joseph Conrad described the city as that “highly pestilential place,” a description that surfaced again as recently as 2001.3 Although this disdain means Dili and East Timor has rarely been front page news it nonetheless became synonymous with a form of military repression that has a Cold War genealogy.4 This repression manifested itself in ways significant for the debates on urbicide.

Richard Falk argues that the particular tragedy of East Timor is that it was caught in the vice of the withering of Portuguese colonialism, on the one hand, and Indonesian expansionism on the other hand.5 That may be so, but what tightened the vice was Cold War politics which saw a US chastened by its experiences in Vietnam align itself with and actively support President (and former General) Suharto of Indonesia who had proven his Cold War bona fides by presiding over the massacre of no less than 500,000 real and imagined communists in the mid-1960s. A decade later, Indonesia faced a unilateral declaration of independence for East Timor made by its most popular political party and de facto government, Fretilin.6 The perception, held by Suharto and his government, that Fretilin was Marxist in orientation and that East Timor might become an Asian Cuba or even encourage restive provinces within Indonesian to bid for their own independence made this a most unwelcome development.

With Vietnam a fresh and painful memory, US President Gerald Ford and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger told Suharto that they would understand if Indonesia found it necessary to take drastic action over the issue of East Timorese claims of independence.7 Suharto wasted no time and full-scale invasion was launched on December 7th 1975 within hours of Ford and Kissinger concluding their visit to Jakarta, and nine days after Fretilin’s independence move.

The invasion and subsequent occupation was to change life for the residents of Dili and East Timor in the most dramatic and horrific ways. This article traces Indonesian policy, as well as the prior Portuguese strategies of urban management of Dili. I also consider UN and Timorese government responses to the crisis provoked by the physical destruction of East Timor and the withdrawal of its skilled labour force when the majority of Indonesians fled the then province after the overwhelming vote in favour of independence in August 1999 that ended twenty five years of occupation.

East Timor’s demography necessarily means an examination of the governance of rural areas to ascertain a sense of the modes of violence, repression and control used by the Indonesian authorities in particular. The majority of East Timor’s population then, as now, resides in rugged, remote and often inaccessible rural locales and it is into these areas that Fretilin fighters withdrew after the invasion. Ensconced in East Timor’s mountainous areas and occasionally drawing Indonesian forces into difficult and costly skirmishes despite its own heavy losses in the immediate aftermath of the Indonesian invasion, Fretilin seemingly fulfilled the dictum that guerrillas win the war if they do not lose it.8 One way that Indonesian authorities tried to resolve this problem was by fracturing the networks of support that established rural communities could provide to Fretilin by a wholesale uprooting of the rural population. Such practices had the additional benefit of bringing ordinary East Timorese under more direct control, something that will be discussed in detail below.

Of particular interest is...

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