“The Santa Cruz Massacre, Thirty Years On” Symposium

“The Santa Cruz Massacre, Thirty Years On” Symposium

Today in my city…

Mothers crying …their tears water the flowers that scatter on the gravestones of Santa Cruz Cemetery

Their bodies have disappeared from our side

But their names are imprinted in the heart of the Timorese People

Egas Alves, “Today in my city,” 31 May 1995

On 12 November 1991, Indonesian soldiers shot and killed over 200 East Timorese in a funerary march and pro-independence protest at the Santa Cruz cemetery in Dili. The protest and massacre were recently the subject of an international symposium held by the Timor-Leste Studies Association, which in Australia is an affiliate of the Asian Studies Association of Australia, and the Centro Nacional Chega!, Timor-Leste’s national centre of memory. Hugo Fernandes (CNC), Michael Leach (Swinburne University of Technology), Hannah Loney (Central European University), Marisa Ramos Gonçalves (Centro de Estudos Sociais, Coimbra University), Rogerio Savio (independent researcher, Timor-Leste) and I comprised the organising comittee.

Over the course of two days, almost 30 research papers and first-hand accounts were presented in English, Tetum and Portuguese. The symposium examined a range of topics, including the organisation of the protest, the experiences on the day itself, and how the massacre has been remembered and commemorated in Timor-Leste and elsewhere.

Several sessions were hosted live at the headquarters of the CNC in Dili. Nobel Peace Prize Laureate His Excellency Dr Jose Ramos Horta, former president and foreign minister of Timor-Leste, opened the symposium. A roundtable featured leading protagonists from the Dili protest, Constancio Pinto, Gregorio Saldanha and Joana Dias, who spoke about the planning of the demonstration and what occurred that day. Regrettably, another roundtable speaker, who had told organisers he was very intent on participating, could not be there. The filmmaker Max Stahl himself, whose footage of the massacre had played such a pivotal role, died from cancer in Brisbane two weeks earlier. The symposium was dedicated to Stahl’s memory, a film of his life was screened, and a statement written by Stahl for the anniversary last year was read by Ceu Brites, who represented the audiovisual centre Stahl founded, the Centro Audiovisual Max Stahl do Timor-Leste (CAMSTL). In the statement, he reflected on his experiences not only on that day at the cemetery but also of covering the issue of East Timor for so many years: “Sometimes dignity can change the world. For this insight I thank those people who resisted quietly, without bluster, in what seemed like a hopeless cause, and showed that sometimes faith really can move mountains…”

Several presentations featured former East Timorese activists, namely Egas Alves, Jose da Costa, Nuno Rodrigues, Mica Barreto and Abel Silva. Alves worked with other clandestine leaders such as Pinto and Saldanha to organise the protest. They had not expected that the Indonesian army would shoot and kill protesters on that day. Several of the meetings between clandestine leaders took place in the house of Alves’ grandmother, showing the involvement of many unknown, ordinary people in resisting Indonesian rule. Alves then played an important role in the student organisation RENETIL (National East Timorese Students’ Resistance) in Indonesia, particularly in support of imprisoned East Timorese leader Xanana Gusmão in Jakarta.

Former RENETIL activists who were students in Indonesia, Barreto and Silva, presented a paper on the history and activities of the organisation, which led to a discussion of the impact that the East Timorese presence had in Indonesia and on the country’s pro-democracy movement. A survivor of the massacre and a former clandestine activist, Jose da Costa looked at how young East Timorese became radicalised as a product of the everyday experience of living under Indonesian rule, and discussed how the nucleus groups or cells of the clandestine movement increasingly had to adopt tactics of everyday resistance after the massacre and arrests of key leaders in the wake of the massacre.

Several papers discussed the strategies of the East Timorese in confronting Indonesian rule. Hannah Loney discussed how the 12 November protest helped establish a proto-feminist public sphere and encouraged the participation of East Timorese women in public protests. Michael Leach looked at two East Timorese youth organisations, Fitun and OJETIL (Organisation of East Timorese Youth) and their strategies to counter Indonesian rule before and after the Santa Cruz massacre. Participants also heard a presentation from the Rector of the National University of Timor Lorosa’e (UNTL), João Martins, and co-presenter Helen Hill in Dili, about a biographical project on former commander in the resistance army, Falintil, Ernesto ‘Dudu’ Fernandes, and his support for youths from his home district of Ermera, who were caught up in the massacre. Now a member of the national parliament, Fernandes was also on hand to respond to the presentation.

A couple of panels investigated how the massacre impacted internationally and in Indonesia. Nuno Rodrigues Tchailoro, also a former member of RENETIL, discussed Indonesian media representations of the massacre and its aftermath. Similarly, my paper provided an overview of Indonesian media reporting but as curated in the media clippings of the important New Order thinktank, the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) and tracing how the massacre influenced the evolution of pro-democracy ideas in Indonesia. Along with Barreto and Silva’s paper, the panel then attempted to consider the impact of East Timorese student activists on the Indonesian pro-democracy movement and the ways in which the two groups worked together in the mid to late 1990s in Indonesia.

Based on a study of Portuguese archival records, Rui Feijó and Zélia Pereira discussed the preparations for the Portuguese parliamentary delegation, which was due to visit East Timor in 1991, and the circumstances which led to its cancellation. David Hicks argued that the Santa Cruz massacre was indeed a turning point in the history of East Timor’s national liberation campaign. Clinton Fernandes analysed the work undertaken by Congressional activists in the United States to propel the massacre into the spotlight, while Peter Job highlighted the Australian media and government’s reactions to Santa Cruz, Australia having been one of the most important supporters of the Suharto New Order regime. Cássio Daniel Siqueira and other researchers looked at how the massacre has been discussed in TLSA conferences in the last 10 years.

Several papers focused on how the protest and massacre are remembered and portrayed in more recent times. Lia Kent looked at the tensions between the state sanctioned regime of memory about the massacre and the ways in which ordinary families whose loved ones have disappeared are challenging this, for example by their own continuous search for their loved ones. Many East Timorese who were suspected of having been at the cemetery on that day are still missing. Based on her previous work in Dili with the 12 November Committee, a group for survivors of the massacre, Amy Rothschild examined how survivors are referred to as heroes and martyrs in Timor-Leste, rather than as victims, and the implications flowing from this practice. From an art history perspective, Leonor Veiga discussed how the massacre inspired contemporary artists to comment on identity, history and memory in Timor-Leste after the referendum. Hérica Pinheiro analysed how literature produced between 1991 and 2000 represented the Santa Cruz Massacre, particularly in literary discourse in Portuguese. Ann Wigglesworth and Abel dos Santos examined how the clandestine generation has had to contend with competing ideologies of development after 1999 with the arrival of the UN and international donors as actors that played a significant role in the early years of Timor-Leste.

Several presentations dealt with the physical and spatial aspects of the massacre and its commemoration. Damian Grenfell reflected on Dili as capital city, and the ways in which space was used in the protest including to express an incipient national identity. Silvia Nogueira’s paper was an ethnographic study of the candle ceremonies (sunu lilin) held by East Timorese students in Portugal and Brazil to commemorate the massacre.

“Memories and Memorabilia” was a section of the online platform (provided by the Open University of Portugal) that provided space for activists, members of the diaspora, and the community to share their recollections surrounding the Santa Cruz Massacre. It featured photographs, poems, and artwork, including 16 pieces by artist, Maria Madeira. Fiona Crockford provided photographs of the 1998 commemoration in Dili, the first one after the end of the New Order regime in Jakarta.

The online platform also featured an exhibition on 12 November-related archives collected and digitised by the Clearing House of Archives and Records on Timor (CHART) in Melbourne and the Timor International Solidarity Archive (TISA) hosted by Bishop’s University in Canada. Representatives from both archive projects, John Waddingham and David Webster, presented a joint paper regarding some of the challenges in finding, digitising and archiving East Timor-related materials, and how archiving is a form of activism that also facilitates the production of new knowledge.

Recordings of the panels are being made available, and a publication reflecting the breadth of the symposium will be produced (partly supported by an event grant from the ASAA) consisting of testimonies, refereed conference papers, and memorabilia about the protest and massacre.


Image credit:

Joana Dias, speaking from Dili, and recalling the morning of the massacre. Photo: CNC 


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