Book launch Leiden

Helene van Klinken
Helene van Klinken, Book launch, KITLV, Leiden, 26 April 2012 (Photo: Willem van Gent)

Ratna Saptari (Lecturer in anthropology, University of Leiden)

What is the importance of this book:

As Helene has underlined in the conclusion:

  • The stories – placing ordinary people’s lives at the centre of the story
  • Ambiquities and complexities in the relationship between vulnerable groups dealing with hegemonic cultures, the world we have created, and how we treat the weak and powerless
  • Should be translated into Indonesian for those who don’t know what happened in East Timor; but also to learn what happens to children and families in a war situation

 1.  My own experience starting as an Indonesian student:

a)      I studied anthropology as an undergraduate student

  • 1974 – at the time the campus was in furore – various discussion groups emerged. In the Humanities Faculty (Sastra) there was a famous discussion group – taking over the tradition of Soe Hok Gie; but taking also into account massacres of 1965, as some family members of the discussion groups were also victims of the mass killings
  • Activities (outside the campus) – I went to work at the Institute of Legal Aid and became involved with workers, unions, mobilization of workers.
  • Activism – some of the issues and groups I was involved in included fashions, workers,  the feminist movement, empowerment
  • But what was never spoken of: East Timor, Aceh or Papua – ‘Indonesia’ as a nation was still untouchable.

b)      How anthropology was taught:

  • It was not about critical social science but trying to contribute to development, pembangunan
  • Integration – this was seen as the task of anthropology
  • One of the anthropology professors worked in the Department of Internal Affairs, in charge of ‘isolated groups’, masyarakat terasing; that was the term that was used, but it invokes the same idea as backward groups (masyarakat terkebelakang)

c)      Leiden anthropology – graduate study:

  • Structuralism was the approach and there was gap between the way anthropology was taught in Amsterdam and Leiden; politics was not part of the framework in Leiden
  • The role of Indoc which gathered documents from, among others, Amnesty International and Tapol made a great impression
  • Personally I came to understand about East Timor when an East Timorese refugee came to live for a year in our house; his father was murdered before his very eyes.

d)      After the fall of Suharto in 1998 – and the reform, reformasi, period:

  • I was involved with the Dutch based organisation, AKUI, Indonesia House – one focus of our activism was the rape of Chinese women
  • I was also involved in many other activities in Indonesia, such as Jugun Yanfu

How to link the academic and intellectual world with the world of activism in Indonesia?

1. Conceptual contribution of the book:

A. War and Violence vs civilizing mission –  these are two sides of the same coin.

  •  War and violence – in Aceh, Papua à but little written by comparison with , for example, Palestine and Bosnia. The rape camps of the Bosnian war have been documented as a systematically planned Serb instrument of genocide designed not merely to encourage the evacuation of all non-Serbs but to destroy parent-child and spousal bonds and render large numbers of the society’s child-bearing women contaminated and thus unmarriageable
  • Ideas of nationhood, and the use of violence – not just a spontaneous and knee jerk reaction to mutual animosity, revenge and the need to win the fight – but planned and clearly structured. Taking away of children was a way to punish, weaken and humiliate the enemy. Reflects how family policy is part of nation building policies.
  • Civilizing mission – children were educated to be part of the Indonesian family – as part of the project of integration New order policy:
      • In Indonesia itself
      • In colonized territories

B. Agency: Children not just victims. In Helene’s book à p. 58, Prabowo’s project of giving board to youths of the various political groups in East Timor, in Aceh and Papua – and how some of them use this to undertake clandestine anti-integration activism.

Actually also reflects the different layers of power

  • Between official policy and individual decisions
  • between those treated with warmth and sympathy vs the treatment of those who were not accepted or just became cheap labour

C. Ambivalent Identities + nationhood

I think of Jewish children as described by Diane Wolf in Beyond Anne Frank, Hidden Children and Post war Families in Holland – they were not orphans; on p. 76 since many of the children living in the institutions were not orphans

Methodology: Uses Memory – collective and individual memories. Then you have to deal with what is said and what is not said – I’m thinking of The story of a man who could not adopt a child and raped the sisters, one of them becoming pregnant and had to bear his child. The fact that one does not read/hear much about the sexual abuse can be more part of a need to forget – rather than reflecting what has (not) happened


Gerry van Klinken (senior researcher, KITLV, Leiden)

What processes were at work that kept the East Timor tragedy hidden from view in the Netherlands?

Today Charles Taylor was convicted in Den Haag. Why has no one responsible for the atrocities in East Timor even been mentioned for prosecution? Many of the senior Indonesian officers who directed the annexation campaign in 1975-1980 are still alive – ask me for a list if interested. Not because East Timor’s tragedy does not matter but because it has been kept hidden from view, also in the Netherlands.

What was this tragedy? When Indonesian forces invaded the little Portuguese colony in October 1975 they found a poor but highly politicised population of 640,000. Fretilin committees led half of them into the mountains as the Indonesians approached. The ensuing campaign lasted 4 years. Indonesian forces systematically used famine as a weapon to force people in their base d’appoio to surrender. In contravention of all laws of war. That the death toll was very high had been known in activist circles since the early 1980s. Recent quantitative research has shown that the civilian death toll due to hunger alone was most probably 104,000, plus/ minus a scientifically determined margin of error. Almost all in the period 1976-79. Another 18,000 civilians died violent deaths, also mainly in these first years. We are talking about over a sixth of the total population, or a third of those who had been in the mountains. Genocidal. This is not counting combatant deaths – on the Indonesian side 3,300, on the Timorese side probably several times that.

So why was this tragedy so hidden from view in the Netherlands?

  • Remoteness? Yes, East Timor is at the far eastern end of the large archipelago. But no, Papua is further away still yet it is not too remote for the Dutch to be interested. Remoteness is not the answer. Nico Schulte Nordholt grew up a half day’s drive from the East Timor border. It’s part of our history too.
  • Indonesian information blockade? Yes, the Indonesian government spun a propaganda web around East Timor that denied its forces had invaded, denied the scale of the humanitarian disaster, and denied access to reporters. It depicted its own presence there as benevolent intervention for the sake of peacekeeping, decolonisation and development.
    • This propaganda proved highly effective in Indonesia during the militarised New Order. Most Indonesians still believe it today.
    • But no, persistent reports about the genocidal scale of death always reached Europe. They came from the Catholic church (Pater Zeegwaard played a role), from disaffected Timorese collaborators, from the Fretilin resistance, from refugees who made it to Portugal, and from western diplomats breaking their oaths for conscience sake. Pedro Pinto Leite, Liem Soei Liong, and others in the Netherlands helped spread this information. So the information blockade itself was not the reason why “wir haben es nicht gewusst”.
  • Perhaps “the national interest”? Now we are getting somewhere. Indonesia was our former colony, but more important it was the fourth largest country in the world. The slow military coup of 1965/66 had been good for Dutch-Indonesian relations. By 1975 it had become an important cold-war ally to the United States and therefore also the Netherlands. It was once more open to Dutch business. In 1977, at the height of the Timor operation (which also involved naval forces), the Dutch government sold navy ships to Indonesia.
    • Someone should research the Dutch press on East Timor during this period, in the context of its Indonesian reporting. I suspect it will show a studied neglect of the tragedy. If so this would be unlike the Australian press, which never forgave the Indonesian military for executing five of its TV journalists in 1975, as shown in the recent movie “Balibo”.
    • The Dili massacre of November 1991 brought a major change in western and even Indonesian reporting on East Timor. The Santa Cruz shootings of 270 or so was a picnic compared with the late 1970s, but it did change diplomacy. When Jan Pronk protested, Suharto broke off relations (Japan quickly stepped into the breach). From here it is almost a direct line to Madeline Albright’s intervention in 1999 that guaranteed East Timor’s independence.

Does it still matter? Of course it does. No civilisation can do without a Thucidydes to remember its dead. Yet the pressures to forget are enormous. Remembering is an act of resistance. Inconceivable but true: For fear of offending Indonesia, Timorese school children still do not learn this story of death in the mountains. For fear of offending the generals, Jakarta still has no equivalent to Berlin’s Holocaust Memorial, dedicated to victims of military repression. East Timor’s tragedy matters even for us in the Netherlands. Forgetting would mean forgetting the price others pay for our geostrategic agendas.

That’s why this little book is important!

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