Significant Landmarks in the Struggle for Independence

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Significant Landmarks in the Struggle for Independence

In the lead up to Restoration of Independence Day on 20 May 2016, FM will present a number of short profiles on places of significance in the struggle for Independence in Timor-Leste.

Atauro Island

Perhaps it is because Atauro Island is separated from mainland Timor-Leste by a stretch of water up to 3500 metres deep, and is now associated with such tranquillity and natural beauty, that its historical significance to the struggle for independence is sometimes forgotten. However, it is this very remoteness from mainland Timor-Leste that made the Island intrinsic to the struggle.

On 26th August 1975 after the “attempted coup” by the Timorese Democratic Union (UDT) and the resultant civil war with FRETLIN, the Portuguese Governor and Colonial Administration evacuated to Atauro, leaving that Timor-Leste without an official Government. Despite the attempts of FRETLIN to bring the Portuguese Government back to stabilise the decolonisation process, the Portuguese left Atauro for Lisbon in November 1975, just a few weeks before the Indonesian invasion on 7 December.

In June 1980, after attacks by FALINTIL and resistance groups, the Indonesians responded by rounding up many suspected resistance members in detention centres and prisons and subjecting them to harsh interrogation, torture and sometimes death. In order to break up resistance networks, some detainees were not released after their interrogation and were instead transported to Atauro. Using Atauro as a “natural prison” was a tactic that had been used both by the Portuguese colonialists and Japanese occupiers previously. As the Indonesians continued to employ more aggressive tactics towards resistance groups and supporters between 1980 and 1985, the number of people sent to Atauro is believed to have peaked at over 4000 during this period. Those sent included not only members of FALINTIL and the clandestine networks, but entire communities, including children and the elderly whose only crime was to have been living in an area where the resistance movement was strong.

Atauro was not a prison in the traditional sense, as there was no buildings or high walls, but those detained had no way of leaving the island and the few who tried to escape were unsuccessful. Conditions were harsh, housing was limited to make-shift tarpaulin homes without running water or beds, there was little food or medicine, and detainees were subject to curfews and restrictions on their movement. Diseases, including cholera, starvation and malnutrition killed many people, particularly children and the elderly. The Indonesian troops also sexually assaulted the women detainees.

As the nature of the conflict again changed from 1986, the Indonesians stopped sending people to Atauro and the people detained there were released or relocated to other supervised communities.

Now Atauro Island and its 10,000 inhabitants are beginning a new chapter as the centrepiece of Timor’s ecotourism and ZEESM initiatives, and there are few reminders of the Island’s significance to Independence struggle.

Based on the Commission for Reception, Truth and Reconciliation in Timor-Leste’s (CAVR) Chega! Report (2005), for more on Atauro Island refer to Chapters 3 and 7.4 of the Report available here:

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