30 Years After Santa Cruz: Max Stahl’s Legacy and The Ongoing Struggle of Timorese Youth

30 Years After Santa Cruz: Max Stahl’s Legacy and The Ongoing Struggle of Timorese Youth post thumbnail image

Fundasaun Mahein was deeply saddened to hear of the passing of Max Stahl yesterday in Australia following a long illness. Max was a true hero and friend to Timor-Leste – his courageous filming of the Santa Cruz massacre opened the eyes of the world to the brutal reality of Indonesia’s military occupation. Several documentary films were produced using Max’s original footage, which were screened around the world reaching an audience of millions, and Max worked tirelessly together with other journalists, Timorese activists and international solidarity campaigners to publicise the struggle and suffering of the Timorese people.  Existing solidarity campaigns supporting Timor-Leste’s right to self-determination were galvanised, gaining many new chapters and members. After Timor-Leste’s independence, Max settled here permanently to build his archive and promote filmmaking in our country.

It is a sad but beautiful irony that Max Stahl passed away yesterday. 30 years ago today, on 28th October 1991, Sebastião Gomes, a young Timorese independence activist, was killed by Indonesian troops in Motael, Dili. Sebastião’s death was a pivotal event in Timor-Leste’s history, as it was the first of a series of events and movements which culminated in Timor-Leste finally restoring its independence. At that precise moment, Max Stahl was in Dili, posing as a tourist while working secretly together with several other foreign journalists investigating allegations of human rights violations committed by the Indonesian military. While he knew the risks involved in conducting undercover journalism in a military dictatorship, he had no idea that his presence there was about to lead him down a path which would define not only the rest of his own life, but the lives of more than a million Timorese people.

As shown in Max’s film footage shot during the days leading up to 12th November, he spent many long hours with young Timorese people recording their clandestine activities, such as making banners and flags in preparation for the march to Santa Cruz cemetery. The fact that these Timorese activists were willing to allow Max to film them carrying out such sensitive and dangerous work reveals that sense of trust that Max was able to instil in them. They instinctively understood that Max was their friend, and that his filming them, while potentially endangering them personally, could help to reveal their struggle to the world and assist with achieving independence.

We all know about the events that unfolded on that day: the memorial event for Sebastião Gomes transformed into a protest against Indonesian rule, and Indonesian soldiers opened fire on the crowd at Santa Cruz cemetery. Max Stahl, who had been filming continuously since the early hours of the morning, captured the events on film. The film’s most iconic moment – in which a young man, bleeding heavily from a gunshot wound, is cradled by his friend, while they are surrounded by the sound of people praying and wailing military sirens – is seared indelibly into the memories of all those who have seen it. Miraculously, the young man survived, and a statue commemorating this scene from the film now stands facing Motael Church, where the fateful chain of events began.

As the Indonesian soldiers entered the cemetery, Max Stahl buried the main video tapes used that day in a fresh grave next to where he was hiding. Given the level of stress and personal danger he faced at that moment, Max displayed a truly remarkable cool-headedness, and his decisiveness would have a huge impact on the future of Timor-Leste. Indonesian troops soon arrested Max and brought him to a detention centre. Max has recounted that he was beaten and threatened, while overhearing horrible sounds of torture from other rooms nearby. The Indonesian interrogators demanded to know what he had been doing in Timor, but the only direct evidence they had was one film which he had left inside the camera. He was released later that day, and returned to Santa Cruz cemetery at night, now deserted, to recover the buried films. He then wisely gave the recovered films to Dutch journalist Saskia Kouwenberg to smuggle out of the country before leaving with the other journalists to Darwin, Australia, where authorities strip-searched them in an attempt to confiscate evidence gathered during their journalistic activities in Timor-Leste.

Max Stahl’s footage was subsequently used in several documentary films as incontrovertible evidence that Indonesia was committing atrocities in its occupation of Timor-Leste. The films stirred major public controversy internationally, and allowed independence activists and their supporters to pressure western governments to reduce their diplomatic support and military aid to General Suharto’s government. Suharto’s most important foreign backers – the US, UK and Australian Governments – were forced by public outcry and grassroots pressure to condemn the massacre and reduce some of their support programs, following decades of collusion with Suharto’s murderous regime, including actively covering up human rights violations occurring in Timor-Leste. Although Suharto’s successor, BJ Habibie, opposed Timor-Leste’s independence, under international and domestic pressure to resolve the ‘East Timor question’, he announced that the Timorese people would vote in a referendum on special autonomy or independence in mid-1999. Under UN supervision and militia terror, hundreds of thousands of Timorese people courageously voted for their independence, ending 24 brutal years of Indonesian military occupation.

Next year, 2022, will mark 20 years since Timor-Leste’s transition to full independence after UN administration. The courageous work of Max Stahl was instrumental in securing our independence. For this reason, Fundasaun Mahein suggests that the Government should name a street in Dili after him, while providing ongoing support for his film archive and the development of camerawork among our young people.

As Max himself would acknowledge, he was simply the messenger who delivered to the world the concrete evidence of the heroic struggle and sacrifice of Timorese youth. Thus, as we honour Max Stahl, who dedicated his life to Timor-Leste’s independence, we hope that his passing – and the legacy he leaves behind – can remind our leaders that delivering on the promise of independence must be their main priority. As FM wrote in a previous article, this has not yet been realised for many of our young people struggling against systemic poverty, poor education and a lack of opportunities.

To mark last year’s anniversary of the Santa Cruz massacre, FM wrote that instead of simply celebrating past heroism and sacrifice, we should use this occasion to promote dialogue between the leaders of the resistance and our youth, so that leaders can be reminded about the struggles the young people face today. Many of today’s leaders suffered in the jungle or under Indonesian jails and torture, and may consider that the struggles of the youth today are less intense or important because they live under peace and freedom. However, this attitude fails to capture that the promise of independence was always more than simply being free of foreign domination and war – true independence means that the majority of Timorese people can live dignified, prosperous and peaceful lives. Thus, if they truly want to honour Max Stahl’s legacy, our leaders will make the political compromises and investments necessary for ensuring our youth’s wellbeing and development, so that we can finally realise the promise of independence.

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