Timorese Resistance Documents

"The Archives of East-Timorese Resistance and the issue of National Identity"

José Mattoso

Professor José Mattoso at a ceremony of delivering Resistance documents

It’s a well-known fact that nations with a colonial background face the problem of questioning their identity. In fact, most of them have retained the borders defined by their colonizing powers. These, in turn, not always corresponded to ethnical borders, rather resulting from political agreements and commitments defined by European interests. But the mark of the colonists remained, mainly in the form of the language and administration practices, and most colonial borders – albeit arbitrary - were perpetuated. Hence the conflicts that, even today, frequently lead to bloodshed in several countries in Africa and Asia. Many have to endure the painful experience of overcoming, by force, the contradictions opposing different ethnic components within their territory, relying on uneven economic or military resources, whether or not backed up by the imperialist forces of other nations seeking to exploit these domestic conflicts, as a function of their own interests.

East-Timor is no exception to this rule, its borders having been defined by arbitrary colonial vicissitudes and its people having borne the violence of civil war and the horrors of long-standing foreign domination. Its government doesn’t seem capable of overcoming the opposition or the passive resistance to the language and administrative composition they chose to adopt. After freeing itself almost miraculously from the foreign domination, it must prove now that its identity awareness is strong enough to solve the internal ethnically and politically rooted conflicts and build up its own culture vis-à-vis the surrounding foreign cultures, namely Indonesia’s and Australia’s.

The East-Timorese people have given exemplary evidence of its support to independence. Its support sustained the armed struggle and gave to half a dozen guerrilla combatants – with virtually no weapons or money – the strength to embattle for twenty four years an army of tenths of thousand soldiers equipped with heavy armament and trained by the strongest military power in the world. Its support turned the slogan «Homeland or Death» into a tragically true principle, a thousand times demonstrated by thousands cases of humiliation, murder, torture and rape. The people’s will to be independent is therefore a well-proven fact and there is no need to ask the East-Timorese why they wanted to be independent.

But political independence, especially of young nations, is not a definitive fact. Independences are won and lost; time is the proof of their rooting. Recent earned independences are always at jeopardy. Even if they remain as political facts, they may perish as cultural facts. There are not anymore any colonies in today’s world, but cultural and economic colonialism may make a mock of any independence. We should nonetheless expect that a country which fought so fiercely and tenaciously to achieve its independence can now fight with the same determination for the cultural awareness of its identity.

Among many components of such identity awareness, the people’s collective history is, undoubtedly the most important. In the case of East-Timor, the Resistance obviously constitutes the key historical factor of the country’s short history. Moreover, it is this component that best represents collective consciousness. Having personally involved virtually all the East-Timorese, it is in everyone’s memory and is illustrated by a great number of episodes that prove its popular character.

Until it is laid down in writing, however, it will remain a mere fact expressed by a fragile memory. In a country where 54% of the inhabitants are less than 15 years old, this memory may disappear within a few decades. If the East-Timorese really want to remain strong in their belief that they deserve their independence, they must start writing down the history of their struggle as soon as possible. And if they cannot obviously write it all down overnight, in only a few years, they must carefully preserve their written evidence (and also the largest possible number of oral statements, by means of audio and video recordings). Keeping the photographs and the written and audio documents that have been gathered so far, on initiative and under the sponsorship of President Xanana Gusmão, the Resistance Archives clearly play the role of preserving the memory of a collective action that enable East-Timor to be born as an independent nation.

A word should be said about the remarkable role played by the Mário Soares Foundation on onset of this project, in providing human and technical resources and seeking to be of service to East-Timor. Its collaboration represented a major step in the process of retrieving and preserving highly relevant document collections coming from the Struggle Command. Its support action made it possible to recover an important part of files covering the years 1991-1999 that were at the risk of being lost forever due to poor physical conditions of conservation. In addition, the Mário Soares Foundation retrieved a vast set of documents, covering the years 1975-1991, proceeding from other sources, thus completing the data originated in the archives of the Struggle Command. At the same time, the Mário Soares Foundation made it possible for these documents to be quickly available for historical interpretation, study and research, in the best conditions and in a friendly way. We still have to solve the problem of selecting the documents containing sensitive data - these will have to wait a few more years to be given access to. Obviously, it is a political problem to be solved by East-Timorese political powers.

But the Papers of the East-Timorese Resistance are not only valuable because they constitute an essential source for the history and identity of East-Timor. The Resistance of the East-Timorese is one of the most outstanding facts of contemporary history. It is one of the rare cases of genuinely popular action with worldwide political repercussions, whose details and components can be studied in great detail. It already is part of the memory of Mankind.

José Mattoso

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