The Common Good
January-February 2000

A Tribute to Nonviolence

by John Chamberlin | January-February 2000

Bishop Belo's struggle for freedom in East Timor.

The tragedy in East Timor began nearly a quarter century ago after Indonesian forces provoked a brief civil war in the territory and then invaded and occupied it outright. Massive suffering followed, with an estimated 200,000 people, nearly a third of the original population, perishing as a direct consequence of the Indonesian assault.

It is worth stressing from the outset that roughly 90 percent of the weapons available to the Indonesian army when it invaded East Timor were American-supplied. Moreover, there was diplomatic support for Indonesia by successive U.S. administrations, starting with the presence of then-President Gerald Ford and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger in Jakarta only hours before the full-scale Indonesian invasion in 1975.

Yet only in the past decade has East Timor finally received sustained American media attention, beginning in 1991 with the massacre at Santa Cruz cemetery in Dili, the capital. This horrific event, captured on video by British journalist Max Stahl and seen by shocked television viewers around the world, provoked grassroots pressure from faith-based groups with its documentation of injured and dying young Timorese praying and singing amid gravestones in a church cemetery. This had an immediate and profound impact on people from varying religious traditions—not just Roman Catholic, the religion of most East Timorese.

Five years later Bishop Carlos Ximenes Belo, East Timor’s foremost spiritual leader and someone heavily influenced by the teachings of Mahatma Gandhi, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, and he has become an international symbol of nonviolent resistance. From the time Belo took up his post in 1983, he has counseled his fellow East Timorese against armed struggle, and he has opposed demonstrations that might result in bloodshed.

Paradoxically, however, little has been known about Belo until now, a void admirably filled by journalist and activist Arnold Kohen, who has watched East Timor’s fate closely since Indonesian troops launched their 1975 invasion. Kohen knows Belo well, and the author’s background provides personal substance and sheer readability to the history of Belo’s ability—despite unrelieved pressures, assassination threats, and other inducements to silence—to persevere in articulating his people’s aspirations for freedom and simple human rights.

In recent months East Timor has experienced another terrible surge in violence, primarily carried out by so-called militias sponsored by the Indonesian military to terrorize the population and head off a fair vote for independence in elections sponsored by the United Nations—and since then to punish the people for choosing independence. The situation for the East Timorese probably has been worse than at any time since the original Indonesian invasion, yet Belo persists with courage and faith, insisting on the people’s right to make a democratic choice.

As the book amply demonstrates, Belo has worked hard to deter actions that might result in violence. We witness a telling series of events in 1994 when, during President Clinton’s trip to an economic summit in Indonesia, young people demonstrated outside Dili Cathedral. Belo planted himself in a bus between the demonstrating students and furious Indonesian police and army troops. He stood there stubbornly, arms folded, until he was able to negotiate a solution that resulted in an end to the action and promises of safe conduct for demonstrators returning to their homes. A scene that could have ended in carnage was instead converted into one that was a tribute to nonviolence.

From the Place of the Dead carries Belo’s message for justice to the world, a call that could prove decisive in the near future, particularly as Indonesia’s urgent need for international financial help increases. The book reminds us that the voice of reason and nonviolence can succeed in gaining the attention of the international community.

—John Chamberlin

JOHN CHAMBERLIN is pastor of First St. John’s United Methodist Church in San Francisco, national coordinator of East Timor Religious Outreach, and chair of the National Council of Churches East Timor Working Group.

From the Place of the Dead: The Epic Struggles of Bishop Belo of East Timor. Arnold S. Kohen. St. Martin's Press, 1/1/99.

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