Companion to East Timor - The Juventude

The Juventude

A new generation of East Timorese came to the forefront of the resistance in the 1980s and 1990s. The juventude ('youth'), which is how they referred to themselves, comprise individuals born in the 1960s and 1970s.1 Despite an age difference of up to 20 years between the oldest and youngest juventude, both groups grew up under the Indonesian occupation. They spoke Indonesian, were educated in the Indonesian school system, learnt the history of Indonesia (that is to say, the New Order's version of it) and played a vital yet often unacknowledged role in their country's independence struggle. They bore the brunt of the Santa Cruz massacre and were captured, interrogated, tortured, imprisoned or killed for their convictions. Historians have usually focused on the role of Falintil and on leaders who were born in the 1940s. Yet these juventude, who were more likely to join the urban resistance as individuals or as members of clandestine organisations such as RENETIL, also made enormous contributions and sacrifices. Renetil, the National Resistance of East Timorese Students, was formed in Indonesia on 20 June 1988. Its oath was written in Portuguese, and never translated into any other language.

The juventude's understanding of the international arena has been shaped by the occupation, their time in Indonesia, their knowledge of Southeast Asia, the realpolitik behaviour of Western governments, the solidarity work of Western activists, and the Indonesian solidarity groups such as SMID, FORTILOS, SPRIM, INFIGHT and SOLIDAMOR.2 They worked hard to preserve a separate identity in order to prevent themselves from becoming Indonesianised. They performed traditional Portuguese dances as a way of demonstrating that they were 'not Indonesian.'

Most of the juventude who were based in Jakarta or elsewhere in Indonesia were intensely focused on national liberation. They engaged in lengthy, well-informed discussions and debates about the fate of East Timor, how to get the international community to support them, how to build lines of communication and logistics between East Timor and the outside world, how to shape media coverage, how to maximise the international impact of resistance activities in East Timor and Indonesia, how to build links with the anti-dictatorship movement in Indonesia, and much more.

The juventude attempted to internationalise their cause from the very beginning. In October 1986, during the sixth ASEAN-EEC Ministerial Meeting in Jakarta, the first four students sought asylum in the Dutch embassy. Holland managed Portuguese interests in Indonesia, since Portugal and Indonesia had broken off diplomatic ties after the invasion in 1975. They claimed that they were Portuguese citizens and said they wanted to leave Indonesia for Portugal. They left the Embassy after being assured that the Indonesian authorities had promised not to arrest them and that their claim would be conveyed to the Foreign Minister of Holland. Indeed, the Indonesian authorities did not arrest them, but pressured the universities at which they were studying to expel them. They also lost their scholarships, and were therefore destitute in Jakarta. One of the four had a girlfriend who had a scholarship, which was a small source of financial support. They also obtained low-paid casual employment from time to time.

The students would put on their best clothes and go to the Dutch embassy every Monday morning for several years (October 1986 to November 1991) in the hope of collecting their passports, which Portugal was supposed to have sent them. A Dutch diplomat would meet them at the gate, tell them that their passports had not arrived, and give them 100,000 rupiah – a sum of money that was far too little for four young men in a big city like Jakarta. The girlfriend with the scholarship fell pregnant, and soon there were six mouths to feed. Portugal had in fact issued blank passports for the students but both Holland and Portugal were bowing to Indonesian pressure to prevent the students from leaving. Indonesia had objected to their claim – correct in international law – that they were Portuguese citizens.

The juventude's second most visible contribution to the struggle in the 1990s (after their sacrifice at Santa Cruz) was their spectacular display of strategic non-violent action at the November 1994 APEC summit in Jakarta.

They regained the initiative from the Suharto regime, which had taken significant steps to renew its regional and international diplomatic links after 1991. They carried out several subsequent embassy occupations in Jakarta. In 1995, five East Timorese entered the British embassy, eight entered the Dutch embassy, 21 entered the Japanese embassy, nine entered the French embassy, and on 7 December, the twentieth anniversary of the invasion, 112 Indonesian and East Timorese supporters entered the Russian and Dutch embassies. The large number of East Timorese entering foreign embassies led some Portuguese activists to suspect that Indonesia was encouraging asylum attempts in order to remove radical East Timorese activists from Indonesian territory. In 1996, two East Timorese entered the Australian embassy, five entered the New Zealand embassy, 12 entered the Polish embassy and four entered the French embassy. Embassies in Jakarta were practically converted into fortresses to prevent these actions.

The juventude inside East Timor also took courageous, sometimes fatal risks in defence of their right of self-determination. Their heroism and sacrifice constitute a rich historical vein that I hope will be mined extensively by East Timorese scholars in the years ahead. The juventude will soon take over the leadership of East Timor after the 1975 generation leaves the scene. Many of them are gaining practical professional experience in the UK, Australia, Indonesia, the US, Portugal, Cuba or in East Timor itself.


1 In some cases, the juventude also includes people born in the 1950s e.g. Joao Freitas da Camara and others.

2Solidaritas Mahasiswa Indonesia untuk Demokrasi (Indonesian Students' Solidarity for Democracy), Forum Solidaritas Untuk Rakyat Timor Timur (Solidarity Forum for the People of East Timor), Solidaritas Perjuangan Rakyat Indonesia untuk Maubere (Indonesian People's Struggle for Solidarity with the Maubere People), the Indonesian Front for the Defence of Human Rights and Solidaritas untuk Penyelesaian Damai Timor Timur (Solidarity for Peaceful Solutions in East Timor).