Regarding Rights

Academic and activist perspectives on human rights

After Conflict: Memory Frictions in Timor-Leste and Aceh – Part II

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By Lia Kent, Centre for International Governance and Justice, ANU 

Nicolau Lobato statue, Dili airport

Nicolau Lobato statue, Dili airport

In this post, RegNet and CIGJ Fellow Lia Kent discusses themes emerging from her preliminary fieldwork in Timor-Leste and Aceh. In a previous post, Lia introduced the research project she is currently working on and its theoretical framework. Both posts are based on a seminar that Lia gave at RegNet on 24 May 2016.[i]


Turning now to the themes that are emerging from my preliminary fieldwork.


Since independence, state-sponsored memorialisation and commemoration of the conflict in Timor-Leste has become increasingly visible. Since early 2014, visitors to Dili are greeted with a glimpse of an imposing statue of Nicolau Lobato, one of the nation’s founding fathers and military resistance leader, who was killed by the elite Indonesian commando force Kopassus in the early years of the occupation. The Lobato statue stands at the intersection to the international airport. Labato is represented in military fatigues, holding Timor-Leste’s national flag in one hand, and an automatic weapon in the other.

Garden of Heroes

Garden of Heroes

Another prominent initiative is the Garden of Heroes Cemetery in Metinaro, where the remains of the FALINTIL fighters are buried. As you can see, the gravestones are generic and uniform in character. The cemetery constructs a narrative of the ‘common soldier’ that brings the dead into connection with one another through their deaths for the nation’s liberation.


Ossuary in Timor-Leste

Smaller scale versions of this cemetery are being established in each of Timor-Leste’s districts, alongside rather garishly painted ossuaries that provide places to hold human remains temporarily, and generic monuments constructed by the state to honour the different components of the resistance. These monuments and ossuaries are identical in each district, allowing very little local cultural content to be included.

All these efforts serve to highlight how the state is self-consciously seeking to draw personal experiences of death and grief into a national collective memory. The principal narrative that seems to come through here is a story of heroism – of endurance, unity, sacrifice and liberation. As I’ve written about elsewhere, this narrative differs quite markedly from the form of remembering promoted by the UN-sponsored truth commission.[ii] While the truth commission foregrounded victims’ experiences of suffering, the figure of the hero promoted by the political elite stands in stark contrast, embodying active resistance rather than passive suffering and willingness to sacrifice the self for the greater goal of independence.

Yet the heroic narrative is underpinned by its own silences. The focus on celebrating heroes deflects debate from questions about prosecution of war crimes, and reparations, and allows for the maintenance of delicate diplomatic relations with Indonesia. There is also very little space, in this narrative, for debate about or recognition of crimes committed by the resistance movement itself.

What is also apparent is that official forms of remembering have pivoted around an emphasis on the roles and contributions of the armed FALINTIL forces to Timor’s resistance struggle. This is marginalising other sections of society, including those who participated in the resistance in unarmed and often informal ways – for instance women and young people.

A point I want to emphasise here is that official memories not only have a symbolic effect in terms of elevating the social status of certain kinds of groups and individuals over others: they also have political and economic dimensions. In Timor-Leste there are very tangible material benefits available – in the form of generous pensions and preferential access to government contracts – for those who can establish themselves as former veterans of the resistance.

Unofficial memory

Nonetheless, in Timor-Leste, as elsewhere, the state does not have a monopoly over collective memory and a range of unofficial forms of remembering are also evident. At the forefront of these efforts are a small number of largely middle class, Dili-based intellectuals and activists who are mostly younger than the core elites who now constitute government. I want to highlight two initiatives that promote alternative forms of remembering the conflict.

The first organisation is ACBIT (Asosiasaun Chega! ba Ita/Chega! for Us Association) – a name that references the title of the truth commission report, suggesting the importance of making this report meaningful for everyone. Established in 2012, a number of ACBIT’s staff formerly worked for the office of the ICTJ (International Centre for Transitional Justice), a New York based NGO at the forefront of efforts to promote truth commissions around the globe.

ACBIT’s work embraces globalised discourses of human rights as part of its efforts to shape collective memory of the conflict. For instance, it assists Timor-Leste’s small national victims’ association to organise local commemorations of massacres that took place during the occupation. It raises awareness of the truth commission report by organising a travelling, visual exhibition to remote areas of the country. Its work also has a particular focus on civilian women, who have been largely marginalised within the heroic narrative. One of its recent publications is   entitled Hanaruk Luta (Prolonged Struggle): Voices of Women Survivors of Violence’. The book is based on women’s personal stories of sexual violence during the Indonesian occupation, accompanied by a series of photos that highlight these women’s ongoing economic hardships and marginalisation.

These initiatives suggest that the truth commission report continues to have some resonance in Timor-Leste, and that groups such as ACBIT maintain hope that the promotion of human rights discourses and victim subjectivities may assist those who have been marginalised within the heroic narrative to address their claims to the state.

The second organisation I want to highlight, the Dili-based 12 November committee, evinces a more ambivalent stance in relation to framing memories through a human rights lens. The 12 November committee is the organisation that advocates on behalf of survivors of a massacre that occurred on the 12 November 1991 – sometimes known as the Santa Cruz massacre because it occurred at Timor-Leste’s Santa Cruz cemetery in Dili. The massacre is now widely regarded as a hinge point in the struggle for independence – a moment when the outside world finally became aware of Timor’s plight. This is because footage of Indonesian troops firing on unarmed Timorese protesters against the Indonesian occupation, many of them school children, was captured on film by a foreign journalist and circulated around the globe.

Annual commemorations are now organised by the 12 November committee, during which thousands of people walk the same route across Dili that the demonstrators took on the original 12 November. The march culminates in a large ceremony at the Santa Cruz cemetery.

Arguably, the commemorations began partly as a response to the marginalization of youth activists within the narrow, militarized version of the heroic narrative. Yet, over time, there has been increasing political support – 12 November is now a designated public holiday and politicians of all stripes attend the commemorations, suggesting that it might be an example of unofficial remembrance that has, over time, become increasingly official.

Frictions have sometimes emerged between groups such as the 12 November committee and other organisations – such as ACBIT, that promote more of a human and victims’ rights agenda. For instance, the scholar Amy Rothshild has written about  the ‘awkward standoff’ that occurred at the 2011 commemorations between members of the committee and advocates for victims’ rights, when advocates held up empty coffins and yelled out demands for justice, and were publicly chastened for doing so.[iii]

Another form of friction, of an inter-generational kind, emerged in 2014, when a group of university student activists sought to use the Santa Cruz commemorations to conduct their own demonstration highlighting the corruption of Timor-Leste’s political elite. They were also chastened for doing so on social media by an older generation of activists who claimed they were not acting in the spirit of 12 November.

At the ceremony I attended last year, things were more sedate. At one point a group of university students came out of the cemetery with black tape over their mouths. I thought they were making a statement about free speech but actually, when I talked to them, they explained they were doing a re-enactment of the experiences of the 12 November generation and trying to keep the spirit of activism and nationalism alive. The desire of the current generation of young people to write themselves into this narrative speaks to some extent, I think, to their ongoing marginalization in political and social life. As Catherine Arthur writes, their ‘positive identification with the parent culture’ helps to ‘counter questions about the legitimacy of that younger generation’s membership in the nation.’[iv]


As I mentioned earlier, I am new to the Aceh context. Having said this, a number of things stood out on my initial visit in February this year.

Cut Nyak Dien's house

Cut Nyak Dien’s house

First, what immediately struck me was the absence of any kind of official monuments to the recent conflict. By contrast, it is possible to visit a number of sites that mark resistance to Dutch colonialism – which can obviously be drawn into a broader Indonesian national memory. Among these sites is this house, where Cut Nyak Dien, a 19th Century woman heroine, is said to have lived. She is remembered for having led a series of guerrilla actions against the Dutch following her husband’s death, and is also said to be a role model for many of the women who joined GAM.

Aceh tourist posterThere are also numerous memorials to the tsunami, which are now advertised as part of the province’s promotion of tourism. For instance, here is a poster displayed at the Banda Aceh Airport outlining a number of tourist sites including the Tsunami Museum – a large multimillion dollar construction that was funded by the donor community; a Ship that was washed five kilometres inland and has now been turned into a museum; and the Kapal Lampulo – a boat that was wedged on top of a house.

And indeed, I did my share of tsunami tourism while in Aceh, visiting these sites, which are striking visual features of the Banda Aceh landscape and have a powerful emotional impact. I found some to be quite moving. For instance, inside the Ship you can read stories and watch video interviews of those who survived the tsunami by climbing on top of it.

I found the Tsunami Museum to be moving too: here you can visit a cone-shaped room and read the names of those who died during the tsunami while listening to the recorded sound of the Koran being chanted. What annoyed me about this museum, however, was how it seemed geared towards celebrating the roles of the international community in reconstructing the province. The final room, for instance, highlights the efforts of international donors to eradicate malaria and build better housing for people, telling a progress narrative featuring the international community as actors and the Acehnese as passive victims.

For me, the most moving memorial to the tsunami is the mass grave set in a garden. This is a very beautiful and peaceful reminder of those who died. My driver, who lost his entire family in the tsunami, visited this site regularly but told me he had never been to the Tsunami Museum.

The absence of monuments to the recent conflict by comparison with the tsunami memorialisation is itself very interesting. At an obvious level, it reveals something about the devastating impact of the tsunami in the lives of so many Acehnese, and the extent to which the tsnuami is now tied up with the peace process. Indeed, it is said that many Acehnese see the Tsunami as an act of god that was sent by Allah to end the conflict.

The absence of formal memorials to the conflict in Banda Aceh also says something about how rural and urban-dwelling Acehnese have very different experiences. The tsunami disproportionately affected the capital, while the worst fighting during the conflict took place in rural areas. This means that memories of the past are likely to diverge markedly. Perhaps most importantly, the absence of monuments to the conflict points to the precarious relationship between the provincial and national governments. The relationship between Aceh and Jakarta is more interdependent and sensitive than that between Timor and Jakarta, and the military remains a real presence. This makes it hard to publicly promote collective remembrance of either GAM heroism or of civilian victims.

Cut Nyak Dien

Cut Nyak Dien

Nonetheless, what became evident during my interviews with political and civil society actors was that narratives of resistance, bravery, rebellion and shared suffering are very much alive, although emphasised during private conversations and interactions with friends and colleagues rather than in the public sphere. These stories seem to reference an Acehnese narrative of proud ethnic identity that is linked to the Islamic faith, and as Aspinall suggests, is ‘founded in traditions of remorseless struggle against outside invaders’.[v] For example, several women activists whom I interviewed spoke, with much shared laughter, about the dangerous and elaborate negotiations they had been engaged in with the Indonesian military to conduct humanitarian aid work during the conflict, and the various forms of trickery they had used.

Several interviewees also laughed about the ongoing debate between Aceh and Jakarta about the Acehnese flag. Indonesia has not allowed Aceh to have the GAM flag for its provincial flag because it is viewed as a celebration of the independence struggle. But on the GAM anniversary day, this flag is sometimes raised. One informant told me about how on one occasion, a group of former women combatants attached the flag to a balloon so that no one could be accused of ‘raising’ it. At other times, it is quickly raised and then lowered, suggesting there is an elaborate dance going on with Jakarta, testing how much the relationship can be pushed.

Unofficial Memory

In terms of unofficial memory projects, compared to Timor-Leste there seem to be relatively small few efforts to highlight the experiences of violence against civilians. One small NGO, Tikar Pandan, has set up a Human Rights Museum that exhibits details of a number of incidents where human rights abuses were perpetrated against civilians. The organisation received a small amount of funding from the ICTJ (mentioned earlier for its role in Timor-Leste), but it is a modest initiative and so far receives only a small number of visitors. Beyond the capital, a small number of commemorations are conducted at the sites where massacres took place, supported by local NGOs. Amongst civil society organisations, a lot of energy is now directed into establishing a provincial level truth commission.

A final point is that, in both Timor-Leste and Aceh, there are a relatively small number of unofficial memory initiatives visible in the public sphere. Those that are visible tend to be led by a small group of activists with international links and are dependent on donor support. In Timor-Leste at least, it is common to hear human rights activists speak about the difficulty of encouraging local memory initiatives due to the constraints of poverty, lack of literacy, and transport. All of this points to a range of practical barriers that circumscribe the expression and circulation of memory.

The lack of visible, unofficial memory projects does not mean, however, that memories are not being expressed in other spheres, such as within the familial realm, rather than in the public sphere, and through embodied practices and rituals rather than solid memorial markers. One of the questions I have is to what degree civil society memory projects resonate with these less formalised, embodied and emplaced forms of remembering.


While it is too early to draw even preliminary conclusions from this project, my contention is that an examination of the friction that is generated in the process of collective remembrance can reveal a lot about emerging forms of political and social identity, in this case emerging forms of Timorese-ness and Acehnese-ness. It can help us understand how communities see themselves and their position not only in the past but in the present, and how these conceptions are changing over time as new generations engage in their own forms of remembering.

It can also shed light on how widely these forms of identity and conceptions of political community resonate, and whether certain groups feel marginalised within official narratives and able to challenge or renegotiate these identities. It can reveal whether there is political space for open and pluralistic discussion about the past, and for the circulation of divergent narratives.

Attending to the politics of collective memory can reveal something about the nature of the peace that is being imagined and negotiated. The kind of peace that I am talking about is very different from the version of peace that tends to be conceived within liberal peacebuilding discourse, where peace is often seen as an absence of violent conflict, an ideal state of social harmony, or as social cohesion.

Rather, peace is understood as a much more messy, fluid and negotiated process that engages multiple actors and involves the ongoing interplay of relations of power. This conception of peace moves beyond the liberal peace-building focus on technical and institutional forms of peacebuilding towards areas of life that have traditionally been thought to be outside its scope. It brings the realms of the social and the relational, the political and the affective, into the centre of analysis.

[i] Lia’s research is funded by an Australian Research Council Discovery Early Career Research Award DE150100857.

[ii] Kent, Lia (2016) ‘After the Truth Commission: Gender and Citizenship in Timor-Leste’, 17 (1) Human Rights Review: 51-70

[iii] Rothschild, Amy (2015) ‘Democratization of Perpetration: Human Rights, Transitional Justice and Memories of Resistance in Post-Conflict Timor-Leste’, Conflict and Society, Advances in Research 1: 92-108, 99

[iv] Arthur, Catherine (2016) ‘Painting Their Past: The Geracao Foun, Street Art and Representing Notions of “East Timorese-ness”’ Soujourn: Journal of Social Issues in Southeast Asia 31 (1): 173-206, 199

[v] Aspinall, Ed (2013) ‘Aceh: Democratization and the politics of co-option’ in Aspinall, Ed, Robin Jeffery and Anthony J. Regan (eds) Diminishing Conflicts in Asia and the Pacific: Why some subside and others don’t’, Routledge, 2013,56

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