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Interviews : Alberto Ricardo Da Silva

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Interviewed August 2010

Bishop Alberto Ricardo Da Silva (1943 – 2015) was the Roman Catholic bishop of Dili, the capital of East Timor. In 1991, he was a parish priest who gave sanctuary to student activists who were threatened by the Indonesian military because of their support for Timorese independence. In November of that same year, his church was surrounded by the military-organized mobs, and one of the student activists inside the church, Sebastião Gomes, was taken out and shot to death.

On November 12, 1991, Father Da Silva said a funeral mass for Gomes. The funeral procession from the church to Santa Cruz Cemetery turned into a peaceful protest demonstration, with several thousand men, women, and children waving banners and chanting pro-independence slogans. After the procession had entered the cemetery, the military opened fire, killing an estimated 250 mourners, including children in their Catholic school uniforms. A videotape of the attack was smuggled out of the country, and the Santa Cruz massacre focused the world’s attention on East Timor, substantially increasing pressure on the Indonesian government to respect the Timorese people’s right to self-determination.

In the weeks after the massacre, Father Da Silva was subjected to repeated harsh interrogations by the military authorities. He was accused of being the “mastermind” of the demonstrations, although he insisted that he was interested only in his religious ministry, not in politics, and that this ministry had included Timorese of all political persuasions as well as Catholic members of the Indonesian military. Nevertheless, he was repeatedly threatened with imprisonment or worse. In order to get him out of harm’s way, his church superiors assigned him to study in Rome. He returned to Timor after several years and Pope John Paul II named him as Bishop of Dili in 2004. As bishop, Da Silva pressed for justice for the victims of violence during East Timor’s occupation and struggle for independence. He also encouraged the Timorese people to take part in their country’s democratic development.

He resigned as bishop shortly before his death in April 2015. 

Because the Holy Father was supposed to visit Indonesia, and not to visit Timor; and at that time the situation in Timor was bad, and the territory of Timor already belonged to Indonesia. Yet the Holy Father came to visit Timor as if it is not part of Indonesia, but at the same time his attitude towards the case of Timor is not to be revealed by this act - it was very difficult! However, with the assistance from everyone: from the people and also the Government of Indonesia, we managed to pull everything off. It was difficult! We had to do a lot of difficult diplomacies, but we managed to complete all the preparations to receive him in Taci Tolu.

And the Holy Father came. Pope John Paul II came. It was a success. Why a success? Because when the Holy Father came, hundreds and hundreds of people also came to Taci Tolu. This showed that the people were not afraid to come down to Dili, even though the Indonesians closed the way. This showed clearly, and confirmed, that the people were indeed determined! They might be killed, they might die, they might face various dangers, because the Indonesian military were fully armed and prepared for war, and yet, when the Holy Father came, the people greeted him as if there were no war in their midst. They had no fear! Women, men, young and old were not afraid to show up and all turned up in Taci Tolu. The sun was scorching. This showed - and everyone could see – that this people really wanted independence. That was what gave strength to the Church, for the Church to give a hand and help the people. Not for political reasons, but to ensure that the people are respected and considered by their fellow men, for their life and their human dignity.

That was how, for the first time, well, we were very scared because it was a big ceremony, and the Holy Father was going to preside at the Mass and people had thought that he was going to say the Mass in Latin, or in the Indonesian language, and suddenly the Holy Father solemnly commenced the prayers with Tetum “Hodi Padre, Hodi…” (In the Name of the Father, and of the…). Everyone was surprised! We, the priests had already prepared a prayer book specifically for him, but we did not reveal it to anyone! And we had thought that when he came to Timor, the Holy Father did not bring that book with him. But everyone… but he had been preparing himself since Rome, so when he came to Timor, he read, and he read it so beautifully! He said the entire Mass in Tetum!

And of course, the Indonesians did not like what happened! But for the sake of diplomacy the Indonesian authorities did not create any problems, but of course they did not like what had happened, because there was something abnormal in this: the Holy Father came to visit an Indonesian territory, yet he said Mass in Tetum not in Indonesian according to the authority of the Church. But the whole event turned out very, very beautifully!

As for the people, when the Mass concluded, the people dispersed, they all ran away… but the image that was clearly painted was this, and everyone could see, from the international point of view was this, that this people was indeed determined! And this was what the Church worked for. Not to create a special moment, but to uphold the dignity of the persons, their worth as humans, and their aspirations, desires. And whenever there was a need to speak up to the authorities, when permitted to do so, the Church spoke out to the authorities, and spoke about the people’s desire for self-determination. But this was done with enormous diplomacy, because it was a very dangerous thing to do. This is to explain the role of the Church in Timor. At that time, I was already the Vicar General, which meant that I did not just look after Motael parish, but also travelled to various areas in the country. This afforded me the obligation to really know the situation of the people. 

East Timor, also known as Timor-Leste, is a country of 1.1 million people in the East Indies. It was colonized by Portugal in the 16th century and was an exporter of sandalwood and coffee. As the Portuguese economy struggled in the first part of the 20th century, the nation attempted to extract more resources from its colonies, including East Timor. This increase in Portuguese business control and demands was met with resistance by inhabitants. After Portugal announced in 1975 that the colony would soon become independent and began the process of decolonization, fighting broke out between rival Timorese factions. The Indonesian Army invaded and occupied East Timor in December of that year, and a few months later the country was formally annexed by Indonesia.

The Indonesian occupation was marked by repression and brutality. Under the dictatorship of Suharto, who ruled Indonesia from 1967 to 1998, freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly were denied throughout Indonesia, including in occupied East Timor. Timorese who were suspected of harboring separatist sympathies—particularly those suspected of association with the small but resilient guerrilla resistance movement—were routinely arrested, imprisoned and tortured. Extrajudicial killings were common. The 1991 Santa Cruz massacre, in which Indonesian troops killed an estimated 200 men, women, and children who had participated in a funeral procession for a pro-independence activist, focused world attention on the continuing denial of democracy and self-determination in East Timor. The massacre and associated events also highlighted the importance of the Catholic Church, both as a focus of Timorese identity and as the only institution that could sometimes afford a measure of protection from government-sponsored violence.

In 1998, shortly after the fall of the Indonesian dictator Suharto, the new President B.J. Habibie announced a “consultation” by which the people of East Timor would be permitted to choose either autonomy within Indonesia or outright independence. The consultation took place in the form of a U.N.-supervised referendum in August 1999 in which 79 percent of the voters chose independence. In the weeks after the announcement of the vote, the departing Indonesian army and its associated Timorese militias destroyed most of the country’s infrastructure and killed over a thousand people. That December, a United Nations peacekeeping force was established, and a U.N. mission administered the country until the restoration of independence in 2002. East Timor and Indonesia are now both multiparty parliamentary democracies.

Violence has continued since East Timor gained independence. Violent clashes in 2006 between rioters and police forces led to the resignation of then Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri. Police and rioters clashed once again leading up to the 2007 elections. The election required three separate ballots due to irregularities and accusations of fraud. Additionally, assassination attempts on both candidates and elected leaders occurred. In 2012, East Timor held both presidential and primary elections considered successful, free, and fair. At the end of that year, the UN ended its peacekeeping mission in the nation.
East Timor’s economy remains heavily dependent on commodities such as oil, coffee, and sandalwood.

Freedom House’s 2015 Freedom in the World Report lists East Timor as “partly free.” The country earned a freedom rating of 3 with 7 being the least free. East Timor also received civil liberties rating and political rights ratings of 3. The country still struggles with corruption and nepotism as well as a weak rule of law. Additionally, there is a lack of transparency surrounding the government and law regulates demonstrations that “question constitutional order” or could damage the reputation of the nation’s leaders. Freedom House’s Freedom of the Press 2014 report assigned a “Partly Free” rating to East Timor. 

More from Alberto Ricardo Da Silva

Bishop Alberto Ricardo Da Silva: The Pope Comes to Timor Recalls the reactions of the Timorese people and of the Indonesian government when Pope John Paul II said Mass in Tetum, the indigenous language of East Timor. Bishop Alberto Ricardo Da Silva: Human Dignity His efforts as a priest in occupied East Timor to minister to the spiritual needs of Timorese parishioners and Indonesian soldiers, while insisting on respect for the dignity of each human being. Bishop Alberto Ricardo Da Silva: Santa Cruz Massacre Tells how, as the parish priest who said the funeral Mass that preceded the Santa Cruz massacre, he was accused of “subversion” and harshly interrogated by the Indonesian military. More + Bishop Alberto Ricardo Da Silva: Journey of Faith “The closer I got to the people, the more I understood that they had a desire inside of them. . . . They wanted self-determination.” Bishop Alberto Ricardo Da Silva: Necessity of Unity “Unity” means “a single determination to defend the dignity of the people, to uphold the value of the people itself.”