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Themes Messages to Dissidents » 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. 

That is why my preoccupation is this. Timor is fine now, it has achieved its independence, and from now on it seeks to increase its intelligence, for its objectives to become even clearer, but during difficult times they all needed to be united to bring forward Timor’s destiny to the future.

So, my advice is this, my preoccupation is first and foremost: unity. Unity does not simply mean to achieve cooperation, working together, but to have one objective, to achieve unity in relation to a single determination to defend the dignity of the people, to uphold the value of the people itself. Only in this way would it be possible to achieve a national goal. If the people are divided among themselves, if they say with their lips that they are united and they come together to fight, but among themselves or interiorly, their objectives remain unclear divided, then they will not able to achieve their goal.

Therefore, according to my experience and observation, it is possible. Not just a mere unity to wage war against a foreign power, but also unity with regards to the determination; what do we really want for our country? We will then fight for this objective!

If the objectives vary, then, during difficult times, the people will give hands to each other and fight but each one maintains only their own desires and interests, then they will get along with each other, but they will not be united enough to overcome and achieve the objectives which their people need in order to defend their lives and their dignity within true democracy. 

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 on this theme from Alberto Ricardo Da Silva

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.”