Learning from the past to create a peaceful future - Peace Boat visits Timor-Leste (2018)
Peace Boat's 97th Asian Voyage visited Dili, capital of Timor-Leste, on March 19, 2018. Timor-Leste has a long and painful history of occupation, beginning with Portuguese colonisation in the 16th century, a brief period of Japanese occupation during the Second World War, and, after only 9 days of independence, a decades-long invasion by the Indonesian military from 1975 until 1999. Following a series of onboard lectures teaching participants about the country's rich culture and political history, Peace Boat was thrilled to return to the now-sovereign Timor Leste for the first time in eighteen years - the previous visit having taken place during the interim United Nations administration.
Peace Boat joined with HAK, a Timorese human rights non-governmental organization established in 1997 to defend political prisoners, to offer participants a unique tour exploring the country's path to peace and reconciliation. HAK's president, Sisto Do Santos, began the tour by taking participants to Santa Cruz Cemetery. There, they saw the grave of youth leader Sebastião Gomes, whose 1991 murder sparked a peaceful protest that was violently raided by the Indonesian military in what came to be known as the Santa Cruz Massacre. Participants learned that video footage of this massacre was broadcast to the world, prompting a global call to end the violent occupation of Timor-Leste. For programme participant Matsumoto Tatsuo, learning about such painful history is a crucial element for peace: "Japan has tried to hide history from its textbooks, but we must study the past for a peaceful future," he said.
Peace Boat's study programme went on to visit two local sites of archive and education. Dili's Resistance Museum combines multimedia with historical artefacts translated into three languages-Portuguese, Tetun, and English-to chronicle the powerful resistance movement that helped win Timor Leste's independence, with particular attention paid to the country's guerrilla forces. Following this, the group travelled to the Chega! Exhibition. "Chega" means "enough" in Portuguese, an apt title for an archive housed in the former site of the torture and incarceration of political prisoners during Indonesian occupation. The building went on to serve as the headquarters for the post-conflict Committee of Truth and Reconciliation, a jointly-sponsored committee which interviewed over 9000 people to compile a 2500-page report detailing human rights abuses that occurred during the 1970s, 80s, and 90s.
Participants had the rare opportunity to hear the testimony of Maria Da Silva, codename "Benefica," who was arrested in 1977 for helping to transport supplies to Timorese guerrilla soldiers. Over the next seventeen months, Da Silva was interrogated, tortured, and sexually abused, but never complied with the demands of her captors. Only steps away from the rooms where she had suffered these injustices four decades prior, Da Silva tearfully told participants that she lived on as "a representative of all of those who were attacked, tortured, and killed." Showing incredible fortitude, Da Silva explained that she saw no alternative to her actions. "Life was difficult," she explained, "but the ultimate goal was independence."
Da Silva joined the programme for its conclusion at HAK headquarters, where guide and HAK president Do Santos joined with other members of the organization to outline its formation and continuing growth. "We were powerless in those days, but we were young and passionate," says Do Santos. This passion continues to fuel such work as the collection and distribution of funds for the families of former political prisoners, and educational workshops teaching Timorese people about their history. The day ended with the exchange of gifts: a inscribed photograph from Peace Boat commemorating their visit to Timor-Leste, and local coffee and traditional handwoven textiles (called tais) from the people of HAK. HAK's gifts were received by the tour's youngest participant, 15-year-old Masuda Shintaro. "This is my first big trip," said Masuda, "and I'm so extremely happy that I was so warmly welcomed by HAK and the people of Timor-Leste." Before participants returned to the ship, Do Santos had this final message: "Coming to listen to us was a huge milestone for our movement. Remember what you've heard today and share it when you return home."