It was August 2018 when 28-year-old *Erik found himself traipsing across Asia after finishing a particularly difficult Masters degree. A lifetime away from his home in Stockholm, the young Swede could never have predicted that a spur-of-the-moment trip to East Timor would lead him to see someone beheaded.
Sitting outside a little French café on the edge of town, Erik explained to me with a careful sip of his coffee, “I went to East Timor mostly because I just saw it as a good opportunity to go there because I was in the area.”
“I had some spare time that I wanted to fill in. Plus, I was really curious to visit the youngest country in the world – which East Timor is. I also thought it would be cool to check it out because there are supposed to be great diving spots and I was doing a lot of diving at the time. I saw there were cheap flights from Jakarta – where I was at the time – and I pretty much booked the earliest flight that I could find.”
Apart from the bloody history that surrounded East Timor’s eventual independence, there was little else that Erik knew about the South East Asian country. But, the inquisitiveness of the former political science student was sufficiently peaked to want to learn more about it himself – up close and personal.
Following a brief civil war after being under Portuguese rule for centuries, East Timor’s independence was declared in 1975. This, however, was short-lived since just a month later the nation was invaded by Indonesia – amidst heavy resistance from the local population. For years, a bitter power struggle ensued, culminating in the country’s liberation. This month marks the 20th anniversary of a special referendum that usurped Indonesian rule and led to that eventual independence. Since then, there has been little news of conflict from the nation and it appeared that things had finally quietened after decades of political unrest.
Arriving into the capital of Dili late at night, Erik checked into the hostel that he had booked. After an early breakfast the next morning, he was keen to explore the bountiful treasures and wonders of nature that the island had to offer. With a rented motorbike, the day passed smoothly and uneventfully. When the sun sank, Erik made his way back to the hostel.
On Day 2, Erik found himself milling through a market place where he perused the local delights of each stall that he went past. As he moved closer towards the city, commotion and bloodcurdling screams filled the air. A throng of people – panicking and seemingly desperate to flee – rushed past him.
“I saw a guy in the middle of the square completely beheaded. Another guy stood over him with a machete in his hand,” Erik grimaced. “There was blood everywhere and people were screaming. It seemed like some kind of execution because I don’t think you can just behead someone that easily. I was trying to know what was happening or what to do. I was really freaking out so I immediately started to make my back to my accommodation.”
His fingertips reached for his coffee again and he paused. “You have to realise, at that point, I didn’t know if it was an isolated event or if it was the beginning of an outbreak of some sort of violence or riots.”
Shaken to his core, Erik said that he did not feel like continuing his journey and no longer felt at ease there. The next day, he booked the earliest flight that he could get to Java and decided to continue his travels elsewhere in Indonesia. Notwithstanding his horrific story, he said that he would not say to anyone that they should not experience the country themselves and form their own opinion.
After some research, Erik concluded that the event was likely to be linked to tribal conflicts and political turbulence that had lingered from internal tensions.
In 2006, a crisis erupted after former soldiers were fired, with claims that discrimination was involved. Following this, violence, looting, and arson spread widely throughout the country. The report, Timor-Leste: Links between Peacebuilding, Conflict Prevention and Durable Solutions to Displacement, revealed that as there was no external aggressor, all the parties to the 2006 conflict were internal, including citizens experiencing communal east-west tensions and the general population with unresolved disputes or grudges, as well as the military and police. It stated that this 2006 conflict also emboldened youth gangs who began to divide Dili up into territories and used their members and influence for both criminal activities and “protection” of their communities, which have left legacies that still remain unaddressed.
With East Timor government’s rigid attempts to repress news that may be deemed to be “anti-government”, the worldwide public is left to question how many more stories like this never make it out of the country. In 2014, a law was passed by the government, which enables the prosecution of journalists who reported on matters of corruption.
“Journalists, including freelancers, took great risks and made enormous sacrifices while reporting during the darkest days of Indonesia’s occupation of East Timor,” said Phelim Kine, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch, in a statement. “The government should recognise that journalists are an indispensable front line against human rights violations, corruption, and abuses of power. Donors should urge the government not to undermine the media’s crucial role.”
*Name has been changed to keep anonymity