June 6, 1959

On this day, 50 years ago, the infamous Viqueque Rebellion began. I believe the acts of rebellion, as I write in my MA thesis, constituted

the unplanned, last gasp of a growing conspiracy discovered by Portuguese authorities in its early stages. Three sets of actors created the conditions for the revolt that started in Viqueque town on June 6, 1959: disgruntled Timorese civil servants; bold elites from Uatolari and Uatocarbau subdistricts; and  self-styled ‘rebels’ from Indonesia. The revolt would not have occurred without the active participation of all three groups, and as such should not be perceived—as it often is—as a spontaneous local event.

From 2002 to last year, I researched, thought about and eventually wrote about the way this event is remembered in East Timor. As this is a blog, I decided to write about this today in a rather personal way. This is not an objective recounting of my findings or my research.

The Rebellion is an event that has suffered a number of official, formal revisions over the past decades. Principally during the Indonesian occupation. As such, it also began to take on new popular meanings in East Timor. In Dili and elsewhere, people are naturally quite dismissive of an event which they perceive either to be folly (cowboiada) or an Indonesian revisionist fantasy.

During my archival work in Lisbon, I stumbled on a number of fascinating tidbits about the Indonesian exiles involved in the Rebellion and Portuguese police paranoia. But what struck me most was the disconnect between the elite conspirators from Uatolari and Uatocarbau and their subjects. Interrogated by Portuguese police, one in particular said he did not know the names of the 30 or so rebels with him, as they were led by their village chiefs.

Existing documentation, and interpretation of events, tells a rather “outside” or elite version of the bloody end of the Rebellion in the eastern Matebian valley. In fact there is no official record of deaths (estimated between 50 and 500), destruction and damage caused by the repression of the Rebellion. Not surprisingly, nothing written subsequently captures local memories and interpretations of events.

So in 2006, I returned to attempt to interview residents to paint a picture of the way the Rebellion is remembered in the knua and villages between Uatocarbau and Baguia. My research was admittedly fraught with challenges and limitations. This is not the kind of thing one does in 10 weeks. Or even 10 months. Nevertheless, from this, I found:

The “Viqueque Rebellion” broke out in a remote area of Portuguese Timor and was ably repressed by a poor, isolated Portuguese Administration with machetes, matchbooks, and the centuries-old divide et impera strategy. That the repression of the rebellion occurred during “modern” times in such an antiquated fashion is a curiosity, but not my main interest. The Rebellion’s relatively recent date and the   continued “isolation” of the involved locations provide a unique opportunity for a study of the “local” memory of extreme colonial-era violence. For those in three subdistricts in southeastern Timor, memories of the violent repression of the rebellion remain surprisingly local – that is, external actors and causes are minimized. The memory of violence sparked by external events appears to have been absorbed into a local logic, in spite of continued external attempts at revisionism for political ends.

The final product, my thesis, has been gathering dust since I defended it around this time last year. Why?

The only Timorese feedback I got – loud and clear – was that this is very sensitive material. Local conflicts, between people whose families still live side by side, are better not portrayed in print, or spoken of. Recountings of extreme violence, I was reminded, can provoke extreme reactions.

I have suffered from an acute mental paralysis, a loss of conviction, a feeling that this is in fact true that some how my work could cause problems for others. I have not been able to discern what in my research indeeds transgresses some invisible ethical line. For this reason I have been very cautious about disseminating my work.

For a number of reasons, including the feeling that I must unload a weight off of my shoulders, on June 12, the 50th anniversary of the end of the repression of the Rebellion, I hope to upload here a summary of my thesis that navigates some of the invisible ethical fault lines.

I feel that June 6th deserves more from me, but I am on the road and quite exhausted. More soon.