By Aboeprijadi Santoso
Forget economic misery, uprisings and national awakening, take a closer look at the fate of Biliki, Petrus Kanisius, Iqbal Menezes and thousands of other East Timorese children who were brought to Java since 1975.
Historians used to look at colonialism in terms of policies and political changes, but Helene van Klinken has found a fascinating way to understand how colonialism works by studying the transfer of children that helped the colonial authority strengthen its hegemony.
As late as 2004 the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) reported at least 4,534 children may have been transferred from Timor Leste (then East Timor) — roughly half by Indonesian soldiers, about a thousand by religious institutions and the rest were deported around the 1999 referendum.
Given the context, it may be assumed that a substantial proportion of them — more than two thirds — were taken away by coercion.
Yet not all children were abducted or taken away without their parents’ consent. Some were brought to work for soldiers’ families; a few even became slaves of a sort. Others were treated well by their new families. Moreover, there is in both East Timor and Indonesia a tradition of adopting children (anak angkat).
The variety of motives, reasons and treatment compel the author to use the neutral term “transfer” to cover aspects of “sending”, “taking over”, “abducting” and “trafficking”.
Nonetheless, the transfer implied a few basic and common things: dependency and circumstances of service; and the very purpose of the Indonesian state in East Timor.
For most of the children, at the age that made them depend on adults who lived under the agony of war, being transferred meant an almost total dependency. This shaped an extremely unequal power relationship that defined their own and their parents’ position vis a vis the authorities ever since they were brought to Java until their home country enjoyed freedom in 1999.
Biliki’s fate is illustrative. A girl of six, she was taken against her will when Indonesia invaded East Timor in 1975 only to find herself later growing up in a Kopassus (the Special Forces Command) residential area in Cijantung, Jakarta. It was not until 27 years later, in 1999, that she dared to search for her parents. Having lost a normal childhood she decided to remain an Indonesian citizen and lives in Jakarta, but is deeply conscious of her identity: East Timorese.
Circumstances forced Biliki to change adopted family twice; likewise Agusta and Madelina, two sisters who lived separately with two families.
Many had difficulties in adapting to Indonesians schools because of traumatic experiences and malnutrition during the war at home. There were also those who ran away and became criminals. For some, “becoming Indonesian” even meant acquiring Indonesian names or having to change religion.
Not all suffered equally or indeed at all in their new environment. Some became well known like the TV star Toni Taulo (adopted son of Gen. (ret.) Kiki Syanakri), tennis player Sebastian da Costa (adopted by Gen. [ret.] Yunus Yosfiah), Tanah Abang gang leader Hercules (the adopted son of Gen. (ret.) Zacky Anwar Makarim) and boxer Thomas Americo (adopted by a Brawijaya Regiment soldier).
Leading officers chose highly intelligent children to send for education like Francisco Kalbuadi (adopted son of Gen. (ret.) Dading Kalbuadi), now a highly placed official in Dili and Dominggos Savio (the adopted son of Gen. [ret.] Prabowo Subianto), now one of his country’s top diplomats.
Humanitarian concerns were linked to the officers’ mission. Children were like “spoils of war” and to bring them into the soldiers’ homeland would prove their “success” in dominating the East Timorese. Later, collecting children was also intended to counter the pro-independence clandestine front which was popular among Timorese students in Java and Bali.
Indeed, at exactly the same period that East Timor was most devastated and suffered most from the war, persecution, mass exodus and famine that cost hundreds thousands of lives, no less than then president Soeharto himself sponsored the transfer of 61 orphans and invited them to his home in 1977 and visited others in Dili in 1978 – all highlighted by the media.
The efforts could not have been more cynical: “[They] demonstrated Indonesian generosity to East Timorese who accepted integration [while] simultaneously serving Indonesian propaganda purposes by indicating that the East Timorese wanted integration and justifying Indonesian military involvement on behalf of those who suffered in the struggle”.
The phenomenon is not unique. The author is said to have chosen the topic as she was inspired by its parallels with the “Stolen Generation” of Australia’s Aborigine children.
Hundreds of babies were literally stolen from among the anti-Fascist resistance families during Spain’s civil war in 1930s. And, only a decade ago, Papuan children, too, were reportedly transferred to Java.
All these suggest that political supremacy and cultural superiority are often implied in the way the state, or some ruling groups, tries to prevail over others by taking the latter’s children into their private domain for life.
Van Klinken has done great service by providing an analysis of such a phenomenon, which hitherto remained unknown to the nation, on behalf of whom another nation was colonized in a process euphemistically called “integration”.
Helene van Klinken
Monash University Publishing, 2012
Making them Indonesians,
Child transfers out of East Timor