Iconic Photos

Famous, Infamous and Iconic Photos

East Timor, 1999

with 10 comments


Indonesia that gained independence in 1950 was an artificial state, cobbled together from an assortment of sultanates and princely kingdoms by her Dutch colonial masters. The Dutch and the succeeding elite has concentrated power and privilege in the island of Java, where half of the nation’s population resides.

Over the next five decades, secessionist movements were brutally suppressed, be they Christian Ambonese in the South Moluccas or fundamentalist Muslims in Aceh. A centralizing ‘Indonesian identity’ was forged as the country replaced the Portuguese and the Dutch as the imperial power in East Timor and Irian Jaya respectively.

In the late 1990s, this Indonesia — built on political paternalism and economic prosperity — tottered as Asian Financial Crisis hit kleptocrats and crony capitalists hard. The country’s dictator, General Soeharto, stepped down and the secessionist movements gathered momentum once more. In 1999, East Timor was allowed to vote on a referendum for independence — a feat unthinkable under Soeharto, not least because the strongman’s family owned 40% of East Timor.

On August 26, four days before East Timor was to vote for independence, violence erupted between pro-independence supporters and the Aitarak, a much-feared, black-clothed militia sponsored by the Indonesian government to disrupt the vote. In East Timorese capital Dili, the Aitarak attacked independence supporters with M16 rifles, homemade grenades, and pistols. Indonesian police waited hours before responding, even though their headquarters were nearby.

Time magazine’s photographer John Stanmeyer remembers the day:

Just then Joaquim Bernardino Guterres entered my life. He was barefoot and armed with two rocks to protect himself from the militia. He ran up to a group of nearby policemen and begged them to intervene. They ignored him. He asked more passionately, and the police began to punch and kick him. Guterres broke away and ran toward me. Just as he passed, the police shot him dead — for asking them to stop the killing. The police hadn’t noticed me, but after the images appeared in Time and on CNN, I had to leave East Timor because of potential threats. I think about Guterres nearly every day. I want to make sure that no one forgets his senseless death. He is no different from the rest of us. One day we, too, might need to fight for our basic human rights. We can only hope that we aren’t killed by the ones who are supposed to protect us.

Stanmeyer won third place in the spot news stories category of the World Press Photo Contest for this photo-essay. For the East Timorese, harsher days were ahead. After the vote, where 78.5% chose independence, Indonesian army sent in militias to destroy the province’s public and residential buildings and torch its factories and plantation. About 70% of its economic infrastructure was destroyed.




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(I have been backpacking in South East Asia for last few months. The region’s violent recent history is not well-covered or well-remembered. For an excellent source on Indonesia, see also The Act of Killing. Review.)

Written by Alex Selwyn-Holmes

April 14, 2015 at 4:27 pm

Posted in Politics, Society

Tagged with ,

10 Responses

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  1. Your picture shows a theory how to eliminate targeted single man?
    My discovery about same theory (reversed) 26th June 2001 with examples of famous people
    (Abraham Lincoln & John F. Kennedy) killed.

    Date: Tue, 14 Apr 2015 16:28:44 +0000
    To: rappaigeorge@hotmail.com

    R gEORGE

    April 14, 2015 at 5:00 pm

  2. Senseless deaths. The weak beg for help and the powerful respond by swatting them dead like some buzzing fly that has annoyed them. This continues.


    April 14, 2015 at 7:38 pm

    • Awful, where will it all end.


      April 15, 2015 at 1:43 pm

  3. Oh,,What happened Forces,,,really son of Bitches,,,

    janaka viraj weerasekara

    April 15, 2015 at 7:54 am

  4. sickening… the pain his family must have gone through. He was so small and defenseless.


    April 15, 2015 at 9:37 am

  5. Legend nikon f3 with canon1.2L

    tman greenpeace

    April 16, 2015 at 6:32 am

  6. East Timor was not part of Indonesia when it was founded. It was invaded by Indonesia (with the quite open support of the United States, Australia and others) in 1974. Thus, it was not a “secessionist” movement, but a war of national liberation against a colonialist occupation. During that illegal occupation, more than 1/4 of the Timorese population were killed – with the US supplying the military equipment, economic backing and diplomatic cover necessary to commit the genocide. Meanwhile, Time magazine and the rest of the US media virtually never reported on what was going on. The genocidal occupation of East Timor, with constant and nearly unconditional support from the West, is the context necessary to understand these photographs.


    April 17, 2015 at 1:42 am

  7. […] (contd. from the previous post) […]

  8. his death wasn’t senseless the photographer won 3rd place in some awards :^)


    April 20, 2015 at 8:58 am

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