Resistance, Solidarity and Memory: How wounded bodies affected the East Timorese struggle for independence

On November 12, 1991, the Indonesian troops fired upon a peaceful memorial procession to the Santa Cruz cemetery in Dili, the capital of Timor-Leste. On that occasion, more than 271 East Timorese were killed, and an equal number disappeared and are believed dead. The Santa Cruz Massacre is considered the turning point in Timor-Leste’s history as the massacre was recorded in video and broadcast throughout the world. According to Max Stahl, the photojournalist responsible for the footage, the victims were still alive and could still move, making their way toward him. As he mentioned: ‘They were showing me their wounds…they wanted the world to see… more important than the fact of their death was that their deaths be meaningful’ (Stahl, 2017).  

As these images were smuggled out of Timor-Leste and broadcasted in the international media, they drew attention to the human rights violations in the country and gave birth to international solidarity movements for Timor-Leste. Given the role of these images in the East Timorese struggle for independence, in this thesis, I ask: How were the wounded bodies mobilised in Timor-Leste by resistance and solidarity movements during the 1990s and in memorialisation practices nowadays? 

I argue that, in the 1990s, such images were mobilised to create an imagery of human rights violations in Timor-Leste to call international attention to the independence struggle. These images created a scopic regime regarding East Timorese politics that determined the status of the bodies shown in the images and the kind of attention they merited. Nowadays, these images are also being used to challenge the official narrative of the past constructed by the government. Thus, in this thesis, I analyse the mobilisation of the images of wounded bodies in the resistance movement through the poems of Xanana Gusmão, in the photographs used by international solidarity movements, particularly Elaine Brière and Steve Cox’s photographs and in the ongoing memorialisation practices in Timor-Leste. 

As the discussions demonstrate, the mobilisation of images of wounded bodies was crucial to the case of Timor-Leste. Focusing on the visual politics and the impact of the horror of the wounded bodies helps elucidate how and why events such as the Santa Cruz Massacre are considered the turning point in Timor-Leste’s struggle for independence during the 1990s. It offers the basis for understanding how a scopic regime of wounded bodies affected the struggle for independence, mainly through poems and photographs’ visual imagery created by resistance and international solidarity movements. 

The discussion of the wounded bodies and their politics of representation also offered a theoretical basis to understand how the politics of memory are developing in the country as the visual representation of bodies is being mobilised to challenge the official narrative of the past. Moreover, the discussion on the visual politics in Timor-Leste’s struggle for independence also reveals an opportunity to think about what I call the ‘bodies-in-suffering’. This discussion calls attention to other ways in which bodies can be affected by the war that goes beyond the debate over the representation of the physical wounds of war. 

My PhD thesis was supervised by Prof Jenny Edkins and Dr Andreja Zevnik and it is fully funded by the School of Social Sciences – The University of Manchester