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Fearing the wrath of someone else's god

The Melbourne Age - February 25, 2002

Jill Jolliffe – It is 11am on a weekday and people are queueing at Dili's Chinese Buddhist temple. Most of the East Timorese in the queue are Catholics and they have come to have their horoscopes read. "They come here if they have a sick relative, or are going to make a long trip, to see if the stars are auspicious for them," a temple official explains, "but they are not members of our congrega-tion. "

Each steps forward in turn to explain their problem. The official then moves to the altar and a brown-skinned statue of the Lord Buddha. The statue was brought here from China in 1926 and has survived the many traumas that have convulsed this former Portuguese colony since Indonesia invaded in 1975.

The official takes a cylinder of sticks, which he spins and shakes until one falls out. He then reads out a number to an assistant, matching a slip of paper hanging in an anteroom with a horoscope typed neatly in Indonesian. It is given to the supplicant, whose face registers pleasure or disquiet according to the result.

The temple was repainted recently to highlight its bright colours and, hopefully, to herald new fortunes for East Timor's Chinese community as the country heads for independence in May.

On February 9, the recently elected Constituent Assembly approved the country's first democratic constitution. Article 12 guarantees respect for all religious faiths, while Article 16 asserts that no individual can be discriminated against on grounds of colour, race, sex or religion. Yet it is a sign of the continuing insecurity of the Chinese minority that the temple official would not allow his name to be disclosed.

He points out that the temple's doors have closed only once in the decades of upheaval since 1975, and that was in 1999, when militia gangs marauded through Dili as Indonesian troops withdrew and United Nations forces arrived to take control. This is not to say that the Indonesian invasion of East Timor did not have tragic consequences for the Chinese.

"They killed many of us, in public executions on Dili wharf and in the nearby coastal town of Maubara, where the entire Chinese population was executed," the official recalls. At Maubara, the wives were raped before being shot and children killed.

The use of Hakka, the language spoken by Chinese here, was forbidden. In Portuguese times the Chinese community ran its own schools – in 1973 there were 18 catering for about 2000 students. The Indonesian Government ordered them closed and they have never reopened.

In the years after 1975 the Chinese fled en masse from East Timor, and most have not returned. Before the invasion the population was estimated to be from 12,000 to 18,000; current figures are not known. "Some businessmen are returning, but to invest, not to live," the official says.

In colonial times the Portuguese encouraged a Chinese monopoly on commerce, which caused great resentment among the Timorese. When Lisbon announced a decolonisation program in 1974 the newly formed nationalist parties Fretilin and UDT asserted that the Chinese minority would enjoy equality, but their claims were never put to the test because of the Indonesian invasion.

With a Fretilin-dominated government now in power, the Chinese community's main worry is that past prejudice will return unless positive steps are taken to guarantee their rights.

East Timor's Muslims face different problems. The territory has never been strongly influenced by Islam, and in 1975 there were only about 1000 Muslims. Most lived at Campo Alor on the outskirts of Dili, where the city's only mosque is located. They generally went their own way and the strongly Catholic Timorese went theirs, despite some prejudice.

The 1975 invasion changed their fortunes completely: to be Muslim was to be privileged. Mosques sprung up all over East Timor and Catholics were persecuted. During a visit to Suai in 1994, I asked whether a mosque had been built there. "Yes," my Timorese companion replied pointedly, "but it's only for the foreigners."

It has since been burnt down, as have all the other mosques except the one at Campo Alor, which some say has been on the same site for 700 years, pre-dating Portuguese contact. Since Indonesian troops withdrew in September, 1999, memories of their abuses have become intermingled in the common mind with resentment of Islam.

The most illustrious member of the Muslim congregation is East Timor's Chief Minister, Mari Alkatiri, who comes from a Yemeni family that settled in Dili generations ago. Nevertheless, it seems it will be some time before the now tiny Islamic community will feel the benefits of his brand-new constitution.

The imam is a softly spoken Javanese called Noto Gomo who arrived here in 1991. He and mosque official Abdul Halim, who arrived in 1996 from Indonesia's Riau islands, quickly agree to an interview and summon cold soft drinks and fruit.

In the compound, children enjoy a rowdy soccer match and women in soft silks and crisp cottons, heads covered, glide by. The Islamic community has been besieged here since the militia tumults and about 300 people live in the grounds.

According to Halim, their security has improved considerably since the UN arrived, although the mosque was stoned almost nightly by Timorese youths in the early days. He says the UN does not, however, advise that they should return to their former houses just yet.

He explains that they are Sunni Muslims guided by a tolerant Sufi philosophy. "We are just common people who believe in obedience to the instructions of the Prophet," he says.

Some work in the construction industry, most are traders. They run four schools in the mosque precinct, teaching in Indonesian, Tetum, Portuguese and Arabic. The Timorese schoolgirls who wander in and out are explained by the popularity of their Indonesian classes. "They are Catholics, but they come here for the Indonesian-language schooling," Halim explains.

It is an echo of the cross-cultural situation in the Buddhist temple, a throw-back to the pragmatic acceptance of other cultures that used to characterise the Timorese but which has become sadly rare since the Indonesian occupation. Violence and trauma have bred intolerance.

There are no exact figures on East Timor's Islamic population, but mosque officials believe it is probably about 1000 again, with 600 in Dili and another 400 scattered in Baucau, Viqueque and Lospalos.

"We have children who were born here, and parents who died here," Halim says. "We want to be citizens of this country when it becomes independent, to assist its development."

Asked whether he considers the East Timorese intolerant, he replies with characteristic calm: "When we are out of our minds we do wrong. We are disturbed by emotion. We should come together and talk."