“I want to find my parents before I die,” said Biliki, an East Timorese woman transferred to Indonesia during the invasion of her country in 1975. “It would be dreadful if I died and I hadn’t been able to meet my mother and my family.”
Biliki’s story, and many like hers, are documented and analyzed in Helene Van Klinken’s new book, “Making Them Indonesians.” In an astounding work of investigative journalism, Van Klinken compiles the “first detailed record of the history of the transfer of [East Timor] children to Indonesia,” analyzing the many complicated reasons that led about 4,000 young East Timorese children to be sent to Indonesia from 1975 to 1999.
“The child transfers give us a deeper glimpse into the Indonesia-East Timor relationship,” Van Klinken writes in her introduction. “It has many of the marks of a colonial relationship and, like all such relationships, was full of ambiguity and contradiction.”
She puts her own spin on the history of Indonesia’s 24-year attempt to rule East Timor, but it’s one that has yet to appear in accepted books about the past.
These stories are told through the eyes of the adults who were children in East Timor, their families torn apart and them often used as political pawns.
“Young children were the target of these transfer projects because they are impressionable and easily manipulated to serve political, racial, ideological and religious aims of the power-holders,” Van Klinken writes. A careful guide, the author leads her readers down a twisting path of cause and effect, intention and reality, and truths and lies, in order to reconcile the stories of the East Timorese parents and their children with those of the Indonesian military and government.
Eventually, the threads of these histories weave together and a bigger picture begins to appear. Though the children were often treated well — and many are grateful for their education in Indonesia — the transfers led to emotional distress, a permanent separation of families, and a loss of cultural identity for many East Timorese children.
“Making Them Indonesians” is an onslaught of facts and analysis, often making the implications hard to absorb. However, the author periodically breaks up the information with stories of transferred children, keeping the book an engaging read if not a happy one.
Because of the lack of official records (due to the unofficial nature of some of the transfers), Van Klinken depends on witnesses to understand the different facets of the situation.
The book breaks down the transfers into three different categories: those for “adoption,” those linked to the state, and those through religious institutions. One of Van Klinken’s main points is that the way children were treated was often a metaphor for how Indonesia viewed East Timor as a whole. The patronizing attitude of President Suharto toward children brought to Indonesia to be “civilized” shows Indonesia’s attitude toward East Timor. The manipulation of children studying in Indonesia after the New Order fell, with some adults separating children from their families to keep them in Indonesia, shows the adults’ support for continuing the integration.
Many of the author’s conclusions are tragic. Throughout the occupation, miscommunication abounded, especially between the Indonesian military and the East Timorese. Many “orphans,” she says, were not orphans, but merely separated from their family. And some of the children whose parents were dead would have been taken in by other family members or the Indonesian military. She explains how military abuses, contrary to Indonesian law, led to situations where the East Timorese parents had no outlet to demand their children back. And, ironically, one of the reasons she gives for the secret transfers is that many Indonesians find it unacceptable to separate a child from his parents.
“Transfers remind us that children are a valuable resource, even though their perspective is often overlooked,” Van Klinken writes. “[They are] just one example of a … practice in which a hegemonic power uses children in its goals of dominating the subordinate group to which the children belong.”
Van Klinken does not overlook these children’s plight, and neither can anyone reading her book. Her analysis, though painful to read, not only brings light to a hidden aspect of Indonesia’s history, but also further uncovers its complicated relationship to East Timor.
It is hopefully a step toward some kind of reconciliation — not by forgetting the past, as the East Timor children were often expected to do, but by remembering the truth and proceeding from there.