Book Shines a Light on Indonesia’s Transfer of East Timor Children

by Karis Schneider

The Jakarta Globe
August 3, 2012
Book Shines a Light on Indonesia’s Transfer of East Timor Children

by Karis Schneider

“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

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

“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.