Home Memoria Helen Hill, An Extraordinary Buibere Who Struggled For A Better Timor-Leste And...

Helen Hill, An Extraordinary Buibere Who Struggled For A Better Timor-Leste And The World

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Hellen Hill. [Foto: Doc. Abel Boavida | 20/05/2024]

By Nuno Rodriguez Tchailoro

As her death approached, Helen Mary Hill became increasingly frail. Before God took her last breath, she implored her brother, Ian Hill, to play the song “O Timor, O Ha’u-nia Rai” (O Timor, You Are My Country), by Ego Lemos, one of her master’s students at Victoria University, whom she greatly admired. Helen yearned for this song to accompany her until her final moments. Who was this extraordinary Buibere who devoted her life to 50 years of unwavering support for Timor-Leste?

A Protagonist of the Student Movement

Helen Mary Hill was born in Australia on February 22, 1945. As a student at Monash University in Melbourne, she became one of the protagonists of the student movements. Monash University was a higher education institute where students experienced radicalization, eventually becoming Melbourne’s first ‘red-brick’ university. The students of Monash University debated political issues, theory, and practice in the basement of the university library, their meeting place. From these debates emerged two of the most radical student movements: the Socialist Alliance and the Monash Labour Club, which fought against capitalism and colonialism to form a classless society. Jill Jolliffe, a friend of Helen’s at Monash University, stated in her autobiography Run for Your Life that Pete Steedman, the editor of the university journal Lot’s Wife, was the main driving force behind the radicalization of the student movement at Monash University. Helen and Jill united, both becoming members of the Monash Labour Club. Helen was a stalwart Christian and was involved in the Student Christian Movement, which also radicalized due to the widening of university access and the ongoing Vietnam War.

Helen’s political consciousness arose from her engagement in the student movement, fighting against social injustice not only in Australia but also in other parts of the world, mainly assisting national liberation movements against colonizers. Helen was a preeminent internationalist who felt indignation at injustices in other countries, treated them as her own, and committed to fighting for change.

Although Portuguese Timor is Australia’s nearest neighbor, with its capital city being the closest to the continent compared to other neighboring countries, the colony never received much attention from Australians. Not only the Australian public but also activists who supported national liberation movements did not acknowledge Portuguese Timor. This was due to foreigners visiting Timor-Leste in the 1960s and early 1970s repeatedly reporting the absence of an organized national liberation movement against colonialism. Helen was one of the protagonists in the student movement, vehemently supporting the national liberation struggle from the Portuguese colonies in Africa; nevertheless, she initially had no knowledge about Portuguese Timor.

The student movement at various Australian universities was powerful. The movement against the war in Vietnam became even stronger after the conservative government of Robert Menzies from the Liberal Party, which governed for 23 years, declared its support for the United States military in the Vietnam War as part of Australian foreign policy.

The students of Melbourne, including those from Monash University, launched a strong campaign against the war and found ways to aid the National Liberation Front of South Vietnam. It is worth noting here that the National Liberation Front of South Vietnam was a communist movement that was struggling to remove the United States military from South Vietnam. Helen was one of the organizers of the Moratorium Movement, which was inspired by the US anti-war movement. Thus, Helen and her like-minded group mobilized various political forces in Australia in an attempt to unify the schism among organizations and build a mass movement against the government.

Although Helen was an active campaigner for the national liberation movement, she never came face-to-face with activists of the independence movement around the world. It was in 1970 when Helen first encountered members of the national liberation movement, particularly from Africa, as a representative of the Australian Student Christian Movement at the UN World Youth Assembly in New York. Helen met with members of the national liberation struggle from the Portuguese colonies in Africa.

On her way back to Australia from New York, Helen stopped in Beirut and visited Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon, those that had been uprooted by Israel from their own land. This visit completely changed her view of the Middle East. Helen also paid a visit to Chennai (previously known as Madras) in India.

The United Presbyterian Church of the USA offered Helen an internship in London, where she worked for the ‘Europe-Africa Project.’ Her involvement in the anti-apartheid movement in Australia provided her with additional knowledge, particularly about the Portuguese colonies.

At the Europe-Africa student conferences in Italy, Helen encountered members of FRELIMO, PAIGC, and the liberation movement of Angola who regularly visited the office. Helen wrote in her article ‘How Timor-Leste Influenced My Academic Career: A Response to the Papers by Michael Leach and Clinton Fernandes,’ “Oh, Helen, you are from Australia; you must know a lot about Portuguese Timor since you are right next door.” When delegates expressed this assumption, Helen replied, “Sorry, many people in Australia don’t know or know very little about Timor.” Helen promised that after returning to Australia, she would send them information, as she related during her interview with Knua Halibur Memória Sahe in 2019.

Helen went on to study in London, taking a course in anthropology and the history of the Southern Asian economy at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies. Her primary objective was to gain proper knowledge about countries geographically closer to Australia. In London, through the Association for Radical East Asian Studies (AREAS), Helen met Carmel Budiarjo and John Taylor, both of whom supported the struggle for independence and wrote about Timor-Leste. When the ‘Carnation Revolution’ took place on April 25, 1974, Helen was in Africa, en route back to Australia.

First Visit to Portuguese Timor

Helen graduated with a degree in sociology from Monash University. She chose not to pursue her master’s immediately after graduating with her bachelor’s degree, opting instead to be an activist fighting against global injustice. It was only in 1974 that Helen became a master’s student at Monash University, enrolled in the innovative course by Dr. Herb Feith called ‘Politics of the Third World.’ Helen’s studies in London included, but were not limited to, inequalities, the green revolution, peasant movements, and the struggle against colonialism, education, and development. Herb inquired whether she was considering writing her master’s thesis. Helen expressed her interest in Portuguese Timor. Given Herb’s expertise on Indonesia and his willingness to supervise her academic work, Helen decided to focus her thesis on the Portuguese Timor transition to independence.

Before enrolling in the subject on Timor-Portuguese, Helen consulted several references about Portuguese Timor at the Monash University library. In August 1974, Helen received a phone call from Herb informing her that a Timorese individual was in Melbourne, organized by Denis Freney of the Communist Party of Australia. Helen eagerly requested to meet the Timorese. The Timorese whom Helen met at a hotel on Lygon Street, Carlton, was José Ramos Horta.

Helen learned about the formation of political parties in the aftermath of the Carnation Revolution, particularly ASDT’s vision for East Timor to become an independent country and the decolonization process led by the Movimento das Forças Armadas (MFA). Ramos Horta insisted that Helen should visit Timor-Leste as soon as possible and assured cooperation with ASDT, the introduction of political parties, the Catholic Church, and the Portuguese administration. Around the same time, the Portuguese administration invited a delegation to visit Timor. Denis Freney, as the contact point, prepared a delegation composed of Australians and informed Jill Jolliffe, who was also a student at Monash University, to join the delegation to the island. The delegation split into two groups. The first group consisted of Senator Gordon McIntosh, Richie Gunn, Neville Bonner, and Arthur Gietzelt. The other group included syndicalist Keith Wilson, Jim Roulston, John Birch from the Australian Council for Overseas Aid, Aboriginal representative Bill Williams, and Australia Union of Students representatives Jill Jolliffe and Tim Rowse from Adelaide University. Helen was not part of the delegation team; she traveled independently to conduct research for her master’s thesis.

Due to the impact of Cyclone Tracy, Helen was unable to transit through Darwin; she had to travel to Jakarta. In Jakarta, she met Tempo magazine journalist George Junus Aditjondro, who showed her a Tempo cover dummy featuring Horta’s face with the title ‘Are You a Communist?’ from an interview conducted in Dili, ready for printing. Helen arrived in Portuguese Timor in January 1975.

In Dili, Ramos Horta introduced Helen to FRETILIN leaders Vicente Reis ‘Sahe’ and António Carvarino ‘Mau-Lear.’ Helen perceived Sahe and Mau-Lear, who had studied in Portugal, as having very radical thinking compared to those who stayed in Timor. They had lucid revolutionary ideas and visions of socialism to be constructed in Timor-Leste in the future, and both led FRETILIN’s political projects. One project that caught Helen’s attention was the literacy campaign run by FRETILIN’s youth cadres, designed based on Paulo Freire’s principles of popular education, demonstrating how his ideas were implemented in the colony with the highest illiteracy rate. Helen was familiar with Paulo Freire’s ideas, having been a student of his in Geneva. Paulo Freire was a Brazilian educator who promoted the pedagogy of the oppressed as an alternative to mainstream education.

In March 1975, Helen visited a literacy class employing the Paulo Freire method in Namuleço, which was inaccessible by car. Helen rode a horse for three hours from the main road to reach Namuleço to observe the Freire method in practice. The class was based on a literacy manual developed in Portugal before the Timorese students returned to Dili after the Carnation Revolution.

Helen profoundly admired Freire’s literacy campaign run by FRETILIN. The literacy classes were taught in Tetum, the language of the local people. Teaching literacy in the local language demonstrated that students were better prepared to learn a new language when they started with their own. According to Helen, while Freire’s educational ideas were only beginning to be recognized in English-speaking countries, FRETILIN had already implemented them in Portuguese Timor. This was partly because the Timorese could read Freire’s work in the original Portuguese; others had access only after it was translated into their languages. Helen described her exchange with Sahe and Mau-Lear: “I remember Sahe when we rode horses to observe the literacy program. We discussed, and I remember Mau-Lear. I remember Sahe stating that Timor-Leste would be a more progressive country in Asia upon gaining independence.”

After conducting research for three months in Portuguese Timor, Helen returned to Melbourne to expand her horizons, intending to return to Portuguese Timor to continue her research. She began taking an intensive Portuguese course at La Trobe University. Unfortunately, the Indonesian military invasion prevented Helen from returning to Timor-Leste for another 24 years, ending her academic ambition to write a thesis on her favored topic.

Fighting for Timor-Leste Independence

Helen left her studies and traveled to New York to assist José Ramos Horta in establishing the FRETILIN diplomatic office and delivering speeches and seminars on the Timor-Leste struggle at various universities in the US. Helen supported José Ramos Horta for three months alongside David Scott, Richard Tanter, and Sue Roff, who had campaigned for a long time at the UN Special Committee on Decolonization, according to Herb Feith’s biography, ‘From Vienna to Yogyakarta,’ written by Jemma Purdey.

David Scott stated in his book ‘Last Flight Out of Dili’ that a pro-Indonesia lobby group and their allies attempted many times to remove the Timor-Leste case from the UN agenda. The Office of the UN Secretary-General was often pressured by influential pro-Indonesia lobby groups. Helen and her colleagues supported José Ramos Horta by disseminating information about the Indonesian invasion at the UN. At that time, a UN Security Council resolution condemned the invasion and demanded that Indonesia withdraw its military from Timor-Leste.

In 1976, Helen wrote a booklet titled ‘The Timor Story,’ which was considered the first academic article on the Timor-Leste independence struggle and became the main reference for the international solidarity movement.

The Indonesian invasion forced Helen to change her master’s thesis topic from the Portuguese Timor transition to independence to FRETILIN’s revolutionary ideas, origins, ideology, and national liberation strategies. This shift was directly linked to her theoretical knowledge and practical experience with national liberation struggles that she gained from student movements and her engagement in assisting third-world national independence movements.

The revolution led by FRETILIN aimed to build a classless society, a notion shared by Helen. At this stage, Helen and FRETILIN shared the same vision and values regarding the alternative development to capitalist society they sought to build. They used similar political terms and theoretical and practical references from Marx, Mao Zedong, Amilcar Cabral, Rosa Luxemburg, Paulo Freire, and other Marxist currents. Helen completed her thesis in 1978 with the topic ‘FRETILIN: The Origins, Ideologies, and Strategies of the Nationalist Movement in East Timor.’

The Australian Government was among the first countries to formally recognize Indonesia’s illegal occupation of Timor-Leste and became its main ally in opposing Timor-Leste’s struggle for independence. Despite facing fierce pressure and dissension from colleagues, Helen never ceased to resist; she did not step back even one centimeter. She faithfully continued to campaign for Timor-Leste’s independence through seminars, writing articles, and building a network to keep the Timorese self-determination cause alive. In 1992, Helen joined Victoria University as a lecturer. After the overthrow of Suharto’s dictatorship, Helen organized the Timor-Leste Strategic Development Plan Conference at Victoria University in April 1999.

In Indonesia, Timorese and Indonesian activists quenched their thirst for knowledge and sought to revitalize theories and practices of the Timorese national liberation struggle, necessitating a better understanding of Timorese national liberation history.

During the struggle for independence, the liberation movement focused primarily on how to expel the Indonesian military from East Timor, while the idea of people’s liberation was sidelined. National unity became the main theme, and the liberation of the people slowly lost its significance.

The practice of liberating the people came to the forefront after independence; however, in-depth discussion on this subject had all but disappeared, except among a few civil society organizations.

Furthermore, the Timorese history taught in Indonesian education curricula was replaced with a narrative from the New Order regime that claimed the Timorese integration into Indonesia was the people’s will. Although there were publications on the Timor-Leste struggle, most were dominated by reports of human rights violations, and FRETILIN’s political and social programs were often described in fragments rather than as a complete picture.

Against this backdrop, the Sahe Study Club, established in late 1998 in Jakarta, began discussing the importance of revitalizing theory and practice for national liberation. Helen’s master’s thesis became a crucial reference for understanding the Timorese national liberation struggle, grounded in her academic work and her status as a living witness to the emerging people’s revolution in 1975.

Helen’s thesis was a key reference for uncovering the buried stories of the Timorese social revolution led by FRETILIN. For these reasons, members of the Sahe Study Club, Adérito de Jesus Soares, Nugroho Katjasungkana, and I translated the thesis from English to Indonesian in 1999. In 2000, the book titled ‘Gerakan Pembebasan Nasional Timor Lorosa’e’ was published with financial support from Yayasan HAK.

The printed version was distributed to civil society organizations and relevant entities in Timor-Leste and sold out in bookstores in Jakarta. The transitional government also translated the book from Indonesian to English. When Helen set foot in Dili in 2000, after 25 years, the international staff of UNTAET cited her work. The publication of the master’s thesis led to the publication of the English version in 2002.

The publication of Helen’s book in Indonesia was considered important as it expanded the knowledge of Timorese and Indonesian activists on the history of national liberation values and principles, serving as a source for new generations to adhere to and as a means to build a just world.

Post-Independence Contributions

In the post-independence era, Helen was deeply concerned about the education system in Timor-Leste, which inherited a colonial legacy from both Portuguese and Indonesian rule. In her article ‘Education for Liberation or Education for Domestication in the New Timor: Some Lessons from Other Times and Other Places,’ she criticized the Portuguese school system as a colonial construct designed to select and integrate a small group of elites, creating an image of Portuguese superiority while ensuring that most students would fail.

Helen repeatedly emphasized in discussions with Timorese civil society organizations that education in Timor-Leste must be built on the reality that it is a small island state requiring the contribution of every citizen for national development.

She critiqued the legacy of the Indonesian education system, noting that Indonesia, with its large archipelago, populous islands, abundant resources, and massive industries, necessitated mass education to produce labor for a vast job market. During the Indonesian occupation, education was oriented towards demobilizing youth nationalism, aiming to replace it with the state’s formal ideology, Pancasila. The ‘banking model’ of education rarely encouraged questioning and narrowed the scope of education to mere skill development.

As a result, the education system conditioned students to obey orders, leading to a young generation educated but unable to contribute to national development. The legacy of the Indonesian schooling system included a disproportionate number of general secondary schools compared to vocational schools, many universities offering law faculties on this small island, and the replication of the Indonesian banking model of education at all levels, from preschool to higher education. This system was oriented towards domestication rather than liberation, contrary to Paulo Freire’s principles.

Helen also raised concerns about the hidden curriculum within the Timorese education system, utilizing Ivan Illich’s concept to evaluate the Portuguese and Indonesian curricula. In another article titled ‘How Education Both Promotes and Undermines Development in Timor Leste: The Problem of the ‘Hidden Curriculum’,’ she highlighted how both systems indoctrinated students, discouraged work in rural areas, and portrayed Timorese culture as inferior. The implication was that everyone should aspire to become city-dwelling public servants, while farming was equated with backwardness. Knowledge was only valued if it originated from Lisbon or Jakarta, while traditional knowledge passed down through generations was disregarded by the educational system.

Helen advocated for the use of the mother tongue as the first language taught before students learn a new language, such as Portuguese. She believed that evidence showed students who first learned in their local language were more successful in learning new languages and absorbing new knowledge. However, Helen’s approach to improving the quality of education was overlooked by national leaders.

In her pursuit of libertarian education, Helen was instrumental in establishing the community development department at Timor-Leste National University. The concept for the community development course originated from the Sahe Institute for Liberation and the Kadalak Sulimutuk Institute.

Despite political independence, Timor-Leste’s communities faced numerous social and economic challenges. Skills and knowledge from the Indonesian occupation needed revitalization, especially for the majority engaged in subsistence agriculture. The Kadalak Sulimutuk Institute facilitated agrarian reform in Ermera, and the Sahe Institute for Liberation provided political education for community organizers. Drawing on these experiences and her extensive knowledge, Helen collaborated to develop the foundational principles for the community development department at the national university. With the support of fellow lecturers, the department was officially established.

To enhance her teaching capabilities, Helen sought funding for Timorese students to pursue a master’s degree in community development at Victoria University. She also helped create a master’s program in community development at the national university.

Helen was a pioneer of the Timor-Leste Studies Association, which biennially hosted a conference on Timor-Leste. Moreover, she organized biennial conferences in collaboration between Victoria University and UNTL to share knowledge on practical development issues in Timor-Leste.

Upon retiring from Victoria University, Helen chose to reside in Dili from 2014 onwards. She worked for the Ministry of Education in 2014 and from 2018 to 2020, focusing on the curriculum development for secondary schools. In the proposed curriculum, Helen aimed to link knowledge and capacity to production, ensuring that the education reflected the students’ realities and empowered them to effect change.

Helen was an extraordinary woman. More than a scholar, she was an activist. For Helen, producing knowledge was not an end in itself but a means for transformation, to become an agent of change rather than merely an observer. She was dedicated and determined to the cause of oppressed peoples, not only in Timor-Leste but around the world. She continued to support the independence struggles in West Papua, Western Sahara, and Palestine. Helen committed to staying in East Timor, setting aside the privileges of an emeritus professor in Australia. She had every right to pursue a better life and enjoy her retirement surrounded by loved ones, yet East Timor and its people remained central to Helen’s ideological convictions.

It was reported that shortly before his death, Paulo Freire told his family and colleagues, “I could never think of education without love, and that is why I think I am an educator, first of all because I feel love.”

Helen dedicated 50 years of her life to Timor-Leste, fighting against the Indonesian occupation and, post-independence, forgoing all privileges in Australia to live among the Timorese and contribute to building a better Timor-Leste for all its citizens. She was a vibrant woman. In her final moments, she requested to hear Timorese music, the song ‘O Timor, you are my country,’ reflecting her boundless love for Timor-Leste. Her affection for Timor-Leste surpassed that for her place of origin. She loved Timor-Leste until her last breath. While some of Helen’s missions were accomplished, much remains for us to continue in pursuit of her ideals. Her legacy is undeniable and enduring. Her ideas continue to resonate. Buibere Helen Hill, Prezente!

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