Bishop Carlos Belo


Timor-Leste (East Timor) is colonised by the Portuguese in the 16th Century. When the Portuguese leave in 1975 it appears the colony might finally gain independence. But Indonesia invades at the end of the same year. The East Timorese begin a 24-year struggle to liberate their homeland. More background.

Mini biography

Born on 3 February 1948 in the village of Wailakama, near Vemasse, on the north coast of Timor-Leste (East Timor). He is the youngest of his parent's five children. His father dies when he is two years old. Belo is educated in Catholic schools at Baucau and Ossu. He receives his higher education at East Timor's only tertiary-level teaching institution, the Catholic Seminary of Our Lady of Fatima at Dare.

1973 - He leaves East Timor to study theology in Portugal and Rome. While in Portugal he becomes a member of the Salesian Order. The Salesians are primarily devoted to the education and welfare of underprivileged youth.

1974 - The announcement by a new government in Portugal that it intends to withdraw from its colonies divides the East Timorese population and leads to the formation of three new political groups - the leftist Revolutionary Front for an Independent East Timor (Fretilin), the Timorese Democratic Union (UDT), and the Popular Democratic Association of Timor (Apodeti).

Fretilin calls for full independence. The UDT initially favours a continued association with Portugal, but then shifts its position and joins Fretilin in an independence campaign.

Apodeti favours integration with Indonesia and receives backing from the Indonesian Government, which also wants to see the province integrated.

1975 - The rise of Fretilin causes concern in Indonesia, which fears that East Timor may turn communist.

The UDT is also concerned by the rise of Fretilin. An attempt by the UDT to seize power leads to a civil war between Fretilin and an anticommunist coalition of UDT and Apodeti. Fretilin quickly gets the upper hand, occupying most of the province by September, despite the military support given to UDT and Apodeti by Indonesia.

On 28 November Fretilin proclaims the Democratic Republic of East Timor. The UDT and Apodeti call on Jakarta to intervene.

Indonesia invades on 7 December, landing forces at the capital Dili and at Baukau, 100 kilometres to the east, and installing a puppet government composed of members of UDT and Apodeti.

The invasion takes place with the blessing of United States President Gerald Ford and US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, who meet with Indonesian President Suharto in Jakarta on 6 December, the day before the Indonesian troops are mobilised.

It is later estimated that 18,600 East Timorese civilians are murdered or disappeared during the Indonesian occupation and between 84,200 and 183,000 more die as a direct result of Indonesia's policies. According to a report by the Commission for Reception, Truth and Reconciliation in East Timor, Indonesian police or soldiers are to blame for 70% of the 18,600 murders and disappearances.

Between 30,000 and 35,000 Indonesian troops remain permanently stationed on East Timor during what becomes a 24-year occupation.

1976 - On 31 May the East Timor puppet government votes for integration with Indonesia. East Timor becomes the Indonesian province of Timor Timur on 17 July.

Most of the world, including Portugal, never recognises the annexation. The United Nations (UN) condemns Indonesia's action and continues to recognise Portuguese sovereignty over East Timor.

1980 - Belo is ordained as a priest on 26 July.

1981 - He returns to East Timor to work as director of the Fatumaca Technical School. The school is managed by the Salesians.

1983 - Belo is appointed as Apostolic Administrator of the Dili Diocese, the larger of East Timor's two Catholic dioceses. The appointment makes him the effective leader of the Catholic Church in East Timor and one of the principal representatives for the East Timorese people.

1988 - Belo is ordained as a Bishop on 19 June.

In December Bishop Belo issues a statement condemning the human rights abuses being committed by Indonesia in East Timor. The statement is read out in churches throughout the country. It says criminal interrogations "accompanied by blows, kicking and beatings" were "the norm in Timor".

"We disagree with this barbaric system and condemn the lying propaganda according to which abuses of human rights do not exist in East Timor," the statement says.

1989 - In February Bishop Belo writes to UN Secretary-general Javier Perez de Cuellar calling on the UN to "initiate a genuine and democratic process of decolonisation in East Timor to be realised through a referendum".

"I am writing to your Excellency to bring to your attention that the process of decolonisation in Portuguese Timor has not been resolved by the United Nations and should not be allowed to be forgotten," Bishop Belo's letter states.

"We, the people of Timor, believe we should be consulted about the future of our land. As the person responsible for the Catholic Church and as a citizen of Timor I hereby request your Excellency to initiate a genuine and democratic process of decolonisation in East Timor to be realised through a referendum. The People of Timor ought to be heard through a plebiscite on their future. Until now they have not been consulted. Others have spoken in their name. It is Indonesia which says that the people of East Timor have chosen integration but the people themselves have never said this. Portugal hopes that time will resolve the problem. But in the meantime we continue to die as a people and as a nation."

1991 - On 12 November, at the Santa Cruz cemetery in Dili, Indonesian troops shoot and kill 271 unarmed Timorese attending the funeral of a young Timorese killed during an earlier demonstration. Bishop Belo provides sanctuary to over 250 people fleeing the massacre and personally escorts many home. In the aftermath, he campaigns for reforms to the military and the dismissal of two generals.

The so-called Dili Massacre receives worldwide coverage, focusing attention on human rights abuses in East Timor.

The international community responds to the incident by suspending or threatening to suspend aid to Indonesia, prompting President Suharto to appoint a national investigation commission to look into the incident.

The investigation commission finds the army guilty of "excessive force". The senior officer in East Timor and his superior in Bali are replaced, three officers are dismissed from the army, and at least eight officers and soldiers are court-martialled. Four junior officers are sentenced to jail terms of between eight and 14 months. However, the punishments are relatively light compared to the harsh sentences meted out to the Timorese accused of instigating the incident.

1992 - East Timor resistance leader Xanana Gusmao is captured in Dili by the Indonesian military on 20 November and charged with subversion. On 21 May he is sentenced to life imprisonment in Jakarta's Cipinang jail for having, according to the presiding judge, "disturbed the life of East Timorese". The sentence is later commuted to 20 years.

1993 - The international community begins to question Indonesia's rule in East Timor. The UN Human Rights Commission adopts a resolution expressing "deep concern" at human rights violations by Indonesia in East Timor. In May the administration of US President Bill Clinton places Indonesia on a human rights "watch" list. When Suharto meets Clinton in Tokyo in July concerns are raised about the East Timor human rights issue.

1994 - Bishop Belo issues an open letter calling on Indonesia to reduce its military presence in East Timor, expand the civil rights of citizens, and allow East Timor to either hold a democratic referendum on self-determination or be granted special territorial status.

1996 - In October Bishop Belo and José Ramos-Horta are awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for "their work towards a just and peaceful solution to the conflict in East Timor".

"Carlos Belo, bishop of East Timor, has been the foremost representative of the people of East Timor," the Norwegian Nobel Committee says. "At the risk of his own life, he has tried to protect his people from infringements by those in power. In his efforts to create a just settlement based on his people's right to self-determination, he has been a constant spokesman for nonviolence and dialogue with the Indonesian authorities."

The Indonesian Government is "astounded and surprised at the reason given for the award".

1998 - Suharto is forced to step down as president of Indonesia in May. He is replaced by his deputy, Jusuf Habibie. In June Habibie proposes a fresh autonomy deal for East Timor and in August agrees to negotiate with Portugal and the UN on the future of the territory.

Independence for East Timor now seems near, although concern rapidly develops over the growth of antiseparatist Timorese militias. The militias, who are backed by elements from the Indonesian military, begin to warn of violent consequences if independence is granted to East Timor.

1999 - On 27 January Habibie announces that the East Timorese will be allowed to vote on self-determination. Shortly after, two Indonesian special forces units, codenamed Tribuana and Venus, arrive in East Timor to provide undercover assistance to the militias.

A UN-supervised referendum to establish if the East Timorese want autonomy within the Indonesian Republic or full independence is held on 30 August. Close to 100% of the 444,666 registered voters participate. When it is announced on 4 September that 78.5% of the voters have chosen in favour of independence, chaos breaks out as the antiseparatist militias go on a murderous rampage.

During the weeks of violence that follow more than 1,000 die, infrastructure is destroyed and about 500,000 of the East Timor's entire population of 800,000 are forced to flee their homes, either to the country's interior or to neighbouring West Timor.

Indonesian police and soldiers participate directly in some of the atrocities and the forced transport of 250,000 refugees to West Timor. A secret Indonesian Government report later finds that officers in the Indonesian military directed the militia violence and that top generals, including the then armed forces commander and defence minister, General Wiranto, were aware of the situation but did little to prevent it.

An official investigation by the joint Indonesian and East Timor Commission on Truth and Friendship finds that "Indonesian soldiers, police and civilian officials were involved in an 'organised campaign of violence'" and the "Indonesian state bears 'institutional responsibility' for atrocities including murder, rape, torture, illegal detention, and forced mass deportations".

On 6 September Bishop Belo comes under attack. Twenty-five are killed and 10 injured at the Dili Diocese office. Bishop Belo's Dili residence is burnt by militia gangs. When shots are fired directly at him, Bishop Belo is escorted from the scene by the Indonesian military and flown to Baucau in the east of the island. On 7 September he is smuggled onto a Royal Australian Air Force flight to Darwin, where he remains until peace is restored.

On 12 September Habibie agrees to the deployment of international forces to restore order in East Timor. The situation is finally brought under control after 20 September when an international peacekeeping force lands in Dili. The militias retreat to West Timor, where they terrorise the East Timorese transported to the refugee camps there.

On 19 October the Indonesian Government ratifies the referendum result and revokes East Timor's incorporation into Indonesia. The UN officially assumes control of the territory on 25 October.

2001 - East Timor's first general elections are held on 30 August, the second anniversary of the territory's vote for independence. Fretilin wins the elections, but without the massive majority expected.

The party takes 55 seats in the 88-seat Assembly, five seats short of the two-thirds majority it needs to form government in its own right. It becomes instead the dominant force in a coalition.

2002 - East Timor is officially declared an independent nation at midnight on 19 May during a ceremony watched by about 100,000 East Timorese. UN Secretary-general Kofi Annan hands government to President-elect Xanana Gusmao. The UN flag is lowered and the East Timor flag raised. Hours later, Gusmao swears in the new East Timor Government. East Timor joins the UN on 27 September.

In August Bishop Belo travels to Portugal for undisclosed medical treatment. When he returns to East Timor at the end of November he announces that he is resigning as bishop for health reasons. Bishop Belo, who suffers from high blood pressure and is vulnerable to a stroke, says he needs rest and medical treatment for one to two years.

"I am suffering from both physical and mental fatigue that will require a long period of recuperation," he says.

Bishop Belo plans to return to Portugal and continue his treatment in March or April of 2003. "When I return I will continue to work ... in Timor Lorosae (East Timor)," he says. "I will not leave East Timor. I will remain here together with you."

His resignation takes effect on 26 November.

On 4 December 2002 serious rioting breaks out in Dili, triggered by the arrest of a student and fuelled by growing resentment against the Fretilin government, which many accuse of arrogance, nepotism and incompetence.

Belo intervenes when a group of the rioters head to the outskirts of the town to burn down the residence of foreign minister and fellow Nobel laureate José Ramos-Horta, confronting them alone and turning them back.

2004 - Speaking in Portugal to a contingent of Portuguese soldiers scheduled to serve with the peacekeeping force in East Timor, Belo calls on the UN to remain in East Timor beyond its scheduled withdrawal on 20 May 2004, arguing that the militias are still active.

"The United Nations must take this situation into account and should think of changing its strategy of pulling out all their forces in the spring of 2004," he says.

The last of the UN peacekeepers are not withdrawn until 20 May 2005. A small UN staff of about 70 political, military and police advisers stay on for another year after that.

2005 - In November Belo addresses a gathering in Portugal to mark the 30th anniversary of the proclamation the Democratic Republic of East Timor.

"We have already achieved independence, but independence is not everything," Belo says. "Now we need real development. And above all we have to fight against poverty, against malaria, against tuberculosis and other diseases, against pessimism and impatience."

2007 - On 26 March Belo testifies before the Commission on Truth and Friendship, a joint panel set up by Indonesian and East Timor to review the events surrounding the 1999 referendum.

"There was gunfire coming from all directions and then shouting," Belo says of the attack on his home by militias and Indonesian troops on 6 September 1999.

"I saw the glass from the windows shatter and fall to the floor. I saw fire in the guest room ... the door burning. ... I saw by the front gate plain-clothed Indonesian troops. When they saw me they just looked down."

"It's important to acknowledge that, as human beings and as citizens, we failed to maintain human rights, tolerance and solidarity," Belo says. "It doesn't mean that we want to open old wounds and stir up hatred."

2008 - The commission's report is leaked to the media in July.

According to 'The Sydney Morning Herald', the report finds that "Indonesian soldiers, police and civilian officials were involved in an 'organised campaign of violence'" and the "Indonesian state bears 'institutional responsibility' for atrocities including murder, rape, torture, illegal detention, and forced mass deportations".

2012 - The UN Mission of Support in East Timor winds up its operations on 31 December. Early in 2013 the Australian-led troops from the International Stabilisation Force begin to withdraw. East Timor is left to stand on its own for the first time since Portuguese settlement over 450 years ago.


Although the target for at least three attempts on his life by Indonesian police and intelligence agents - in 1989, 1991 and 1996 - Bishop Belo maintained his belief in nonviolent resistance of the type championed by India's Mahatma Gandhi.

He called for international support for the country's Commission for Reception, Truth and Reconciliation. "Long-term development is just as unlikely to occur in East Timor as in the other post-colonial nations of Africa and Asia without a comprehensive process which enables people to heal and overcome the past," he said.

He has called for the establishment of an international war crimes tribunal to prosecute Indonesian military officers and militia leaders involved in the atrocities that occurred in Timor-Leste (East Timor) following the 1999 independence referendum. Indonesia, Belo believes, should also be encouraged to pursue the officers in its military who engaged in crimes against humanity during the entire period of occupation.