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 its 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 Wailakama, a village in Vemasse, Baucau, Timor-Leste (East Timor). His father, a school teacher, dies when he is two years old. Belo grows up on a farm.

1973 - He leaves East Timor to study theology in Portugal.

1974 - The announcement by a new government in Portugal that it intends to withdraw from its colonies divides the East Timorese population and results in the formation of new political groups.

The Marxist Revolutionary Front for East Timor's Independence (Fretilin), founded on 20 May, calls for full independence. The Timorese Democratic Union (UDT) initially favours a continued association with Portugal. When the UDT shifts its position the two groups join in an independence campaign.

The Popular Democratic Association of Timor (Apodeti) favours integration with Indonesia and receives backing from the Indonesian Government, which also wants to see the province integrated.

Indonesia's policy on East Timor hardens following a meeting in September between Indonesian President Suharto and Australian Prime Minister Gough Whitlam, who acknowledges that it may be best if the province joins Indonesia, if the East Timorese so wish.

1975 - The rise in the influence of Fretilin causes concern in Indonesia, which fears that East Timor may turn communist. As the Portuguese administrators leave, Fretilin troops seize the bulk of the colonial armoury.

The UDT, also concerned by the rise of Fretilin, stages an abortive coup d'état on 10 August, leading to a civil war between Fretilin and an anticommunist coalition of UDT and Apodeti. Fretilin quickly takes control, 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 Suharto in Jakarta on 6 December, the day before the Indonesian troops are mobilised.

It is estimated that 60,000 East Timorese, or 10% of the population, are killed in the first two months of the invasion. All told, up to 250,000 of East Timor's 1975 population of about 650,000 will die as a result of the occupation and the famine that follows.

1976 - By April there are an estimated 30,000 to 35,000 Indonesian troops in the East Timor. They will remain permanently stationed there to "pacify" the population.

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

Most of the world, including Portugal, never recognises the annexation and the move is condemned by the United Nations (UN), which continues to recognise Portuguese sovereignty over the territory.

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

1981 - He returns to East Timor as director of Fatumaca College.

1988 - Belo accepts a request from Indonesian President Suharto to take the job of Apostolic Administrator of the Dili Diocese, the larger of East Timor's two Catholic dioceses.

Following his appointment to the position on 21 March he becomes the effective leader of the Catholic Church in East Timor and one of the principal spokesmen for the East Timorese people.

On 19 June he is ordained as a Bishop.

1989 - Belo writes to the UN secretary-general denouncing the situation in East Timor. "We are dying as a people and as a nation," he writes.

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. The so-called 'Dili Massacre' receives worldwide coverage.

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

Belo opens his home to protesters and campaigns for reforms to the military and the dismissal of two generals.

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.

A worrying finding of the commission is that as well as the on-duty troops present at the cemetery there was "another group of unorganised security personnel, acting outside any control or command (that) also fired shots and committed beatings, causing more casualties."

1992 - 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 - In March the US begins to support critics of 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 - Belo outlines his concern for the people of East Timor in an open letter, calling on Indonesia to reduce its military presence, 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 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."

"In awarding this year's Nobel Peace Prize to Belo and Ramos-Horta, the Norwegian Nobel Committee wants to honour their sustained and self-sacrificing contributions for a small but oppressed people. The Nobel Committee hopes that this award will spur efforts to find a diplomatic solution to the conflict in East Timor based on the people's right to self-determination."

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.

The antiseparatist militias step up their campaign of violence and intimidation, killing at least 22 civilians during an attack on the house of a Catholic priest in Liquica on 6 April. At least 12 more are killed in Dili on 17 April when the Aitarak (thorn) militia gang attacks the home of independence figure Manuel Carrascalao. Belo responds to the atrocities by backing a call for a popular insurrection.

On 5 May Portugal and Indonesia agree on a formula to determine the fate of East Timor. A UN-supervised referendum will be held to establish if the East Timorese want autonomy within the Indonesian Republic or full independence. The referendum is scheduled for 30 August.

The referendum takes place in a tense atmosphere but without a major violent incident. 98.6% of the 444,666 registered voters cast a ballot. However, 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, the territory's infrastructure is destroyed and 500,000 of the 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.

On 6 September Belo comes under attack. Twenty-five are killed and 10 injured at the Dili Diocese office. Belo's Dili residence is burnt by militia gangs. When shots are fired directly at Belo, he 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 will remain 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 the International Force in East Timor (INTERFET), an UN-backed, Australian-led 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.

2000 - INTERFET is replaced by the UN Transitional Administration for East Timor (UNTAET) in February.

At the same time, a report by the UN International Commission of Inquiry for East Timor recommends the establishment of an international human rights tribunal to prosecute those responsible for serious human rights violations that took place in East Timor in 1999.

2001 - In April a secret Indonesian Government report on the violence surrounding the East Timor independence referendum is leaked to the media.

The report, prepared by the Commission of Inquiry into Human Rights Violations in East Timor, 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.

Meanwhile, 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 - As East Timor's independence day approaches, dignitaries from 92 countries, including former US President Bill Clinton, UN Secretary-general Kofi Annan, Indonesian President Sukarnoputri, Australian Prime Minister John Howard and Portuguese President Jorge Sampaio, gather in Dili to witness the birth of the world's 192nd nation.

At midnight on 19 May Annan hands government to President-elect Xanana Gusmao and declares East Timor independent. The UN flag is lowered and the East Timor flag raised. About 100,000 East Timorese watch the ceremony.

Hours later Gusmao swears in the new East Timor Government. UNTAET is dissolved, although the UN retains a presence through the UN Mission of Support in East Timor.

East Timor joins the UN on 27 September.

In August 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. 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.

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.

On 17 July Belo undergoes surgery to remove a benign tumour from his prostrate gland. The operation, carried out at the Baucau hospital, is reported to have gone smoothly.

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, at a gathering in Portugal to mark the 30th anniversary of the proclamation the Democratic Republic of East Timor, Belo says, "We have already achieved independence, but independence is not everything. 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 an 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."

Quoting directly from the 321-page report, the Herald writes, "The provision of funding and material support by military and government officials was an integral part of a well-organised and continuous cooperative relationship, in the pursuit of common political goals aimed at promoting militia activities that would intimidate or prevent civilians from supporting the pro-independence movement.

"TNI (Indonesian military) and police personnel, as well as civilian officials, were at times involved in virtually every phase of these activities that resulted in gross human rights violations including murder, rape, torture, illegal detention, and forcible transfer and deportation.

"Viewed as a whole, the gross human rights violations committed against pro-independence supporters in East Timor in 1999 constitute an organised campaign of violence.

"The TNI , Polri (police) and civilian government all bear institutional responsibility for these crimes."

At the formal release of the report on 15 July, Gusmao, Ramos-Horta and Indonesia President Suslio Bambang Yudhoyono accept the commission's findings and recommendations.

"We convey our deep regret over what happened in the past that has caused the loss of lives and property," Yudhoyono says.

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 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.

He has also 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 says.