Research to examine East Timorese history

Vannessa Hearman ARC
Dr Vannessa Hearman will explore East Timorese migration to Australia and its ongoing impact today after receiving an ARC grant

A Charles Darwin University researcher will explore East Timorese migration to Australia and its ongoing impact today after receiving a $178,000 Australian Research Council grant.

Senior lecturer in Indonesian Studies Dr Vannessa Hearman received the Special Research Initiative for Australian Society, History and Culture grant for her research “Remembering East Timorese migration: History, memory and identity”.

Dr Hearman was the only recipient of this grant in the Northern Territory, in a competitive field Australia-wide, where only seven per cent of applications received funding.

During the next three years Dr Hearman will examine the history of East Timorese migration to Australia and how it is remembered within the diaspora and in Australian society today.

“First arriving in 1975, displaced by the brief civil war in the then-Portuguese Timor and then by the Indonesian annexation of the territory, East Timorese were attracted by Australia’s geographic closeness to their country and the presence of other East Timorese in the major cities,” Dr Hearman said.

She said that despite thousands of East Timorese living in Australia, including second and third generation migrants, and the continuing importance of East Timor to Australia, there had been no recent historical study on this group of people.

“This community, estimated at 20,000 people, had historically struggled with trauma, low levels of education and poor job prospects in the 1980s and 1990s,” she said. “As a diaspora that fled political persecution, most were drawn into activities to demand self-determination for East Timor, working together with Australian activists to challenge the Australian Government’s recognition of the Indonesian annexation.”

Dr Hearman said that with the focus on the struggle for independence, there had been less room in East Timorese diasporic narratives for discussing experiences of settlement in Australia.

“I hope to gather a wide array of materials and conduct interviews to generate new insights into how several generations negotiate questions of history, memory and identity after the independence of East Timor,” she said.

Dr Hearman said providing greater insights into the changing attitudes and needs of this long-term diasporic community, could improve service delivery to the community in Australia and bilateral relations with East Timor.

Born in Indonesia, Dr Hearman moved to Melbourne with her family in 1984 when she was 11 years old. She became active in human rights issues after attending a demonstration in response to the 1991 Santa Cruz massacre in Dili in which more than 250 East Timorese people were killed.

Her book, titled “Unmarked Graves: Death and Survival in the Anti-Communist Violence in East Java, Indonesia”, won the Asian Studies Association of Australia Early Career book prize in 2020. She is currently preparing a book manuscript on the only group of East Timorese asylum seekers to reach Australia by boat during the Indonesian occupation.

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