Global Policy Forum

The Search For Truth Divides East Timor


By Jeff Kingston *

International Herald Tribune
December 21, 2005

Amnesty or prosecution?

The legacies of Indonesia's brutal occupation of East Timor from 1975 to 1999 - when there were at least 102,800 conflict-related deaths - remain divisive in this small, impoverished nation of 800,000 people. When a referendum on independence was held in 1999 under UN auspices, the world belatedly paid attention. Despite widespread intimidation and violence, almost all East Timorese voted and overwhelmingly chose independence. As promised, Indonesian-sponsored militias unleashed a reign of beatings, rape and murder while forcibly relocating 250,000 Timorese to Indonesian-controlled West Timor.

A recently published report by East Timor's Commission of Reception, Truth and Reconciliation concludes that there is extensive evidence that knowledge of this scorched-earth campaign extended to the highest echelons of the Indonesian military. Bringing these officers and their goons to justice has been a frustrating process, largely because there has been insufficient political will in Indonesia. An ad hoc tribunal established by Jakarta did conduct trials, but all but one of its convictions have been overturned on appeal and the remaining defendant remains free while his appeal is pending.

East Timor's foreign minister, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate José Ramos Horta, told me last week that the United Nations missed a chance to secure justice when it failed to establish an international tribunal in 1999, when there were 7,000 peacekeeping troops on the ground who could have arrested the perpetrators and when international indignation was high.

On Tuesday the truth and reconciliation commission dissolved amid controversy and recriminations - not what was hoped for when this investigation into East Timor's nightmare was conceived in 2000. This attempt at promoting a healing process by broadcasting public hearings on radio and publishing a record of the testimony has backfired, largely because the president has not yet made the commission's report public. This delay is generating widespread dismay within East Timor and the international community.

In an interview last week, President Xanana Gusmao explained, "I accept the report from A to Z and will not change anything. I believe that the public has the right to be informed. We must disseminate it in the proper way, we are not a human rights organization. Everything will be done in the right way in the right time. At the end of January I will present the report to the secretary general in New York and will stop in Tokyo on my return to request financial assistance for a series of workshops aimed at disseminating and socializing it in 2006."

Gusmao publicly criticized the report for its "grandiose idealism" and suggested it was written from the perspective of human rights activists in London and New York rather than in terms of prevailing circumstances. Horta, for his part, bristles at overseas criticism, "It's great for the human rights activists to be heroic in Geneva and New York where they don't have to live with the consequences of their heroism. They say we don't care about the victims? We care - the president and I have lost relatives, friends and comrades over the years. We know the cost of war, the value of peace and the necessity of reconciliation."

Closer to home, the opposition leader Mario Carrascalao termed the government quarantine of the report "a grave mistake," adding, "The government is worried about the impact on foreign relations. This is normal. But the report presents the voices of victims and their demand for justice and the government should respect this by releasing it."

The 2,500-page report assigns primary responsibility for the devastation to the Indonesian security forces. More controversially, the United States, Britain, Australia, Japan, France, China, the former Soviet Union, the Vatican and the United Nations, especially the Security Council, are charged with indifference and complicity in failing to stop Indonesian oppression and crimes against humanity over 24 years. The report suggests that reparations and judicial proceedings are in order.

Gusmao believes the way forward is based on getting at the truth of what happened, granting amnesty where appropriate and turning the page, while the church, civil society groups and many victims emphasize prosecuting those responsible for crimes. The president defends an ongoing bilateral initiative with Indonesia called the Commission for Truth and Friendship, despite criticism that it has no judicial mandate while offering amnesty, thus preserving impunity for ranking perpetrators.

Whether or not this commission can deliver the truth in 2006, there appears to be little chance that public demands for justice will fade.

About the Author: Jeff Kingston is director of Asian studies at Temple University in Tokyo.

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