Global Policy Forum

Timor's Full Horror Revealed


By Sian Powell

January 21, 2006

Torture, starvation, sexual slavery, beatings, whippings and executions - the people of East Timor spent 24 years living in a hell largely of Indonesian making, while the apologists of the West turned a blind eye to their suffering. Australia, in particular, somehow managed to ignore the distress on its doorstep and for years was one of the staunchest supporters of Indonesia's annexation.

Claims of Indonesian military brutality in East Timor were passed over or, when the evidence was irrefutable, pinned on minor players, rather than the culture of the Indonesian military institution. When dozens, perhaps hundreds, of young demonstrators were mown down by Indonesian soldiers in the 1991 Santa Cruz massacre, and the carnage was captured on film, Australia blamed "rogue elements" of the Indonesian military. When a wave of violence gripped East Timor before the 1999 independence ballot, and international journalists repeatedly presented evidence of Indonesian military complicity, Australia again blamed "rogue elements".

Yet the violence and brutality which was central to Indonesia's occupation of East Timor was never the work of rogue elements. It was policy - reaching all the way to the highest echelons of the military and the government. The chief of the Indonesian armed forces in 1999, General Wiranto, even told UN officials he could rapidly stop the violence of the militia gangs if the resistance guerillas disarmed. Although Indonesia is now a functioning democracy, and no longer routinely terrorises its own population, those behind the massacres and tortures in East Timor have never been brought to book, and the mass misery of the occupation remains a blot on Australian-Indonesian relations.

Now the 2500-page report by the independent Commission for Reception, Truth and Reconciliation, obtained this week ahead of its presentation by the East Timor Government to the UN, is a standing reminder of what happened on the tiny half-island to Australia's north, and who was responsible. Based on interviews with nearly 8000 East Timorese people, and on military papers, intelligence sources from outside the territory and painstaking statistical analysis, it is a charge sheet that cannot be ignored.

The rogue elements don't feature in the report - rather it adduces a mass of evidence to prove the decision to crush East Timor was military and government policy. Various East Timorese groups, including the resistance, were also responsible for human rights violations - about 30 per cent of the illegal killings - but the UN-sponsored commission concludes the Indonesian armed forces and their proxies were by far the most culpable players.

Australia has wooed Indonesia for decades, for obvious reasons. A nation of 230 million people, in an archipelago sprawled across the northern reaches, is an important nation to keep onside. Yet there comes a time when realpolitic becomes a wanton dismissal of the moral reality. Begun by one of the Left's titans, Gough Whitlam, the appeasement of Indonesia and the tacit approval of its annexation of East Timor continued until 1999. Finally, Australian public opinion, repulsed by the blood and horror which flooded East Timor after the independence ballot, pushed the government into sending a military force to quell the violence. But that violence had been a part of life in East Timor for 24 years.

The commission found that as many as 183,000 people died of hunger or illness as a direct result of the occupation, while countless thousands of others were tortured, raped and brutalised. Indonesia's forcible displacement of villagers, the deliberate poisoning of crops and water sources and its refusal to allow international aid agencies to provide relief in the early stages of the occupation led to famines. Indonesia used starvation as a weapon of war, the commission concluded, and it found the Indonesian government and the military guilty of war crimes and crimes against humanity.

"Members of the Indonesian security forces and their auxiliaries committed, encouraged and condoned widespread and systematic torture and ill treatment of victims during the period of the Indonesian occupation," the commission found, presenting a clear and corroborated picture of the horror.

There are still those whose automatic reaction is to dismiss these allegations as moans from bleeding hearts, as they have dismissed claims about East Timorese misery for so many years. Yet the commission's report is so large, so well documented, so careful in its statistical analysis, that the rebuttals might be muted. The commission "holds the leadership of the Indonesian security forces at the highest level responsible and accountable for their role in planning and executing a strategy of which violations of human rights were an integral part". It recommends reparations from Indonesia, members of the UN Security Council and those nations which provided military assistance to Indonesia during the occupation, which includes Australia.

It recommends the UN-backed Serious Crimes Unit and Special Panels have their mandate renewed and continue to investigate and try cases dating from 1975-99. It also recommends an international tribunal investigate the violence in East Timor should other measures "be deemed to have failed to deliver a sufficient measure of justice and Indonesia persists in the obstruction of justice".

There is little hope of any of these recommendations being followed, but Australia should not dismiss them out of hand as, no doubt, East Timorese leaders will. President Xanana Gusmao, despite his former life as a resistance hero, is one of Indonesia's biggest supporters - favouring pragmatism over high-minded positions. He has made it clear that the quest for justice should not blight relations with Indonesia, regardless of the undeniable fact that Indonesia has failed to punish those responsible for the savagery and, in many cases, actually promoted them. The commission concludes the top echelons of the armed forces were responsible for the decades of violence. "The violations were committed in execution of a systematic plan approved, conducted and controlled by Indonesian military commanders up to the highest level."

It will not be easy to summarily dismiss the findings of the commission, which is why Gusmao has been so careful to maintain a diplomatic front. Scheduled to present the report to UN secretary-general Kofi Annan in New York last night, a legal requirement, he has kept it quiet since it was given to him last October. It is graphic and difficult reading, containing allegations of the mutilation of sexual organs, the burning of nipples and genitalia with cigarettes, the rape of pregnant women, and the rape and torture of women in front of their children. The commission found lists of East Timorese women who could be routinely forced to go to a military post or headquarters so that soldiers could rape them. Rape was a weapon of war for the Indonesian military, along with terror and starvation.

"In attempting to overcome resistance to the occupation, ABRI/TNI (the Indonesian military) made strategic use of terror to force the population into submission," the commission found. "It did so by directing and allowing personnel to be involved in horrific acts committed against any person suspected of being affiliated with the resistance." This included such barbarities as leaving prisoners naked and alone in totally dark cells, with insufficient food and water, following repeated and prolonged torture.

The armed forces and their proxies have been accused of killings by beating and torture, of burning and burying people alive, of displaying human ears and genitals to the families of the disappeared, and of ordering victims to dig their own graves before execution. Terror was deliberately used to cow the East Timorese, the commission found - with the public display of body parts and decapitated heads, and public beheadings and acts of torture.

Ordinary East Timorese people deserve a measure of justice. While many of their compatriots have been prosecuted and jailed, Indonesians have almost entirely escaped retribution. As the occupying force whose agents committed most of the gross human rights violations, Indonesia must take most of the blame. "Indonesia has the moral and legal responsibility to repair the damage caused by its policies," the commission said.

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