Lamenting Timor-Leste

Sep 06, 2011
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Occupation-era crimes forgiven, not forgotten.

1129 Pedrom Damaeao cannot forget the Timorese tortured and killed during Indonesia's occupation. Photo: Brendan BradyFor Pedro Damaeao, having a brother who was part of Falantil, the Timorese guerrilla group that fought Indonesia's army, meant endless harassment for his family throughout the occupation. So the day Indonesian soldiers detained and tortured his father seemed inevitable.

But thousands experienced worse. As many as 180,000 people in Timor-Leste were killed during the Indonesian occupation from 1975 to 1999.

"Maybe some people can let it go but I can't," says the 48-year-old, who lives in the coastal district capital of Manatutu. "There needs to be some form of justice."

More than a decade after Timor-Leste achieved independence from its much more powerful neighbour, accountability for the mass crimes of Indonesia remains contentious.

The limited mechanisms of legal accountability have focused on crimes committed during a particular episode of violence in 1999 when, after Timor-Leste won independence, withdrawing Indonesian soldiers and local pro-Jakarta militias killed more than 1,300 people and destroyed much of the country's infrastructure.

From 1999 to 2005, the UN-backed Serious Crimes Unit indicted some 400 people for crimes committed during this post-referendum violence.

Only 84 people have been convicted, and today, because of the liberal use of clemencies by Timor-Leste's president and prime minister, only two militia members are still in detention. The rest are living freely.

Incentives to forget past

Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao and President Jose Ramos-Horta have said the reduced sentences and clemencies were acts of forgiveness to help the country move beyond its violent past. They have argued that genuine legal redress for what their country experienced under Indonesian occupation is impossible given that their neighbour is unwilling to let members of its army stand trial and there is no sign the UN or any world power will pressure Indonesia to reconsider its stance.

In fact, since independence in 1999, Timor-Leste's leaders have focused on turning their wealthier former occupier into a political and economic ally. Indonesian support is particularly important for Timor-Leste's bid to join the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

Timorese leaders see avoiding confrontation with Indonesia over its occupation-era crimes as a necessary starting point in consolidating this new relationship, says Nugroho Katjasungkana, an Indonesian national who was part of the 2005-2008 Truth and Friendship Commission between Timor-Leste and Indonesia, which was seen by observers as conciliatory rather than reproachful.

Many groups remain critical of Gusmao's and Ramos-Horta's real-politik assessment.

"Victims of past crimes, while acknowledging the importance of friendship and reconciliation with Indonesia, express dissatisfaction with the lack of justice and accountability for individuals who perpetrated serious crimes committed during the occupation," said Louis Gentile, the UN's top human rights representative in Timor-Leste.

There is concern about the social and legal precedent set by letting perpetrators of multiple murders, rapes and other grave offences go free, says the office of the NGO International Centre for Transitional Justice (ICTJ) in Dili, the capital.

Nurturing impunity

ICTJ said such forgiveness had nurtured a mentality in which individuals refused to accept responsibility for their actions.

During a violent flare-up in 2006 initiated by members of the army with a grievance over their alleged marginalization, soldiers who gunned down some policemen later said they had simply followed orders. This argument was also used by local militias to justify their killings during the occupation, noted the ICTJ.

"Going easy on militia who committed serious crimes... sends a message that you can get away with murder and worse," says Galuh Wandita, a senior associate with the organization, who focuses on justice issues in Timor-Leste and Indonesia.

Fernanda Borges, head of the opposition National Unity Party and chairwoman of Committee A, the parliamentary committee on the country's law and constitution, says addressing occupation-era and more recent politically related crimes is essential to stamping out a propensity for using violence as a means of resolving disputes.

"It's a society that has not repaired itself from its gruesome past... a society that frequently turns to violence when there are differences of opinion," she said.

Borges added that there was a constitutional duty to take legal action when people had been victimized. "The state isn't here to pick and choose people's rights; it's here to guarantee them."

The article was first published in IRIN.