Subject: Op-Ed: Reasons Behind Joint Probe In Dili [By Bruce Gale]

The Straits Times (Singapore)

December 1, 2007

Reasons behind joint probe in Dili

Bruce Gale, Senior Writer

'THERE were no crimes against humanity in East Timor' in 1999, retired Lieutenant-General Kiki Syahnakri told a hearing of the joint Indonesian-Timor Leste Commission for Truth and Friendship (CTF) late last month.

Incredulous as such a statement sounds to anyone even vaguely familiar with Timor Leste's (previously known as East Timor) troubled history, most political observers were not surprised. In fact, it was almost exactly the sort of thing they expected to hear.

The CTF is charged with determining what happened when Indonesian-backed militias went on a rampage that left about 1,400 people dead after the Timor Leste people voted to break away from Jakarta in August 1999.

Few independent observers find the CTF investigation credible. Several human rights groups have pointed to the apparent reluctance of commission members to listen to the accounts of victims, for example, as evidence that the CTF is little more than a whitewash. Critics have also noted that those who do appear before the commission are rarely subject to systematic questioning. Meanwhile, the UN has refused to allow any of its officials to testify, arguing that the CTF should not have the power to offer amnesties to human rights violators.

The joint commission, which has no power to prosecute, conducted its final hearing earlier this month and is expected to make its findings known in January.

Given the widespread suspicion that the CTF is engaged in a whitewash, the involvement of the Timor Leste government - whose citizens suffered from widespread looting, murder and rape - seems hard to fathom. The most likely explanation is that Dili has simply decided to put geopolitical considerations ahead of the need for justice.

The basic facts that commission members say they are trying to determine are hardly in doubt. Soon after the 1999 violence, Indonesia's own human rights commission produced a damning report on the matter. And in 2005 an investigation by the internationally supported Commission for Reception, Truth and Reconciliation (CAVR) produced a 2,500-page report covering the period from the Indonesian invasion in 1975 until October 1999.

The CAVR report accused the Indonesian military - and not just pro-Indonesian militias - of involvement in widespread human rights abuses, while a parallel joint UN-Timor Leste court set up to prosecute serious offences such as murder and crimes against humanity angered Jakarta by indicting powerful Indonesian officers such as General Wiranto.

The CTF was established by the two governments in December 2004 when it became clear that the CAVR was about to issue a critical report. At least one of the CTF's functions appears to have been to pre-empt the establishment of a UN tribunal that would have placed enormous pressure on Indonesia to surrender military figures to face trial.

Some observers argue that the CTF was also set up to provide a mechanism for the provision of amnesties. Ms Sophia Cason, an analyst with the International Crisis Group in Timor Leste, disagrees. 'Giving the generals amnesty would be to suggest that they were in fact guilty,' she told me earlier this week, 'and this is not something that is likely to go down well in Jakarta.' Indonesian military officers have shown no sign of remorse when testifying before the commission. The official Indonesian version of events is that the violence was the result of an internal civil dispute.

One possibility is that the CTF will conclude that crimes were committed, but that it was unable to determine who was ultimately responsible. This would certainly be a convenient outcome for both Dili and Jakarta. The findings - accepted by both sides - would allow the two governments to walk away from the issue.

But did Timor Leste really have to agree to yet another investigation? Maybe not. One alternative would have been for Dili to do nothing, allowing the UN-sanctioned CAVR report to slowly make its way through international channels. Meanwhile, Dili could have made it clear to Jakarta that Timor Leste had no intention of pursuing the matter on its own initiative.

But the fact that Timor Leste subsequently decided to get Indonesia off the hook by agreeing to a joint intergovernmental commission suggests that the political leadership in Dili suffers from a deep sense of insecurity about its powerful neighbour.

Australia may be at least partly responsible for this. After leading a multinational force to restore order in the fledging state in September 1999, Canberra promptly lost much of its standing within the local political elite by playing hardball over the ownership of billions of dollars worth of oil and natural-gas resources in the Timor Gap.

If Australia could not be relied upon, could the United States? When he was foreign minister, President Jose Ramos-Horta used his position to express strong support for the US action in Afghanistan. He even wrote an article in the New York Times in February 2003 in which he compared the successful liberation of Timor Leste to the anticipated US invasion of Iraq. Attending the Non-Aligned Summit about the same time, he denounced opposition to the looming war in Iraq as 'illogical anti-Americanism'.

But with the failure of such diplomacy to gain the attention of the Americans, Dili politicians have been shifting focus, intent upon finding ways to placate their large Indonesian neighbour. The CTF is only one example. Former prime minister Mari Alkatiri visited Jakarta in October 2004 to attend the inauguration of Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.

Now in opposition, the former Fretilin leader, who once used his diplomatic skills to drum up international opposition to Jakarta's occupation of his country, continues to cultivate ties with Indonesia. In September this year, Mr Alkatiri travelled to Jakarta at the invitation of Muhammadiyah, the second-largest Muslim organisation in the country. While there, he also reportedly sought to develop links with the Islamist Partai Keadilan Sejahtera (Prosperous Justice Party).

Timor Leste leaders have also sought to placate Indonesia by repeatedly stating that they have no intention of supporting separatist movements in places such as Aceh or Papua.

As an exercise in diplomacy and geopolitics, the CTF will probably achieve its aims. But it may also have a number of unpleasant side effects. Perhaps the most important of these is that it will likely result in yet another missed opportunity for Jakarta to discipline its military.

Indonesian personnel indicted for crimes against humanity by the CAVR have not been punished. Instead, they have been promoted and, in some cases, posted to other troubled provinces.

Meanwhile, the impression of Indonesia as a protector of human rights abusers is also likely to grow stronger in the eyes of the international community.

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