Subject: ABC: Reconciliation Hearing Seeks to Resolve Bitter Past

EAST TIMOR: Reconciliation hearing seeks to resolve bitter past 16/12/2003 10:39:27 | Asia Pacific Programs

Since gaining independence in 2002, the people of East Timor have struggled with the legacy of violence of Indonesia's 24-year occupation. Now they are being asked to turn their minds to what many people was an even more disturbing chapter of country's recent history.

In August 1975, East Timor descended into three weeks of bitter civil war, which may have claimed up to two thousand lives. Now, a reconciliation commission wants the country to face the demons of a past which continues to shape the present.


PANICHI: In 1975, Joao Carrascalao was one of three leaders of the Timorese Democratic Union, or UDT. While the party was in favour of independence, it also advocated maintaining links with the territory's then political master, Portugal. As a result, the UDT soon came into conflict with East Timor's separatist left-wing political organisation, later known as Fretilin.

Mr Carrascalao, who will testify at this week's hearings, says the pain of those bitter clashes is still strong - that's why this isn't the right time to delve into the past.

CARRASCALAO: There were horrendous crimes committed at the time and some people still remember, they saw their mothers being killed and it is very painful to remind them of that. And we don't know the outcome if we are going to point the finger at those perpetrators and that is why I think it is not the right moment.

PANICHI: But the Commission for Reception, Truth and Reconciliation in East Timor - known by the acronym CAVR - believes the time has come to discuss the events which took place between 1974 and 1976. The four-day hearing will hear evidence from senior East Timor political figures, including Foreign Minister Jose Ramos Horta, Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri and President Xanana Gusmao. The theory is that for a new democracy to build a culture of human rights and respect for the rule of law, it needs to face up to the most tragic moments of its history. The CAVR has examined the experiences of truth and reconciliation tribunals in Peru and South Africa, and believes can prevent witnesses using the process to score political points. Pat Walsh is a special advisor to the commission.

WALSH: We've tried to learn from that here and what we've done is spend alot of time with key people from 1975, some of whom are now in a position of leadership and people who are heads of parties which were instituted during the 1974 to 1976 period. And we've also promoted a sort of low key informal dialogue between those people, not just between the commission and them but amongst ourselves so that they can work out how to handle this and don't just surface all this difficult material at the public hearing.

PANICHI: With the birth of the East Timorese state in 2002, the CAVR was given the mandate of investigating human rights violations from 1974 to 1999. However, this week's public hearing is particularly sensitive because the divisions of the civil war remain part of East Timor's political landscape today. By the time the Portuguese pulled out in 1975, the territory had only just held its first local elections. Fretilin was elected, with the UDT coming second and the pro-Indonesian Timorese Democratic People's Union receiving only a small number of votes. The UDT later carried out a coup, and the violence that followed led to a range of human rights violations, including summary executions, rapes, illegal detention and forced labour. In today's East Timor, the government is dominated by Fretilin supporters. The CAVR's deputy chairman, Father Jovito Araujo, admits the UDT's exclusion from power will add some bitterness to this week's proceedings. Yet he remains confident reconciliation is still possible.

ARAUJO: I think not only UDT people but I think all the other party people also feel the same as the UDT but because the UDT is an historical party they feel an exclusion from the past to the present. But I think here the exclusion is not only for the UDT but for all the other parties.

PANICHI: Do you believe that a hearing which focuses on these very bitter political divisions will help bring about reconcilliation in East Timor?

ARAUJO: If they do not take care of this situation then it will raise many conflicts inside the the country. I think so.

Transcripts from programs "AM", "The World Today", "PM", the "7:30 Report" and "Lateline" are created by an independent transcription service. The ABC does not warrant the accuracy of the transcripts. ABC Online users are advised to listen to the audio provided on this page to verify the accuracy of the transcripts.

16/12/2003 10:39:27 | Asia Pacific Programs

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