Subject: East Timor's Example - The Truth Will Set Us Free

Times of India

LEADER ARTICLE East Timor's Example | The Truth Will Set Us Free

[ MONDAY, JANUARY 05, 2004 12:00:10 AM ]

Independence came to Asia ’s poorest nation East Timor on May 20, 2002 after 450 years of Portuguese rule, followed by a quarter century of Indonesian occupation. The price — almost a third of the population missing, dead or refugees.

While the UN-backed government addresses urgent tasks of development, the president, Xanana Gusmao, has worked hard at healing the wounds of the people — a prerequisite, he says, of nation-building.

Witnessing the sustained progress towards reconciliation at the grassroots level by the Commission for Reception, Truth and Reconciliation (CRTR), it’s hard not to draw comparisons with the lingering bitterness of the Sikh riots of 1984, the violent aftermath of the Gujarat carnage and the deep divisions in Kashmir . Now that the guns are silent on the border, finding the political will to work with the elected government of Kashmir to heal the wounds of it’s beleaguered people can be a first step in neutralising suspicion, resentment and lure of extremism. The East Timorese are working to reunite families divided by independence in West Timor and remove deep social schisms left by years of civil war.

It is morning in the mountain hamlet of Laclubar, some 250 km from the capital Dili. The village has gathered under a large awning as the CRTR panel begins proceedings. Joining them is the spiritual leader of the village who sits before a wooden block supporting the sacred sword and spear. Two UN observers are in the audience facing the community leaders, who sit opposite three accused. The panel leader explains the objective of the exercise: Investigating human rights violations, establishing the truth of allegations and facilitating possible reconciliation between victims and the accused. “We are a community, we have to live with our neighbours even if they are our enemy,” he says, “We have to forget the past so please, let’s help each other.” The first accused begins by refuting charges of collaborating with the militia in the death of a young boy. The panel asks the father of the deceased to speak: “My heart bleeds every day for my son,” he weeps, “You were seen taking food to the militia and shortly after my son was killed. Please tell the truth, you have sworn on the sacred sword.” The accused says he was ‘kidnapped’ by the militia but did not reveal information. The dead boy’s sister speaks angrily next, “We want truth, we want justice, without justice there can be no reconciliation.’’

The second case is easier, the accused was seen burning down the victim’s house. He agrees with the community’s decision that he should help build a new house for the victim. The woman member of the panel then speaks on behalf of a widow from Los Palos whose husband was suspected of collaborating with Indonesians. He was tied to a tree and she was forced to beat him. Others followed and eventually he was beaten to death. The widow is alone now and needs support from the community or some women’s organisation.

The CRTR was set up on January 21, 2001 by seven members ‘of high moral character, impartiality and integrity’ and is recognised by the constitution. As with India ’s Partition, many Timorese families have been divided by independence. Unlike the South African model, the CRTR has no powers to grant amnesty because the Timorese want justice before they can forgive and forget.

Serious crimes like murder, rape and massacres are forwarded to criminal courts, others are referred to the public prosecutor who must decide within 14 days if a case is to be resolved by the commission or tried in court. While the work of reconciliation itself began in 1999 with Mr Gusmao’s release from prison after seven years following the referendum for independence, the commission has so far processed over 8,000 cases. In some, reconciliation has not been possible, but in many others Mr Gusmao’s teaching has held: “Our concern is directed not at transforming justice into an emotional act of revenge,” he says. “The greatest way of honouring all these sacrifices is to work for true social justice for all.”

Back in Laclubar, the villagers re-assemble after a long lunch break in which they have conferred informally. The first accused now produces a witness who confirms he was indeed forcibly taken by the militia on the day of the killing but he also admits and apologises for working at their radio station.

He says he is willing to stand trial if the investigation into the boy’s murder produces evidence of collusion. The community leaders ask the family to give him the benefit of the doubt while the case is under investigation and they agree. The cheers and handshakes that follow make the victim’s family feel like magnanimous heroes and they sit together with the accused to bury their differences. Cigarettes have replaced the traditional peace pipe but by the end of the proceedings every face is wreathed in smiles.

It has been a successful exercise in community-building though that, of course, is not always the case. Conflict analysts believe the process itself provides the key to reconciliation, that the public acknowledgement of grief and repentance is sometimes enough to provide relief for parties and that conflict can sometimes be resolved simply by showing respect and empathy to the aggrieved.

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