Subject: ST/John McBeth: Timor Leste's Past: Let It Be or Bare It All?

The Straits Times (Singapore) Thursday, December 22, 2005


Timor Leste's Past: Let It Be or Bare It All?

John McBeth

Senior Writer

IT WAS five years ago. Sitting at the kitchen table in a small, nondescript house on Dili's sun-baked foreshore, the soon-to-be president of Timor Leste was talking about the future.

'If you really want peace, if you really want stability, you have to put everything behind you,' said Mr Xanana Gusmao, who led the leftist Revolutionary Front of Independent Timor-Leste (Fretilin) resistance forces against Indonesian rule. 'If not you will live under a trauma, the ghosts of the past. You can't see the future.'

Mr Gusmao has known the pain of repression more than most. But in the face of criticism from human rights groups and thousands of his brutalised countrymen, he has stuck stubbornly to that creed of reconciliation.

That is why he has been reluctant so far to release the 2,500-page report of Timor Leste's independent Reception, Truth and Reconciliation Commission (CAVR) on crimes against humanity committed by all sides during Indonesia's 24-year occupation of then-East Timor.

Contrast that with CAVR chairman Aniceto Guterres Lopes, the quietly-spoken son of a former right-wing Timorese Democratic Union (UDT) member, whose forewarned family had moved safely across the border into West Timor at the time of the 1975 Indonesian invasion.

Mr Lopes, who earned his law degree at Bali's Udayana University, said that while he did not lose any family members to violence during those 24 years and was never physically abused himself, he still considered himself a 'victim of the right to self-determination'.

Still, it seems ironic somehow that while Mr Gusmao the guerilla fighter wants to bury the past and make up with his former enemy, the 38-year-old lawyer is intent on keeping faith with history and with those who suffered at the hands of the Indonesian military.

'The report was not made just for the current government or parliament,' he said in a recent interview with The Straits Times in Jakarta, where he was attending a meeting of the Indonesia-Timor Leste Truth and Friendship Commission (TFC). 'The report and everything in it was made to guarantee our future.'

The TFC is struggling to make itself relevant in the face of widespread scepticism that it is merely there to whitewash the past.

'There's no binding clause that requires the government to implement the recommendations,' he said, referring to provisions which call for everything from the extradition of Indonesian military officers to further international sanctions if justice is not served.

'It depends a lot on the way politics evolves. The important thing is to have the political will, otherwise the recommendations will remain nothing more than that - just recommendations,' he pointed out.

Indeed, Mr Lopes appears to be as frustrated as anyone that Mr Gusmao continues to sit on the fruits of the commission's three years of work which, together with two roomfuls of supporting documents, is destined to become the country's historic record of a period most East Timorese are trying to forget, if not forgive. Mr Lopes is also dismissive of the president's public criticism of the report and its recommendations as being excessively idealistic.

'If the president thinks the report is idealistic or not realistic or beyond the government's capability to implement, then that is a political problem,' said Mr Lopes, a native of the border district of Bobonaro, where the Indonesian troops had made their initial thrust.

'But it is not impossible that the government following the next elections will decide to implement the recommendations. We did our job, we produced the report and we made those recommendations in our capacity as commissioners.

'We did not produce the report because of political motivations or in response to political dynamics. It was important that we had to think about how to manage the expectations of all concerned, in particular the victims. We didn't do this to please some people, but to keep faith with the mandate that was given to us. If some people find the recommendations too idealistic and impossible to implement, then perhaps they should just accept them first and then explain why they can't be implemented.'

By all accounts, the task of questioning Timorese and taking statements about their harrowing experiences has been a cathartic experience. I was given an insight into all this by the CAVR's legal adviser, Australian barrister Pat Burgess, when he gave me a guided tour last year of the same prison on the outskirts of Dili where political prisoners had been detained.

Much of what he told me then of their mistreatment is there in the report, though his job was mainly to help bring about reconciliation among the Timorese.

The experiences under the harsh Indonesian regime were still fresh in many minds. But so too was the bitterness over the civil war which erupted between Fretilin and the UDT before the Indonesian invasion, tinged this time with guilt that went far beyond the senseless loss of 3,000 lives.

It was that conflict which gave the Indonesians the gilt-edged invitation to invade and prevent a supposedly nascent communist regime from taking root in the heart of a region already transformed by dramatic events in Indochina.

Mr Burgess, who formerly headed the United Nations Transitional Authority in East Timor's (Untaet) human rights unit, talked of the tears that flowed at village reconciliation sessions as people unburdened themselves of things they had not talked about in 25 years.

Mr Lopes and his panel were not immune to the same emotions. He said that when the 36 commissioners got down to reading some of the more stark chapters in the final draft of their report, 'we were all so traumatised that the meeting had to be adjourned temporarily because we were all crying'.

It was the same with the CAVR's 500-strong staff. 'Perhaps this can help explain the debate over the report's idealism,' said Mr Lopes, speaking in Indonesian.

'This doesn't mean the commissioners cannot be impartial. It just means they have feelings. But conscience is not the only consideration, there are other factors too, including political realities. So it is naive for people to think of us as unrealistic or inconsiderate of the national interest.

'The commission's two major objectives were the search for the truth and the effort at reconciliation. In the process of bringing families together, we obtained information from them. From that data, we crosschecked and analysed to produce a conclusion. I don't think there is any binding clause that requires the government to implement the recommendations. It depends a lot on the evolving politics.'

Mr Lopes added that it is difficult to gauge the degree of bitterness that the Timorese still feel towards the Indonesian military. 'The year 1999 and this year are quite different,' he noted. 'Likewise the events of the past.'

Mr Gusmao, now the elder statesman, appears willing to let all that go in the interests of securing the country's future. But for Mr Lopes, it is simply a matter of listening to the voices.

'We had a mechanism in which everyone we interviewed was given the opportunity to convey their expectations - and that is why we felt the need to make the recommendations we did.'

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