Subject: ON LINE opinion: Crimes against East Timor

ON LINE opinion, 30 July 2008

Crimes against East Timor

By James Dunn

What to do about the findings of the CTF (Commission of Truth and Friendship) report, into the violence that occurred in East Timor in 1999, presents us with sensitive a challenge. It might seem to some that now is the time to forgive and forget, but the real situation is not so simple, especially for Australians. Our reaction just might be able to influence the outcome for a people still traumatised by the horrendous human rights abuses they endured over a 24-year period when, to the shame and dismay of many of us, Australian governments gave diplomatic support to the perpetrators, helping shield them from international scrutiny.

The final decision as to what further action, if any, will occur will, of course, be up to the political leaders of East Timor and Indonesia but, in the case of gross crimes against humanity, the world community has an obligation to continue to press for action that goes beyond the recommendations of the CTF report, in keeping with the international conventions that prevailed in relation to similar situations in Cambodia, Bosnia and Rwanda, and underlie our concerns about Zimbabwe.

An observance of these conventions is of great importance in order to bring an eventual end to the gross crimes against humanity committed in East Timor between 1975 and 1999. If we decide to close the case of East Timor we shall not only deny justice to the victims, but will risk encouraging further such violations. In effect upholding such fundamentally important humanitarian laws depends heavily on international political will, and so far in the case of East Timor's horrendous experiences such will has often been lacking.

It is lack of confidence in international political will that has prompted East Timorese leaders to distance themselves from calls for an international tribunal.

A fundamental problem with this report is that, as more or less demanded by its mandate, it focuses exclusively on events in 1999, in effect ignoring even worse crimes against humanity in the previous 23 years of Indonesian occupation, the commission of which explains events in 1999.

The CTF report deals essentially with that period covered by UN Security Council resolutions - the moves to secure for the East Timorese a clear expression of their right to self determination. Here and there the report alludes to the past but in a way suggesting that that cruel experience, and the brutal TNI culture it represented, were virtually excluded from their consideration. This exclusion seems to have influenced the general thrust of the report.

Obviously when it came to dealing with the crimes against humanity committed by TNI commanders in 1999, could they recommend legal action without taking up the serious crimes of the past - for example, the Creras massacre of 1983, the Santa Cruz killing, or even incidents immediately after 1975? These, crimes against the population at large have a clear continuity; they were all committee under TNI commanders, all were designed to intimidate the population into accepting the status quo.

In usual practice the focus would be on those responsible, as well as on the institutional environment. This report focuses heavily on institutional responsibility, and, indeed, the most positive aspect of the report is its recommendations to do with institutional reform. However, commission of crimes against humanity cannot be confined to institutional factors, or, more crudely, the TNI's culture of brutality. We need to know, and the victims deserve to know, exactly how these crimes against humanity took place - e.g. who gave what orders to whom, and what were the roles of senior levels of the military, police or Indonesia's political leadership.

Since knowledge of incidents of atrocities have been around for decades, did any senior commanders or other officials demand that such practices be stopped?

The CTF report recommends reforms, but such reforms will have little effect until these crimes have been fully investigated, with the responsible parties having to explain, and defend their actions. The place to start is the beginning, so to speak; and that was the attack on Balibo in October 1975 which at that early stage involved a violation of the UN Charter, crimes against humanity, and a pattern of deception, including of the people of Indonesia which was to continue. The period between December 1975 and 1980 deserves especially close scrutiny for it was then that the most serious crimes against humanity were committed.

The CTF report alludes to the pre-1999 period but there is no indication that they gave it other than passing non-committal attention. Had they done so, for one thing, they would have taken top Kopassus commanders to task for setting up the militia in the first place, and encouraging their agenda of violence. This initiative came not from pro-Indonesia Timorese leaders but, in the first instance, was organised by Kopassus generals in July-August 1998, with Major Generals Zakky Anwar Makarim and Sjafrei Sjamsuddin playing a leading role. It was clearly designed to head off the move towards independence that President Habibie was beginning to take seriously.

The report does conclude that Indonesia's military was responsible for "supporting" and equipping the militia units responsible for the massacres in 1999 and the many cases of torture and intimidation. However, it seeks to soften the blow by accusing pro-independence supporters of crimes against humanity - "illegal detention" - but the few actions of the pro-independence supporters were totally in reaction to the militia's wave of violence.

As for illegal detention incidents, or other alleged pro-independence violations, these were minor when compared to the TNI's massive deportations to Indonesian Timor. They were trivial when compared to the killing of as many as many as 1,500 Timorese, and the wave of destruction that led to the destruction or severe damaging of 73 per cent percent of all buildings and houses in East Timor; to those of us on the ground at that time, the latter was clearly a TNI operation, one carried out as an act of revenge against those who voted against remaining with Indonesia. The independence groups were overwhelmingly at the mercy of the TNI and their militia. And Falantil units, under strict orders from Xanana, remained in their agreed cantonments.

To create an equation of these crimes against humanity is thus bordering on the absurd. It is the kind of distortion that may serve to minimise those crimes against humanity that need to be taken seriously. What the report lacks is a clear unequivocal statement of the true situation in East Timor in 1999. It is clearly somewhat diluted in favour of those Indonesians who fear the consequences of a full exposure of their past role in the former Portuguese territory. Thus the command role of Kopassus is in effect obscured. And of course the report apparently makes no attempt to identify the individual responsibility of the TNI officers who were really the militia commanders. Yet it is probably unfair to TNI commanders to conclude that all officers were involved in ordering, or agreeing to, crimes against humanity like those committed at Suai, Maliana, and Liquica.

For all its shortcomings the report is nevertheless an important document, which will stir the political scene in Jakarta, hopefully increasing pressure for a wider and more comprehensive enquiry. It will surely also lead to demands for a comprehensive reform of the TNI, especially it's the still powerful Kopassus (Special Forces).

Beyond that it will be a matter of political will on the part of Indonesian and East Timorese leaders, and the influential members of the international community, and in this case the political will of Australia.

We must not welcome the report as the final word; it is more of a step in the right direction. However, whether it will lead to action against those responsible military commanders is another matter, a matter that still consumes the passions of many Timorese. Although some Timorese and Indonesian leaders now claim that the report has put the past behind the two countries, bringing closure to the matter, that will not happen until it has been aired to the satisfaction of the victims, and of those, in both countries, who are determined to ensure that the lessons of this tragic episode are burned into the consciousness of their politicians.

There is also the concern of the international human rights and legal community to whom this concept of impunity for such crimes is simply not acceptable. No doubt President Horta had this in mind when he conceded to a journalist that further action on these past crimes against community could be taken up in the future.

There is also the role of the United Nations to be considered. It is an act of faith that crimes against humanity of this nature must not be removed from the agenda of the relevant UN agencies until those responsible have been brought to account in an acceptable way.

It is therefore very important that the UN, while not ignoring the CTF report's positive aspects, should keep up pressure on all parties to seek a more acceptable solution. International pressure on the SBY government at this time could make a difference, and here the position (and conscience) of Australia will be tested.

The CTF report could well be an important step in the right direction, if there is genuine political will on the part of all parties involved to vigorously implement its recommendations, and to question its shortcomings. Expressions of regret, however well-intentioned, cannot be the end of the matter. In relation to the facts of what transpired in 1999 the CTF report, for all its merits, is lacking both in balance and accuracy and its status should be judged accordingly.

About the Author:

James Dunn is a former Australian consul in East Timor who wrote the definitive book on East Timor's history in the mid-80's Timor: A People Betrayed and updated in 1996. In 2001-2002 he was the UNTAET Expert on Crimes Against Humanity in East Timor.

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