Making Friends, and History


The report by the bilateral Indonesia-East Timor Commission for Truth and Friendship, or CTF, received plenty of attention when it was handed over to leaders of the two governments last month.

This is less because of what was said than who was saying it: for the first time, the Indonesian Government officially acknowledged the role of its military in East Timor’s 1999 violence. Yet the report itself is a mixed bag, and means very different things for each country – with significantly different challenges for their respective governments.

Some commentators in East Timor say the Commission was a waste of time and money – several reports and investigations have already looked at the same issues, and almost everyone saw with their own eyes the 1999 violence, carried out by militias backed by the Indonesian army. This criticism is voiced against the backdrop of increased cynicism towards national leadership, especially following the violence of 2006, and pressure on the integrity of national institutions – including the justice system.

Within Indonesia, however, some hope the report is a chance to push forward a stalled military reform process. The different circumstances of the democratisation and human rights movements in each country means the report, and the CTF itself, has distinct implications for each.

For some in East Timor the report is indeed a step backwards, according to Ze Luis, a long-term activist from leading human rights organisation Yayasan Hak. "For me, all this is political," he says with frustration. "The Commission hasn’t worked to strengthen justice, rather it’s only serving political interests." For many Timorese, resolution for the crimes of 1999 (in which around 1500 people died) and for the preceding 24-year Indonesian occupation, feels further away than ever. Multiple reports and investigations have so far delivered little of what people hoped.

The most comprehensive of those reports was from the Reception, Truth, and Reconciliation Commission (CAVR, in Portuguese). Totalling more than 2000 pages that drew on around 9000 interviews and statements, plus extensive research, the report was submitted to then-President Xanana Gusmao in 2005. Even before the CAVR, the United Nations’ Serious Crimes Unit in Dili investigated and prepared legal cases against 391 suspects.

Yet recommendations contained in the CAVR’s report have not been comprehensively debated by lawmakers, let alone implemented. The Serious Crimes Unit was discontinued in 2005, although investigative (but not prosecution) work by the UN has resumed since.

Some critics suspect East Timor’s leaders promoted the CTF, at least in part, to avoid thorny issues highlighted by the CAVR and other reports. The Commission’s highly restrictive terms of reference came in for heavy criticism, in particular because they specifically precluded it from recommending any prosecutions, and instead encouraged commissioners to actively consider amnesty for perpetrators who cooperated with its investigations.

In both Dili and Jakarta, human rights campaigners criticised what they called an emphasis on the voice of perpetrators that, they said, left victims marginalised, and as a result many organisations refused to cooperate with its activities.

Yet despite open cynicism that the CTF was intended to "close the door" on burning human rights issues, its report exceeded the early expectations of many. Despite the emphasis on possible amnesty in its terms of reference, the report refused to recommend any. Indonesian Commissioner Agus Widjojo said this was due to technical contradictions in the terms of reference themselves: "If we are to look at amnesty, it should be open to everybody [who wants to apply]…and that’s contradictory, because we are not dealing with individuals, we are looking for institutional responsibility…We did not look into individuals case-by-case."

Most importantly, the Commission identified the Indonesian Military as responsible for the bulk of the violence, contradicting long established official Indonesian versions that attributed the killings and destruction to pro-independence and pro-Indonesian East Timorese. But while this is a radical departure for Jakarta, for the East Timorese it barely qualifies as news, and merely provokes frustration. "There’s no courage to insist on the perpetrators’ responsibility," says Ze Luis.

And there is further cause for confusion in the text. Strikingly, the report states that the East Timorese state is responsible for pro-independence acts of violence – although that state didn’t exist at the time.

One of the problems for people like Ze Luis is the confusing set of messages being sent by East Timor’s leaders over the issue of how to deal with the country’s recent history. Following the report’s launch, President José Ramos Horta appeared to downplay any possible follow-up. In many ways this is understandable. Indonesia will always be East Timor’s closest and biggest neighbour – something any national leader will be well aware of.

But internal considerations are also pressing, and the approach of Horta, Xanana and others appears to encourage impunity, and undermine institutions of justice. This is more than just statements: following this year’s Independence Day, Horta pardoned former militia leader Joni Marques, convicted for acts that include the massacre of a priest and nuns in 1999. There’s little obvious realpolitik in such cases of magnanimity; he was later reported as emphasising the need for "compassion and forgiveness" in such cases.

When I asked people what was the political thinking behind such apparently random forgiveness, they were at a loss to explain. "It’s hard to tell what they’re thinking", was the most frequent response.

The trauma of violence in 1999 is known in every city, village and hamlet throughout East Timor. The memories are strong, and victims and their families want a response.

Yet when I arrived in Dili last month, everyday conversation about 1999 usually came up in one context only: people emphatically stated that the breakdown in law and order in 2006 had been so much worse. In living rooms or on street corners, old friends and acquaintances described repeatedly the several months during which whole areas of the city became no-go zones. A neighbour shook his head sadly as he told me stories of random homicide, saying "How could we Timorese end up killing each other like this?"

And inevitably, conversation pointed the finger of responsibility for 2006 in one direction: at the leaders of their new, independent nation. After so much talk of justice, and so few results, citizens’ faith in their institutions, and in a leadership that stands increasingly accused of only looking after their own interests, has been dangerously eroded over the past few years. Cynicism about the CTF adds to this.

However, on the Indonesian side of the equation, the report gives cause for cautious hope. "I think it should be looked at as an entry point…for further measures," says Usman, who heads the human rights organisation Kontras based in Jakarta. He was surprised by the report. "We were in the position to reject the [it]…[but]I think in the end the CTF was making major developments in terms of official recognition of crimes against humanity in East Timor". He’s urging the Indonesian Government to publicly release the report as soon as possible (which so far hasn’t happened), and believes the acknowledgement of these crimes can be a lever to promote justice down the track.

Usman’s crossed fingers reflect the degree to which military reform, one of the fundamental demands made by the 10-year-old democracy movement, has stalled. Some important changes have taken place since the fall of Suharto, particularly winding back automatic army representation in the Parliament, and the Military’s separation from the police. But the army, or TNI, still wields enormous political and economic influence.

This is in spite of significant evidence already gathered on the Indonesian side by KPP-HAM, a special investigation commission established by Indonesia’s National Commission for Human Rights in 1999. That led to a series of widely criticised trials, at the end of which all of the accused were either found not guilty or acquitted on appeal – including former militia leader Eurico Guterres, who was released earlier this year.

A key reason for sustained impunity is that the majority of the Indonesian public hasn’t been told the facts, and only hears the ultra-nationalist version of events which downplays or erases the TNI’s role. Former Commissioner Widjojo says that much coverage "has been very heavily politicised… [with]a tendency that information was selective to be provided to the public… [for the truth]to be addressed in a formal report, that is the significance of … the Commission".

It’s impossible to know how the report’s implications may play out in Indonesia’s fluid politics, as it heads into parliamentary and presidential elections next year. Usman and others speculate it could go in a number of ways: the incumbent, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono may use the report to undermine one of his rivals (although not currently his biggest challenger), former General Wiranto, head of the armed forces during the 1999 violence. Alternatively, ultra-nationalists may choose to use the report to target Yudhoyono himself, by claiming that it represents a threat to national sovereignty.

Or the report could largely disappear from public view and overt campaign agendas altogether. Observers say that Indonesian-language media coverage of it dissipated quickly, with only the English-language Jakarta Post newspaper exploring the issue in any depth. If the Government doesn’t release the report soon, together with some sustained public debate, awareness of the issue could simply fade away.

Usman says the chances of any significant change coming soon are only slight. He emphasises that if progress is to be made, including any future tribunals, it will need the help of international human rights bodies to push it forward.

"Too much friendship, too little truth," was a frequent criticism of the Commission from human rights campaigners in both countries (and the title of a comprehensive review carried out by the ICTJ in January this year). Much of this focused on the restrictive terms of reference, and operational procedures such as public hearings which many said gave overwhelming priority to perpetrators rather than victims. The terms of reference themselves call on commissioners to recommend a variety of measures – people-to-people contacts, for example – to further promote positive links.

Yet moving around Dili during my recent visit, I got the feeling that people may be ahead of their leaders on this. While there’s been no systematic research on relations with Indonesia, the atmosphere seems relaxed and accepting: anyone who can manage it soaks up Indonesian soaps on TV each night; friends talk about enthusiastic, crowded concerts for visiting Indonesian pop bands, and restaurants serving Indonesian food are packed at lunch hour.

Perhaps most encouragingly, a number of Indonesians travel freely to and from Dili, on business or to work for organisations such as the UN. And I was told of several East Timorese completing their tertiary studies in Indonesia – including the relative of one friend who, perhaps somewhat ironically, is studying law with the goal of improving East Timor’s own legal system.

One of the most active links between the two countries is, in fact, the call for justice itself. Victims and campaigners on both sides have already rejected assertions that the CTF closes the door on a painful chapter. They insist that even acknowledging crimes against humanity creates an obligation for prosecution under international law. The clear demand of campaigners is not only about justice for crimes – but for an end to impunity and a just government, with institutions that are both transparent and respected.

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.