Ten Years Of Freedom In East Timor


For the past four days, the garden bar at Dili's famous Turismo Hotel has been buzzing with conversation. People from across the globe who met during East Timor's long struggle for independence — and got to know each other in what were often extreme circumstances — are catching up over a coffee, in the shade of the Turismo's tropical surrounds.

Saskia Kouwenberg, a veteran East Timor activist from the Netherlands, tells me the mood in the capital is markedly different from any other time she has visited over the past 20 years. The fear seems to have finally gone, she says, and this is the first time she has felt relaxed enough to notice the little things "like the trees, and the flowers" — and the fact that the country is actually quite beautiful.

Saskia has come back, along with tens of other international activists to mark the 10th anniversary of the vote for independence.

One of the first things you notice when you visit East Timor is that the country is full of stories of brave acts performed by ordinary people — both local and foreign. Talk to anyone here and just below the surface you will likely uncover a humble admission that they or someone they know once did something incredible, and often life threatening, during the country's 24-year fight for freedom.

Saskia's is one such story. The former journalist was one of a small group of western activists and undercover media who were in Dili during the 1991 massacre at Santa Cruz cemetery — when at least 200 East Timorese were murdered after the Indonesian military opened fire during a wake.

Millions of people all over the world saw footage of the massacre — which was secretly filmed by British cameraman and documentary maker Max Stahl — but not many people realise that the tape would likely not have made it out of the country had it not been for the bravery of one Dutch activist. Saskia risked her life to get Stahl's tape out of an occupied East Timor — and into the global media.

Saskia tells me her story in the overgrown garden of this rundown hotel that has borne witness to so much of East Timor's violent history. After the massacre, for three terrifying days, she and her colleagues stayed on in Dili, talking to victims and "barricading ourselves in the hotel at night". "In the back of our minds was what happened to the five journalists at Balibo," she tells me. "If there was ever a group of journalists having witnessed something that the Indonesians didn't want seen, they were killed."

She then stashed the tapes in her underpants, and headed for the airport. When she tried to get on the plane, however, she was told it was full. The Indonesian forces knew who she was and attempted to stop her from leaving.

"I dropped my luggage and I walked up to the plane and hung on to the stairs," she says. "They were pulling me off. They didn't know what to do because they wanted to keep me there. Eventually I was making such a fuss that they let me on."

Incredibly, however, throughout all the commotion she did not get searched and managed to smuggle the tape out of Indonesia and get it to a Dutch TV station.

"It was scary. It was very scary. But I became very single-minded. All I could think was: I'm going to get these tapes out," she says.

Within three days of the footage appearing on Dutch TV, up to one hundred television stations across the world had also shown it. This was a watershed moment. Overnight, East Timor became a mainstream issue.

"The other day an Australian businessman came up to me and said: 'Do you realise you changed my life? When I saw that footage, everything changed,'" Saskia tells me. "And I think a lot of people felt the same. That's how [East Timor] got back on the international agenda."

Former Australian Ambassador to Portuguese Timor and author of East Timor: A Rough Passage to Independence, James Dunn, says that although there had been plenty of evidence that such indiscriminate killings were taking place — including a Red Cross report in the late 70s that suggested as many as 200,000 people had died in just four years of occupation — the footage of Santa Cruz allowed people to put faces to the numbers and caused an instant and angry reaction across Australia. In the fallout that followed, a previously supportive Australian government made the extraordinary move of gently pushing Indonesia for a serious military investigation into the incident.

"They'd never launched any protest, in my experience, in all that time," says Dunn. "Even when it was a killing field, they didn't make a statement urging Indonesia to stop the senseless killing."

The words "senseless" and "killing" seem to come together a lot in any conversation about East Timor's past. And yet, during official 10th anniversary celebrations here on Sunday, President Jose Ramos-Horta made it clear he does not support an international tribunal to prosecute those responsible for the crimes committed during the Indonesian occupation, despite ongoing calls for such a process from the international community, most recently in an Amnesty International report released last week.

"While I'm respectful of all those in the US and UK who are most insistent on an international tribunal, I beg to disagree with their simplistic assertion that absence of prosecutorial justice fosters impunity and violence," Horta said in a speech to the gathered international dignitaries on Sunday.

"May I respectfully ask: Was there an international tribunal on the Vietnam War and were those who carpet-bombed Vietnam and Cambodia brought to trial? Is there a culture of impunity in the US or Vietnam as a result?"

(The answer, at least in the case of the United States, can probably be found in the ashes of Iraq.)

During a controversial speech that traversed three languages and 34 years of history, Horta went further by calling for the Serious Crimes Unit to be disbanded and for the money to be put towards improving the East Timorese judiciary — and said he had faith that Indonesia would bring those responsible for the violence to justice.

After the speech, a handful of protesters calling for an "end to impunity" were arrested and a local journalist manhandled by police, ironically while most of the foreign press were at an exclusive event to honour activists who had helped the East Timorese cause between 1975 and 1999.

James Dunn, who received an Order of East Timor for his life's work in support of the country, says that while an international tribunal — which needs to be signed off by the UN Security Council — will never happen while the East Timorese leadership is against it, he is pushing for an alternative international process, whereby there is recognition by those who caused the atrocities and an expression of regret made — even if an amnesty is then offered. "Otherwise, I fear that there is nothing stopping [the perpetrators]from acting in the same way again," he says.

And Dunn's fears are well grounded given the ongoing situation in West Papua, where Indonesian forces continue to terrorise the local population.

Last month, shocking photos circulated on the internet of a West Papuan man who had been shot and bayoneted on the island of Yapen in Papua. (The images can be viewed here — but be warned that they show graphic detail and some may find them distressing.) The man is seen stumbling around in a garden with his intestines in his hands before finally succumbing to his wounds and dying. It's difficult to get information about where these photos came from and the circumstances surrounding this man's death. It is alleged, however, that he was trying to save his wife from being raped by Indonesian forces when he was murdered. Matthew Jamieson from the Institute of Papuan Advocacy and Human Rights says such incidents are not uncommon, and that Indonesian security forces regularly "destroy people's gardens, they shoot people's pigs, they kick them out of their homes, burn down houses. It happens year in year out."

"One gets the sense that Indonesia is just trying to eliminate Papuans," he says.

Because of foreign media restrictions and strict visa conditions for others, there are no western journalists or activists witnessing what is going on in West Papua. There is no Saskia Kouwenberg or Max Stahl, no Amy Goodman or Allan Nairn to raise the alarm in the international press. As a journalist operating outside the province, it's very difficult to get reliable information from within. And sadly, by showing that it will not act even when its own citizens are murdered by the Indonesian military — the murder of Australian journalist Roger East in 1975 remains to be investigated to this day — successive Australian governments have made it incredibly dangerous for Australian journalists to go there clandestinely and find out what is going on for themselves.

Because of this, West Papuans are not likely to get their watershed moment. And let's hope they don't have to.

Photos such as those that have been circulating — while it may be difficult to verify their origin — are enough prima facie evidence for foreign governments and the international media to mount a campaign to demand access to the province. Knowing what we know about the Indonesian military from East Timor should only make this task all the more urgent.

Holding Indonesia responsible for its actions in East Timor is not just about bringing justice to the victims of past crimes — although many people here are still demanding that. A process such as an international tribunal also acts as a public record of past atrocities, and serves to prevent them from happening again.

When a country invades another country, kills, rapes and tortures its people (and murders foreign journalists who try to expose the story) and comes out of it largely unscathed, it sets a precedent. As Indonesia's closest neighbour, and in the context of what is still taking place in West Papua, we need to ask ourselves: do we want the Indonesian military to know that it can get away with murder?

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