Forgiveness in East Timor, But Where Is the Justice?
Five years after the Indonesian massacres in East Timor, reconciliation meetings in many villages have tried to restore the broken bonds between the two sides, but the Indonesian generals who ordered the killings have never been brought to trial.
Published: Friday, May 28, 2004
After centuries as a Portuguese colony and twenty-four years of brutal rule by neighboring Indonesia, the people of East Timor went to the polls in a UN-supervised election in August 1999 to decide whether to continue as a part of Indonesia or to become independent. Although the Indonesian government had agreed to the vote, they were outraged when the East Timorese actually voted for independence. Anti-independence militias backed by the Indonesian army swarmed across the little half island killing hundreds and burning buildings as they went. Five years later, its independence protected by UN troops, the tiny country is still seeking to restore normality through a combination of promoting reconciliation with repentant militia members and seeking justice for the unrepentant. Professor Geoffrey Robinson, director of the Center for Southeast Asian Studies, spoke on the current stage of this process in UCLA's Bunche Hall May 20. Before joining the faculty at UCLA Robinson served as Head of Research for Island Southeast Asia at Amnesty International headquarters in London, 1989 to 1995, and took a leave from UCLA to serve as a Political Affairs Officer with the United Nations in East Timor during the 1999 crisis, from June through November of that year.
"A couple of weeks ago Indonesian political parties chose their candidates for the Presidential election," Robinson said. "The former ruling party, Golkar, chose General Wiranto. Less than a week later an East Timor court issued an arrest warrant for General Wiranto for crimes against humanity committed in East Timor in 1999. For about a week it seemed that his past had caught up with him, this five-year-old search for justice. It seemed that Indonesia would have to take notice and Wiranto would be taken down. Then East Timor's president, who had spent several years in Indonesian jails, Xanana Gusmao, and his foreign minister said they did not agree with issuing an arrest warrant. They had doubts about Wiranto's culpability. They said reconciliation is more important than justice. They said they want to restore good relations with Indonesia. Curious announcements from people who suffered under Indonesian rule. This highlighted a challenge not just for East Timor but for all societies emerging from civil war and systematic human rights abuse -- how to meet the demands for both reconciliation and justice."
President Gusmao backing down is typical of such post conflict situations, Robinson said. Nominally both justice and reconciliation are needed to finally achieve closure on a brutal period. "But time after time justice is sacrificed for reconciliation."
The Road to 1999
Geoffrey Robinson reviewed the terrible quarter century before the militia rampage of 1999. "This tiny half island was known as Portuguese Timor until 1975. Portugal began to relinquish its colonies in 1975. The East Timorese set up Fretilin, a social democratic party that wanted immediate independence. It was the largest political organization in East Timor. Fretilin declared independence in late November 1975, and a week later Suharto invaded. From a population of 650,000, as many as 200,0000 died through execution and disease. The United Nations condemned the invasion and refused to recognize Indonesian rule, but it had little power to change things."
In May 1998 Indonesia's President Suharto stepped down. "This created the opening which permitted East Timor to gain independence." Suharto's successor, President Habibie, offered to let East Timor vote on independence. The vote was carried out on August 30, 1999 under UN auspices; 78.5% voted for independence.
The Empire Strikes Back
Before the election "the place filled with marauding militias, organized, supported, and supplied by the Indonesian army to intimidate voters so they would not vote for independence," Geoffrey Robinson recalled. "By the time the crisis was over, mainly in September 1999, after the vote, roughly 70% of the buildings in East Timor were burned to the ground; 1,500 had been killed and 400,000 were forcibly displaced from their homes. This was retribution by the militias and the Indonesian Army for the vote."
The Reconciliation Efforts
Two years after the debacle, with the country approaching independence under UN protection, the East Timor government established the Commission for Reception, Truth and Reconciliation (Comissao de Acolhimento, Verdade e Reconciliacao - CAVR). The CAVR was given a broad mandate to establish the truth of what happened between 1974 and 1999, help victims, and foster reconciliation among East Timorese, "since some fought on both sides."
Serious crimes such as murder and rape were retained by the overstretched judiciary. Lesser crimes would be reviewed and judged by CAVR assemblies in the villages and towns, which would seek both to establish the facts and to promote reconciliation. Geoffrey Robinson described one of these meetings that he attended in September 2003:
"When we came to the village it was evident how important it was that the people who lived in the village needed to get reconciliation. Each side saw the other every day.
"A special bamboo shelter was set up for the meeting. They rented some 300 plastic chairs. At the front of the shelter you had a group of elders, men and women, 7 elders total and one member of the CAVR. On one side were the perpetrators, and on the other side were the victims, with about 250 village people as an audience."
The perpetrators would read a formal statement, then make verbal apologies. "If the apology was considered satisfactory, the elders called out, 'We have his confession. Do we accept him back into the village?' If people agreed they would call out 'Accept!' Usually there was some reparation. In some cases the call was 'No!' Then would follow a discussion between the village and the perpetrators. There were some 1,500 of these processes, the vast majority resolved satisfactorily."
When the CAVR meetings began, many doubted that people would attend them. "The actual results, given the low expectations, were remarkable," Robinson said. Some 40,000 villagers took part, and 90% of those interviewed said it was a positive experience, for both victims and perpetrators. "Victims were prepared to forgive, perpetrators felt accepted back into the village."
But What about Justice?
Nevertheless there were still problems. Robinson explained: "Victims sometimes felt the punishment was not strong enough. Perpetrator participation was voluntary, so the worst offenders do not participate, only the ones who had committed less serious violations. One person said, 'My father was murdered. Do you think I can reconcile with the person who murdered him?'"
There was widespread sympathy for the idea that some kind of international tribunal should be held for the top leaders of the 1999 massacres. "Now, five years later, there is no sign of such a tribunal," Robinson said. "Why? What happened to the idea of an international criminal tribunal? The United States, Australia, and other states resisted it. They sought instead to restore good relations with Indonesia, and such a tribunal would be uncomfortable for the Indonesians because it would be mainly Indonesian generals who would be on trial there."
Indonesia helped to deflect the demands for an international tribunal by setting up its own domestic judicial process. "There is broad agreement that it was a sham," Robinson said. "Some of the key problems were that the trials dealt with only two months from the year 1999 and 3 of the 13 districts of East Timor. The prosecution did not take advantage of the available evidence, and of those found guilty, none has served any time in prison. Most are still serving in the army and some have even been promoted. . . . East Timorese are asking how fair is this system that can only touch the small fry East Timorese while those who gave the orders are untouched."
What Can Be Done?
Prosecutors in East Timor have indicted a number of the Indonesian military leaders for the 1999 rampage, most notably General Wiranto. But Indonesia refuses to extradite any of them. "There is also a problem with East Timor's leaders," Geoffrey Robinson said. "Gusmao says they would prefer not to offend Indonesia, thereby undermining the process. The United States, Australia, and others point to the weak stand of East Timor's leaders as justification for not acting." But is it fair to blame East Timor? "It is a tiny impoverished country. It defies belief to think that at this vulnerable time they could take the lead in prosecuting powerful Indonesian generals. So the position of the international community is disingenuous here."
Robinson urged that the issue not just be dropped. Apart from the question of justice for the East Timorese victims, "there are consequences for Indonesia. The failure to punish those who were responsible for these crimes perpetuates a cycle of disrespect for justice. It means the return of the military to power will be eased. The failure also sends a message to others in positions of authority, in Iraq, in the United States and elsewhere, that they need not fear prosecution for anything they do. If these well-documented crimes in East Timor go unpunished, nothing need be punished."
Robinson proposed that the United Nations Security Council "establish a tribunal to try those responsible for crimes against humanity committed in East Timor between 1974 and 1999."