Indonesia and Balibo Sunday 20 September, 2009 - 14:27 - The latest move in the Balibo affair has taken us to a kind of watershed in a sensitive aspect of our relationship with Indonesia. Are we going to continue to help Jakarta cover up a brutal chapter in their history, or should we now encourage the SBY government to open up the past to much-needed public scrutiny? As things stand, Indonesia's hostile reaction to the AFP Balibo investigation was predictable enough, because it came just as Jakarta was facing renewed criticism in East Timor, at the tenth anniversary of the Suai massacre, much more recent than Balibo and more brutal.
As it happens the Balibo shooting and the Suai massacre span Indonesia's 24 year presence in East Timor, and remind us of an ugly fact: the TNI left the colony with the same cruel behaviour that it began with 34 years ago. Thanks in large measure to international accommodation none of those indicted for war crimes has ever been brought anywhere near an independent tribunal. No other regime with links to the West has so completely escaped investigation for such serious crimes against humanity. AFP investigators may take the matter further, but they face huge obstacles, given the Yudhoyono government's hostile reaction so far, a response based on an unacceptable assumption, a continuation of our cover-up policy.
Although the TNI's brutal departure in 1999 at last attracted widespread international attention, Jakarta's circle of powerful friends, including Australia, discouraged international attempts to bring the serious war crimes committed during the 24 years of occupation, before an international tribunal. While the Balibo incident, thanks to the film, has continued to capture widespread attention, we need to understand that it really merely marked the beginning of a series of war crimes that continued to the very end of the Indonesian occupation. Then, in 1999, hundreds of East Timorese were killed when the TNI and its militia set out to punish the East Timorese for its humiliating vote against the TNI-dominated occupation.
In a sense Balibo was the beginning and the Suai massacre of September 1999 the end, both incidents under direct TNI command. The Suai atrocity, in all costing over 200 lives, occurred only days after the results of the plebiscite were announced in Dili. A recent incident has revived Timorese interest in this incident, despite the urgings of their leaders to put the past behind them. It was the arrest of Maternus Bere, former leader of the Lauksur militia, who now lives in West Timor, but who returned to Suai to attend a wedding. His presence was noticed by a local policeman who arrested him, on the basis of a UN indictment for serious crimes. The Indonesian reaction was extraordinary. His immediate release was demanded, with dark hints that there could be serious border problems if it was not heeded. There is a possible explanation for this rather arrogant response.
Based on my own investigations into the Suai affair, the militia were mere pawns, their orders coming directly from a TNI colonel then dressed in full uniform, and bearing a M16 weapon. If Bere were to appear before an East Timor court his testimony could therefore be of great embarrassment to the TNI at this time. The pressure was eased somewhat when the East Timorese prime minister responded quickly, ordering the release of Bere to the Indonesian embassy in Dili, a move that caused concern in the UN mission.This incident case has aroused anger in Dili on a number of fronts. It happened at a time when what to do about past war crimes was the subject of lively discussion, emotions having been stirred by the Balibo film.
The rather arrogant and clumsy intervention by Jakarta caused an angry public reaction and criticism, and irritation and dismay in the government. The East Timorese government may have quickly caved in, but the mood in the National Assembly is not so compliant. Jakarta's intervention was particularly hurtful and ill-timed for President Jose Ramos Horta, who had just delivered a very conciliatory address at the 10th anniversary commemoration, urging East Timorese to overlook their past sufferings and to end their campaigns for an international war crimes tribunal.
In the circumstances why didn't Indonesia act more discreetly? One possible explanation is that it happened at a time when there are increasing calls from Indonesian democrats for a closer look at the TNI's past. An exposure of its command role in East Timor in 1999 would have led to renewed calls for the comprehensive investigation President Wahid's advisers had recommended in early 2000. Also if Bere were to have appeared before a Timorese court the leading role of Kopassus might have been exposed, at a time when this force is being rehabilitated as an anti-terrorist agency. Few would miss the irony of yesterday's masters of terror being transformed into today's hunters of terrorists!
The Balibo film, the AFP action, and the Bere case may have caused official jitteriness and media circumspection in Dili and Canberra, but the popular reaction in both countries has not helped Indonesia's image. In Dili I attended two meetings where there were strong demands for an international tribunal, not just for justice for individual victims, but as a way of bringing out into the open one of the worst cases of its kind in the region's recent history. What most Timorese are seeking is Jakarta's full recognition of the war crimes committed and of Indonesia's responsibility. Without serious steps in that direction, reconciliation will be meaningless. A brooding resentment, especially towards the Indonesian military, will continue to lurk in much of Timorese society, where thousands consider themselves victims of crimes against humanity.
As for Australia, we should now be urging Indonesia to take an honest and closer look at what happened in East Timor between the Balibo and Suai incidents. A recognition of its lessons is an important step in the path to the kind of democracy Indonesians now aspire to.