18 April 2009

James Dunn: Cries for Justice in East Timor

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A week ago a sombre ceremony at the East Timorese town of Liquica revived memories of one of the earlier TNI atrocities in 1999, an incident that expedited moves for a UN intervention to ensure a freely expressed act of self determination. Though not the first ugly incident it was the first of the major atrocities, one that aroused considerable international interest in the situation in East Timor. And although the incident may have aroused considerable international concern, strengthening international support for self determination, ten years later, as the recent brave ceremony last week shows, those responsible for the atrocity have never been brought to trial, and remain free, unthreatened by legal actions of the kind that have brought Serbs, Cambodians and Rwandans before appropriate tribunals  

The recent gathering of families in Liquica was obviously a sad affair, as well as a sad commentary on the outcome of the reconciliation process. They presented a petition to East Timor's leaders who apparently had chosen to ignore the sombre memorial service because it merely exposed that Xanana's view of recognition was to most Timorese a meaningless gesture. In the incident on April 1999 over 80 innocent non-combatants were killed in an assault on citizens who had sought shelter in the local church. The assault was said to have been carried out by one of East Timor notorious militias, the Besih Merah Putih, but in reality it was really organised and encouraged by the TNI, whose troops provided both weapons and backup. There is also evidence that the Liquica atrocity was actually ordered by Indonesian officers as part of their campaign to intimidate the East Timorese into supporting the continuation of Indonesian rule. In fact, the incident merely stiffened their determination to end an occupation that had decimated the population of the province.    

The petition presented to the Timorese leaders and the Parliament was yet another reminder that the forgive and forget policy had done more to maintain trauma and tensions than to encourage forgiveness, especially among the families of the tens of thousands of victims of Indonesia's long and deeply unpopular occupation.  This trauma has been partly responsible for the instability that persists in the new nation, undermining national self confidence and unity. It is a condition that those foreigners who have little knowledge of the nation's cruel past seem to understand, and that includes many of the Australian troops who serve t here. Unfortunately too many Australians and other foreigners talk about what we have done for the East Timorese people and appear to be ignorant of what we did to them in the past. In the circumstances the Liquica petition needs to be widely read, for it contains an important message for all of us. It tells us that real reconciliation is not just about brushing the past under the carpet. A measure of justice is of fundamental importance, and that is essentially the missing piece. It is not too late from the Government of East Timor to change course on this matter. Many Indonesians would be receptive to a more searching process even if it means putting senior generals before an enquiry. The CTF report moved in that direction, but the response in terms of action on its recommendations has been hopelessly inadequate.

The great shame is that the victims of particular incidents like Liquica, where the attackers were commanded and armed by TNI troops, have been denied justice, helped by misguided opportunistic policies. Here Australia and other powers are partly to blame for they clearly did not welcome a course of action that would put pressure on the TNI, post-Suharto. Well, with the colonel responsible for the Liquica atrocity now holding general rank, and with officers like Prabowo now feeling free to aspire to Indonesia's presidency, negative consequences are before us.  

Lia Kent of Queensland recently wrote an interesting piece on reconciliation in Timor's case However, her observation that reconciliation is a 'very slippery' term is not really correct. True, there are different views but they tend to come to the same conclusion. Reconciliation, in situations of this kind, is about coming to terms with a situation, however irretrievable. though it may not mean closure. It is certainly more that Xanana's ' forgiving and forgetting', which has done more harm than good as a means to achieving an effective settlement of the terrible consequences of Indonesia's illegal seizure and occupation of East Timor. As things stand the occasional pronouncements by Timorese leaders that they now have genuine reconciliation is a grave misstatement of the reality for most East Timorese.

An element that needs to be dealt with in order to achieve an enduring reconciliation is still the missing piece - it is about a full exposure of the truth behind the events concerned, including a full account of the many atrocities and misdeeds, of who was responsible and why they were committed, and at least an admission of those responsible, in the case of systemic behaviour, of the government itself. Some kind of process of saying sorry would help and there at least needs to be a process of formal admonition of those responsible for the kinds of atrocities that elsewhere have led to the perpetrator appearing before tribunals. Not least the TNI operations that led to the massive devastation of East Timor's towns and villages in 1999, and the forced deportation of a large part of its population need to be formally admitted, and not disguised as militia excesses. They were really acts of state terrorism.  http://jasdunn.bigblog.com.au


Sign the petition to the UN to prosecute crimes against humanity in East Timor

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