Timor-Leste: So Much for Victor’s Justice?

Ten years after independence, the country struggles with past wrongs.
By: /
May 15, 2012

Driving through Dili, the capital city of Timor-Leste, it is sometimes hard to imagine the atrocities committed in its recent past. During the occupation by Indonesia between 1975 and 1999, approximately 18,600 civilians were killed by Indonesian and resistance forces, and more than 80,000 died of starvation related to the conflict. Today, the security situation in the capital appears stable, at least superficially. The greatest dangers in most parts of the city are the cars and motorcycles weaving around potholes and pedestrians.

After the bloody end to occupation in 1999, both Timorese and international organizations pushed for justice and accountability. However, the case of Timor-Leste provides a cautionary tale of how hard it can be to achieve justice, even under the most favourable conditions. Even though the resistance won independence and the international community has lent its support, the search for accountability has been constrained by local political consolidation, prosecution fatigue, and the regional balance of power.

As part of the effort to address the country’s violent past, Timor-Leste’s Commission for Reception, Truth and Reconciliation (CAVR) was established in 2001. The CAVR’s offices are housed in the former prison in Dili. The site of the prison has been reconstructed and contains offices, archives, and a museum that retells the atrocities committed by the Indonesian occupiers, as well as those carried out by resistance groups such as the Revolutionary Front for an Independent East Timor (FRETILIN). Especially poignant are the “dark rooms” – windowless cells where political prisoners were crammed for weeks, months, or years at a time:

In 2005, the CAVR issued a multi-volume report entitled Chega! (which means “Enough!” in Portuguese). The report exposes in detail the execution, torture, sexual violence, forced displacement, and famine experienced by the Timorese under occupation. (Oddly, the report was translated from Portuguese into English and Bahasa Indonesian, but not into Tetum, one of Timor’s two official languages, and the one spoken by the vast majority of the population.)

Since independence, a number of attempts have been made to bring the perpetrators of these crimes to justice. In 2001, the United Nations set up a judicial process to investigate serious crimes committed during the conflict. In August 2006, the UN Security Council mandated the establishment of the Serious Crimes Investigation Team to support local Timorese prosecutors. In 2005, Indonesia and Timor-Leste established the bilateral Commission of Truth and Friendship (CTF) to look into abuses committed in 1999 as Timor-Leste emerged from occupation. Indonesia also launched an investigation into crimes committed by its forces.

Despite this proliferation of investigations, the efforts have fallen short of expectations. Although the UN indicted close to 400 suspects, there have so far (as of 2011) been only 86 convictions. Most indictees remain free in Indonesia, according to the International Center for Transitional Justice. Timorese prosecutors have taken up very few of the investigations that the Serious Crimes Investigation Team has completed since 2008, due either to a lack of capacity or political will. Indonesia carried out what many considered to be a sham trial of individuals held responsible for massacres in Timor-Leste. Most were not indicted, or saw their sentences commuted. One of the accused even  ran for president.

Faced with these setbacks, some Timorese civil-society actors want to take prosecutions one step further. NGOs, under the umbrella group ANTI, have called for an international tribunal to be set up to prosecute those responsible for human-rights abuses during the occupation and transition period in Timor-Leste. Officials at the UN Integrated Mission in Timor-Leste (UNMIT) told me they were sympathetic to such calls, but thought it unlikely that such a tribunal would emerge. Similar tribunals in Yugoslavia and Cambodia, while successful in bringing some accused to justice, have been tremendously expensive and time consuming. There may be little appetite for another such tribunal among international donors, and the UN is not currently making any recommendations on the matter.

Demands for an international tribunal are also running up against cold hard realpolitik. Despite achieving independence, Timor-Leste remains a prisoner to geography. The country of just 1.2 million people abuts Indonesia, a 258-million-person behemoth. A tribunal is unlikely to emerge so long as it is opposed by Indonesia. Indeed, some of the same factors that led the international community to turn a blind eye to Indonesian occupation now work against demands for more robust efforts at prosecution.

Surprisingly, the Timorese government doesn’t appear to be too keen to establish an international tribunal, either. Many of the accused are in West Timor or elsewhere in Indonesia, where Timor-Leste has little leverage for extradition. The Timorese government is prioritizing repairing relations with Indonesia. When asked recently about prosecutions against Indonesian suspects, Timorese Prime Minister Xanana Gusmão shook a bag of Indonesian-manufactured noodles and asked where food would come from if relations deteriorated. Indeed, some 50 per cent of imports come from Indonesia, and this share is growing. Tens of thousands of Timorese live in Indonesia as students or refugees. No one wants to see them become hostages to deteriorating relations between Indonesia and Timor-Leste.

José Ramos-Horta, Timor-Leste’s former president and a Nobel peace laureate, tried to build bridges, but was accused of being too forgiving of accused perpetrators. The case of Maternus Bere is emblematic of this issue. In 2009, Bere, who was accused by the UN for leading the 1999 massacre at Suai Church, came across the border into Timor-Leste and was arrested. Under pressure from the Indonesian government, Ramos-Horta ordered his return to Indonesia. To some, this was a double erosion of the rule of law. Bere was an indicted war criminal and it was Timor-Leste’s courts – not the president – that had jurisdiction over the matter.

What about the victims of the human-rights abuses? One of the main recommendations of the Chega! report was that victims of human-rights abuses during the occupation should receive reparations. Reparations are seen as necessary to rehabilitate victims, whose losses, pain, and disability continue to put them, and now their children, at a disadvantage in Timorese society. To add insult to injury, the children of some militia leaders responsible for orchestrating atrocities have an easier go at finding jobs in government due to higher levels of education secured during Indonesian occupation. Past abuses are therefore perpetuating current inequalities. Legislation pertaining to reparations and a Public Memory Institute is slowly making its way through parliament, but the government is dragging its feet.

According to Charles Scheiner of La'o Hamutuk, a local NGO that monitors international agencies and the Timorese government, the Timorese government’s calls for reparations are misguided. For Scheiner, such payments don’t advance the cause of justice because they are not being paid for by the perpetrators. Instead, they would saddle major costs on an already fiscally strained Timorese government.

Ramos-Horta, who lost two brothers and a sister in the brutal Indonesian occupation, has claimed that time and forgiveness will heal all wounds. But could the failure to pursue justice in Timor-Leste be a source of future violence instead? Nélson Belo, director of the Mahein Foundation on security-sector reform, replies with an emphatic yes. “It’s a ticking time bomb,” he says. Failure to address these issues will foster a culture of impunity and encourage future abuses by security forces. Indeed, following the much-lauded UN transitional administration between 1999 and 2002, Timor was once again engulfed in crisis when elements of the Timorese military attempted a coup in 2006. Two years later, Ramos-Horta was gravely wounded in an assassination attempt. Many of the security forces’ misdeeds in the post-independence era have gone unpunished. In the meantime, Belo worries that amnesties will only encourage aggrieved victims to seek vigilante justice. Antero Benedito, a former resistance leader and now director of the Peace Studies Program at the National University of Timor-Leste, is not as pessimistic. He believes local mechanisms are capable of providing justice and reconciliation for those lower-level actors responsible for crimes.

Many of the assumptions regarding political stability in Timor-Leste will be put to the test in the coming year, as Timor enters rounds of presidential and parliamentary elections. The UNMIT mandate is set to expire following the last round of elections in June, but its future is most likely conditional on developments on the ground. In the past, elections have been staging grounds for political violence. Because few of those responsible for past political violence have been brought to justice (while others have been pardoned), the International Crisis Group notes that there are few personal costs to acting as a violent political spoiler. Therein lies the crux of the issue. Ten years after achieving independence, can Timor-Leste address past wrongs, ensure current stability, and prevent future impunity, all the while maintaining good relations with Indonesia?

Photo courtesy of Reuters

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