On July 15 in Bali the leaders of Indonesia and East Timor met and received the final report of the Commission of Truth and Friendship (CTF) and issued a joint statement accepting the findings and recommendations. It was a display of harmony and friendship that reveals the main shortcoming of the CTF — it was always about promoting friendship more than truth and accountability.
Leaders in both countries may be eager to draw a line under their shared grisly history, but this approach is not widely supported by the Timorese and has been criticized by the United Nations, nongovernmental organization alliances in both countries and the Catholic Church, a powerful moral force in East Timor. As such, the CTF lacks credibility at home and abroad and can not be the closing chapter in this saga.
Established in 2005, this is the world’s first bilateral truth commission, one that was given a short leash with a limited remit. The commission investigated the deaths of some 1,400 East Timorese in 1999, killed in the aftermath of a U.N.-administered referendum on independence. The people overwhelmingly voted to separate from Indonesia, having endured a brutal occupation that began with Indonesia’s invasion in 1975. A credible separate inquiry into the 24 years of occupation establishes that as many as 200,000 people, out of a population of 600,000, were killed or starved to death by the Indonesian occupiers.
East Timor’s proindependence vote in 1999 triggered a bloody maelstrom orchestrated by the Indonesian military and its local militia units. Even though the CTF surprised many by finding the Indonesian military institutionally responsible for crimes against humanity, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono stopped short of making an apology to the people of East Timor, instead expressing a carefully calibrated remorse.
The CTF held a series of hearings in an effort to get Indonesian perpetrators to acknowledge their actions, but military officers and government officials did not give forthright testimony, while shirking responsibility and shifting blame onto the U.N. and the local militias they had trained, armed and coordinated. As a result of this systematic dissembling, and strong documentary evidence proving culpability, the CTF refused to recommend amnesty for anyone.
Unfortunately, widespread media coverage of the hearings in Indonesia has left the public badly misinformed about their government’s grim legacy in East Timor. Dissemination of the report in Indonesia is critical to correcting the Indonesian military’s biased, exonerating version of events that dominated the public proceedings.
Just as in numerous cases of human rights violations in Indonesia throughout the authoritarian Suharto era (1966-1998), there is no doubt about the military’s guilt. Less certain is the will to do something about it.
The CTF is a step toward reconciliation, but this can only be achieved at the grassroots level if some high-level perpetrators are held accountable. President Jose Ramos-Horta and Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao emphasize that their priority is restorative justice involving some form of collective compensation and improving living standards in a country where the unemployment rate is 40 percent and most families teeter on the edge of subsistence. Both recognize that antagonizing their giant neighbor by insisting on punitive justice will make life even more difficult for their people. Breaking the cycle of impunity thus depends on sustained pressure and support from the international community for a judicial reckoning.
With the presidential election campaign under way, it is doubtful that Yudhoyono will followup on the CTF in any significant way, if only because he can not afford to antagonize the military given its continuing political influence.
One of his opponents is former armed forces chief Gen. Wiranto, indicted by U.N. prosecutors in 2003 for crimes against humanity for his central role in the violence. He has not been prosecuted yet, but there is a fat dossier of evidence gathered by the U.N. that could be used by either the International Criminal Court or some form of international tribunal for a prosecution that would have great symbolic value and help bring closure.
The U.N. has already tried allowing Indonesians and the East Timorese to sort out accountability on their own, but these efforts ran out of political will, international support and funding. It is up to the international community to break the cycle of impunity and ensure that justice is done.
Just because Indonesia is a large moderate Islamic nation playing a key role in fighting the “war on terror” does not mean that its top brass merit immunity from prosecution. The people of Indonesia and East Timor deserve better. So kudos to the CTF for doing their job better than anyone ever expected — all the more reason for the international community not to drop the baton and help restore dignity to both nations.
Jeff Kingston is director of Asian studies, Temple University Japan. He has spoken about the CTF with East Timor’s leaders and has interviewed CTF members and NGO activists from both countries.