East Timor split by truth, justice and reconciliation


EAST TIMOR Swooping low over the azure Savu Sea, the pristine coastline and gnarly hills of Timor suddenly appear about two hours after takeoff from Bali. Before entering the spartan air terminal, visitors pass through a trailer where, upon arrival, $30 one-month visas are sold.

It is a short drive into Dili, the capital of this troubled paradise that still bears the scars of the 1999 post-referendum rampage by Indonesian paramilitary groups. These militias, armed and supplied by the Indonesian military, ran amok following the people’s overwhelming rejection of continued rule by Indonesia. It was a cruelly pathetic denouement to a brutal occupation that began in 1975 when Indonesia invaded this former Portuguese colony.

Newly independent East Timor remains dotted with the eerie legacy of burned out and abandoned buildings. The world’s newest nation faces daunting problems including a threadbare infrastructure, crushing poverty, malnutrition, high unemployment, limited health care, electricity and clean water — and the search for justice.

In a nation where basic human needs are elusive for so many, the public’s concern for justice and accountability may seem like a distraction from priorities. However, for many of the victims of murder, torture, rape, beatings, loss of relatives and friends, and wanton destruction of housing, prosecuting the perpetrators of these serious crimes is very important.

Jill Jolliffe, an Australian journalist who has covered East Timor since the mid-1970s, understands this need. “There has been no rule of law in East Timor for the life of an entire generation,” she said. “It is important to restore people’s faith in the rule of law by pursuing justice.”

She is currently working on a videotape project interviewing former prisoners, all of whom were tortured. Preserving their painful memories contributes toward accountability.

The political controversy currently roiling Dili concerns the final report of the Commission for Reception, Truth and Reconciliation (known by its Portuguese acronym CAVR), which was based on the testimony of 8,000 victims and a series of public hearings.

President Xanana Gusmao, a national hero who spent 17 years waging guerrilla war against the Indonesian security forces before his capture and imprisonment, has postponed general distribution of the final report, provoking criticism at home and abroad.

In mid-December he explained: “I accept the report from A to Z and will not change anything. I believe that the public has the right to be informed. We must disseminate it in the proper way; we are not a human-rights organization. Everything will be done in the right way in the right time. At the end of January, I will present the report to the secretary general in New York and will stop in Tokyo on my return to request financial assistance for a series of workshops aimed at disseminating and socializing it in 2006.”

The president has criticized the CAVR report for its “grandiose idealism.” He was referring to recommendations calling for reparations from Indonesia, the permanent members of the Security Council, and any businesses that benefited from Indonesia’s occupation. He also thinks that the CAVR’s call for an international tribunal is unrealistic because it lacks U.N. support.

Given that the East Timorese struggle for independence is an object lesson in the value and rewards of idealism in the face of impossible odds, some critics are baffled by the government’s pragmatism in its pursuit of justice.

Gusmao clearly wants to move beyond the devastating tragedy and accelerate both healing and reconciliation. He is inspired by the example of South Africa, where amnesty was exchanged for truth. He likened East Timor’s situation with that of Mozambique, which has neither sought reparations from South Africa nor sought to prosecute those responsible for crimes against Mozambique’s citizens. Although South African-backed armed groups inflicted great destruction and loss of life, Gusmao noted, “now Mozambique enjoys peace and people tend their fields without worry about attacks. Peace is their reward.”

Foreign Minister Jose Ramos Horta, a Nobel laureate, also emphasizes reconciliation: “There is not much we can do to bring Indonesians to trial by ourselves. This isn’t only pragmatism. I sincerely believe that Indonesia is making progress on democratic reforms and strengthening the rule of law. However, this takes a long time and the situation is fragile. SBY (President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono) is weak and does not fully control the military and can’t challenge them in this way without risking having his opponents gang up on him.

“It is important that we do not destabilize the slow process of democratization in Indonesia because it is our best guarantee. They have shown the courage to accept our independence. Knowing that the situation is so difficult and that the U.N. Security Council doesn’t want an International Tribunal, it doesn’t make sense for us to pursue it.”

Gusmao argues that the national interest is not well served by remaining fixated on the suffering Timorese endured during their long struggle for independence: “We can best honor that struggle and these sacrifices by building a better democracy here, improving governance and providing better services to the people, by combating corruption and all social and political diseases. Compensation is material — how does one evaluate the loss of a husband?”

Gusmao mentioned other countries that won independence after long armed struggles but failed to build democracy. He said it is crucial that East Timor develop a functioning democracy since “the problem is of power — and not giving up power. From this, every mistake can come.” In his view, “The best justice was when the international community — the powerful countries that helped Indonesia exterminate us — finally recognized their responsibility and helped us to achieve independence.”

The CAVR report is inconvenient because it opens old wounds between domestic political groups that fought a brief civil war and engaged in violent internecine reprisals. The president emphasized that he is most concerned about the domestic ramifications of dredging up these crimes and settling scores. He warns that prosecuting such crimes could revive dormant antagonisms and spark renewed chaos because it could lead to a settling of scores and “a policy of political persecution.”

Gusmao believes the way forward is based on finding out the truth, granting amnesty where appropriate and emphasizing reconciliation, while the church, civil society organizations and many victims emphasize prosecuting perpetrators of serious crimes.

The CAVR report estimates that there may have been as many as 200,000 conflict-related deaths between 1975 and 1999, most of which are blamed on the Indonesian military. And there is the rub; those Indonesian generals and civilian officials who were in charge have not been held accountable for their crimes, and Jakarta has not demonstrated sufficient political will to secure justice.

In an attempt to defuse tensions by getting the perpetrators to reveal the truth, a bilateral initiative with Indonesia called the Commission for Truth and Friendship was launched last summer. It must contend with the CAVR recommendation “that nothing should compromise the rights of victims to justice and redress.” The CTF is enjoined to act “with a view to strengthening, not weakening, the chances of criminal justice.” Amnesty should only be granted “if this is based on judicial due process consistent with international standards.” This means that those guilty of serious crimes would be ineligible for amnesty.

The CAVR urges Indonesia to revise “official accounts and education materials relating to Indonesia’s presence in Timor-Leste to ensure that these give the Indonesian people an accurate and comprehensive account.”

Gusmao defends the CTF despite criticism that it emphasizes reaching closure, has no judicial mandate, and ensures impunity for ranking perpetrators. The Catholic Church in East Timor held a workshop Dec. 10 that pilloried the CTF because it was established without public consultation and offers scant prospects of providing truth or justice for victims. One organizer told me that the CTF is a doomed effort to promote collective amnesia. In the court of public opinion, the CTF lacks credibility and seems more likely to fan antagonisms than improve bilateral relations or promote reconciliation. I was told that only the Indonesian generals who committed crimes welcome the CTF.

Gusmao counters that Indonesia should be given another chance to come clean, doubts that amnesty will be granted and emphasizes that the CTF does not prejudice any future judicial initiatives. He takes a long-term view, arguing that progress in seeking justice and accountability for crimes committed by Germany and Japan during World War II is an ongoing process. In his view, the time is not yet ripe for formal legal justice, but this could change depending on the international community. In the meantime, he says that it is his duty to promote reconciliation and devote scarce resources to the more pressing needs of the Timorese that are all too evident. As a leader he stresses that “we have to see what we can do, not what we wish to do.”

But the Rev. Martinho Gusmao, the director of the Justice and Peace Commission in the Catholic diocese of Bacau told me: “There is no need for reconciliation between Indonesian and Timorese people, we have no problems. The problem is that Indonesian security forces committed crimes here and they need to be held accountable. This is also part of the process of building democracy here. We need to see that nobody is above the law, and the victims in our country need to see that the victimizers — whoever they are — are prosecuted. Amnesty is meaningless and will not promote reconciliation, only resentment. Victims want their day in court.”

Opposition leader Mario Carrascalao agrees and termed the government quarantine of the report “a grave mistake,” adding that “the government is worried about the impact on foreign relations. This is normal. But the report presents the voices of victims and their demand for justice and the government should respect this by releasing it.”

The ball is in Indonesia’s court, and it has an opportunity to demonstrate its commitment to justice and accountability. One Japanese observer told me that the CTF has thus far exceeded expectations to the extent that there has been surprisingly frank discussion concerning ranking perpetrators. By the middle of this year, we will learn whether the CTF can deliver what it promises. There appears to be little chance that public demands for justice will fade. Among the victims and survivors, there seems to be no enthusiasm for closure.

Development and investment needs persist

With a per capita gross domestic product of $369 a year, high unemployment and underemployment, few skilled workers, no industry, poor infrastructure and the world’s highest population growth — 4 percent per year — the economic situation is grim. Only oil and gas revenues, about $300 million in 2005, offer hope. A recent offshore production-sharing agreement with Australia will significantly boost this figure.

However, the history of mixing weak institutions with energy riches has not been happy as the governing elite in such countries often line their pockets while the public rarely benefits. To avoid this fate, the government has set up a Timor Sea Fund inspired by Norway’s model. Petroleum revenues are used to purchase U.S. Treasury bonds and saved in an account at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. While preserving the nation’s energy principal, some money is allocated for government programs with the idea of maintaining a large sustainable fund for future generations.

The petroleum fund, currently some $250 million, has safeguards designed to prevent embezzlement, but given the rapidly expanding amounts at stake, the incentives to overcome such measures are extraordinary.

Around East Timor, there seems to be no shortage of projects and investments that are desperately needed right now. Opposition political leader Mario Carascalao told me: “We should invest this money in developing human resources, infrastructure and capacity building now so that the benefits of higher revenues in the future will be better absorbed and have a greater impact. Sitting in New York this money is vulnerable and useless to our people who need it now.”

Abraao de Vasconselos, general manager of the Banking and Payments Authority, is in charge of the fund. He said, given the government’s limited institutional capacity and mechanisms to prevent waste, it does not make sense to squander the money now. Stressing that the search for quick solutions has been the downfall of other energy-rich nations, he advocates a gradual pace of spending and investments linked with the nation’s ability to absorb them.

Foreign aid

Yasuko Sakabe, a researcher at the Japanese Embassy in Dili, notes that Japanese economic assistance programs span a wide range — from basic human needs to conflict prevention and infrastructure projects. In fiscal year 2004-05, Japan contributed $37.43 million, making it the largest bilateral donor.

She said four Japanese nongovernment organizations, including Peace Winds, are active in East Timor, with two involved in coffee production. East Timor’s flavorful coffee, certified as an organic product of fair trade, is available at Starbucks, the result of a U.S. aid initiative.

By chance, I met two Japanese volunteers, a nurse and the organizer of a fisheries project. Although facing a difficult living and working environment, both seem satisfied that they can contribute in a meaningful way to a people in dire need.

Miyako Uramoto, along with two other Japanese nurses, works in a primary health-care clinic established in 1999 in a remote rural area under the auspices of the Alliance for Friends for Medical Care in East Timor. (AFMET is funded by the Japan International Cooperation Agency and the Japan Lay Missionary Movement.) Uramoto is often called on to offer medical care beyond what nurses usually provide. Along with endemic problems such as tuberculosis and malaria is high infant mortality. Forty percent of children die before age 5, she said.

Besides running the clinic, AFMET trains community health workers who visit remote villages to provide basic health-care information and advice.

Theresa Nao Tsujimura, an Ikuei Overseas Volunteer, has been training three Timorese to build small fiberglass fishing boats as part of a fisheries project aimed at addressing chronic malnutrition. Since its inception in 2003, the team has produced 18 boats in a project that received seed money from the Japanese Foreign Ministry and further funding from the Salesian Fathers, a Catholic order that runs educational programs in East Timor, including agricultural and technical training. To make the project self-sustaining, a cooling facility to preserve the fish, boat-and-engine maintenance training, and a microcredit scheme are in the works if sufficient funds can be raised.

Japan is also involved in a community initiative called Respect that aims to reconcile divided communities. Many of those who opposed independence were involved with paramilitary groups that frequently resorted to violence to intimidate voters in their villages. The program involves small grants of $10,000 for projects that generate employment and encourage former foes to work together. Japan funds over 150 of these rehabilitation and reintegration projects per annum.

Other important Japanese programs involve human-resource and capacity building such as funding for an engineering faculty at the national university and various training programs that annually involve 200 to 300 East Timorese studying in Japan.


Attendance at an investors’ meeting and conversations with others with long working experience in East Timor indicate that corruption, red tape and land-rights problems are hampering development. For example, Oxfam has waited three months for customs to process paperwork and clear a large imported shipment of baby formula already approved by the government. Apparently customs officials expect a bribe. Malnourished babies aren’t the only ones that wait in vain. Businessmen say they face similar problems with customs officials.

Securing access to land is problematic because people live on the plots leased by the government to investors. These so-called squatters — some may in fact have legitimate claims — effectively prevent investors from using the land unless clearance payments are made. Obtaining licenses to operate also creates hassles for would-be investors. Understandably, investors remain leery.

To address these problems the government has established a one-stop investment office designed to streamline procedures and help investors cut through red tape. Still, this initiative has been greeted with skepticism by foreign businessmen accustomed to broken promises and the aggravation of doing business in East Timor.

Gino Favoro, an ebullient Australian whose family has owned Dili’s oldest hotel since 1971, complains that “the legal system here moves like a turtle on holiday,” but he remains upbeat about business prospects and is launching Dili Air in 2006. This startup venture plans a regional network including Australia, China and the Philippines. The booming petroleum sector and expectations that China will ratchet up its participation is expected to stimulate demand for air services as exploration and drilling crews are rotated. Further expansion will depend on upgrading facilities at the now unused airport near Bacau. It has a longer runway than Dili airport and could play a key role in boosting fishery exports and tourism, including a large casino project proposed by investors in Macau.