Subject: JP: Open Doors To E. Timor Inquiry

Jakarta Post January 12, 2000

Editorial and Opinion

Open doors to E. Timor inquiry

By Edward Cowan

WASHINGTON (JP): Indonesia's inquiry into what happened in East Timor in 1999 is commendable. The Indonesian people need to know how murder and arson and looting and kidnapping happened, and who was responsible.

More precisely, the people and the rest of the world want to know whether there is any merit to the claim of the military that they were not responsible for what the Timorese militias did -- either by acts of commission or by omission.

But the way the Commission on Human Rights Abuses in East Timor (KPP HAM) is going about the investigation is unsatisfactory. The commission is conducting its inquiry behind closed doors. Doing that has several unfortunate consequences.

First, it denies to the public the verbatim testimony of the witnesses. Instead, the public reads what the witnesses told journalists when they emerged from the inquiry.

In some cases, these statements are highly conclusionary, but not illuminating. For example, in an Associated Press story that appeared in The New York Times on Dec. 25, 1999, Gen. Wiranto was reported as stating blanket denials to reporters, but there was no explanation as to why TNI (Indonesian Military) forces did not keep order.

Similar stories appear in The Jakarta Post and other newspapers day by day, as the inquiry unfolds. They always report what witnesses said "after" testifying. But they don't report the testimony itself -- which may or may not be substantially the same -- because reporters have not been allowed to hear the testimony. (Whether television cameras should be allowed to tape it or broadcast it live is a related but separate question. In principle, they should not be wholly excluded.)

Gen. Wiranto and any witness is entitled to utter blanket denials to the press. He can do that without a tribunal. But what did the general tell the tribunal? What did it learn? Did he say precisely what he said afterwards to reporters? Or was his testimony more qualified? How did Gen. Wiranto answer the circumstantial, detailed questions about specific events that one hopes the tribunal's members asked? In fact, did they ask such questions?

That raises a second unsatisfactory result of not letting the press and the public attend the inquiry. The public doesn't know whether the tribunal asked detailed questions, whether it asked follow-up questions or whether it alertly challenged inconsistencies between the testimonies of different witnesses.

Consequently, it is difficult to judge whether the inquiry is being conducted competently -- that is to say, with aggressive thoroughness and with adequate preparation by tribunal members. Do they listen passively? Or do they question searchingly?

President Abdurrahman Wahid and many other Indonesians have been resisting cries from abroad for an international investigative body to look into the events of East Timor. That proposal can be rejected more persuasively if Indonesia's internal inquiry is seen to be thorough, competent and purposeful.

When the inquiry is conducted behind closed doors, outsiders have no basis for such a finding. So far, there is no way to conclude that the inquiry merits public confidence.

Indeed, the tribunal has raised a doubt about its own objectivity by publishing an interim finding, before hearing testimony. It voiced a presumption that TNI generals, including Wiranto, should be held responsible for failing to prevent the violence from occurring, and failing to stop it.

That is a reasonable view, one held by people in Indonesia and elsewhere who wondered why an army that had occupied the 27th province for 24 years could not keep order. But for the commission of inquiry to indulge itself in expressing that view before it had heard all interested parties, and especially those suspected of malfeasance, was a tactical error. It opened the tribunal to the charge that it had made up its mind before hearing all the evidence.

Those who favor taking testimony behind closed doors will argue that the public should not be exposed to unsubstantiated accusations and rumors, if only to protect the reputations of those falsely accused.

Depending on who utters it, that may be a decent sensibility -- if it is not a pretext for a cover-up. As decent as it may be, however, it is not one that should prevail, as a rule.

If democratic government has one transcendent quality, it is openness.

Democracy's slogan is "Trust the people." Give the people the facts and let them decide. That is the basis of free elections. If there is conflict between testimonies, let the conflicting assertions be heard, compared and evaluated. Let the public hear the tone of voice, see the body language and facial expression and reach its own conclusions about where the truth lies. Different people may reach different conclusions. It is not always a tidy process, and sometimes untruthful declarations capture the field, usually only briefly.

How the Timor inquiry is conducted is not an isolated question. It may bear on the inquiry that is coming about events in Aceh, where similar issues will be explored. It is to be hoped that in Aceh the doors of the inquiring body will be open, the witnesses will be required to give sworn testimony subject to the penalties of perjury and the facts -- including conflicting statements -- will be available to press and public.

The writer, a retired New York Times correspondent, spent three months in Indonesia in 1999 as a Knight International Press Fellow.

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