Subject: AT: E. Timor Faces Historic Wrongs

Received from Joyo Indonesia News

Asia Times Tuesday, December 23, 2003

East Timor Faces Historic Wrongs

By Jill Jolliffe

DILI - Interior Minister Rogerio Lobato is known as the strongman in East Timor's government. Yet he wept like a child as he confessed publicly to beating a prisoner during the 1975 civil war. "I knew it was wrong, but he had killed my younger brother," Lobato said. "I lost control. I didn't kill him, but I beat him up twice, badly," he continued, asking the community and the man's family for forgiveness.

In admitting frankly to violating human rights, Lobato was in a minority among the 13 politicians who testified before the Reception, Truth and Reconciliation Commission here in the capital last week. The commission was formed in 2001 to reconcile communities divided by the militia violence that occurred in East Timor in 1999, but it also has a mandate to examine human-rights violations committed between 1974 and 1999.

The commission's latest public hearing was on the most sensitive of topics - the events leading to the six-week civil war, which gave Indonesia the excuse it was seeking to invade and occupy the then-Portuguese colony. The brief but bloody conflict between the nationalist Fretilin and Timorese Democratic Union (UDT) parties in August and September 1975 cost about 1,200 lives.

Events leading to the civil war began in 1974 when a left-wing revolution in Portugal offered freedom to the country's African colonies as well as to East Timor. The immediate trigger, however, was the UDT's seizure of power from the Portuguese administration, which later withdrew to a neighboring island, ending almost 500 years of colonial rule. The Indonesian government then used the resulting power vacuum to annex East Timor - later evidence shows that its intelligence agents had subverted the UDT coup leader - leading to a breakout in violence.

Now the truth commission, which consists of seven commissioners, has invited political leaders to accept responsibility for the violence and seek forgiveness from their people, while also warning them of the dangers of self-incrimination. Last week, most witnesses defended their party's version of civil-war history, and all formally requested forgiveness. But with a few exceptions, the errors they admitted - such as promoting intolerance and losing self-control - were so generalized as to be meaningless.

One of the first to testify was Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri. When he concluded his testimony with the phrase, "I can state that I didn't do anything. I wasn't even [Fretilin] president or secretary," he was cross-questioned impatiently by commissioner Jose Estevao, who pointed out that the commission deals with human-rights abuses, yet witnesses were engaging in politics. He accused them of lacking courage. "Nobody is accepting blame," Estevao asserted. "I would like you, as a leader of Fretilin, to say whether Fretilin violated human rights."

Former militia hard-man Tomas Goncalves, who served as a "partisan" with Indonesia's 1975 invasion force but defected to the independence cause in 1999, raised skepticism with his solemn declaration that "God shone on the partisans, deciding that none of us had to fire a single bullet".

Echoes From the Midst of War

The Timorese public followed the hearings avidly, and with keen interest in the explanations for the killing of scores of prisoners that Fretilin held in Dili when Indonesia invaded. Despite protests from the International Red Cross, Fretilin leaders took these prisoners to the mountains with them. Their bodies, and those of others held in local prisons, were found in mass graves in the Aileu and Same areas in early 1976. They included senior leaders of the UDT party as well as the founder of the pro-Indonesian Apodeti party.

In addition to these killings, the truth commission produced witnesses backing claims that both sides in the civil war had carried out summary executions. Fretilin supporter Manuel Duarte told of surviving the UDT's execution of about 76 of his party's members in Ermera district in August 1975. While Monis da Maia survived an execution of UDT prisoners by the Fretilin near the south-coast town of Same on January 28, 1976, six weeks after Indonesia's full-scale invasion of East Timor. The prisoners had been moved from prison to prison as the advance began. Da Maia was one of eight men blindfolded and shot by Fretilin soldiers, whose identities he knows but did not reveal. He lived to tell the tale because the bullet only grazed his head.

When Fretilin exiles returned to Dili after 1999, Prime Minister Alkatiri apologized publicly for past human-rights abuses by his party, including these killings, but the issue was relegated to an internal party inquiry, which has said nothing in the years since, and no independent inquiry has been held. The Fretilin leader had himself left the country weeks before the killings, so no one has questioned his personal involvement. However, many Timorese believe the present leadership is aware of the executioners' identities. In response to commissioner Estevao's query, the prime minister asserted: "I'm not saying the people killed ... themselves. But I don't know who did. Because of the context, Fretilin accepts responsibility."

His view, however, was bluntly contradicted by the aging former president of Fretilin, Xavier do Amaral, whose frankness echoed that of Lobato. In testimony translated from Tetum, the lingua franca of East Timor, he claimed: "We were in the midst of war, we had no transport, medicines or food. Some of the prisoners were very ill. If we let them survive, they could have fallen into enemy hands, to be used against us. So we took a decision to kill them. That was a common decision, taken by every level of the leadership."

Portugal's Disastrous Decolonization

Portugal's role in East Timor's disastrous decolonization was one that divided politicians, with government members generally denying that its policies caused the turmoil. The present Timorese government has received generous financial aid from Lisbon since 1999, and accepts growing Portuguese influence in its affairs. Its choice of Portuguese as an official language is hotly contested by the younger generation, which has doubts about this pro-Portuguese version of history.

Former Portuguese governor Mario Lemos Pires was among several international witnesses, giving video testimony from Lisbon at the truth commission. He previously published a book on the ill-fated decolonization, so his statement contained no major revelations. However, it did emphasize that although he personally tried his best for the East Timorese, he had little backing from his leftist government. It also gave priority to decolonizing oil-rich Angola in a manner that would preserve Portuguese influence there.

Pires justified his withdrawal of troops from mainland Timor at the height of the civil war on the grounds that the new regime was opposed to any post-colonial involvement. "I had to ... prevent a guerrilla war against the Portuguese government in East Timor," he said. "The African wars had just finished because Portugal could not cope any more with this situation."

East Timorese Foreign Minister Ramos Horta praised Pires' role, saying he had been made a scapegoat, "a victim of the process", adding that Portugal had no blame in the outcome. By contrast, Lobato argued that the ex-governor could have restored order instead of retreating with his commandos to the offshore island of Atauro. Lobato was a junior officer in 1975 and most of the Portuguese garrison was made up of Timorese conscripts. "The Portuguese command could have used its paratroopers to restore order," he argued. "We told the governor that if he did so, the Timorese soldiers would support him."

Australia's former consul in Dili, James Dunn, a long-standing champion of Timorese rights, agreed with Pires that external interests had fanned divisions and limited the choices of Timor's immature politicians 30 years ago. Both men cited the Suharto dictatorship's virulent anti-communism, the Australian government's refusal to assist Portugal in decolonization and the communist victory in Vietnam, which had hardened US attitudes to leftist governments in the region but inspired the impressionable young Timorese.

There was agreement among experts that Indonesia's long-standing plan to annex East Timor ultimately rendered the behavior of the territory's inexperienced politicians irrelevant. Nevertheless, the calling of ex-leaders to account by the truth commission was popular in Timor. And if the politicians effectively evaded responsibility, they also used the occasion for a token display of forgiveness.

Prime Minister Alkatiri and most of his cabinet appeared at the closing session featuring former arch-enemy Joao Carrascalao, the UDT leader accused of starting the coup. Instead of confrontation, the politicians staged an unexpected hug-fest of mutual forgiveness, embracing and weeping on each others' shoulders in the hope of wiping away the memory of fratricidal violence once and for all.

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