Subject: NST: OPINION: Timor truths and the ghosts of the past

New Straits Times

OPINION: Timor truths and the ghosts of the past


March 16:

As the Commission of Truth and Friendship gets down to investigating the violence in Timor Leste after the independence referendum, Indonesia hopes that learning what happened will help the country deal with its past, says AMY CHEW.

AGUS Widjoyo was a young captain when he was first deployed in East Timor in 1976, a year after Indonesia invaded and annexed the tiny Portuguese territory.

Now a retired three-star general, Agus, 59, is once again being sent to East Timor ­ under circumstances far different from the days of his youth and for a role totally opposite to that of a soldier.

Appointed to the Commission of Truth and Friendship (CTF), Agus, a respected reformist general, is tasked with investigating the violence following the referendum that left more than 1,000 people dead in 1999.

"The commission’s task is to unfold the truth, to bring out what actually happened, who the victims were, who were the people most responsible for the events, gain lessons so that such events will not happen again," Agus said.

The commission is mandated to investigate the events that took place from January 1999 to December 1999, seek reconciliation and work towards forging a lasting friendship with East Timor.

Unfolding the truth is crucial both for East Timor and Indonesia so that the two nations can move forward to rebuild their respective countries.

The birth of East Timor was a painful one ­ for both sides.

The country was scorched, looted and destroyed by pro- Jakarta militias backed by elements of the military. Thousands of Timorese were displaced as they fled for their lives into neighbouring West Timor.

Indonesia, meanwhile, was deeply hurt by the loss of a territory secured through the deaths of many young men in 1975. The Government had poured billions of dollars to develop the infrastructure ­ schools, hospitals, churches.

The largest Southeast Asian nation also felt abandoned by the Western powers who once had tacitly encouraged former President Suharto to invade East Timor.

The same powers then turned around and accused Indonesia of gross human rights violations on par with Yugoslavia, drawing international condemnation.

The loss of East Timor, combined with the accusations, left a deep scar in Indonesia’s psyche which lingers till today.

Indonesians blamed the loss of East Timor on a conspiracy of foreign powers rather than an accumulation of decades of oppression by Suharto who ruled the territory with an iron fist, putting down dissent with brutal military force.

After East Timor broke away, segments of Indonesian society became ultra-nationalistic, introverted and sometimes xenophobic ­ as evident from the constant finger-pointing at foreigners and Western governments whenever economic, social and security issues arise.

The first Bali bombings in 2002, for example, were blamed on the US Central Intelligence Agency. The less- than-stellar performance of the economy is blamed on foreign investors who plunder the land, working in concert with "foreign powers" to hinder Indonesia’s growth.

"We can judge that through the opinion of the public, as though the breaking away of Timor Leste was caused by international conspiracy and not by the need to improve our own internal system.

"So rather than find weaknesses and improve our own system through introspection, we tend to fall into conspiracy theories and blame it on somebody else," said Agus.

For Indonesia, finding the truth of the events will help it to come to terms with the loss of the territory, make amends and regain its footing as an influential nation in Southeast Asia.

"It (unfolding the truth) will bury the hurtful past between the two nations; it will provide lessons for reconciliation and a way out of a difficult past."

Human rights groups have blamed the violence on rampaging pro-Jakarta Timorese militias backed by elements of the military.

They also say Jakarta’s special human rights court, set up under international pressure, has failed to bring to justice security officers and militia leaders accused of committing violence, leading to calls for an international tribunal.

The CTF, which comprises five Indonesian commissioners and five Timorese commissioners, does not have prosecutorial powers.

Should the commission succeed in conducting a thorough and transparent investigation, Agus hopes it will "diminish" the calls for an international tribunal.

Timor Leste’s Foreign Minister Jose Ramos Horta said in a recent interview with the Jakarta Post that if the work of the commission was transparent and credible, he was sure it would be accepted by Timorese and Indonesians alike.

The Timorese have shown themselves to be open to reconciliation, taking the lead from their magnaminous leader, President Xanana Gusmao.

Gusmao, who spent more than seven years in a Jakarta prison, has consistently and repeatedly called for reconciliation and not vengeance.

Horta reportedly said many pro-Jakarta militia members have since returned to Timor Leste and there has not been one single case of revenge.

The road ahead for Timor Leste is a hard one as it struggles to rebuild its shattered economy. Last week, the United Nations Development Fund ranked the fledgling state as the poorest in the region with a per capita income of a mere US$370 a year (RM1,400).

As thousands of well-paid peacekeepers and international administrators gradually pull out, Timor Leste is getting poorer by the day.

But for Agus, the CTF’s work goes deeper than seeking truth and reconciliation in East Timor alone.

He hopes it will provide lessons for reconciliation within Indonesia itself ­ which underwent a tumultuous time in 1998. Much blood was shed in the run-up to and after the ousting of Suharto, the fatal shooting of Trisakti University students, the deadly May riots, the disappearance of activists and others.

The families of the victims continue to seek justice from the Government until today.

"It (the commission) will also establish the experience to proceed with reconciliation within the national scope of Indonesia," said Agus.

Indonesia has come far and can take pride in some of its achievements ­ the country has a free and vibrant Press and the progress of democratic reforms is reflected in 2004’s successful and peaceful first direct presidential elections.

The country also showcased its ability to resolve conflicts peacefully when it made a peace deal with separatist rebels in Aceh province last year.

Regaining its respectability on the international stage will serve to imbue Indonesians with the sense of pride they lost in 1999. But to reach that full state of confidence, Indonesia must first put the ghosts of its past to rest.

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