Timor-Leste and Australia – Moving forward by acknowledging the past

By Jess O’Callaghan

This article is part of our July focus on “Australia in the World”. Click here for more articles in this issue.

By Jess O’Callaghan

More than decade on from when Timor-Leste gained independence, and six month since troops left the country, Minister of Foreign Affairs Bob Carr has initiated an inquiry into the relationship between the young nation, one hour’s flight from Darwin, and Australia. With the inquiry looking optimistically to the future, there are some who fear it could overlook the past.

“The reason I talked about the Missing Persons Centre is that Timor suffered the largest loss of life relative to total population since the Holocaust,” explains Dr Clinton Fernandes, an expert in international relations and politics from UNSW.

“That’s uncontroversial, the loss of life that occurred there. And many want to know what happened to their loved ones. People died in the mountains, people died in refugee-type camps, people died because they were abducted, tortured and then buried in a mass grave elsewhere, and so it’s necessary I think to go and find these people because their families are getting old and they want to know what happened and where their loved ones are buried.”

When the United Nations Integrated Mission in Timor-Leste (UNMIT) withdrew in December 2012, it wasn’t only the peacekeeping mission that ended. Uncompleted investigations into 60 cases of serious human rights violations also came to a close.

The end of Serious Crimes Investigation Team’s (SCIT) mandate is only the latest setback in a series of attempts over the past decade to investigate and prosecute the human rights violations that occurred in Timor-Leste during the Indonesian occupation. Until 2005, the process was led by the Timor-Leste Commission for Reception, Truth and Reconciliation (CAVR). Serious Crimes Cases, including murder, rape and torture, were investigated by CAVR and forwarded to the Serious Crimes Unit of the Prosecutor-General’s Office. In 2006, this process was replaced by SCIT, and in early 2008, they began assisting the Prosecutor General’s Office with outstanding offences.

Timor-Leste voted in a referendum to become independent from Indonesia in 1999. After becoming briefly independent from Portugal in 1975, the nation was annexed by Indonesia. The period between 1975 and 1999 saw human rights violations on a massive scale. The exact number Timorese killed during the occupation varies, but it is accepted that up to 180 000 out of a population of around 650 000 died as a result of the occupation. The struggle for independence played out against a Cold War backdrop and Suharto’s leadership in Indonesia.

Between 2008-2012 SCIT focused solely on the serious crimes involved in the 1999 violence which followed the referendum for independence. It’s estimated that between August 20 and October 12 1999, 1400 were killed and 400,000 displaced or forcibly removed to West Timor, and 60-80% of all public and private property was destroyed.

There is yet to be an international tribunal for prosecuting war crimes, despite many recommendations since 2000 that such a process is needed to provide justice for victims and facilitate reconciliation between Indonesia and Timor-Leste. The UN International Commission Inquiry in January 2000 also recommended establishing an international investigative body and tribunal, but it was decided – based on assurances from Indonesia that it intended to pursue justice further – that it could proceed at a bilateral level.

An ad-hoc Human Rights Court in Indonesia saw 18 people indicted for war crimes and 18 people acquitted. In 2005, a UN Commission of Experts recommended that if progress was not achieved through a bilateral approach to prosecuting serious crimes that the Security Council adopt a resolution to create an ad hoc international. They estimated that between 1975 and criminal tribunal for Timor-Leste, to be located in a third state. The commission estimated that between 1975 and 1999 18,600 civilians were killed or disappeared, with a further 84,200 dying of starvation or illness as a direct result of the conflict.

That same year, Indonesia and Timor-Leste changed their approach to a process focused on reconciliation rather than prosecution. Together they established the Commission of Truth and Friendship (CTF) with a mandate to reveal the “conclusive truth” about the Indonesian occupation. It had the power to investigate and grant amnesties, and no power to prosecute.

On February 6, 2013, Minister of Foreign Affairs Bob Carr asked the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade to hold an inquiry into the relationship between Australia and Timor-Leste. The inquiry was directed a number of issues: bilateral relations at the parliamentary and government level; aid and economic issues; cultural, educational and scientific relations; links between people and community groups in Timor-Leste with those in Australia; defence cooperation, and regional security.

This is the first inquiry into our relationship with East Timor since a Senate inquiry in December 2000. Evidence provided at that time suggested that somewhere between 120,000 and 200,000 East Timorese lives were lost as a result of the Indonesian occupation, and there is an entire chapter of the committee’s final report dedicated to human rights in East Timor, including a subsection titled “Holding account those responsible for crimes”.

Despite the unresolved issues in Timor-Leste’s past, and Australia’s murky complicity in many aspects of the human rights violations that occurred over the 25 years of Indonesian occupation, the inquiry looks firmly to the future. It is optimistic in its exploration of the Timor Sea Treaty, oil and gas field development, food aid and worker exchange programs. Of the 72 submissions received, only a few address projects or problems related to the investigation of war crimes, or achieving justice for victims of human rights abuses and families of victims who live in Timor-Leste. Of those few who did, none were invited to testify in the hearings.

Human rights dialogue in Timor-Leste has been framed through the lens of international aid, focused on food aid and worker programs. Despite the issue of war crimes not having been settled in any manner satisfactory to international standards, the framework of the 2000 inquiry has been discarded. The CAVR report recommended providing reparations to victims and their families and taking effective measures to identify victims of forced disappearance and separation from their families. In February 2012, the Timor-Leste parliament began debating two draft laws, establishing a Public Memory Institute and a national reparations scheme. Both were postponed for the third time since June 2010, with no date set for the debate to resume.

A 2012 Amnesty International Report “Timor-Leste: Remembering the Past addresses the issues surrounding the implementation of these two proposals, including seeking financial contributions from Indonesia for reparations and international support from the UN Security Council noting that the East Timorese government is yet to do so. It also notes that while victims, their families and civil society organisations in Timor-Leste continue to advocate for justice and reparations, any attempts so far have been weak and ineffective.

This is a sentiment echoed by a submission to the inquiry from James Dunn, a former Australian consul in Timor-Leste who wrote a definitive book on the occupation in the mid-1980s and served as a UN Transitional Administration in East Timor (UNTAET) expert on crimes against humanity in Timor-Leste in 2001.

“It is of course a difficult case for the Australian Government, which has been carefully nurturing our relations with Jakarta, but it is in Australia’s long term national interest that the matter be dealt with,” writes Dunn in the submission, which focuses on a “More Satisfactory Settlement of the War Crimes Issue”.

Dunn explains the danger in not settling the war crimes issue properly. “I think it is forcing into the psyche of East Timor certain bitterness to Indonesia for what transpired in the past and for the failure to be acknowledged.” While the governments of Timor-Leste, Indonesia and Australia have a stubborn focus on ignoring the past in favour of the present, Dunn says they are also ignoring that “this is really about the present too. It’s under the social fabric of East Timor, not only the fact these terrible things happened, but that there was no justice, no apology, nothing.”

Another submission is from Dr Clinton Fernandes and Dr Soren Blau, a Senior Forensic Anthropologist at the Victorian Institute of Forensic Medicine. They suggest that Australia fund a Missing Persons Identification Centre to assist in training East Timorese forensic anthropologists to locate and identify those who went missing during the occupation. “It’s almost like there’s a complete vow of silence on the major human rights violation that occurred in our region, in the last thirty years” says Dr Fernandes. “[N]amely, the genocide in Timor. And so that focus is what that centre of identification would give.”

There have also been efforts at a non-governmental level to record the testimonies of those who were made victims of the Indonesian occupation, if not for the administration of justice, then for the historical record. The Living Memory Project began collecting the testimonies of former political prisoners in 2005. Managed by Australian journalist Jill Jolliffe (whose extensive work in Timor-Leste included writing Balibo, an account of the Australian journalists killed during the Indonesian invasion in 1975), the project filmed 52 interviews, 13 of which are archived online at the Southeast Asia Digital Video Archive.

The interviews are jarring; the honesty of the retelling often shocks the viewer into confronting the reality of the conflict. Armandina Maria Gusmao, community leader and human rights advocate, recalls her initial disbelief at the invasion and the investigation and her imprisonment that followed. In 1975, she explains, she was still a student, living with some of her siblings in Dili, her father visiting to attend a course in the city.

“It was getting light, when we saw many planes, one after another, and the parachutes and paratroopers descending. Each plane that passed dropped, it seemed like, I don’t know, mushrooms, falling from the sky…what we didn’t understand was that it was an invasion.”

More testimony comes from Rosa Pereira de Rego, who was seven months pregnant when she was arrested in June 1976, accused of aiding resistance guerrillas. Most of those filmed experienced torture during the occupation, and the project aims to bring their experiences to future generations in Timor-Leste, as well as the international community.

Despite projects like this, and the roles Australian’s like Joliffee, Dr Blau and Dr Fernandes play in facilitating them, officially the Timor-Leste and Australian governments do little to acknowledge the need to remember the past.

The Australian government and Timor-Leste have an interest in moving forward. But to do so without proper settlement of past human rights violations denies justice to the victims and their families, and, as James Dunn points out, has a broader effect on international relations: “Justice is important, but in a very pragmatic sense, perhaps even more important is the full acknowledgement of wrongs that are unacceptable in modern global society.”

To examine Australia and Timor-Leste while ignoring the human rights context beyond the past decade is to miss important aspects of an important relationship, and proceed into the future on the shaky premise that the past is settled and dealt with.

“It’s not about reopening something. It’s about closing it, decently,” Dunn says.

Jess O’Callaghan is finishing a Media and Communications degree, producing podcasts and writing about politics.