By Joseph Israel M. Laban
JAKARTA, INDONESIA AND DILI, EAST TIMOR – With intermittent applause and encouraging laughter, it was almost easy to forget that the imposing figure who had the floor was testifying about his alleged involvement in atrocities committed in East Timor in 1999. The speaker, after all, was the former commander of the Indonesian armed forces, and he was supposed to be a giving a public, factual testimony to the Indonesia and East Timor Commission of Truth and Friendship (CTF). Yet given his audience’s nearly jocular mood and his easy manner, he may as well have been recounting his experiences in the 2004 presidential campaign trail.
Retired Indonesian armed forces general Wiranto was the officer in charge of security during the 30 August 1999 referendum in East Timor. A former Portuguese territory, East Timor came under Indonesian rule in late 1975. The United Nations-sponsored referendum saw East Timor voting to separate from Indonesia. Soon after, however, violence broke out, leading to the loss of more than 1,000 Timorese lives. Thousands of homes and buildings were also razed to the ground, almost wiping out the country’s economic infrastructure. Some 250,000 of the people were rendered homeless, and countless local women were said to have been raped. The rampage – believed by many to have been carried out by anti-independence Timorese militias supported by the Indonesian military — lasted several weeks. The nightmare stopped only with the arrival of multinational peacekeeping troops in late September 1999.
CTF was created in March 2005, a bilateral initiative of East Timor and Indonesia that was aimed at closing a bitter and highly sensitive chapter in the two countries’ shared history. More importantly, it was supposed to uncover the truth about the 1999 mayhem in East Timor. But even while its composition was still being drawn up, few believed the Commission would be able to achieve that particular goal.
CTF wound up its hearings in September 2007, when the likes of former East Timorese guerrilla leader and current prime minister Xanana Gusmao testified behind closed doors in Dili. Ordinary East Timorese, however, are not holding their breath over what CTF’s final report may say.
Indeed, throughout Southeast Asia, victims of large-scale atrocities committed or ordered by those who were in power have yet to see justice. Even Cambodia, which had a million of its people slaughtered by the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s, has yet to round up all the surviving leaders of the once mighty guerrilla group and have them tried by the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia.
At least the Cambodian tribunal has the support of the United Nations. The CTF – which can issue recommendations but has no mandate to prosecute anyone — cannot claim similar backing. The United Nations has called its proceedings a “whitewash” and even boycotted the Commission’s closed-door meetings. The head of the UN mission in East Timor in 1999, Ian Martin, was reportedly one of several UN officials who declined to testify before it.
Yet if the CTF’s report is deemed credible by the international community, it may effectively undermine the necessity of an international tribunal that will independently (albeit very publicly) investigate the 1999 tragedy in East Timor. Such a development would spare Indonesia further embarrassment, and presumably lead to an improved relationship between Jakarta and Dili. To many, however, that would mean a denial of justice to the victims of the 1999 atrocities.
The need for a strong message
At this juncture ”a trial at an international court would send a strong message to everyone that crimes against humanity will not be tolerated,” said Jose Luis de Oliveira, executive director of HAK Association, a human-rights organisation based in Dili. “It would end the circle of impunity and would provide a measure of justice to the victims.” Unfortunately, he said, the CTF was “just another effort to evade the principle of justice and allow the perpetrators to go unpunished. This time the whitewashing goes under the name of friendship”.
It’s a view that is shared by many East Timorese. In East Timor – now also often referred to as Timor-Leste — some sectors even believe that former resistance leaders in the government share Indonesia’s eagerness in blocking a possible international crimes tribunal. Aside from scrutinising crimes purportedly done by pro-Indonesian militia and the Indonesian military, they say a tribunal could also dig up allegations of crimes committed by the local guerilla movement during Indonesia’s more than two decades of occupation of East Timor.
Interviewed two days after he was declared the winner in the May 2007 presidential polls, East Timor President Jose Ramos Horta vehemently denied these allegations. “It has absolutely nothing to do with that,” said the Nobel Peace laureate. He also noted that the findings of a UN-sponsored commission that “only 20 percent of the crimes during the occupation were committed by the resistance”.
Dionisio Babu Soares, CTF’s Timor-Leste co-chairman, meanwhile professed to be “amazed” by the criticisms directed at the Commission. “This is a method that has been used by other commissions around the world but has not been criticised,” he said, comparing the CTF to the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission. But he admitted that unlike its South African counterpart, the CTF “is not mandated to use a prosecutorial approach”.
“If you are asking me as a lawyer, of course a formal court is the most credible,” he also said, when asked if he would support an international tribunal. “But if you are asking me as a commissioner exercising the mandate given to me by my president, I think the best way to resolve this case is through reconciliation and a non-prosecutorial approach.”
Ramos Horta had a much simpler response. “I will not support the call for an international tribunal,” he said. According to the East Timor president, his country and Indonesia are “new democracies” that cannot afford an overdrawn process that such a tribunal would entail. He also said that there is a host of pragmatic considerations for his young government. ”Justice,” said Ramos Horta, “cannot be blind to the social, economic, and political situations.”
Indonesia is not only East Timor’s giant next-door neighbor; it is also its main trading partner. But Indonesian and East Timorese political analysts and human-rights advocates pointed out that East Timor can ill afford reinforcing the perception that it suffers from a “judicial deficit”. Which is, they said, what Wiranto’s testimony that sweltering Saturday afternoon last May in Jakarta seemed to demonstrate.
Waiting for Wiranto
The former military man (and ex-presidential candidate) had arrived at the crowded ballroom of Hotel Borubodur after lunch, and after a morning of wild speculation among several onlookers that he would not show up at all. Surrounded by a retinue of bodyguards, the 60-year-old looked quite relaxed even as he kept waving and shaking the hands of the people who behaved much like his fans. He was still smiling when he took an oath to tell the truth, a copy of the Holy Koran held above his head by an elderly cleric.
Wiranto’s appearance before the CTF was voluntary, just like those of the other prominent figures who had previously given their own testimonies. And just like theirs, his testimony’s direction became apparent within a couple of minutes into what would turn out to be a nearly two-hour speech. Predictably, and consistent with his past declarations, his version of events remained diametrically opposed to the findings of numerous investigations in Indonesia and East Timor. But the crowd that was in rapt attention did not seem to mind.
Or perhaps they just knew what he would be saying, since this was the same Wiranto who had tried to place the blame for the 1999 violence on the UN Mission in East Timor (UNAMET). Earlier media reports had quoted him as saying that UNAMET’s failure to remain neutral during that historical moment sparked anger among East Timorese who, he said, felt they were being treated “unfairly”.
Then again, he was merely echoing the view of several Indonesian officials who have contended that UN personnel may have instigated electoral fraud to help East Timor’s pro-independence movement. According to the popular Indonesian daily Kompas, Indonesian Foreign Minister Hassan Wirayuda had said the United Nations would benefit from its officials’ non-appearance before the CTF because “they would not want to have what is being called fraud by UNAMET to be uncovered”.
In any case, Wiranto testified that the 1999 violence in East Timor was nothing more than “ordinary crimes committed by both sides, not extraordinary crimes instigated by the military”. Somehow, too, he managed to put some blame to Portugal, which he said “irresponsibly left East Timor, leaving it in a civil war”.
He repeatedly insisted that “there were no government policies to attack civilians” and that “there were no systematic plans, no genocide, no crimes against humanity”. And in between the scripted rhetoric in Bahasa Indonesia, he previewed a lengthy video presentation that was supposed to showcase his role as a broker of peace. He even launched on a spiel about giving peace a chance.
The four-star general stressed that the absence of gross human rights abuses in East Timor was confirmed by an ad-hoc court set up by the Indonesian government to try those who were allegedly involved in the 1999 violence. He was, however, referring to the same court that a UN commission had questioned two years earlier because of its supposedly flawed methods.
Damning conclusions in UN reports
The Commission of Experts (COE) was formed by the United Nations in February 2005. Its mission was to evaluate existing judicial processes and propose the next steps in holding accountable those responsible for serious crimes committed during the 1999 East Timor tragedy.
The COE subsequently found the trials of Indonesia’s Ad-Hoc Human Rights Committee to be “manifestly inadequate” and “demonstrating scant respect for or conformity to relevant international standards”. In comparison, it said, the trials conducted by the UN-supported Special Crimes Unit (SCU) and Special Panels in Timor-Leste had successfully attained a ”notable degree of accountability”. But, the COE pointed out, efforts to move forward were being hampered by limited resources, inadequate support, weak political will of the East Timor government, and the dismissive attitude of Indonesian authorities.
Collectively known as serious-crimes processes, the SCU and Special Panels had been established by the UN Security Council in 2000. Investigations, prosecutions, and trials for crimes against humanity in East Timor fell under the SCU’s jurisdiction. Eventually, it indicted 392 people, including General Wiranto.
Overall, 85 people were convicted and two were acquitted. But more than 70 percent of those indicted remain free to this day, a development that can only be expected since most of the indictments were not followed through; Indonesia was also adamant about not recognising the authority of the SCU, which was dissolved in June 2005.
And so some of those implicated by the SCU in the 1999 East Timor tragedy would even conspicuously continue holding high positions in the Indonesian government. For example, by the time he was brought to trial in 2002, Major General Adam Damiri, the Indonesian regional military commander in charge of East Timor in 1999, had assumed the post of Assistant for Operations to the Armed Forces Chief of General Staff.
As early as December 1999, a report filed by special rapporteurs of the UN Commission on Human Rights said there were clear indications that “the crimes committed in (East Timor) would not have been possible without planning and action at the highest levels of the Indonesian government and military”. A month later, the UN International Commission of Inquiry concluded that “that there were patterns of gross violations of human rights and breaches of humanitarian law, which varied over time and took the form of systematic and widespread intimidation, humiliation and terror, destruction of property, violence against women and displacement of people”.
It then recommended that United Nations “establish an international human rights tribunal consisting of judges appointed by the UN, preferably with participation of members from East Timor and Indonesia”.
Instead, Indonesia and East Timor went on to form the Commission on Truth and Friendship –amid widespread opposition from Timor-Leste’s Roman Catholic bishops, various international civil society groups, and even organisations based in the two countries.
A body under fire
The CTF is composed of five commissioners each from Indonesia and East Timor. Aside from being unable to recommend prosecution or other judicial measures, it also cannot compel individuals to testify or cooperate. It can, however, recommend amnesty for those who “cooperate fully”. It is this provision that the United Nations has found particularly upsetting, and which it has tried to convince the Commission to get rid of.
In February 2007, the CTF began to hold public hearings in Bali and Jakarta after operating for almost two years quietly and under very limited public scrutiny. The May 5 hearing that saw Wiranto testify was the third of its kind in a span of just three months. Previously, the commission had also heard testimonies from a number of public figures from both countries, including former Indonesian President B.J. Habibie and former Dili Bishop Carlos Filipe Ximenes Belo.
But critics of the Commission singled out several high-ranking Indonesian military and civilian officials for uttering statements that, they said, were “self-serving” and contradictory to “well-established historical record”. Or as a report by the Timor-Leste Institute for Reconstruction Monitoring and Analysis (La’o Hamutuk) put it, the CTF proceedings seemed to be meant to “clear the reputations of former and current Indonesian leaders and cast aspersions on the UN and other international institutions and legal processes” more than anything else.
To La’o Hamutuk analyst Charles Scheiner, the Commission was “too concerned about building economic and political relationships rather than (seeking) justice”. He added, “The commission has allowed itself to become a platform where lies are told.”
At the very least, Wiranto was not made to account for any of the UN reports’ findings during the hearing. Not one of the commissioners brought them up. The East Timorese commissioners sat quietly as Wiranto said with intensity, “If I planned all those arson, then nothing would have been left there.” But the tersely enunciated line was met by approving laughter from the adoring crowd.
“If you look at Wiranto specifically, he was not here (in East Timor) when the militia burned down houses,” CTF Co-Chairman Soares, who was not present during the hearing, said later. He also pointed out that the principle of “command responsibility” does not apply because “we are not talking about a formal justice system here, we are talking about approaching the cases through a political pathway but still using legal instruments to analyse it.”
He said that the CTF would be addressing “only 14 cases (that) fulfill the criteria” that it developed, even though almost 500 murders committed during the 1999 violence have yet to be investigated by any official body. Soares said that due to the “enormous number” of human-rights violations committed in East Timor in 1999, the CTF had to narrow down the scope of the Commission’s mandate with a set of predetermined standards. He said the criteria the commissioners agreed on are that the cases “are still living in the collective memory of the people, they still continue to be remembered every year, and third, it is still a question to the international community”.
Few among General Wiranto’s audience that Saturday afternoon in the Indonesian capital had any first-hand memory of the carnage that took place in East Timor in 1999. They obviously were not there. The general’s speech was a hit, and most of those who heard him took home a tale of a war hero returning from the battlefield.
It is said that it is the victors who usually write and rewrite history. In the case of East Timor, however, there are times when it is simply not clear who won.
Joseph Israel M. Laban is a senior producer at the Manila-based GMA-7, one of the two biggest broadcast networks in the Philippines. This article was produced under the 2007 SEAPA Journalism Fellowship.