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Timor-Leste - Don’t Forget

We meet José Serrao in a dusty courtyard just behind the back of the parish church in Liquiça, an hour’s drive from Dili, the capital of Timor-Leste (also known as East Timor). Today, Liquiça is eerily silent; 10 years ago, it was the scene of one of the country’s worst massacres. In April 1999, an estimated 200 people lost their lives here as they tried to hide from local militia intent on influencing the upcoming independence vote. José was one of the few to survive.

After nearly 25 years of Indonesian rule, the referendum offered the people of Timor-Leste the chance of freedom. But those loyal to Indonesia were not happy. Violence was the order of the day.

José still bears the scars of that fateful April afternoon: a deep gash runs from the back of his head down his neck to his right shoulder. As he ran from the machete-wielding militia, they struck him hard, trying to take off his head.

Despite the unthinkable violence which rocked Timor- Leste in the run-up to the independence referendum, its people returned an historic vote for freedom at the ballot box that July. Ten years on, Timor-Leste is still trying to rebuild itself. But how does a country do this after occupation? Is it possible? And what kind of help is needed from other nations?

Timor-Leste is trying to recover not just from Indonesian rule, which began in 1975 and saw thousands of people killed, but from more than 400 years of Portuguese colonialism. Today, it is striving to build an independent future, but it is a struggle. World powers have been accused of condoning past violence, either through the sale of armaments, or simply by turning a blind eye. The question now is whether independence has resolved the legacy of colonization and Indonesia’s illegal occupation. What does the future look like for this fledgling democracy?

Violence and factionalism

The answer is currently rather shaky. Violence broke out in 2005 and 2006, and again last year, as factions emerged within the Timorese military. In 2006 the UN Security Council sent in a new peacekeeping force, UNMIT; hundreds of UN peacekeepers remain to this day, four years after formal independence. The majority of locals still generally perceive their presence as a good thing, preserving stability and giving them the chance to rebuild their own lives.

Factionalism is part of every post-independence society. But in Timor-Leste, with a population of just 1.2 million, the layers of factionalism are pronounced and are exacerbated by ethnic tensions and inter-family feuds. The failure to deal with the past adequately has had a profound impact on the present and stores up problems for the future. People fear that if those suspected of being involved in the massacres of the 1990s return, tensions between those who were loyal to the Indonesian forces and those who supported independence will flare up again.

There have been several comprehensive human rights reports on the Indonesian occupation of Timor-Leste, with denunciations of the behaviour of the Indonesian army and its proxy militia, and calls for the organizers to be brought to justice. In fact, many of those with command responsibility were tried – unsuccessfully – in Jakarta, and the UN indicted dozens at special panels in Dili six years ago. But none have been extradited.

Despite the unthinkable violence which rocked Timor-Leste in the run-up to the independence referendum, its people returned an historic vote for freedom at the ballot box

In addition, the Timor-Leste leadership has never called for an international tribunal on war crimes, and since the assassination attempt on him last year, President José Ramos Horta has retreated still further from seeking to hold Indonesia to account. Indeed, he has been actively releasing from prison some of those who had been charged with murder.

Knowing that the Indonesian army has got away with its actions maddens the people of Timor-Leste. For all the reports that have been written on the occupation, if justice remains undelivered, the wounds of the past cannot be healed. Even today, corridors of folders containing witness statements, photographs and detailed accounts of the horrors suffered by the people of Timor-Leste sit gathering dust in a locked library in central Dili.

Learning the lessons

The lessons of Indonesia’s occupation have not been learned, and the danger is that history will continue to repeat itself. The message of impunity, that it is possible to get away with violence, encourages people today to commit crimes against human rights. The cycle of violence continues and the country is unable to recover and rebuild itself.

Gloria Felisidio Acasio has experienced the effects of this cycle of violence first hand. Less than a year ago, her husband was killed in a suspicious motorbike accident on the outskirts of Dili. She knows who her husband’s killer is, and where he works. Nonetheless, Gloria is still waiting for an arrest, while struggling to feed her three children and send them to school. She believes the killer hasn’t been arrested because the local police are simply overwhelmed by the number of crimes taking place, but explains resignedly: ‘There’s no use protesting or claiming that you are the victim. It’s just a waste of time and money and energy because no good result comes from it.’

Though she has had little success at securing justice herself, Gloria is clear that the future of Timor-Leste will depend on its ability to enforce the rule of law. ‘If you don’t have justice then people will do whatever they want, then there are no rules, no obligations.’

She shakes her head at her 15-year-old son’s dream of becoming a soldier: ‘He sees all the violence. He wants to have a gun too.’

One of Timor-Leste’s leading politicians, Fernanda Borges, claims that if justice is not meted out to the perpetrators of the violence then the country runs the risk of becoming a failed state.

But, for its leaders, seeking justice is akin to rocking the boat with their more powerful neighbour, Indonesia. Perhaps it’s not surprising therefore that those Timorese leaders who fought hard for independence have subsequently made the greatest compromises on justice, mindful of the economic and political pressure that Indonesia can bring to bear.

This is where both the British and Australian Governments must step in. Both countries have contributed – negatively and positively – to Timor- Leste’s fate. They both condoned the original Indonesian invasion, and during the occupation the British Government permitted the sale of arms to Indonesia. The Australian Government recognized Timor-Leste as the 27th province of Indonesia, while also providing troops for the UN force now in place there. Both have given aid to help with the rebuilding of the country, but much more is needed if its democracy, and its infrastructure – schools, hospitals and roads – are to be improved.

Oiling the path of democracy

Timor-Leste is not only tiny, but very poor. Ninety per cent of its people live off the land; the annual income per head is around $300. Forty per cent of the population is unemployed, with young people disproportionately affected, and one in three households lives below the poverty line.

Yet offshore lie two considerable gas and oil fields, and gaining revenue from them has been the big bright hope of the country. Under a UN-brokered deal with Australia, Timor-Leste stands to receive the largest share of the revenue from the exploration in their area and expects to reap an estimated income of $180 million a year. It has already built up a fund of about $3 billion – a small fortune in a country where the annual budget of $300 million has proved hard to spend.

And this is what is worrying some international observers. Is the oil revenue going to be a blessing or a curse? On the one hand, Timor-Leste’s plight would less likely have been noticed without the presence of the off-shore oil and gas fields. On the other, it is imperative that the revenue be spent correctly, for the benefit of the whole nation. The danger, as seen in Nigeria and Angola, is that this kind of money will lead to corruption and the breakdown of the rule of law.

There is hope that in the long run the oil revenue can and will be used to good effect. But this will only be the case if the international community invests enough support – financial, technical, moral and practical – to make sure that the Timorese Government has what it needs to become a robust and accountable administration. Providing experts to work alongside local officials in an advisory capacity would be a good starting point.

International support

Those Timorese leaders who fought hard for independence have subsequently made the greatest compromises on justice, mindful of the economic and political pressure that Indonesia can bring to bear

The international community has in the past given considerable encouragement, support and aid to Timor- Leste, but its attention is now focused elsewhere and the country has been left to cope as best it can. Timor-Leste needs practical support if the dreams of its people are to be realized. So far they haven’t been. Bodies lie in mass graves; the perpetrators of violence go unpunished. The victims and survivors find no justice or recompense and impunity reigns. This wasn’t the vision that the people of Timor-Leste had for independence. It wasn’t why they struggled doggedly on through 25 years of oppression.

Britain, Australia and the UN need to pledge themselves to a long-term commitment to see Timor- Leste recover from colonialism and occupation, to regenerate and build a democracy. It need not cost millions of dollars. But it will cost time, attention and expertise.

There are no shortcuts. The experience of Timor- Leste can teach us all – if we allow it. We can learn some hard lessons by studying the report of the Timor-Leste Reception, Truth and Reconciliation Commission report (CAVR). And we can learn that helping a country – no matter how small – to find a viable future is worth it because it has an impact on all of us. No country should be allowed to fail.

Meanwhile, José Serrao, still awaiting the arrests of the men who tried to kill him, tries to remain positive. ‘My hope for Timor is to have a good future, but with peace and justice,’ he says.

Catherine Scott is Progressio’s Regional Manager for Africa, the Middle East and Asia. She has campaigned on – and written extensively about – Timor-Leste for 20 years. Catherine is coauthor of Independent Women: The story of women’s activism in East Timor.

Jo Barrett is Progressio’s Media Officer. To find out more about Progressio’s campaign for justice in Timor-Leste and how you can get involved, visit: www.progressio.org.uk

New Internationalist issue 422 magazine cover This article is from the May 2009 issue of New Internationalist.
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