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Balibo: Indonesia won't face its ugly past

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This post is part of the Balibo debate thread. To read other posts in this debate, click here.

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24 September 2009 15:26


This post is part of the Balibo debate thread. To read other posts in this debate, click here.

James Dunn is a former UN specialist on Crimes against Humanity in East Timor and author of East Timor: A Rough Passage to Independence.

The latest move in the Balibo affair has taken Australia to a kind of watershed in a sensitive aspect of our relationship with Indonesia. Are we going to continue to help Jakarta cover up a brutal chapter in its history, or should we now encourage the Yudhoyono Government to open up the past to much-needed public scrutiny?

Indonesia's hostile reaction to the AFP Balibo investigation was predictable enough, because it came just as Jakarta was facing renewed criticism in East Timor, at the tenth anniversary of the Suai massacre, which was much more brutal than Balibo. 

The Balibo shooting and the Suai massacre span Indonesia's 24 year presence in East Timor, and remind us of an ugly fact: TNI (the Indonesian military) left the colony with the same cruel behaviour that it began with 34 years ago. Thanks in large measure to international accommodation (including from Australia), none of those indicted for war crimes has ever been brought anywhere near an independent tribunal. No other regime with links to the West has so completely escaped investigation for such serious crimes against humanity. AFP investigators may take the matter further, but they face huge obstacles, given the Yudhoyono Government's hostile reaction so far. 

The Suai atrocity, in all costing over 200 lives, occurred only days after the results of the plebiscite were announced in Dili. A recent incident has revived Timorese interest in this incident, despite the urgings of their leaders to put the past behind them. It was the arrest of Maternus Bere, former leader of the Lauksur militia, who now lives in West Timor, but who returned to Suai to attend a wedding. His presence was noticed by a local policeman who arrested him, on the basis of a UN indictment for serious crimes.

The Indonesian reaction was extraordinary. His immediate release was demanded, with dark hints that there could be serious border problems if it was not heeded.

There is a possible explanation for this rather arrogant response. Based on my own investigations into the Suai affair, the militia were mere pawns, their orders coming directly from a TNI colonel then dressed in full uniform, and bearing an M-16 weapon. If Bere were to appear before an East Timorese court, his testimony could be of great embarrassment to TNI. The pressure was eased somewhat when the East Timorese prime minister ordered the release of Bere to the Indonesian embassy in Dili, a move that caused concern in the UN mission.

The rather arrogant and clumsy intervention by Jakarta caused an angry public reaction, and irritation and dismay in the government. The East Timorese Government may have quickly caved in, but the mood in the National Assembly is not so compliant. Jakarta's intervention was particularly hurtful and ill-timed for President Jose Ramos Horta, who had just delivered a very conciliatory address at the 10th anniversary commemoration, urging East Timorese to overlook their past sufferings and to end their campaigns for an international war crimes tribunal.

In the circumstances, why didn't Indonesia act more discreetly? One explanation is that the incident happened at a time when there are increasing calls from Indonesian democrats for a closer look at the TNI's past. Exposure of its command role in East Timor in 1999 would have led to renewed calls for the comprehensive investigation President Wahid's advisers had recommended in early 2000. Also, if Bere were to have appeared before a Timorese court, the leading role of Kopassus might have been exposed, at a time when this force is being rehabilitated as an anti-terrorist agency.

What most Timorese are seeking is Jakarta's full recognition of the war crimes committed and of Indonesia's responsibility. Without serious steps in that direction, reconciliation will be meaningless. A brooding resentment, especially  towards the Indonesian military, will continue to lurk in much of Timorese society, where thousands consider themselves victims of crimes against humanity.

As for Australia, we should urge Indonesia to take an honest look at what happened in East Timor between the Balibo and Suai incidents. A recognition of its lessons is an important step in the path to the kind of democracy Indonesians now aspire to. It would also be an important step towards a better enforcement of the UN's vital role in securing implementation of the humanitarian standards the world community has committed itself to.

Photo by Flickr user Nomad Tales, used under a Creative Commons license.

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