The world may have been too quick to applaud Indonesian President Megawati Sukarnoputri for setting up a tribunal to bring to justice the Indonesian military (TNI) and the militia responsible for the violence two years ago in East Timor. This is only a domestic tribunal, and its establishment could well have been designed to head off the growing world pressure for an international body.
Following the horrendous events of September 1999, UN investigators, governments and non-government human rights agencies all joined the call for an international tribunal. The widespread killings, the mass deportations and the near total destruction of East Timor’s infrastructure were clearly systematic and, in the jargon of the UN, have been designated crimes against humanity or, if you like, war crimes.
However, former president Abdurrahman Wahid opposed what he saw as international intrusion, insisting those responsible be brought before specially constituted Indonesian courts.
Indonesia moved quickly to hold its own inquiry, a special Human Rights Commission investigation, whose initial report was completed in January 2000. It was frank and hard-hitting and would be invaluable to the tribunal proceedings.
However, this report was never formally released, reportedly because of opposition from TNI headquarters. What appeared some six months later was a sanitised version, with a substantially reduced cast of TNI officers recommended for indictment. There are indications that the Indonesian court will focus on this version.
The original report listed 33 for indictment, including two senior generals. Reports from Jakarta suggest the number has been reduced to 18 and that hearings will focus on just three of the atrocities - at Dili, Liquica and Suai - in which TNI officers played leading roles. If the senior officers have been dropped, it is not very likely the tribunal will expose what was a TNI conspiracy to prevent the loss of East Timor.
A comprehensive investigation is fundamental, firstly to heal the wounds of the East Timorese people but also so that the full details of this carefully planned conspiracy, the brutal way it was carried out, and those responsible for organising it can be fully exposed to the people of Indonesia. They have yet to be told what happened.
That’s why militia leader Eurico Guterres was able to present himself to his trial in Jakarta as a hero of integration, a defender of the Republic against those plotting its disintegration.
In Indonesia the TNI has largely been able to escape exposure of its brutal past, concealing a pattern of repressive behaviour which is a serious impediment to democratisation.
Megawati has reportedly moved closer to the TNI, recognising it as essential to hold together the nation. However, she has herself been a victim of its repression and if she is really in favour of democratic reform, will also need to reform the defence and security apparatus.
Holding the nation together by repression was at best a dubious expedient. In so doing the TNI increased dissent in Aceh, Maluku and West Papua as well as in East Timor. Attempts at a military solution merely stiffened the distaste of minorities for what they saw as neo-colonial rule from Java.
Indonesians have argued that the best outcome is for the indicted TNI officers to be tried by Indonesian courts because they are alleged to have committed crimes against Indonesian law. In fact, their criminal conspiracy was not against just those Timorese favouring independence but was aimed at sabotaging the attempt by the UN mission to ensure a genuine act of self-determination in East Timor. Moreover, as far as most UN member states were concerned, East Timor was not a legitimate part of Indonesia.
Also, it is appropriate for crimes against humanity to be tried by an international tribunal.
The TNI came in for criticism when Wahid took office, but appears to have shrugged off the stain of Timor and recovered much of its power and influence.
One would have expected Major General Adam Damiri, one of the key field commanders in East Timor in 1999, to have been shunted aside, but he proceeded to take command of Indonesian security forces in Aceh. Colonel Tono Suratnam, another commander with a direct involvement in East Timor, has been promoted to Brigadier General.
Will they be brought before the new tribunal?
Indications are that the prosecutors will focus on lower-level military
involvement, and on the militia leaders in West Timor. The Indonesian investigation
may well reflect the pattern of prosecutions in East Timor itself, where
most of those brought before the court have been low-level militia members.
So far not one prominent East Timorese militia leader has been arraigned
before the court, partly because of a prosecution process hampered by staffing
problems and inept management.
An international tribunal would offer the best path to justice plus the prospect of an enduring reconciliation between Indonesia and the new East Timorese state, which is a virtual precondition of the disengagement of UN peacekeepers.
East Timorese leader Xanana Gusmao has been a strong advocate of reconciliation but his efforts so far have been one-sided, in the sense that the dialogue involves only the Timorese themselves. To exclude the TNI commanders who set up the militia and commanded the deportation and the destruction is to ignore the root causes of the upheaval.
Megawati’s prompt action is welcome, but in Indonesia’s political circumstances it is hard to be optimistic as to the outcome. An international tribunal does not appear to be on the schedule for Mr Howard’s talks with Megawati but it needs to be kept on the wider agenda if this issue, which carries political and security implications for relations between East Timor, Indonesia and Australia, is to be resolved.
Former Australian diplomat James Dunn has investigated crimes against humanity in East Timor for the United Nations.
BD: War Crimes & Crimes Against Humanity - A collection of recent press releases, petitions, articles and news
BD: Calls for International War Crimes Tribunal - A collection of recent reports, articles and news