Xanana Gusmao, former political prisoner of the Indonesian Republic, likely first president of post-independence East Timor and the only undisputed moral authority among the East Timorese people, wants real movement on repatriating East Timorese refugees from camps in West Timor. So Gusmao concluded, reluctantly, he must try to negotiate a settlement with those responsible for atrocities against his own people. That is why on Saturday he met some of the most powerful elements of the pro-Indonesian militia.
The human dimensions of Gusmao’s moral dilemma are enormous. Of the 250,000 who fled East Timor after the militia-inspired violence of September 1999, some 70,000 to 80,000 remain in camps along the western side of the border. These camps are controlled by different groupings of militia - perhaps seven or eight in all.
Since last October, when militia in Atambua hacked to death three international UNHCR workers causing the withdrawal of all UN staff from West Timor, these same militia have been solely responsible for the distribution of meagre supplies to the refugees still in the camps. Repatriation has slowed to a trickle, and the condition of those making it across the border at Batugarde is steadily deteriorating.
What motivates the militia and what other factors are at play in the current stalemate? The hardest core of the militia still dream of a return to the east - to “liberate” it from the oppressor (aka Australia) and return it to the red and white flag of the Republic. These elements believe in a long-term campaign of low-level harassment against the new government in Dili after the withdrawal of the UN transitional administration and the Australian-dominated peacekeeping force.
These militia see the camps as an important recruitment base for future operations against East Timor - not dissimilar to the role played by the Palestinian camps in Gaza. They see the camps also as useful for extracting financial gain from continued aid programs (Indonesian or international) to their charges.
Other militia see the camps more crudely again - simply as a means of asserting their political authority with the local Indonesian authorities, both civilian and military. In this view, the closure of the camps is the sure path to political irrelevance and the loss of cachet with local power elites.
For others again, their intrinsic interest in retaining captive populations within the camps is reinforced by a long-standing pattern of local friendships and professional dealings with the Indonesian regular army (TNI) back in East Timor pre-independence. It was TNI (then ABRI) that established the militia in East Timor. The predisposition of many TNI local commanders in the west has therefore been to turn a blind eye to the activities of their former comrades in the militia in defiance of directives from Jakarta - or even Kupang, the centre of the Provincial Government in West Timor.
Confusing signals from Jakarta are also part of the equation. Whereas decrees from the presidential palace under Abdurrahman Wahid have been quite clear-cut on the need to return the refugees, the same cannot be said of the TNI chain of command or of Kopassus - the army’s special forces unit. What would happen under a Megawati presidency remains an open question, though the alleged role of militia leader Eurico Guterres in the West Timor branch of the youth wing of Megawati’s political party, PDI-P, is disturbing.
A further element in the jigsaw is the uncertainty created by the upcoming East Timorese parliamentary elections scheduled for August 30. While most analysts predict a comfortable Fretilin win, it remains uncertain what the new government’s policy will be on reconciliation and justice.
Will former militia leaders with blood on their hands be tried and imprisoned if they surrender or will there be a South Africa-style “truth and reconciliation” approach which offers effective amnesty in exchange for full confessions? Or will there be a combination of both ?
Above all, militia commanders and their
underlings are likely to have a keen interest in their personal fate should
they return. In the absence of any certainty, the militia have a vested
interest in spreading comprehensive disinformation to the refugees on the
risks they face (in terms of retribution) should they choose to return
to their local communities in the east. If not retribution, then at least
a heightened uncertainty about housing, land tenure and food supply after
nearly two years in exile. The spectre of the August 30 elections themselves
is also a disincentive because elections have in the past been associated
with large-scale communal violence.
The fate of the 70,000 East Timorese refugees in camps in the west does not command headline treatment in Australia. Their fate is, however, of direct humanitarian concern to Australia, given their exile is a direct consequence of Australian and other international intervention in East Timor in 1999.
We have been content to bathe in the reflected glory of the achievements of the Australian Defence Force. We must be equally prepared to engage vigorously in the complex and less glamorous diplomacy needed to secure the return of those displaced. This diplomacy must be active and at a high level in Dili, Jakarta, Washington (re leverage on the TNI) the IMF, the World Bank, the UNHCR in Geneva and in the camps themselves. And it should be a diplomacy shaped by the outcome of Xanana Gusmao’s personal diplomacy with the militia.
Federal MP Kevin Rudd is the chairman of the Opposition’s policy committee on national security and trade and a former diplomat. He has just returned from East Timor.
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