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Call for East Timor reconciliation

The Age

December 18, 2000

Mark Dodd -- East Timor independence leader Jose "Xanana" Gusmao has called for international support for a South African-style truth and reconciliation commission as the best means of achieving peace for his country.

Mr Gusmao said that after 24 years of violence, his country was divided on the question of justice, but he did not believe reconciliation could be fostered only through stiff penalties handed down by the courts for those responsible for last year's violence.

"I don't deny the need of justice. People sometimes say if you don't punish these people you will allow a political party to do the same because everyone now knows there is no justice. I, myself, don't believe in this process," Mr Gusmao said. His views clash with Dili's Nobel laureate Bishop Carlos Belo, whose sermons advocate stiff penalties for gross human rights violations.

More than 1000 East Timorese were killed in political violence after the referendum on independence from Indonesia on August 30, 1999. About 80 per cent of the country's infrastructure was destroyed and more than a quarter of a million people were deported to the West.

UN-administered courts are now preparing to hear the first war crimes cases against Indonesian army-backed militia leaders accused of organising the violence.

But Mr Gusmao warned these proceedings might jeopardise sensitive talks aimed at securing the return of thousands of East Timorese refugees still living in militia-controlled camps in West Timor.

"Nobody in the world said to [Nelson] Mandela `your commission of truth and reconciliation is unacceptable', everybody applauded it," he said. "To us [East Timor], it seems there are demands. How can we dream of being a model of justice in the world. My problem is if you try the militia, one or two immediately, the others will not come."

He said he supported community-based reconciliation in which the leaders of pro-autonomy political parties and organisers of the violence returned to the scene of their crimes and asked for forgiveness.

In August during the national congress of the pro-independence National Council of Timorese Resistance, Mr Gusmao said community leaders demanded such an apology.

"They said, `We demand that the political parties that caused suffering to the people go to the people, talk to the people and ask for forgiveness and promise not to do it again'," he said.

"I'm thinking of a process of reconciliation here that can avoid instability in the future and one that people can accept. I will not say no justice, but in a process maybe like South Africa," he said. He believed reconciliation from the heart was more effective than legal justice.

Mr Gusmao said he would keep pressuring the United Nations Transitional Administration in East Timor for a date for full independence and a transfer of sovereignty.

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