Wednesday, 23 May 2012

East Timor: Reconciliation and Reconstruction

Original Citation: 2007 ETLJ 3 East Timor: Reconciliation and Reconstruction

Dionísio Babo Soares
Co-Chairman: Commission of Truth and Friendship
Timor Leste - Indonesia

East Timor Political Development

In the 30 years leading up to its independence in 2000, Timor-Leste’s history has been marred by conflict. In the aftermath of Portugal’s abandonment of Timor-Leste, internal conflict took the form of competition amongst various political parties, namely UDT, Fretilin and Apodeti, as well as smaller parties such as KOTA and Trabalhista. With Indonesia’s occupation of Timor-Leste in 1975, the nature of conflict transformed into a resistance of nationalist forces against the giant neighbour and much later into the years of Indonesian integration, followed by internal conflict between anti and pro-Indonesia groups.

The 1999 Popular Consultation presented a milestone in Timor-Leste’s history by being the vehicle that led to the nation’s independence. Despite its significant place in the Timorese struggle, developments that took place leading up to and immediately after the Popular Consultation were, in the truest sense, a bittersweet experience. On one hand, the Popular Consultation united nationalist forces for a common purpose. However, the event also perpetuated and worsened the conflict between pro-independence groups and loyalist pro-Indonesia groups, backed by elements of the Indonesian military and civilian bureaucracy. It is regrettable to note that some of the worst human rights violations that occurred in Timor-Leste’s history took place in what should have been a positive and constructive democratic experience.

In the mean time, East Timor remains one of the poorest countries in the world, according to the World Bank Country assessment report released recently. Of the many of the infrastructures left destroyed in 1999, only around 40 % have been rehabilitated including health clinics, basic water and sanitation projects and school buildings. Electricity remains a luxury for around 70 % of East Timorese. Regarding unemployment, 80% of the Timorese are still unemployed and this is a significant problem in itself. Around 60% of the population is under 18 years old and will soon be part of the working age group. Around 50% of the population are either illiterate or do not have access to basic education.

The recent conflict in Timor Leste that emanated from the firing of more than 600 members of its military, mostly from the Western part of  the country, has set a bad precedent for a country that struggled hard to gain its freedom. While the leaders of Timor-Leste are striving to get the new nation back on its feet, its ongoing reconciliation effort with its neighbours such as Indonesia should not be overlooked.

Following the recent political and military conflict which unseated Prime Minister Alkatiri, the new government is striving hard to cope with the issues like providing basic necessities for the population, providing basic education, increasing productivity and developing basic infrastructure such as roads and markets, as well as agriculture and other business sectors to improve the standard of living of its citizens. The much publicised oil and gas revenue has not so far benefited the small people directly, although the country’s new annual budget surpassed that of the preceding years. Timor-Leste still lacks human resources and is partly relying on international advisers and institutions in its current development programs. The previous government had failed to deliver its promises and was unable ensure the proper functioning of the bureaucracy.

Since its independence in 1999 (and even before then), efforts have been made to mend the differences between Timor-Leste and Indonesia despite a shared history of pain. To this end, the leaders of Timor-Leste have had several considerations, but most immediately was the threat posed by pro-Indonesian loyalists across the border in West Timor and elements sympathetic to this group. To ensure this condition, Indonesia’s political stability was seen as playing a crucial role. Therefore, the leaders of Timor-Leste saw the need to support this by building positive and mutually beneficial relations with Indonesia.

These efforts in building ties with Indonesia have included, among others: establishing diplomatic relations; setting up regular bilateral consultation mechanisms; resolving the border issue (in this regard both countries have successfully demarcated 96% of land borders) and mutual support in international diplomacy (ASEAN, IMET, etc.) based on shared interesst.

Additionally, taking into account the proximity between the two countries and several issues that have yet to be satisfactorily resolved, Timor-Leste’s leaders have adopted an approach to “forgive but not forget the past” and concentrate on the reconstruction of the country. In this regard, Timor-Leste has adopted a dual approach policy in its relations with Indonesia that aims to support the internal stability of the country. This includes:

First, to resolve its long standing conflict with Indonesia – East Timorese leaders such a Xanana Gusmão and José Ramos-Horta, the current Prime Minister, have come to a point where they believe that good relations with Indonesia for the small and fledging country are worth more than advocating an international campaign and pursuing an uncertain dream of an international tribunal for what happened before, during and after the referendum which saw the independence of Timor Leste in 1999;

Second, to mend the differences within the country by pushing for democratic reform and resolve past internal conflicts through peaceful means. There are issues related to internal political conflict which remain unresolved to date and this needs to be addressed both politically and in legal terms.

In the eyes of critics, taking this dual approach suggests that Timor-Leste would need to compromise on several matters including an international tribunal for gross human rights violations that occurred in 1999.

Timor Leste has come under international criticism since taking this approach which, to the eyes of some, only sustains impunity for the perpetrators of the 1999 tragedy. Criticism became even harsher after Timor-Leste leaders decided to agree on a reconciliation deal which would resolve human rights violations in 1999 through a bilateral arrangement with Indonesia. While such criticisms may be worthy of noting, Timor-Leste and Indonesia have weighed their position beyond the horizon of the formalities of justice which could work to the disadvantage of both countries in the long run. Therefore, pursuing a non-prosecutorial approach in the resolution of the human rights violation is not just a political compromise per se but it is believed to be the most viable way to end the long standing crisis, avoiding both countries committing to another historical dispute in the nature of the unsettled Sino-Korean or Sino-Japan relations.

There are several political reasons underlining this consideration for Timor-Leste and Indonesia:

For Timor-Leste, securing a good relationship with Indonesia is in the best interest of the fledging nation since the international              political atmosphere is not in favour of an international tribunal;

Timor-Leste has its own interest which needs Indonesian help, for example, joining ASEAN and other sister organisations;

Post-Suharto governments and leaders in Indonesia have striven hard to democratise the vast archipelago of Indonesia and have  asked Timorese leaders to understand and help the democratisation process, which is also very important for Timor-Leste’s own  political stability (problems like the rise of nationalism in Indonesia, the problem of radical and religious oriented groups and secessionist movements in the outer provinces of Indonesia could further damage the country if Timor-Leste’s own problems –     which Indonesia wanted to get rid off – is included also in Indonesia’s fragile democracy ;

Economically, around 80% of imported goods in Timor-Leste are from Indonesia which is comparably cheaper than Australia, another close industrial neighbour;

Geographically, Timor-Leste shares an island with Indonesian West Timor, and one district of East Timor, the enclave of Oecussi, is situated in West Timor. Any political gesture that may be seen as cornering Indonesia could result in “unease” in the relationship thus putting Timor-Leste in a difficult situation;

Many East Timorese live or have relatives in Indonesia as a result of both 24 years of integration and of the political turmoil in 1999 when many decided to remain and work in Indonesia. In addition, around 3000 university students from Timor-Leste are still studying in Indonesian universities, and many more travel to study every year.

At the moment more than 3000 Indonesians work in Timor-Leste both as foreign workers in the formal and informal sectors.

The Local Legal Situation

It is important to review Timor-Leste’s judiciary infrastructure which has so far failed to impress the Timorese. Apart from its still heavy reliance on international assistance and apparatuses, the local judiciary has been particularly dysfunctional. The inability of the local judiciary with its slow development and often incompetent apparatuses has contributed to a sense of frustration that led Timorese leaders to abandon a push for a more legalistic approach as far as the turmoil in 1999 is concerned. Likewise, the ambiguous stance of the international community when it comes to the issue of dealing with the past in Timor-Leste has frustrated many in Timor-Leste, with the exception of a few NGOs aspiring to the ideals of upholding formal or punitive justice to deal with the 1999 turmoil.

The local judiciary was established primarily during the second round of United Nations reign in the territory to address the need for justice in the post-1999 period. The UN also established a hybrid system of courts comprising international and local judges to deal with serious crimes and crimes against humanity (Indonesia is not a signatory to the Rome Statute and related international conventions on international crimes).

Only “small fish” were caught and many of them have been sent to jail for their role in the field in 1999 such as sporadic killing and burning houses as well as helping the massive exodus of East Timorese to West Timor after the popular vote in 1999, where East Timor voted to become independent. The “big fish,” particularly those who are believed to be the masterminds, remain at large. The international community’s “blessed” Ad-Hoc Tribunal in Indonesia has failed to live up to its standards and fulfil the expectation of many to hold the higher figures of the 1999 Timor turmoil accountable.

Timorese leaders are convinced that there will be little international support for an international tribunal and that Indonesia will not cooperate, at least in the current political atmosphere, with any such tribunal.

It is worth taking note of the fact that international pressure both from the UN and NGOs for justice on the 1999 human rights violations in Timor-Leste is mounting both nationally and internationally but one should not underestimate the “good political will” of both Timor Leste and Indonesia to present an alternative way of seeking justice for the victims, which is the restorative justice approach experienced already in Chile, Argentina, Guatemala, South Africa and Timor Leste itself.

The Political Approach – Some Resolution

As mentioned, although past conflict among nationalist forces has slowly resolved, the recent conflict in Timor Leste has drawn the country almost back to Year Zero. The Government in Dili felt the necessity to resolve the conflict among Timorese resulting from the past and contemporary conflict and also to concentrate on reconstructing and developing the country as its primary target. While formal justice is one option, the parliament has recently overwhelmingly approved a budget that promotes reconciliation as a way to address the unresolved conflict perceived as east-west rivalry.

Earlier, the Commission for Truth and Reconciliation (CAVR) which was set up in 2001 to resolve internal conflict among East Timorese factions from 1975-1999 handed over its findings to the President and the Parliament of Timor-Leste in October. Pros and cons coloured the result and recommendations of the CAVR report. Some welcomed the results of the report and its recommendations but others considered the recommendations to be highly politicised and beyond the ability of the state to implement. The recommendations also include holding those accountable at the middle and upper level of the Indonesian military ranks through a formal court. These recommendations have been rather exaggerated and beyond reasonable thinking, which may have entertained critical groups – both nationally and international – expectations yet, as many Timorese believe, will remain merely as “nice findings” in the book shelves of history since national and international judicial atmosphere provides little room for “undefeated” countries like Indonesia to allow its citizens to be tried in an international court.

Arguably, the establishment of the Commission of Truth and Friendship (CTF) between Timor Leste and Indonesia, which has come under criticism for “overlooking” the CAVR’s recommendations, was chosen to address the paralysed judicial reality which only targets “defeated” countries when it comes to international tribunals but forget the practical impossibility of the same claim in otherwise undefeated war countries.

Some other reasons that were behind the establishment of the CTF include:

While the UN has pursued efforts to address the Timor Leste 1999 crisis adequately, many in Timor Leste are frustrated with the world body for not seriously resolving the problem of 1999 but opting instead to allow Indonesia to establish its own Ad-Hoc Tribunal to try the perpetrators of 1999 in the first place - knowing well beforehand that any trial in Indonesia would be doomed to failure;

The relations between the two countries, Indonesia and Timor Leste, is at a high point and is improving by the day;

Issues of interest seems, coincidentally, to match well (Timor Leste is interested in joining ASEAN and needs Indonesian help, whereas Indonesia needs Timor Leste to improve its image abroad and also to approach the USA to lift its ban on selling technical stocks of armaments to Indonesia, etc);

Indonesia is becoming very important to Timor Leste in political, economic and also development means;

Timor-Leste wants to concentrate in developing its country and forget about the past conflict with Indonesia;

The recent crisis in Timor Leste provides little room for the country to deal with broad issues of an international nature which may be counter productive to the international process of nation building.

Closing Remarks

Five years on, what has been the acclaimed history of the international community in building the justice system in Timor Leste?  The small size of Timor Leste and its military backwardness could have contributed to a successful international military mission and its proud security engagement. Still, the recent crisis invites us all to revisit the once acclaimed successful international sponsoring of a nation.

Until today, the fragile nation has yet to develop a good justice system despite the deployment of high standing legal individuals from different countries to address the unjust past in the past 5 years. A recent Report on Justice Sector Development in Timor Leste supported by East West Center of Hawai, reveals how fragile the justice system in Timor Leste is even with international individuals from developed countries working in the justice apparatuses. These people have performed poorly despite thousands of dollars spent on their salaries as opposed to the inexperience local justice apparatuses.

Such provides a reason to use different mechanisms to resolve past human rights violations which took place on a much larger scale than the violations in 1999 rather than pursuing a prosecutorial way that even the international advocates failed to deliver. Thus, while the issue of justice is one thing and is important to be addressed properly, Timorese leaders have opted to resolve the old differences and conflict through peaceful means and concentrate fully on the reconstructing process.  Greater understanding gained from Timor Leste’s long and hard road to freedom, its recent internal crisis and the uncertain international judicial atmosphere have convinced Timorese leaders to switch from dealing with the burden of the past to the nation-building process and to resolve the conflict with Indonesia in a mutually beneficial away without compromising victims’ rights to know the truth of what happened to their loved ones.

Indonesia, for what it is today, should not be blamed for what happened yesterday but should be given a chance to improve its image and help the country to democratise itself in its current political transition.

Therefore, revealing the truth of what happened in the past and to ensure the non-recurrence of such events in the future in a way that does not sacrifice justice, the rights of the victims to know and helping to heal the shared bitter past, will surely bring both Timor Leste and Indonesia to shape their own futures according to their own values and respecting the dignity of each in a mutually beneficial way.

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