Interview: Pat Walsh on the forgetting of East Timor in Indonesia

In recent discussions with academics and representatives from civil society, Pat Walsh found that the Soeharto era version of history remains stubbornly entrenched. Photo courtesy of Pat Walsh.
In recent discussions with academics and representatives from civil society, Pat Walsh found that the Soeharto era version of history remains stubbornly entrenched. Photo by Pat Walsh.

 

Indonesia at Melbourne recently spoke to Pat Walsh AM, prominent human rights activist and former adviser to the East Timor Commission for Reception, Truth and Reconciliation (CAVR). Last month, Pat delivered a lecture on the Chega! and Per Memoriam truth commission reports and their reception in Indonesia. The lecture was part of an event held to recognise the 40th anniversary of the invasion of East Timor, which was hosted by the University of Melbourne’s Indonesia Forum and Asian History Hub, in collaboration with the Herb Feith Foundation. Speaking at a panel discussion earlier in the afternoon were Professor Michael Leach, from Swinburne University, Dr Vannessa Hearman, from University of Sydney, University of Melbourne PhD candidate Hannah Loney, and East Timorese postgraduate student Fransedes Suni, from RMIT.


You have just completed a research project that examined the impact of the Chega! and Per Memoriam reports on Indonesian understandings of the East Timor issue. Can you tell us about the project?
Over the past 12 months I worked with the Indonesian organisation Asia Justice and Rights (AJAR) to look at who had seen the reports, what they thought of them and what they had done with them. My colleague conducted in-depth interviews with 23 Indonesian professionals, including government officials, an ex-general, academics, researchers and activists, and I gave a series of lectures and discussions in nine cities, from Banda Aceh to Kupang. The Chega! report covered the entire period of conflict in East Timor, and was produced by a Timorese commission called the CAVR. The Per Memoriam Ad Spem report, meanwhile, was produced by a bilateral Timor-Leste-Indonesian body called the Commission of Truth and Friendship (CTF), and focused only on 1999, did not set out to facilitate reconciliation, and did not name names.

 

What were the findings of your research?
We found that both government and civil society respondents in Indonesia were not aware of, or familiar with, the reports. The Soeharto era version of history remains stubbornly entrenched, and continues to frame the issue from a security and nationalist perspective. Even among Indonesia’s intellectual community, there was little evidence-based understanding of Timor-Leste. Participants in our research said they believed the intervention was justified to protect Indonesian unity, to prevent the spread of communism, to avoid internal violence, or because most Timorese had wanted Indonesia to intervene. The most nuanced justification was that the occupation was “a necessary evil”. If this is how Indonesia’s intellectual community understand the issue, it is probably fair to conclude that the general public have only the faintest idea of the real story.

 

Why do you believe the issue of Timor-Leste has been forgotten or ignored?
Our research came up with six explanations. The most obvious reason is the significant information gap that was encouraged and enforced by the Indonesian government. Although younger Indonesians have a reasonable grasp of events and personalities after 1998, they are less clear on the decades before that. Second, Indonesia continues to actively suppress the issue. Timor-Leste is not included in the new 2013 school curriculum, for example. Third, the past is no longer an important issue in relations between Indonesia and Timor-Leste. Although Timor-Leste does not want the issue forgotten, its government has quite pragmatically prioritised good economic and political relations with Indonesia, and has not pursued an international tribunal. Fourth, media coverage of Timor-Leste in Indonesia is minimal, and when it is covered, detail can be lacking. Fifth, Timor-Leste is no longer on the agenda of many of Indonesia’s excellent human rights organisations. Although they are certainly aware that justice in Timor-Leste is unresolved, they maintain only a watching brief on the issue. Finally, we believe that the politicisation of history may be deterring some Indonesian researchers from further examining the issue. The military continues to contest its role in violence, a situation that is complicated by the decision of Indonesia’s Ad Hoc Human Rights Court to exonerate all military from guilt. Researchers may be reluctant to offend nationalist sensitivity by being seen to take sides.

 

In the panel discussion earlier today, Fransedes Suni described how many young Timorese feel they have been through their own peace and reconciliation process within Timor-Leste and there is not much point demanding justice from Indonesia. His expression was: “The greatest justice is our independence.” Do you get a sense that this is a widely shared view among the Timorese?
This is certainly how the Timor-Leste government sees things. Unlike Indonesia, it has prosecuted some Timorese responsible for serious crimes in 1999 but has no appetite for pursuing justice in Indonesia, even for indicted Indonesians. This also suits the international community. The reasons are self-evident: struggling Timor-Leste needs Indonesia’s good will. This is paying off well at many levels but shouldn’t be dressed up as reconciliation. The downside is that perpetrators of crimes against humanity and war crimes have avoided any responsibility (as have perpetrators of past crimes in Indonesia itself), victims are further violated by having their rights to justice and reparations ignored, and in the absence of truth and accountability there has been no meaningful reconciliation between Indonesia and Timor-Leste. I think it’s up to Indonesia to face up to the truth of its past and make a move, and I have no doubt that victims and most Timorese would welcome that very much.

 

Vanessa Hearman profiled a number of Indonesian civil society activists who took up the Timorese cause during the Indonesian occupation. Why do you believe this degree of solidarity is no longer being expressed by Indonesian human rights activists?
Solidarity groups made a significant contribution to the liberation of Timor-Leste and their work over decades is written up and honoured in the Chega! report. But it’s also true that Timor is no longer the urgent human rights cause it used to be in Indonesia or indeed other key centres of opposition, such as Portugal and Australia. I confess to being somewhat puzzled by this but guess a number of factors are at work. They include fatigue, a sense that the main game of independence has been achieved and other issues could be taken up or returned to, the relocation of some key activists to Timor to help the new nation, respect for the wishes of the Timorese government to focus on the present, and so on. However, the issue has not disappeared. Indonesian civil society monitors Timor and is vocal from time to time, for example, they are increasingly situating the Timor issue in the wider context of their work on Indonesia’s past and doing excellent work on educating Indonesians about Timor and addressing unfinished business, such as the stolen children issue. Indonesian academics and intellectuals have been conspicuously missing in action. It’s time now for them to set the record straight.


Michael Leach raised former President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s personal affection for Timor-Leste. Do you think he could have a role to play in helping Indonesians confront the past?
Yudhoyono spent several years in East Timor and his children were raised there. He has a great affinity for the country and is reportedly considering buying a retirement property in Dili and sponsoring a ‘smart learning centre’ there. He was not mentioned in the CAVR report, meaning that victims did not point the finger at him, as they did at many other military figures. One of the core recommendations of our report is for the Indonesian government to conduct a public inquiry, chaired by Yudhoyono, into what has been done with the Per Memoriam recommendations. Yudhoyono signed off on the Per Memoriam report, acknowledged the truth of its findings against the Indonesian military in 1999 and endorsed its recommendations for institutional and cultural change. Given this history, he has a critical role to play in encouraging further public examination of Indonesia’s role in East Timor.

 

Both the CAVR and the CTF reports are available in English and Indonesian from www.chegareport.net

 

Categories: Human Rights Interview

Tags: Timor Leste