Timor war crimes need justice
October 25, 2009
Australia should push for justice for war crimes in East Timor rather than accept excuses of good relations with Indonesia.
ONE of the most compelling moments in the recent film Balibo depicted a no-holds-barred punch-up in a swimming pool between Australian journalist Roger East and the East Timorese independence activist Jose Ramos-Horta.
It was late 1975, the Indonesian special forces had just murdered five Australian newsmen in Balibo and Jakarta was poised to invade East Timor, the tiny country on Australia's doorstep.
Balibo, the movie, depicted the veteran journalist East as something of a washed-up hack who'd reluctantly come to East Timor at Ramos-Horta's insistence to run the East Timor News Agency. East was portrayed as being disproportionately obsessed at times with solving the murders of the five young Australians while comparatively inured to the broader injustices being perpetrated against the East Timorese.
The fight between East and Ramos-Horta is a neat dramatic metaphor for anyone who has, over the years, pondered the horrible deaths of the five Australians – and the massive injustices and human rights abuses dealt to the East Timorese for 24 years from 1975. It flares after Ramos-Horta criticises East for caring only about the dead journalists when he should be concerned about finding justice for the East Timorese.
It is a gritty, tense and immensely unsettling scene that forces viewers to confront the moral relativism through which we view the murder of the Australians amid the context of broader atrocity against the East Timorese. Ramos-Horta, I found myself thinking, has a point; what happened to the journalists was terrible but it was also part of a much larger Indonesian crime against the East Timorese.
It was a brilliant scene in a remarkable film. But as the movie's consulting historian Dr Clinton Fernandes points out on his website about Balibo, the swimming pool scene was "entirely fictitious". "It was written into the movie partly to confront the audience with the obvious point: 'why care so much about five journalists when so many East Timorese are dying?' The fact is those who campaigned – and still campaign – for justice for the Balibo Five also campaigned for the independence of East Timor. The journalists were murdered because they were trying to tell the world the truth about East Timor," he says.
Today, of course, Ramos-Horta is East Timor's President. The former guerilla fighter Xanana Gusmao is the country's Prime Minister. Many of their countrymen and countless individuals and human rights groups the world over, have a burning desire to bring to justice the Indonesian soldiers and intelligence officials who oversaw 24 years of atrocities. Ramos-Horta and Gusmao are more pragmatic.
Gusmao's Government recently narrowly survived a no-confidence motion. It was moved in protest at the Prime Minister's extra-legal decision to free Indonesian militiaman Maternus Bere, wanted by the United Nations for his part in the massacre of women, children and priests in a church at Suai, East Timor, in 1999.
Besides his alleged involvement in the Suai massacre, one of Bere's associates Egidio Manek abducted a girl, Juliana Dos Santos – known in East Timor as Alola – and forcibly took her to West Timor to be his wife. Under international law, Bere is also complicit in the abduction and sexual slavery or Alola.
In 2001 the Alola Foundation, a charity to support the women and children of East Timor, was established in her name. Its patron is, somewhat ironically given recent events, Kirsty Sword Gusmao, the Australian-born wife of Xanana.
Bere was arrested in East Timor on August 8 and was being held in pre-trial detention pending his criminal case. But on August 30, the 10th anniversary of the East Timorese independence vote, Gusmao took the extraordinary step of unilaterally freeing Bere.
In his speech to the nation on August 30, Ramos-Horta didn't mention Bere but he made it clear "there will be no international tribunal" in relation to Indonesian war crimes. He asked the UN to disband its serious crimes investigating team in East Timor. He said: "As the nation knows, my position is clear and firm on this issue: as an East Timorese and head of state, as someone who has lost brothers and a sister, as someone who almost lost his life, as someone who has criss-crossed this beautiful island of ours in the past 10 years, and know what the vast majority of the people feel and demand today, I am saying let's put the past behind. There will be no international tribunal."
On September 2 UN Human Rights Commissioner Navanethem Pillay wrote to Ramos-Horta, expressing deep concern about the release of Bere. "This decision is extremely regrettable as it has grave consequences for the prospects of accountability for the serious crimes which occurred in 1999. It would seem to violate ... Timor Leste's Constitution, as well as the country's penal code. It also counters successive Security Council resolutions which call for accountability for past crimes. You will equally be aware of the United Nations' firm position that there can be no amnesty or impunity for serious crimes such as war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide," Pillay wrote. "I appreciate your Government's desire to develop healthy relations with Indonesia ... However, I trust you will appreciate your Government should not avoid its international obligations in the name of bilateral co-operation."
Defending his decision to hand Bere to the Indonesian Embassy in East Timor on August 30, Gusmao said: "It was purely a political decision for our good relationship with Indonesia."
In late 1975 when the ailing Whitlam government turned a blind eye to the murdered journalists and the continuing human rights abuses in East Timor, and implicitly supported Indonesian invasion plans, such pragmatism in the name of good bilateral relations with Jakarta was railed against. Not least by the likes of Ramos-Horta.
For the next fortnight, UN diplomats will debate whether to establish an international tribunal to investigate and prosecute war crimes in East Timor. Australia has effectively said it is willing to abide by East Timor's wishes. While Gusmao's and Ramos-Horta's positions are seen as regrettable by many who continue to fight for justice, East Timor cannot be expected to take the international lead. Australia can and should play a pivotal role.