Indonesia has acknowledged that its state institutions carried out gross human rights violations during East Timor's 1999 vote for independence. The admission came after a bilateral commission submitted its findings, blaming Jakarta for crimes against humanity. President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, receiving the commission’s report, expressed his regret over the 1999 events. But he, along with his East Timorese counterpart Jose Ramos Horta also insisted on moving forward.
Pro-independence protesters took to the streets of East Timor in 1999 and were brutally crushed by the Indonesian army -- hundreds died
The Commission of Truth and Friendship (CTF) finally submitted its long-awaited report to the presidents of Indonesia and East Timor this week. The commission was set up jointly by Indonesia and East Timor in 2005 to probe the violence, which took place before, during and after the vote for independence in East Timor in 1999.
The 321-page report, which was leaked last week, states that the violence was an organised crime. Although it does not name any perpetrators, it points the finger at the Indonesian army and civilian officials accusing them of carrying out gross human rights violations against the Timorese people.
The Indonesian president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who in the past had consistently denied his country’s army’s role in the violence, accepted the commission’s findings, and expressed regret over the incident. But he did not offer any apology, which the commission and rights activists have called for.
“We have taken steps to improve our relations with East Timor and we convey very deep regret at what happened in the past that caused the loss of lives and property,” the Indonesian president said.
Careful reflection on past
East Timor’s President Jose Ramos-Horta, who travelled with East Timor’s Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao to the island of Bali to formally receive the findings of the joint probe with his Indonesian counterpart, said his government would carefully analyse the report.
"Justice is not and cannot be only prosecutorial, in the sense of sending people to jail," Gusmao said. “This kind of reflection on historical lessons was part of the work of the CTF and it is our sheer commitment to learn lessons from the past that can be used in the future to prevent violence.”
But Ramos-Horta made it clear that Dili would not seek an international probe into the matter.
Damien Kingsbury, an expert from Australia’s Deaken University explained why: “The reason why they don’t want to pursue the matter any further is because it is very small and fragile country next to a very large neighbour. Indonesia has the capacity to destabilise it anytime and the East Timorese politicians recognise this is a reality.”
Over 1,000 killed in 1999
More than 1,000 people were reportedly killed, and many others tortured, intimidated or forcefully displaced in the 1999 violence. Since then, several Indonesian army and police generals have been tried by Indonesian human rights courts, but none has been convicted.
This is why Henri Myrttinen, a Berlin-based expert on Indonesian and East Timorese affairs, welcomed the findings: “A lot of people expected the commission to come up with basically a whitewash. The UN for one refused to accept the CGF. So we are all positively surprised. This is first time that the Indonesian government is recognising its responsibility.”
Now that the commission has presented its findings, rights groups want the two governments to continue with their joint judicial process and try the perpetrators. Henri Myrtinnen thinks most Timorese want this too: “There is a lot of resentment in the East Timorese society and it is not just related to 1999. There is a lot of frustration in Dili about the lack of justice.”
Activists are also calling for Indonesia’s state institutions to be reformed so such incidents are prevented in future.