The traumatic birth of a nation
Dr Mark Byrne*
8 June 2006
A version of this article is published on OnlineOpinion,
8 June 2006
On 1 June the Sydney Morning Herald reported on the troubled
personal history of East Timor's rebel leader Major Alfredo Alves
Reinado. Captured and enslaved by the Indonesian military, he spent
seven years as a porter for the army.
During that time he witnessed “vicious brutality against
Timorese civilians by the Indonesian military”, including
rape and murder, and was “forced to participate in military
Reinado told his story before a public hearing of the Reception,
Truth and Reconciliation Commission (CAVR in Portuguese), which
was set up in 2002, among other reasons, to establish the truth
regarding human rights violations in East Timor between 1974 and
How Reinado’s history might have influenced his current role
as a rebel leader is a matter of conjecture. But what is clear is
that his is not an uncommon story. This is a nation born out of
Independent research carried out for the CAVR estimates that the
number of conflict-related deaths between 1974 and 1999 was a minimum
of 102,800 (18,600 killings and 84,200 abnormal deaths due to hunger
and illness) and as many as 183,000 out of a total population of
well under a million. This is in addition to the forced displacement
of most of the population and widespread evidence of rape, torture,
summary detention and other human rights abuses.
This independent research, involving both qualitative research
and quantitative statistical analysis, concluded that ninety per
cent of the killings were carried out either by the Indonesian military
(58%) or their East Timorese auxiliaries (32%). Only ten per cent
could be attributed to fratricidal violence between political factions
within East Timor, mostly in the period between April 1974 and the
Indonesian invasion in December 1975.
In its impact, this makes the genocide in East Timor far worse
than the ethnic cleansing in the former Yugoslavia in the early
1990s, and more comparable to Rwanda in 1995 and Cambodia under
Pol Pot (1976-1979).
A survey in 2000 by the International Rehabilitation Council for
Torture Victims found that 96.6 per cent of those surveyed had suffered
trauma during the Indonesian occupation. Three-quarters had experienced
a combat situation, more than half had come close to death, and
more than a third had symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder
Common symptoms of untreated trauma include passivity (what American
psychologist Martin Seligman calls “learned helplessness”),
high anxiety levels (“hypervigilance”) and high rates
of child abuse and domestic violence. These have all been reported
among the people of East Timor.
Recent events have provided further evidence of how deeply the
population has been traumatised. The rapid collapse of authority,
the flight of thousands in response to rumours and the emergence
of gangs based on dubious ethnic identities are all evidence of
a society beset by fear and mistrust.
From 2000 to 2002 an AusAID-funded program called PRADET (Pyschosocial
Recovery and Development in East Timor) treated East Timorese for
PTSD, trained local mental health workers and began an education
program in schools.
PRADET and its successor, the East Timor National Mental Health
Project, had treated 2,400 people by the end of 2004. So how - given
that time alone does not heal all wounds - can everyone else be
East Timor President, Xanana Gusmao, has argued repeatedly that
focusing on the economic and social development of the nation is
the best way to heal the wounds of the past. At the same time he
has called for his people to forgive, in the spirit of reconciliation,
the Indonesian military and East Timorese militia who committed
crimes against them.
Xanana’s attitude has, however, become a running sore in
the new nation. Political parties other than Fretilin, the church
and civil society have all called repeatedly for justice for the
war crimes and crimes against humanity carried out between 1975
The lack of justice was a factor in the mass protests in Dili last
year. Yet after a serious crimes process in East Timor and a sham
ad hoc Human Rights Court in Jakarta, all of the non-Timorese perpetrators
remain at large, protected by Indonesia.
To make matters worse, last year Foreign Minister Jose Ramos Horta
negotiated with Indonesia to set up a Commission of Truth and Friendship
that will recommend the granting of amnesties to war criminals.
This is in contravention of international human rights law, which
regards amnesties as sending a message that human rights abuses
may be committed with impunity.
The experience of other nations such as South Africa is that truth
commissions can allow victims to tell their stories and begin the
process of achieving psychological closure in relation to past traumatic
events. East Timor’s leaders knew this, and consulted with
South Africans and others with experience of truth commissions before
establishing the CAVR.
A community reconciliation process was carried out in East Timor
between 2002 and 2004 by the CAVR. Those accused of low-level crimes
such as beatings and property destruction - mostly former militia
members - were invited to admit their crimes, be confronted by the
victims, and make amends.
But victims often complained that while minor militia members and
leaders took part in this process, the “big fish” -
mostly senior Indonesian military officers - had got away with rape,
torture and murder. They were right: 339 suspects charged under
the Serious Crimes process, which ran parallel with the CAVR, remain
in Indonesia. It refuses to co-operate with extradition requests.
The East Timor Government cannot afford to upset its big, powerful
neighbour. In the absence of meaningful action by Indonesia, there
have been repeated calls - from within East Timor, from international
human rights groups, and most recently from the Commission of Experts
appointed in 2005 by UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan to report on
the justice issue - for the former General Wiranto and others to
face an international war crimes tribunal or some other independent
While everyone in East Timor seems to welcome the current deployment
of Australian military forces and police, Australia also bears some
responsibility for the collective trauma of the East Timorese people
today. We acquiesced in the Indonesian invasion in 1975 and ignored
warnings of impending trouble leading up to the vote on independence
Our government does not want to risk antagonising Indonesia by
supporting calls for the former General Wiranto and other army officers
to be extradited to East Timor or a third country to face charges.
However, if we do not act in support of justice for East Timor,
we will be sending the message that we are not committed to upholding
the rule of law and respect for human rights around the world.
We will also be helping to condemn a nation to live forever with
an open wound, thereby sowing the seeds of future instability.
Dr Mark Byrne is Senior Researcher at Uniya Jesuit Social Justice
Centre and the convenor of the Australian Coalition for Transitional
Justice in East Timor.
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