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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 operations”.

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 1999.

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 mass trauma.

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 (PTSD).

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 helped?

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 and 1999.

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 judicial mechanism.

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 in 1999.

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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