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Turning a blind eye

By Susan Connelly - posted Friday, 21 April 2006

The mantra “I don’t recall” is the current phrase with which government and corporate machines evade responsibility. During the agony endured by the Timorese people throughout the Indonesian occupation, similar ignorance reigned for the same reason. “We didn’t know.” “We didn’t want to know.”

Australia has consistently claimed allegiance to the rule of law, to human rights instruments and to codes of civilised conduct in principle, but when it came to practice - in relation to human beings living in close proximity in East Timor  - Australia was found wanting.

Universals yes: particulars, no. Throughout the whole of the Indonesian occupation of East Timor, the actions of successive Australian governments sought to place Australia’s economic and political relationship with Indonesia ahead of human rights issues. The people of West Papua are experiencing the backwash of the same mindset. It appears that Australia has learned little. We love humankind but it is inconvenient people on our doorstep whom we cannot abide.


The recent report of the Commission for Reception, Truth and Reconciliation (CAVR) presents in compelling detail the causes of the deaths of up to 183,000 people in East Timor between 1974 and 1999. One of the strengths of the report is that it deals with the abuses committed by Timorese with the same scrutiny which it applies to the Indonesian occupiers. No one responsible for human rights abuses is spared. However, those at the highest levels in the Indonesian Government and its security forces are shown to be the main cause of the huge death toll.

This report presents its findings in dispassionate detail. The unlawful killings and disappearances; the forced displacement and induced famines; the detention; torture and ill-treatment of persons; the sexual violence and political trials; the violations of the rights of children: all these make confronting reading. Anyone who wants to know the truth of what happened can find it on the Internet.

Also on the public record is the extraordinary fact that few of those responsible for the violence have been called to account for their crimes. Most of the officers who operated in Timor remain in the Indonesian military although some are enjoying retirement. For example, Major Generals Tono Suratnam, and Zakky Anwar Makarim reside in Indonesian society with no obvious requirement to answer for the atrocities they committed.

Lists of those indicted for crimes against humanity occupy 55 pages of the report, and after brief statements of the charges against them, this phrase occurs repeatedly: “The indictees are believed to be at large in Indonesia.”

Some of those indicted were sent to West Papua straight after their tour of duty in Timor, for example, Major General Mahadin Simbolon, charged by UN prosecutors with crimes against humanity, was sent there as military commander. Timbul Silaen was the police chief in East Timor in 1999 and his next appointment was to West Papua in the same position, as police chief.

Others were promoted in the military or rose to high prominence in civil administration, for example, Muchdi Purwo Pranyoto who is reported as serving four times in East Timor, including some time “conducting interrogations” in 1980, became for a short time the Commander of Kopassus (the elite special forces group with the Indonesian military).


Rudini, who served for two years in the Airborne Battle Force II later became the Minister of the Interior and held the post for five years. Some well known names of military men who served in Timor occur in the report: Prabowo Subianto, President Soeharto’s son-in-law, became the Deputy Commander of Kopassus after four separate tours of duty in Timor between 1976 and 1989. The vice-President of Indonesia between 1993 and 1998, General Try Sutrisno, had operated as a Chief of Staff in Timor ten years before.

It was during the tenure of these career soldiers and so many others that the systematic starvation and destruction of Timor and its people took place.

Similar reports (pdf file 257KB) from West Papua are now also freely available. (Also see the report (pdf file 2.35MB)by John Wing and Peter King for the Centre for independent Studies.)

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About the Author

Susan Connelly was a Catholic primary school principal, and taught scripture in state schools. From 1994 - 2012 she worked in cultural and advocacy issues with Timorese people. Bloomsbury will soon publish her PhD thesis as "East Timor, René Girard and Neocolonial Violence: Scapegoating as Australian Policy".

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