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Crimes against East Timor

By James Dunn - posted Wednesday, 30 July 2008

What to do about the findings of the CTF (Commission of Truth and Friendship) report, into the violence that occurred in East Timor in 1999, presents us with sensitive a challenge. It might seem to some that now is the time to forgive and forget, but the real situation is not so simple, especially for Australians. Our reaction just might be able to influence the outcome for a people still traumatised by the horrendous human rights abuses they endured over a 24-year period when, to the shame and dismay of many of us, Australian governments gave diplomatic support to the perpetrators, helping shield them from international scrutiny.

The final decision as to what further action, if any, will occur will, of course, be up to the political leaders of East Timor and Indonesia but, in the case of gross crimes against humanity, the world community has an obligation to continue to press for action that goes beyond the recommendations of the CTF report, in keeping with the international conventions that prevailed in relation to similar situations in Cambodia, Bosnia and Rwanda, and underlie our concerns about Zimbabwe.

An observance of these conventions is of great importance in order to bring an eventual end to the gross crimes against humanity committed in East Timor between 1975 and 1999. If we decide to close the case of East Timor we shall not only deny justice to the victims, but will risk encouraging further such violations. In effect upholding such fundamentally important humanitarian laws depends heavily on international political will, and so far in the case of East Timor’s horrendous experiences such will has often been lacking.


It is lack of confidence in international political will that has prompted East Timorese leaders to distance themselves from calls for an international tribunal.

A fundamental problem with this report is that, as more or less demanded by its mandate, it focuses exclusively on events in 1999, in effect ignoring even worse crimes against humanity in the previous 23 years of Indonesian occupation, the commission of which explains events in 1999.

The CTF report deals essentially with that period covered by UN Security Council resolutions - the moves to secure for the East Timorese a clear expression of their right to self determination. Here and there the report alludes to the past but in a way suggesting that that cruel experience, and the brutal TNI culture it represented, were virtually excluded from their consideration. This exclusion seems to have influenced the general thrust of the report.

Obviously when it came to dealing with the crimes against humanity committed by TNI commanders in 1999, could they recommend legal action without taking up the serious crimes of the past - for example, the Creras massacre of 1983, the Santa Cruz killing, or even incidents immediately after 1975? These, crimes against the population at large have a clear continuity; they were all committee under TNI commanders, all were designed to intimidate the population into accepting the status quo.

In usual practice the focus would be on those responsible, as well as on the institutional environment. This report focuses heavily on institutional responsibility, and, indeed, the most positive aspect of the report is its recommendations to do with institutional reform. However, commission of crimes against humanity cannot be confined to institutional factors, or, more crudely, the TNI’s culture of brutality. We need to know, and the victims deserve to know, exactly how these crimes against humanity took place - e.g. who gave what orders to whom, and what were the roles of senior levels of the military, police or Indonesia’s political leadership.

Since knowledge of incidents of atrocities have been around for decades, did any senior commanders or other officials demand that such practices be stopped?


The CTF report recommends reforms, but such reforms will have little effect until these crimes have been fully investigated, with the responsible parties having to explain, and defend their actions. The place to start is the beginning, so to speak; and that was the attack on Balibo in October 1975 which at that early stage involved a violation of the UN Charter, crimes against humanity, and a pattern of deception, including of the people of Indonesia which was to continue. The period between December 1975 and 1980 deserves especially close scrutiny for it was then that the most serious crimes against humanity were committed.

The CTF report alludes to the pre-1999 period but there is no indication that they gave it other than passing non-committal attention. Had they done so, for one thing, they would have taken top Kopassus commanders to task for setting up the militia in the first place, and encouraging their agenda of violence. This initiative came not from pro-Indonesia Timorese leaders but, in the first instance, was organised by Kopassus generals in July-August 1998, with Major Generals Zakky Anwar Makarim and Sjafrei Sjamsuddin playing a leading role. It was clearly designed to head off the move towards independence that President Habibie was beginning to take seriously.

The report does conclude that Indonesia’s military was responsible for “supporting” and equipping the militia units responsible for the massacres in 1999 and the many cases of torture and intimidation. However, it seeks to soften the blow by accusing pro-independence supporters of crimes against humanity - “illegal detention” - but the few actions of the pro-independence supporters were totally in reaction to the militia’s wave of violence.

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About the Author

James Dunn is a former Australian consul in East Timor who wrote the definitive book on East Timor’s history in the mid-80’s Timor: A People Betrayed and updated in 1996. In 2001-2002 he was the UNTAET Expert on Crimes Against Humanity in East Timor.

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All articles by James Dunn

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