News & Updates 21 May 2022

Indonesia-Timor-Leste relations: Good neighbors and unfinished business

This article was published in the paper edition of The Jakarta Post with the title ” Indonesia-Timor-Leste relations: Good neighbors and unfinished business”. Click to read:

“Good fences make good neighbors,” writes Robert Frost in his renowned poem “Mending Wall”. Twenty years since the restoration of its independence in 2002, Timor-Leste and its close neighbor Indonesia have made considerable progress in mending their checkered past. There is a genuine feeling of generosity between the two nations, cemented by their common history and geographical proximity.

The celebration of Timor-Leste’s restored independence on May 20 is an opportunity for the two countries to deepen their relationship as close neighbors, by seeking ways to reduce the pain and anger that still exists in connection with their shared history.

Two official truth commissions have been established to take a deep, objective look into historical human rights violations. The Commission for Reception, Truth and Reconciliation in East Timor (CAVR) was established by the United Nations in Timor-Leste and continued under the new government after independence, while the other, the Commission for Truth and Friendship (CTF), consisted of Indonesian and Timorese commissioners and staff.

The two commissions made many similar findings in relation to what had taken place. They have each produced a carefully researched body of evidence about mass human rights violations, their root causes and what should be done to promote healing and prevent recurrence. The fact that these findings have not been widely shared and their recommendations have generally not been implemented reflects a major loss of opportunity in healing the wounds of the past and creating a stronger base for a future based on peace, justice and respect.

In 2005, the CAVR documented the pervasive and egregious gender-based violence targeting East Timorese women and girls throughout the 24-year conflict. In its final report, titled Chega! (Enough!), the commission noted that sexual violence in particular left devastating and lasting effects on the lives of individual women and girls, as well as their families and communities. More than 25 percent of cases of rape reported by the victims to the CAVR occurred in the 1999 campaign of violence and was reportedly committed by members of the Indonesian security forces and pro-Indonesia militia, a large number of these in rural communities.

Three years later, the CTF echoed the CAVR’s recommendations to ensure acknowledgement and healing for survivors, including survivors of sexual violence and children who had been separated during the conflict. President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono signed a presidential decree in 2011 to implement these recommendations. Across the border in 2016, then-prime minister Rui de Araujo created a new institution, Centro Nacional Chega, to ensure that the recommendations of these two truth commissions were implemented.

Sadly, a study launched this week by a consortium of Timorese civil society groups identified a significant number of women survivors who continue to experience severely damaged and disadvantaged lives, with the report highlighting the issue of stigma passed on from innocent victims of sexual violence to their children. Village leaders from the central and western areas spoke of women survivors of the 1999 campaign of sexual violence who were still suffering mental illnesses related to trauma and isolation.

The study found high incidences of untreated or ongoing trauma among women survivors of past sexual violence. In the central and western districts, many women survivors of the 1999 sexual violence still languish with health problems and inadequate support. Many victims are marginalized in their communities, a cruel and totally illogical practice that blames the victims for the crimes committed against them.

The repeated pattern of not holding perpetrators to account contributes to a culture of impunity for violence against women and girls, not only in the past but also in the present day.

Children born of rape committed by Indonesian soldiers and Timorese militia personnel have grown up bearing stigmas, and in many places have been suffering social exclusion. Older women survivors feel that they can make an important contribution to a national culture of nonviolence by sharing their stories with younger generations.

During my visit to Timor-Leste last month, I met with survivors of sexual violence who are now growing older, more frail and still waiting for justice. They were in the forefront of speaking out about the violence they experienced, taking center stage at the CAVR’s public hearings back in 2003. Now they are tired and sickly, but still passionate about justice.

A village leader said: “There are many women in that part of the village who suffered violence during the conflict. People always talk about the past, what happened in those times. It’s the same in other villages. Some have already died. Their children are always stigmatized by the community and they just have to remain silent.”

Today marks 20 years of Timor-Leste’s restoration of independence. It should be a celebration of hope, a new beginning for two nations that were embroiled in a protracted conflict that caused the loss of many lives and unimaginable suffering. It is time for the two countries to recommit to building a strong friendship based on truth, as reflected in the work and findings of the two official truth commissions.

As part of this healing process and creating a strong foundation for the future, we must find a way to take concrete steps in meeting the hopes of survivors of sexual violence, families of the disappeared and the many children who were separated from their parents during the conflict and brought to Indonesia. The process of moving forward can be based on the good work that has already been done.

All we need to do is to look at the solid recommendations made by the CAVR and the CTF and commit resources to implementing them. There are survivors and civil society groups working across the border that can create a bilateral people-led process for truth and healing. It is time to let them take the lead to mending this divide to ensure peace and justice for generations to come.

The writer is executive director of Asia Justice and Rights (AJAR), a regional NGO working on human rights and accountability in the region.