Concern as violence renews in East Timor

Indictments leveled at the end of February at seven senior Indonesian military officers for their role in, and responsibility for, the carnage that engulfed East Timor in 1999 comes against a backdrop of growing fears about plans to destabilise East Timor.

One of those indicted is the former minister of defence, General Wiranto.

Last weekend United Nations peacekeeping forces confirmed they had evidence that former militia elements were being trained in neighbouring West Timor and had plans to launch a terror campaign against East Timor once the UN pulled out, currently scheduled for June 2004.

On Monday passengers in a minibus were attacked near the border by armed men, leaving one dead and five wounded. This follows an attack in January in which six were killed, leaving residents in the border areas demanding a greater security presence and the deployment of East Timor’s fledgling defence force. On Tuesday an additional 300 peacekeepers were deployed along the border.

The indicted military men are a veritable who’s who of senior officers, theoretically responsible for upholding security in East Timor in the run-up to the UN-administered referendum in August 1999. That referendum finally allowed the people of East Timor to decide whether they wanted independence after 24 years of occupation that left more than 200 000 dead.

Despite massive intimidation, about 80% of the voters called for independence, leading to an orgy of violence by militia elements in September and October 1999. More than 1 400 people died, thousands were injured and more than 250 000 people were forcibly moved into West Timor.

Of particular interest is the inclusion among those indicted of Major General Zacky Anwar Makarim, who was Wiranto’s personal representative in the territory and acted ostensibly as a “security adviser” to the committee responsible for coordinating security with the UN mission. Well known for his involvement in covert operations, it’s alleged he was already involved in planning the militia strategy in 1998, almost a year before Indonesia officially signed on to the idea for a referendum.

Also charged is the former East Timorian governor, Abilio Soares, who supported the militia terror and has a long history of collaboration with the Indonesian security forces.

Based on more than 1 500 witness statements, the indicted officers — with the exception of Wiranto — are accused of personal involvement in the ordering, planning, arming and funding of militias in 1999.

The indictments, however, are unlikely to be enforced as all the accused live in Indonesia, where the authorities have refused to honour an agreement made between the former UN administrator (and now UN commissioner for human rights) Sergio Viera de Mello and a former Indonesian attorney general to extradite those charged by UN investigators.

Indonesian Foreign Minister Hassan Wiraduya told reporters that his government would “simply ignore” the indictments, as there is no official extradition treaty, and the UN has no mandate to issue the warrants.

UN prosecutor Stuart Alford said “it’s going to require something outside of East Timor from the wider international community to see any movement in bringing these men before a court”.

In the current geo-political climate, however, the issue of human rights for East Timor has all but fallen off the international agenda. The United States and Australia are courting Indonesia’s rulers who have publicly stated their opposition to a war in Iraq.

The realpolitik of placating the country with the world’s largest Muslim population and an unpredictable military, means that they are unlikely to press Indonesia’s President Megawati Sukarnoputri to hand over any of those responsible, let alone senior military officers.

The indictments are nevertheless significant in that they are a formal recognition that the militia terror was orchestrated at the most senior levels and not the work of “rogue elements”.

They will also provide additional ammunition for those who have been calling for an international court, along the lines of the Yugoslavian and Rwandan tribunals. In 2000 the UN decided to allow Jakarta to run its own trials into the events in its former “colony”.

One of the most notorious militia leaders, Eurico Gutteres, and two of those now indicted by the UN, have already been found guilty, although their sentences are minimal and all are out on bail pending appeal. Gutteres told the court that whatever he had done, it was for Indonesia. He is currently the head of the youth wing of the ruling party and regarded by some as a national hero. With the exception of Wiranto, who was sacked as minister of defence in February 2000, all the other officers indicted by UN prosecutors were subsequently promoted.

Real focus and debate on what is next for Indonesia’s perpetrators have yet to happen.

Meanwhile, the world’s newest nation continues to struggle to find its feet, totally dependent on foreign aid and waning international interest. In the context of the economic, security and political interests of its main benefactors, East Timor’s primary preoccupation remains its security situation and how to make a better life for its impoverished people.

There is hope that the UN may extend its security mandate past the 2004 deadline, in order to help build defence and police capabilities. There appears, however, little interest among power-brokers in the international community to hold accountable those who murdered, raped and pillaged during 1999, let alone during the preceding years of occupation. For the East Timorese, it seems unlikely they will ever have the luxury of choice in this matter.

Piers Pigou works with the Commission for Reception, Truth and Reconciliation, based in Dili, East Timor. The views expressed here are his own

Piers Pigou

Piers Pigou

Piers Pigou is Crisis Group's senior consultant for Southern Africa. Formerly he was Crisis Group’s Southern Africa project director, overseeing the organisation's research and advocacy activities in South Africa, Zimbabwe, Madagascar and Angola. Read more from Piers Pigou

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