May 22, 2024 Last Updated 6:09 AM, May 21, 2024

The politics of remembering and forgetting

The politics of remembering and forgetting

Lia Kent

   The Suai Church where 200 people were killed two days after the referendum for independence from Indonesia
   James Scambary

Ten years after the 1999 referendum for independence, people in East Timor continue to live with the legacy of the Indonesian past in all its contradictions. In Dili, a crumbling, concrete statue still implores citizens to be loyal to the five Pancasila principles. In the suburb of Balide, the Indonesian military cemetery stands forlorn and overgrown by weeds, except where local residents have planted their corn crops. Nearby, the notorious Comarka prison and torture centre has gained new life as the office of the Commission for Reception, Truth and Reconciliation (CAVR), and its successor, the post-CAVR Secretariat. A sign above its entrance reads ‘The CAVR has shown that flowers can grow in prisons.’ Outside of Dili, in the sleepy town of Liquiça stands a small, white statue of an angel. Tucked behind the church, under the shade of frangipani and magnolia trees, it marks the site of the April 1999 Liquiça church massacre where more than 60 people were killed by the Besi Merah Putih (Red and White Iron) militia group.

Despite the violent past, relations between East Timorese and Indonesians are, on the face of it, surprisingly cordial. Indonesian business people travel freely in and out of Dili and many East Timorese students are completing tertiary studies in Indonesia. East Timorese continue to eat supermie noodles, Indonesia’s favourite brand, listen to the latest Indonesian pop music, and are glued to Indonesian soap operas each evening. The reality of ‘dealing with the past’, it seems, involves an intricate process of adaptation and continuance, of remembering and forgetting.

Over the last ten years the East Timorese and Indonesian governments, and the international community, have been vigorous in their official promotion of ‘reconciliation’ as an essential means of ‘moving on’ from the past and forging a new nation. Given that a complex reworking of the past is already taking place at the local level, what does reconciliation between the nations of East Timor and Indonesia really mean?

Various meanings

Reconciliation is a vague and slippery concept. Often regarded as a desirable step towards peace, those who advocate reconciliation rarely define what it entails, or who and what is to be reconciled. For some, reconciliation implies forgiveness, forgetting and sacrifice; for others it is a long term process, one that requires acknowledging the past, rather than closure. It is a term open to myriad interpretations and cooption for widely varying political agendas.

In the case of East Timor and Indonesia, a number of competing conceptions of reconciliation have jostled for prominence. Former President and current Prime Minister of East Timor, Xanana Gusmão, has been East Timor’s foremost advocate of reconciliation as forgiveness, forgetting and closure. Retributive justice, he has argued, will only open old wounds and divisions, and will result in chaos. It is this philosophy that in May 2004 led him to meet with and hug General Wiranto, who was in charge of the Indonesian military (TNI) when it withdrew from East Timor in 1999, and refer to him as his ‘dear friend’. At the time Wiranto was a leading candidate in the Indonesian presidential elections. Gusmão’s philosophy is also reflected in the way past events are officially commemorated. The date of the Indonesian invasion of East Timor, 7 December 1975, is officially remembered as ‘East Timorese Heroes Day’, deflecting attention away from the horrific Indonesian war crimes that were committed.

Gusmão’s ‘moral’ arguments for reconciliation have obscured the politics and pragmatism at their heart. As a tiny, poor nation, the East Timorese leadership has been mindful to ensure future stability and good economic relations with Indonesia. The new nation’s choices have also been constrained by international politics. While the UN has preached that ‘justice’ must be the foundation of ‘true’ reconciliation, the Security Council has appreciated Indonesia’s strategic value in the region and their assistance in the so-called ‘war on terror’. Consequently, little political will exists for the establishment of an international war crimes tribunal to prosecute members of the TNI.

By referring to his people as ‘heroes’ and ‘martyrs’ rather than ‘victims’, Gusmão has attempted to give new meaning to suffering and death. He has hoped that this, along with promises of social justice and development, would be enough to dispense with the power of the past over the present.

Calls for justice and reparations

   This monument commemorates the April 1999 massacre at the
   Liquica Church where 57 people were killed by militia
   Lia Kent

Yet, there are lingering resentments. Many East Timorese have not forgotten the past and moved on as Gusmão had hoped. Human rights campaigners view their leadership’s version of reconciliation with cynicism. They see it as masking an unpleasant reality – namely, TNI impunity for human rights violations committed during 1999 and the occupation. Campaigning under the slogan ‘no reconciliation without justice’, they argue that genuine reconciliation will only take place following acknowledgement of, and justice and reparations for, past atrocities. They have criticised the performance of the Indonesian Ad Hoc human rights tribunal and the UN-established Serious Crimes process in Dili for failing to prosecute those most responsible for these atrocities.

Out in East Timor’s rural areas, people often associate reconciliation with the Community Reconciliation Process initiated by the CAVR from 2002-2005, which was designed to integrate former militia members responsible for the so-called ‘minor crimes’ of looting, arson and theft during 1999 back into their communities. While many people embraced this program, they are also acutely aware that only the ema kiik (little people) have had to atone for their actions, and that those higher up in the chain of command have not been held accountable. People are disappointed with what they perceive as the lack of ‘results’ from the CAVR; they had hoped it would lead to prosecutions and the provision of material reparations to help their daily lives. Many now speak of reconciliation as just another proyek (project), in which professional or government staff have benefited financially at the expense of ordinary people.

If ordinary peoples’ lives had improved, and the promises of jobs, better lives and development had materialised, perhaps, as Gusmão had hoped, people would be less inclined to think about the past. Instead, poverty has worsened since independence and people dwell on their losses: their loved ones who died or disappeared, their lost educational opportunities due to the conflict, the damage to their homes and livestock, their conflict-related injuries, their lack of housing and clean water and the leadership’s broken promises of development. The past cannot be left behind while its effects still reverberate in the present in very concrete ways. As the human rights advocate Joaquim Fonseca puts it, ‘the widow is reminded of her loss every time she sits down to the dinner table or it comes time to pay school fees’.

The Commission for Truth and Friendship

The bilateral Commission for Truth and Friendship (CTF) represents the most prominent example of the political uses of reconciliation. The CTF was established in March 2005, following discussions between then President Gusmão and President Megawati Sukarnoputri, during which the two leaders agreed that outstanding human rights issues should be resolved through a ‘reconciliatory’ rather than prosecutorial approach. Described as a ‘new and unique approach to confronting the past’, the CTF was mandated to seek the ‘conclusive truth’ about the violence of 1999. While it had the power to recommend amnesties and rehabilitation of those ‘wrongly accused’, it was not allowed to recommend prosecutions.

Reconciliation is a vague and slippery concept

The UN refused to participate in the CTF due to concerns about its amnesty provisions, and human rights campaigners in both Indonesia and East Timor viewed it with suspicion. It was seen as another means to perpetuate impunity and it was widely believed that the final report would be a whitewash. Many asked why it was necessary for another commission to establish the truth when the CAVR had recently completed a comprehensive 2800-page report ( on the history of the conflict from 1974-1999. The failure to include any form of public consultation in the selection of Commissioners, and the problematic public hearing process – which gave accused perpetrators of crimes against humanity a platform to publicly defend their actions – only fuelled criticisms.

As things have turned out, the final report Per Memoriam ad Spem (Through Memory to Hope) is not the whitewash many thought it would be. Handed over to President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and President Jose Ramos-Horta at a ceremony in Bali on 15 July 2008, the CTF report ( concurs with many of the CAVR’s findings that crimes against humanity did occur in 1999 and that the TNI was principally responsible for those crimes. While much of the ‘truth’ in the CTF report is not new, by accepting the report’s findings, President Yudhoyono has provided Indonesia’s first official recognition that its state institutions had systematically violated human rights in East Timor.

Like the CAVR report, the CTF report calls for an official acknowledgement of responsibility and an apology for the events of 1999, for collective reparations to be made to victims and for institutional reform of the TNI. It also recommends the establishment of a commission for the disappeared and a conflict resolution centre to implement human rights education. Most importantly, by not recommending amnesties, clearing names, or claiming a ‘conclusive truth’, the CTF report leaves the door open on the issue of future prosecutions and demonstrates a long-term, process-oriented view of reconciliation. Indeed, despite its significant flaws, some suggest that the CTF itself can be viewed as a process of reconciliation between the various commissioners involved. As Hugo Fernandes, former CTF coordinator for East Timor explains, ‘For the three years of operation we went through a process of reconciling ideas. All commissioners came to a common understanding that reconciliation is a process… you cannot achieve it immediately.’

Yet, we should not read too much into the CTF’s significance. Following the initial splash of media attention, there has been little movement to take the report’s recommendations forward. The Presidents’ joint statement at the 15 July ceremony contained an expression of ‘remorse’ rather than an acknowledgement of responsibility. In November 2008, East Timor’s parliament postponed for the second time the debate on the CAVR and CTF reports. In Indonesia, it is still unclear whether the report has been handed to the parliament and without a commitment to public dissemination it is unlikely to change the views of ordinary Indonesian people about the violence of 1999. The Indonesian Department of Defence has also contested the report’s findings, suggesting at a recent public meeting that the CTF failed to find the ‘causa prima’ of the 1999 ‘riots’, which they claim was the fact that the UN moved forward the announcement of the ballot results. The fanfare and symbolism of the CTF report may also serve as a convenient smokescreen behind which other, murkier, relationships are developing. For example, the East Timorese government recently granted approval to East Timorese-born Jakarta gangster Hercules Rozario Marcal, who has close links to Suharto-era generals, to develop businesses in Dili.

The future of reconciliation

It is tempting to dismiss ‘reconciliation’ between Indonesia and East Timor as an irredeemably politicised process. Yet, acknowledging its political nature may allow us to move beyond its feel-good rhetoric to see the conflicting perspectives and the real trade-offs that are at stake. In this sense, reconciliation may be less about arriving at closure or consensus than about making a space for politics within which the citizens of both countries can debate and contest its very terms.

At the ‘grassroots’ level in East Timor, communities are developing their own collective attempts at remembering and reconciling themselves with the past

Against the attempts of the political leadership to reframe reconciliation as friendship, forgiveness and a ‘conclusive truth’, the CAVR and CTF reports have contributed to the opening of a political space in which differing conceptions of reconciliation are being negotiated. Thus, while relationships are being built by the East Timorese leadership with gangsters such as Hercules, they are also being forged between East Timorese activists and their Indonesian counterparts, who are united on the need for acknowledgement, justice and reparations, not only to address the past, but also to end impunity and strengthen the democratic culture in both countries. Recently, for example, activists in both countries have focused their efforts on pushing their parliaments to debate the CAVR and CTF reports.

At the ‘grassroots’ level in East Timor, communities are developing their own collective attempts at remembering and reconciling themselves with the past. The Liquica ‘angel’ and the Suai ‘circle of stones’ stand at the sites of the two church massacres of 1999, while in the suco (village) of Maupitine, Los Palos, the local community has built a simple hand-painted monument of stone and cement to remember the little-known massacre of five members of the village in 1983. These monuments stand as challenges to the East Timorese leadership’s conception of reconciliation as ‘forgetting’ and ‘closure.’ At the same time, ‘ordinary activities’ such as the planting and harvesting of corn in the Indonesian military cemetery, serve as a reminder that ‘dealing with the past’ also entails a good deal of selective forgetting. It is these complex negotiations at the local, national and transnational levels which are the very stuff of reconciliation.     ii

Lia Kent ( is a PhD Candidate in the School of Social and Political Sciences at the University of Melbourne. Her research explores the local effects of the transitional justice mechanisms in East Timor.

Inside Indonesia 96: Apr-Jun 2009

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