Jun 03, 2023 Last Updated 2:32 AM, May 31, 2023

Facing the past

Gerry van Klinken

Like many Southeast Asians in the twentieth century, the East Timorese have been no strangers to suffering. But East Timor is unique in the wholeheartedness with which it has faced its troubled past. The Commission for Reception, Truth and Reconciliation in East Timor (CAVR is the Portuguese acronym) was mandated by the state in 2001 to write a human rights history of the country between 1974 and 1999. Unlike the recently formed joint Indonesian-East Timorese Commission on Truth and Friendship, this was an East Timorese show. In charge were seven national commissioners - women and men, pro-Indonesian and pro-independence, and from various districts. But all were independent of the government, and committed to truth and reconciliation (see www.easttimor-reconciliation.org). Many countries helped to pay, most generously Japan , the UK and New Zealand . The East Timorese government always cooperated with its work. Hundreds of national staff, assisted by a number of foreign experts, took three years to do the work. Truth-seeking, reconciliation with militiamen who had committed lesser crimes, and victim support were among its core tasks.

The lengthy report, entitled Chega! ( Enough!) , is available on the internet in English and Indonesian (www.ictj.org). It adds a wealth of information and several entirely new dimensions to what was already known from the standard histories by James Dunn, John Taylor and others. Hundreds of women overcame social taboos to speak out for the first time about sexual violence. Women associated with the resistance were systematically raped, and Indonesian military commanders kept lists of women who could be 'used'. For year after year, they fell pregnant to different soldiers (Note also the chapter on abuses against children). Indonesian battalions enslaved several thousand children, as young as ten, as carriers and cooks. Soldiers forcibly adopted children and took them to Indonesia . Every Indonesian who wants to know what militarisation does to a society should read this report.

Death by deprivation

The time of greatest suffering was not 1999, but the first five years of the occupation, when the country was hermetically sealed from outside observers. The graph on this page shows the number of East Timorese who died due to illness and hunger in the period 1974-1999, in excess of 'normal' deaths due to such causes. The Indonesian military, according to the report, tried to starve East Timorese who had fled to the mountains under Fretilin leadership into surrendering. There was no drought. After surrender they continued to starve them by restricting their movements.

To calculate the graph, experts working for the commission (from Benetech in the US ) used three separate types of data. First, statements by nearly 8000 people all over the country who voluntarily approached CAVR field teams with their stories (about all kinds of war-related abuses). These were afterwards analysed. Second, a census of every gravestone in the country - over 319,000 of them. Third, an in-depth survey of almost 1400 households to ask about war-related deaths and displacement. An exhaustive scientific process then led to the graph. It involved matching the names on these data sets, applying rigorous statistics, and adjusting for the fact that many deaths can now no longer be remembered.

The total of those who perished due to deprivation came to 104,000 - less than the '200,000' often quoted during the solidarity struggle, but still a colossal number. This figure contains uncertainties, due mainly to the loss of social memory, but it is incomparably more reliable than earlier census-based estimates. An even harder figure is the number of famine deaths able to be remembered for the 2004 survey. This came to 84,000 (plus or minus 11,000), and is regarded by the commission as a highly conservative lower bound. It is lower because in many cases no one was alive in 2004 who could still recall some of those who had died. Another calculation produced an 'improbable' upper bound of 183,000.

Similar techniques led to an estimate of the number killed by force: 18,600, plus or minus 1000. Statements made to the commission showed that 70 per cent of the killings were attributed either to the Indonesian military and police, or to their East Timorese auxiliaries such as militias, civil defence force and local officials. The remainder were attributed to resistance and pro-independence groups.

It was not possible to calculate the total numbers of non-fatal violations, but the 8000 statements allowed the commission to gain a good picture of when, where and by whom the various abuses were committed. In the case of arbitrary detentions, for example, the Indonesian military and its auxiliaries were responsible for 60 per cent up until 1998, and 95 per cent in 1999.

Gerry van Klinken (editor@insideindonesia.org) is on the board of Inside Indonesia

Inside Indonesia 87: Jul-Sep 2006

Latest Articles

Review essay: In the shadow of the palms


Nusantara: capital gain?


Indigenous residents of the new capital city complain about the ‘land mafia’

Photo essay: Minangkabau pig hunting

Apr 26, 2023 - BEN GLEESON

Review: Kartini's letters in translation

Apr 03, 2023 - ILSA NELWAN

Now published in both English and Indonesian translation, the annotated collection will provide a better understanding of this Indonesian heroine

‘Tricked by a hoax’

Mar 22, 2023 - JENNY MUNRO

Truth and irrational violence in West Papua

Subscribe to Inside Indonesia

Receive Inside Indonesia's latest articles and quarterly editions in your inbox.


Lontar Modern Indonesia



A selection of stories from the Indonesian classics and modern writers, periodically published free for Inside Indonesia readers, courtesy of Lontar