August 30 is observed as National Holiday in Timor-Leste, dedicated to the “Popular Consultation”. It is a very important day for the nation and the
Timorese as a people, commemorating the United Nations’ supervised plebiscite in 1999 on the international legal status of the then-occupied territory of East Timor. On this day exactly fifteen years ago, 98.6% of East Timorese who registered for the referendum turned out to cast their votes, in what was a showcase of their courage and desire to determine their own destiny in a clear defiance of violent intimidation and terror unleashed by the pro-Indonesia militiamen backed by the TNI. An overwhelming 78.5% voted in favor of rejecting the proposed special autonomy status within the Republic of Indonesia. This plebiscite literally ended the brutal annexation and over 24 years of occupation. Yet, the violence, destruction and bloodshed did not stop there immediately.
In fact, the Commission for Truth and Friendship (CTF), jointly established in March 2005 by Indonesia and Timor-Leste mandated to “establish conclusive truth” about the violence before and after the referendum, found that gross human rights violations in the form of crimes against humanity occurred in East Timor in 1999. CTF, released its final report in 2008 entitled Per Memoriam Ad Spem, Latin for “from Memory comes hope.” It concluded that widespread and systematic crimes against humanity occurred in the forms of murder, forced displacement, illegal detention, sexual violence, forced disappearance and other inhumane acts had taken place during the period the commission was tasked to scrutinize. These acts were commissioned by the pro-autonomy militia groups with “a direct relationship to Indonesian government authorities, and most directly, with the support of the TNI.” The Commission made a number of recommendations to avoid the repetition of similar events in the future. To this day, however, these recommendations have barely been considered, let alone actioned. The report that was submitted to the Heads of State of the two
countries, is yet to be considered by their respective parliaments.
On the 10th anniversary of the Popular Consultation on 30 August 2009, Timor-Leste authorities released a former leader of local militia gang, Maternus Bere” at the “request” of the Indonesian government. Bere had earlier been arrested by the police in the border town of Suai, and subsequently detained at the Becora prison in Dili. He had been indicted by the UN Serious Crimes Unit in 2003 charged with leading the 1999
massacre of around 200 unarmed civilians at the Suai Catholic Church by pro-autonomy militias. The release sparked outcry in Timor-Leste and overseas with various critiques leveled against Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao and President Ramos Horta. In Timor-Leste, it in fact led to a parliamentary motion of no confidence against Gusmao, the first Prime Minister to face such a motion in the young nation’s history.
A few hours after Bere’s release, at the State ceremony marking the 10th anniversary, President Ramos Horta “asked” the Indonesian authorities
to return the remains of “our greatest hero Nicolau Lobato.” His plea was made at the event attended by foreign dignitaries amongst which was the Indonesian Foreign Minister Hasan Wirayuda. Bere’s release was reportedly the main condition for Wirayuda’s participation in the ceremony. Speaking to journalists at the end of the ceremony, Wirayuda told media interview that Indonesia “would look into the request”.
Exactly five years have lapsed since the top Indonesian diplomat said his government would look into the request for the return of Lobato, one of the principal founding fathers of Timor-Leste, and yet not a single word has since been uttered on the matter. Lobato was killed in a battle on the new year’s eve of 1978 in the Mindelo mountains of East Timor. His dead body was taken to Dili and placed on display to proof his death to the Indonesian military leadership and dictator Soeharto as well as to show the Timorese that the resistance was over. This was wrong of course, as Indonesia and the World would find out some ten years later on 30 August 1999. Lobato’s next destination after the display remains unknown to this day.
The contrast with the swift action taken by the Timorese authorities to release a detained former local militia leader could not be more stark.
On 23 July 2013, President Taur Matan Ruak concluded his State Visit to Indonesia. The choice of Indonesia as destination for his first State Visit did not break the tradition of his predecessors Xanana Gusmao and Jose Ramos Horta, which highlights the importance attached to the bilateral relationship. Speaking in Jakarta during the visit, President Ruak was proud that “Timor-Leste and Indonesia has done in a short time what many
countries have not managed to do in a long time.” Ruak promised to do everything for stronger bilateral relations, guided by the single principle of “looking forward, not forgetting the past.” He extended an invitation to President Yudoyono to visit Timor-Leste before the end of his term in office. In a remarkable statesman-like gesture, President Ruak even visited and laid a wreath at the Jakarta’s Heroes Cemetery in Kalibata to pay his respect
to the heroes of Indonesia. Many of those buried there would have directly chased him in the junggles of Timor-Leste, trying to capture him alive or kill him.
Perhaps Taur Matan Ruak and Susilo Bambang Yudoyono are both no fans of megaphone diplomacy, but putting into effect their pledge to building future stronger relations, it is important that Indonesia and Timor-Leste come to terms with the bitter history from which they have only emerged. The twilight of President Yudoyono’s time in office and the relatively fresh new term of President Ruak is the right time to start. Timor-Leste and Indonesia have done a lot in a short time, making their bilateral relations “exemplary.” Yet, 15 years should be long enough for them to start confronting their history, to prove that they have come a long way. This would reflect and celebrate the changing face of Indonesia since the Reformasi; its greater openness, political maturity and prosperity.
Timor-Leste has since been waiting for President Yudoyono’s last State Visit. The fact that Yudhoyono did attend Ruak’s invitation with the visit last week, shows the importance Indonesia, or at least Yudhoyono, attaches to the bilateral relation with Timor-Leste. It was a momentous scene to
see President Susilo Bambang Yudoyono replicated the example of President Taur Matan Ruak; paid a visit to the National Heroes Cemetery in Metinaro and paid his respect to the Timorese liberation heroes. It would have been remarkable if at the time of President Yudoyono’s visit, the heroes of Timorese national liberation resting there having amongst them their great leader, the man who had inspired them to be selfless human beings in the last days of their life, sacrificing their own lives for their homeland and people- Nicolau Lobato. As a great hero, Lobato deserves a State honor and as a leader killed in battle field, he should join his fallen soldiers in his right last resting place, the Heroes cemetery in Metinaro.
Regrettably, Yudhoyono’s last visit didn’t leave much apart from adding to the long list of diplomatic niceties and leaders-level reconciliation. But if the leaders of Indonesia and Timor-Leste were to walk their talks of facing the truth and forging real reconciliation, democracy consolidation in Indonesia offers the right opportunity. The strong humanist character of President-elect Joko Widodo and his detachment from this bitter history presents the right momentum. It will be up to Presidents Joko Widodo and Taur Matan Ruak to seize and sowing hope; that truly “Per Memoriam Ad Spem”.
We shall see