Sunday, 12 September 2010 18:57

EAST TIMOR: The Road to Peace, Independence and Democracy by Fr. Michael Lapsley

The Road to Peace:
Independence and Democracy in East Timor
by Father Michael Lapsley, assisted by Johann Magerman

We flew over many of the more than 13000 islands which make up Indonesia, on our way to Dili, the capital of East Timor which has been occupied illegally by the Indonesians since 1975. During the flight I asked myself what I thought I was doing going to a country in the middle of a war? I had been advised to wear a bulletproof jacket while there. I asked myself questions similar to those I had asked en route to Rwanda earlier in the year. What could we give the Timorese and what could we learn from them?
Soon after arrival in Dili we were taken to Santa Cruz cemetery. The cemetery had attained international notoriety in 1991, when the Indonesian military shot and killed more than 270 mourners there. What we noticed immediately was that a very large number of the graves were of infants and very few of the adults seem to have survived much beyond their fortieth year.
We had come to East Timor as two South Africans to accompany an Irish delegation to express the solidarity of the international community with the people of East Timor. By the time of our arrival the UN registration process was already complete. Against overwhelming odds, more than 450 000 Timorese had registered. As South Africans we recalled the mayhem and bloodshed, which characterized the days preceding our first democratic elections, and were impressed that so many Timorese had managed to register to vote, in spite of a colossal scale of violence and intimidation, including between 40 000 and 50 000 are internally displaced people. Many had been told that if they voted against autonomy and by implication for independence they would be killed. And given that already since 1975 it is estimated that between 250,000 and 350,000 thousand have died as a result of the conflict, these were not empty threats. 30,000 Indonesian soldiers have also been killed. 
The political campaigning was in full swing while we were there. Essentially, there were two sides to the campaign. On the one side are the pro-autonomy forces; those who want to integrate with Indonesia have organized themselves into the United Front for East Timor (UFET). They manifest themselves most ominously with heavily armed militias which have direct links to the Indonesians police and military. Indeed, until a few months ago the Indonesian Military and Police were part of the same command structure. On the other side, are the forces for independence who come together in the umbrella organization The National Resistance Council of East Timor (CNRT) under the overall leadership of Xanana Gusmao, who is still under house arrest in Jakarta. These forces include the guerrilla army (Falintil). To avoid confrontations, both camps wisely agreed to campaign on different days.
At one public rally we attended - held for the pro-autonomy forces to publicly hand over their weapons - three different militia groups attended, but not more than eighty weapons were handed over the group of about four hundred and fifty people. Some of the foreign journalists commented that some weapons could easily be replaced. Out of the eighty weapons, there were five automatic weapons and the rest were home made handguns. 
We met twice with pro-autonomy leaders. Since we were there on a solidarity mission, with no claim of neutrality, we were keen to understand the arguments of those opposed to independence. One such meeting was with Mr. Basilio do Araujo, a spokesperson for the pro-autonomy groups. He talked bitterly of how pro-independence people had killed their opponents in 1975. Whatever question we asked was answered in terms of the civil war in 1975. Eventually I asked Mr. do Araujo if he was not a prisoner of the events of 1975. "Yes, I want to be released from the past" he exclaimed passionately. But he also showed signs of the dawning realization that most Timorese wanted independence. "In case the pro-independence people win the ballot, we want to encourage them not to repeat what they have done in 1975. At this point we have not been given any assurances by CNRT but we are prepared to be in the same parliament with CNRT."
While Mr. do Araujo said there were many reasons for opposing independence, the only ones he offered were economic. "We are in favor of autonomy because East Timor will not have a strong currency if it is independent. Also, we are used to importing all our consumer products from Jakarta, thereby avoiding import tax. We, as civil servants, get twice as much as those working in other areas of Indonesia." But the most chilling comment came towards the end of the interview. "We control our forces, because they call me before they want to attack and I tell them not to. Hatred and bitterness will be a big issue if the vote goes against autonomy." Ironically, from the pro-integration side we heard constant threats of bloodshed and mayhem should they lose the vote, while on the independence side the constant calls were for national reconciliation and peace when they won the ballot.
Pro-independence representatives of course viewed things differently, and in spite of everything, remained hopeful about the referendum. Mr. David Ximenes, leader of Fretilin and of CNRT in said, "The security situation does not allow us to campaign effectively. The security forces seem to operate only for pro-integration. During the past week, CNRT offices have been attacked in Suai, Maliami and in Viqueque. This system is unfair to CNRT, as Indonesian authorities are providing the security.... But CNRT is optimistic about winning the ballot. We have information that Indonesia might disrupt the vote with attacks a few days before the ballot. In our opinion Unamet (United Nations Assistance Mission in East Timor) is neutral even though the pro-integration group believe that they are siding with us."
I asked Ximenes his opinion of why some Timorese are pro-autonomy. He explained that, "They are afraid of the Indonesian army and police, and many get paid by Indonesia and they are enjoying the fruits of Indonesia," he said. "If some of them want to stay in East Timor after independence, they are welcome to do so on condition that they must love East Timor. They must get involved in programs for education, health care, agriculture, etc. We want Harmonization - Reconciliation - Peace. We must ask ourselves whether we want peace or revenge and war. We have to forget the past, so that we can move forward."
Similar concerns surfaced in my conversation with Father Domingos Soares, a Catholic priest and a leader of CNRT. As a priest myself, I was excited to meet him, and he was clearly glad for the show of solidarity our visit hoped to provide. He spoke candidly about the problems the vote faced, saying "We feel a great deal of solidarity with South Africa, in particular with Mr. Mandela. At present, we are faced with terror and intimidation. The militias are being paid by the TNI, thus they are the hands of TNI. They have publicly threatened to kill all the people if they do not win the ballot." The contrast to the pro-independence forces is vivid for him, "For me, CNRT is not so much a political party, but a Human Rights organization to defend the right of the people to go to the polls and their right to work. CNRT will respect the result whichever way it goes. Felintil is all the people of East Timor."
He also spoke about the role that members of the clergy played in the lead-up to the vote. "Most of the priests in East Timor support our work, as they are very close to the people. When preaching, I preach about the situation in East Timor. I believe that God wants His children to be free to speak. Many people, who have had to kill others, do not see themselves as sinners, even the militias. They see themselves as being part of a cause. Both Fretilin and militias will have to deal with their conscience. They are soldiers; they have to carry out orders. As priests we also have to minister to them. They have to confess before God. For myself, I studied in a conservative seminary in Portugal, yet I have learned my theology from the people. Our people need liberation. We understand that God wants us to speak about liberation." He too was clear that even after a pro-independence vote, much hard work will remain, "It is not easy to accept reconciliation as many people have lost relatives."
We also met with Joao da Silva Sarmento, a member of the East Timor Students Solidarity Council. Actively seeking to free the people of East Timor and to liberate them from poverty, the students had been forced to operate clandestinely since the Santa Cruz massacre in 1991. During the referendum campaigning, they gave their support to the Falintil forces. Sarmento explained that "For us freedom of expression is a big problem. To speak out means to die. On 8 June 1998 the Students Solidarity Council was set up. It organized public meetings and dialogues. It helped people to start speaking out. We used to tell them that speaking out is their right." He acknowledged many of the same problems that other pro-independence leaders had noted. "We believe in reconciliation, but it is difficult for people to forgive each other." 
"Some young people were given drugs and alcohol by the TNI and then were forced to join the militias. Some young people join the militias for reasons purely economic in nature. However, we feel that those young people who have joined the militias are also Timorese and should be given another chance"
The central efforts towards and possibilities for reconciliation became even more evident during our daylong visit in Jakarta with Xanana Gusmao. He was casually dressed and very informal, with plenty of humor. Yet, it is obvious that he feels the weight of not only leading the pro-independence forces but of a responsibility towards all Timorese.
"The ballot represents for us a turning point in our history. Of course, there are still people who do not see the need for peace and reconciliation. That is why there is still a cycle of violence in our country. The TNI forces are responsible for the security of ET during the ballot period. Some of them cannot be 100 percent neutral because they are aligned to one side of the conflict," he said. "People do have a notion what independence mean, while TNI represents to them the physical manifestation as to what integration will mean. So, yes, by voting for independence, it will imply that they will vote for the removal of TNI from East Timor." 
But a large part of our discussion focused on the crucial issue of how the nation could come to terms with the past. Gusmao said, "There are bound to be isolated cases where people will suppress what have happened to them in the past. But on the whole, people trust our policy that people should forgive and live in harmony. I think that the most difficult thing for people to deal with, will be the recent increase of violence since the militias were created. For, the rest, I think, that people have come to terms with what has happened to them during the last twenty-three years."
"Sometimes, we as a people were not given the real stories about the crimes of our past - I am talking about our crimes, not their crimes. My fear is that if we do not ask people to forgive and forget, they may become emotional and even violent," explained Gusmao.
"We must remember that in 1975, there were two national movements. Both of them committed crimes. One of these groups invited Indonesia to invade. It is thus very difficult for people to accept people from the other side. What we also must not forget, and I have said this publicly before, the independence movement is responsible for the start of the conflict in East Timor."
While understanding the motivation of Gusmao's position, I suggested to him that no nation in history had ever succeeded in forgetting the past. Forgiveness yes, but that too is costly, painful and difficult. Indeed the meetings we had with Timorese of different persuasions convinced me that many Timorese are still the prisoners of past events. The question is how to redeem the past, to bring good out of evil and life out of death. The sacrifices, the pain and the story of Mr. Gusmao have begun to capture the imagination of the world. For many of his people and those who oppose him no-one has yet listened to and reverenced them and their stories. 
Inevitably, the members of my delegation and I formed some impressions at the end of our visit. We were all struck by the extraordinary courage of the East Timorese people and the great suffering that they have endured on the way to this historic moment. The Indonesian people also deserve to be congratulated and encouraged for their achievements on the road to democratization and the respect for human rights. We recognized that this could not have happened without the agreement of the Indonesian government. However, we believe that the presence of the Indonesian military in East Timor and its backing of the militias was the greatest obstacle to the holding of a free and fair ballot. Our visit to East Timor also convinced us that Xanana Gusmao enjoys an unparalleled moral stature among the people in East Timor - comparable to that of Nelson Mandela in South Africa - we therefore call for the immediate and unconditional release of Mr. Xanana Gusmao and all other East Timorese political prisoners is an essential step on the path to peace and reconciliation. 
Finally, the holding of the national consultative process in East Timor is of utmost significance with a potential for permanently resolving the conflict there. East Timor is on the threshold either of a new beginning or could descend once more into the depths of destructive violence. It is incumbent on all the parties to the conflict and on the international community to ensure that the hopes and dreams rather than the nightmares of the East Timorese people are realized.

Father Michael Lapsley is Director of the Institute for Healing of Memories in Cape Town. Johann Magerman is a Program Officer with the Adult Education and Skills Training Program of the Cape Town Refugee Forum