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Homepage > Regions / Countries > Asia > South East Asia > Timor-Leste > Timor-Leste: Reconciliation and Return from Indonesia

Timor-Leste: Reconciliation and Return from Indonesia

Asia Briefing N°122 18 Apr 2011

This overview is also available in Tetum , Indonesian , and Portuguese.

OVERVIEW

The unresolved status of thousands of former refugees who fled across the border following a 1999 vote for independence remains a challenge to Timor-Leste’s long-term stability. Many were never well integrated into host communities and are being drawn back across the border in small but increasing numbers by relative economic and political stability in the new state. These returns should be encouraged by both countries as a good opportunity to promote reconciliation between the two communities divided by the border. Doing so will expose the costs of impunity for the violence that surrounded the 1999 referendum and highlight the failure to implement practical recommendations from its two truth commissions, the CAVR and the Commission on Truth and Friendship. Timor-Leste’s leadership may yet decide that some form of amnesty is the best way forward, but the country cannot afford to further delay broad discussion on solutions.

A quarter of a million people fled the province of East Timor after the 1999 referendum, many forcibly displaced by Indonesian security forces and militia. Some of the thousands remaining in West Timor are there for economic reasons; many others because of pressure from family members and community leaders. This latter group are still poorly integrated into their host communities, refuse to leave old refugee camps, and are frustrated by the end of official assistance. Political stability in Timor-Leste and the promise of access to land are making the prospect of return more attractive. But misinformation, an unclear legal basis for leaving Indonesia, and fear that their access to property and basic political rights will not be upheld are holding them back.

A small minority of several hundred former militia and former pro-integration leaders have politicised the question of return. They seek assurances that they will not be prosecuted for standing charges of crimes against humanity and want recognition as “political victims” of Indonesia’s withdrawal. The former militia no longer pose any security threat to Timor-Leste as they are unarmed and privately acknowledge independence as an irreversible truth. But the prospect of their return could be politically explosive for the country, particularly in the absence of prosecutions. Even though the Timorese political leadership has consistently underscored that the “door is always open” and police and community leaders acknowledge the need to ensure the security of returnees, there are signs that it will be difficult to uphold the basic rights of former integration supporters.

Working with Indonesia to set up a formal process would be the best way to de-politicise the nature of return and lessen what political leverage the former militia and pro-autonomy leaders still hold. It would support longer-term reconciliation efforts even as implementation of the practical recommendations from Timor-Leste’s two truth commissions have stalled. It will need to be accompanied by renewed efforts at community-level reconciliation and vigorous monitoring of returns, to ensure those involved in low-level violence or those whose absence may have engendered suspicion are able to reintegrate. It will also require a clear policy on how to handle prosecutions as well as incomplete investigations.

The Timorese government does not bear sole responsibility for the current impasse over justice and reconciliation. Indonesia has consistently blocked efforts to bring to justice its military figures and ex-Timorese militia living there by refusing to cooperate with Timorese courts. The UN failed to help ensure justice while it still had influence. It is Timor-Leste that bears the costs. With parliament, the government must work to develop policy on how to move forward with the standing indictments. An international tribunal remains a non-starter and weak domestic courts are the only possible venue for any future prosecutions. Any renewed efforts to push through an amnesty could move quite quickly; one option being discussed by the leading political parties is a “selective amnesty”. If not based on clear legal criteria, this could prove the worst option on the table as it would not only close off the possibility of justice for many crimes but also further politicise the process. There remains a risk that a decision not to prosecute could lead to violent retribution against suspects. More certain is that it will further complicate efforts to build the rule of law and guarantee rights for all.

Political consensus on justice and reconciliation has been elusive but is urgently needed. The parliament and government of Timor-Leste should take the following steps:

  • clarify with the Indonesian government through a memorandum of understanding the formal procedures for voluntary returns by those born in East Timor;
  • develop an official policy supporting voluntary returns, including limited assistance to returnees, through food assistance and mediation support during a provisional period as well as strengthened welfare monitoring and elaborating their rights upon return;
  • debate in parliament the CAVR report and draft laws on reparations for victims and the creation of a planned successor institution to the CAVR, whose mandate should include supporting community reconciliation processes;
  • renew efforts to implement with Indonesia the recommendations of the Commission for Truth and Friendship; and
  • publicly commit to the prosecution of existing indictments in the domestic courts.

Dili/Brussels, 18 April 2011