Timor-Leste: Santa Cruz, Prabowo and the politics of remembering

November 9, 2023
Sebastião Gomes's grave in Santa Cruz Cementery, Dili, Timor-Leste. Photo: Leo Earle

Rua de Santa Cruz, in central Dili, Timor-Leste, is laden with memories of bloodshed. In November 1991, as peaceful protestors marched the street, mourning the murder of 18-year-old Sebastião Gomes and demanding an end to Indonesian occupation, they were massacred.

The Indonesian military blocked the protesters’ way outside Santa Cruz cemetery and fired indiscriminately, killing more than 271.

While shocking, it was not the Indonesian military’s first massacre. At Santa Cruz, however, events were filmed by British journalist Max Stahl and smuggled out of the country. They aired the following January on the British television documentary, In Cold Blood: The Massacre of East Timor.

Thirty-three years on, despite Timor-Leste gaining its independence, the trauma of this event, and others like it, remains.

Opposite Santa Cruz Cemetery lies the Seroja military cemetery. It is encased in barbed wire, maintained by the Indonesian embassy and named after the operation to invade Timor-Leste (Operasi Seroja, or Operation Lotus). A sign out front reads: “Indonesian Heroes Cemetery.”

This affront speaks to how the past is remembered and dealt with in Timor-Leste today. Indonesia, the perpetrator of mass violence and torture for so many years, now enjoys cushioned receptions in the Timorese parliament.

Until recently, Indonesia was Timor-Leste’s largest importer, setting the terms and conditions of trade. It is a dynamic that has stifled Timor-Leste’s productive capacity, leaving it in a state of underdevelopment.

Preeminent colonial scholar Frantz Fanon captured this dynamic in The Wretched of the Earth: “The apotheosis of independence is transformed into the curse of independence, and the colonial power through its immense resources of coercion condemns the young nation to regression. In plain words, the colonial power says: ‘since you want independence, take it and starve’. … The former dominated country becomes an economic dependent country. The ex-colonial power, which has kept intact and sometimes even reinforced its colonial trade channels agrees to provision the budget of the independent nation through small injections.”

From many conversations I had in Timor-Leste while on a recent visit, it is clear that with scarce opportunities for work, young people increasingly see their future outside the country.

I met with Duarte (not his real name), a veteran activist and writer in Dili to discuss the independence movement and Timor’s trajectory post-independence.

Asked about Indonesian ties to Timor-Leste he was unwavering: “[N]ow it's like economic colonisation. All big companies of Indonesia run things in Timor and what do they offer? Skills? Know how? [No] They offer the oligarch culture, they offer the skill to do corruption.

“[O]ne reality that you can't deny is so many young kids leave the country for jobs … They [the leaders] are a bit obsessed with investment, like emphasising investors are going to resolve the problems … I don't think they understand the nitty gritty of Indonesia … I call it a “demogarchy”; [where] it seems like a good democracy, but it's totally controlled by oligarchs.”

Timor-Leste, delicately navigating post-independence has had to tread lightly, and for the political elite, cooing Indonesia has meant the forgetting of war crimes. From conversations I had, this is proving damaging both internally and on the broader geopolitical stage.

Families have been left on their own processing the trauma of the occupation — prevented from seeking justice and the closure that might come with it.

On the international stage, documented war criminals, such as defence minister Prabowo Subianto and former Indonesian intelligence agency (BIN) chief Abdullah Hendropriyono, have avoided recrimination. For Prabowo, an unquestioned record has left him a viable chance of becoming Indonesia’s president in next year’s election.

Prabowo served in the notorious Kopassus special forces, and is implicated in crimes against humanity. A former son-in-law of 30-year-dictator General Suharto, Prabowo enjoys cosy relationships with top officials in Australia and the United States and is part of a regional security apparatus characterised by militarism.

In Indonesia’s most recent undemocratic turn, sitting president Joko Widodo, with the help of his brother-in-law, Chief Justice Anwar Usman, removed the minimum-age requirement of 40 for presidential and vice-presidential candidates who had served in a position won through a general election, including a regional leader election. This immediately cleared the way for Prabowo to name Widodo’s son, Gibran Rakabuming, his running mate.

Duarte said: “There is no doubt that we have to keep [on] good terms with Indonesia ... But I think we have come too far to have some of the former generals, like … Hendropriyono. He came here a couple of months ago and then Timor has to give the Order [of Merit] to him.

“For me that was really demoralising … As I said, you know, I'm not against the reconciliation with Indonesia but we can do it in a much more equal and more dignified way, we shouldn't be subservient to those generals.”

Scholar Renée Jeffery has documented how the United Nations-led process for a hybrid tribunal, established to prosecute perpetrators of human rights abuses, was quickly eroded in the post-conflict period.

Persistent Indonesian calls for amnesty effectively granted immunity to perpetrators. Jeffery shows how Indonesia and Timor-Leste, under their own logics of state security, stability and survival, justified the use of impunity measures and evaded individual human rights claims.

Of the 33 perpetrators found guilty of human rights abuses in the Indonesian-led Komnas-HAM Commission of Inquiry into Human Rights Violations in East Timor, 18 people were indicted: six were found guilty of crimes against humanity and all received lenient sentences, of between three and ten years. Jeffery concludes that “concerns over the survival of the state trumped any sense that justice for human rights violations ought to be served”.

Afonso (not his real name) is another veteran activist I spoke with in Dili. He said: “Most Timorese are victims ... I don't think they accepted that [lack of justice]. But they have no voice to say that.

“We call for the International Court of Justice to bring those perpetrators [to justice] but the funny thing is, even our leaders go in and meet them [and] hug with Prabowo … When they come back they just think it’s normal.”

The East Timorese Truth Commission (CAVR) released the Chega! report (meaning “Stop” or “Enough”) in 2005, based on more than 10,000 victim and perpetrator statements. The 2500-page, five-volume report found that the Timorese suffered widespread human rights abuses during Indonesia’s occupation and a death toll as high as 183,000. The report made more than 1000 recommendations for a reconciliation process.

Prabowo is personally implicated in the Chega! report, and is said to have been at the 1983 Kraras massacres, when hundreds of Timorese were summarily executed — an accusation he denies.

President Jose Ramos-Horta said of presidential candidate Prabowo in 2012: “If he is elected we would welcome him in East Timor and we would continue the excellent relationship we have with Indonesia ... Definitely we would not [blacklist him] — it would be an absurdity on our part.”

The late Sisto dos Santos, coordinator of the National Alliance of Timor-Leste for an International Tribunal, said at the time that Timor’s economic dependence on Indonesia leaves little choice but to pursue relations with its leaders. “But it doesn’t mean we forget and abandon the accountability process for those who committed crimes against humanity.

“As victims we continue to appeal for formal accountability and only this way is key to strengthening the relationship for truth and peace.

“Without any accountability process it only contributes to, and legitimises, the impunity that continues to exist, and this will destroy future democracy and human rights in both countries.”

Indonesia spun the Timor invasion and conflict as a “just war”, and key figures that commanded operations there, like Prabowo, were given carte blanche to proceed as they deemed fit. Indonesians are largely unaware of the realities of the past in Timor, along with the record of past perpetrators and, potentially, future presidents.

Indonesia’s military apparatus plays from the same handbook of impunity in occupied West Papua.

Remembering the past and holding perpetrators accountable offers victim/survivors closure through justice. If figures like Prabowo are scrutinised, it could also help stem the creep of militarism.

Winding through Santa Cruz cemetery to visit the graves of the fallen, the tropical air feels dense with tragedy. Twenty-two years on from formal independence, the country continues to wrangle with its past.

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