The militias are gone, but tensions remain

PUBLISHED : Monday, 29 August, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 29 August, 2005, 12:00am

The mountainous land border between Indonesia's West Timor and its territory of East Timor is no longer a flashpoint watched over by United Nations peacekeepers.

As fears of marauding militiamen have faded, the last of the foreign troops have gone, replaced by East Timorese security forces.

Trade between the two countries is brisk, though mostly one way. Almost all of the clothes, toys and food staples sold in East Timor's markets are made in Indonesia, as is the petrol sold at roadside stalls.

But relations between the two countries are anything but normal. The poisonous legacy of Indonesia's brutal 24-year rule that ended in an orgy of violence during the August 30, 1999, UN-run referendum has yet to clear.

International calls for a war crimes tribunal on East Timor have so far gone unheard. Only a handful of those involved in the violence, which cost about 1,500 lives and displaced 250,000 people, have faced trial.

A UN panel of experts recently suggested that an international judicial process was necessary to ensure justice was done. Far from welcoming the UN proposal, East Timorese leaders have distanced themselves from it.

Instead, they have joined forces with Indonesia to create a Truth and Friendship Commission that will investigate the bloody events of the past but has no judicial remit to punish the perpetrators.

The 10-member joint commission, which includes lawyers, human rights experts and a retired Indonesian general, was given a one-year mandate this month to examine legal documents and conduct interviews before issuing a final report.

President Xanana Gusmao, a former resistance leader who was jailed by Indonesia, has urged his people to back the process, offering his own example of forgiveness towards his former captives.

But the move has raised eyebrows among diplomats and aid workers, as well as among Timorese groups working on justice issues.

'Xanana can forgive and he wants other people to forgive too. But it's not that easy,' said a western diplomat.

Human rights groups have attacked the commission as a political move to improve relations with Indonesia that will do little to assuage the anguish of the families who lost their loved ones.

Church leaders in this predominantly Catholic country have also urged their followers to support an international tribunal.

Manuel Tilman, an opposition member of parliament, says the ruling Fretilin party has lost touch with the people on this issue. 'We want justice. Our people want this, not only the truth,' he said.

Behind the posturing, say analysts and diplomats, is a strategic calculation on the part of East Timor that it needs Indonesia more than it needs an international war crimes tribunal.

'Timor has to bend over backwards not to upset its larger neighbour. Indonesia can destabilise [East Timor] any time that it wants,' said Damien Kingsbury, an Indonesia-watcher at Australia's Deakin University.

On the streets of Dili, where burned-out houses bear witness to past upheaval, there is surprisingly little anger towards Indonesia. Many people speak Indonesian, watch Indonesian television and stay in touch with relatives living across the border.

Christopher Samson, a protestant preacher who runs an anti-corruption NGO, says Timorese can distinguish between Indonesian people and the military leaders blamed for the 1999 violence.

He argues that the money used for any tribunal would be better spent combating poverty in a country where youth unemployment is close to 50 per cent.

'Let's forget about the past. There's nothing we can achieve ... Indonesia today is a democracy, it's willing to change,' he said.