Justice and Reconciliation in East Timor

Interview: East Timorese President Xanana Gusmao

East Timorese President Xanana Gusmao speaks with reporters at the United Nations, Sept. 27, 2002 (Photo: AFP).

The day before his country was set to become the 191st member of the United Nations, East Timorese President Xanana Gusmao sat down for an interview with World Press Review to talk about the United Nations’ role in his country’s independence, bringing perpetrators of crimes against his people to justice, the challenges his country faces, his decision to grant immunity from prosecution to American soldiers before the International Criminal Court, and the role of women in East Timorese society.

On Sept. 27, after nearly three years of U.N. rule, 24 years of Indonesian occupation, and more than 400 years of Portuguese colonialization, East Timor, the tiny South East Asian nation born in May of this year, received a round of applause by the United Nations General Assembly as it became the 191st member of that world body.

Diplomats for the United Nations certainly had something to cheer about. In an era when talk of the United Nations’ limited capacity, relevance, and effectiveness can be heard across the globe, the focus on East Timor, often cited as one of the organization’s greatest accomplishments, provided a countervailing example.

It was in September 1999 that United Nations peacekeeping troops first arrived in Dili, the capital city of what was then the Indonesian-occupied state of East Timor. Less than a month before, nearly 99 percent of the local population had turned out for a long-awaited vote on their state’s independence. The vote had sparked explosive violence; militias backed by the Indonesian military who wanted to maintain the status quo wreaked havoc on the local population and, within days of the poll, an estimated 1,500 people were killed and another 250,000 fled across the border into Indonesian West Timor. An estimated quarter of the East Timorese population had already been killed during the state’s 24-year occupation. When poll results indicated that 78.5 percent of the East Timorese people wanted to break ties with Indonesia, the United Nations sent troops to stop the bloodshed and enforce the will of the people.

The road leading to East Timor’s independence vote was a long one. Indeed, it was 24 years earlier that the United Nations Security Council first mandated such a poll be held. In a recent speech, East Timor’s foreign minister Jose Ramos Horta noted that several factors had to come together before the price of holding onto East Timor became too costly, both politically and economically, for the Indonesian government.

As Ramos Horta explained, Asia’s 1997-98 financial crisis, which brought down longtime Indonesian president Suharto, opened the door for a more “pragmatic” B.J. Habibie to take over; at the same time, Portugal, the state’s former colonial ruler, was putting pressure on Indonesia to allow a vote, the East Timorese armed resistance movement, led by the wildly popular Xanana Gusmao was continuing despite the fact that Gusmao had been imprisoned, and foreign leaders, including Nelson Mandela, were making much-publicized trips to visit Gusmao in jail. As Ramos Horta noted, President Habibie finally realized that “East Timor brought no benefits to Indonesia, but it brought embarrassment.” In June 1999, Indonesia agreed to give East Timor its much sought-after vote on autonomy.

Since then, events have moved at lightening speed: the United Nations Transitional Administration in East Timor (UNTAET) took over in October 1999, East Timor elected a 88-member Parliament in August of 2001, the first-ever presidential elections were held in April 2002, and the country became fully independent in May 2002.

In the meantime, the world’s sympathy shifted from Indonesia—the fourth largest country on the globe and a strategic ally of the United States and many influential Asian countries—to East Timor. Washington even cut off funding to Indonesia’s military until the country could prove it was bringing perpetrators of the East Timorese violence to justice. Indonesia did set up an ad hoc Human Rights Court on East Timor, though it recently acquitted six military and police figures for crimes against humanity allegedly committed in East Timor in 1999, and gave East Timor’s former governor, Abilio Soares, who had been implicated in establishing and funding the militias, a three year sentence, significantly shorter than the ten years, six months, prosecutors had asked for. Many have called Indonesia’s justice a “sham” and have called for the United Nations to set up an international tribunal for East Timor.

As Ramos-Horta noted, much of the credit for East Timor’s independence must be given to the resistance leader Xanana Gusmao, a former cow herder and poet who, in April 2002, much to his own surprise, was elected East Timor’s first president by a landslide. Gusmao met with World Press Review associate editor Rachel S. Taylor at his hotel in New York on Sept. 26, the day before he was to watch his nation’s flag hoisted outside the United Nations. The interview follows:

East Timor has often been called one of the United Nations’ greatest successes. But it was back in 1975, in Resolution 384, that the Security Council first called for East Timor’s independence. Today, a lot of people are questioning the United Nations’ ability to enforce its resolutions [for example,] with regard to Iraq or Israel. I’d be interested in hearing your views on the United Nations and East Timor.

X.G.: You must remember that in 1975 it was the Cold War. ...You didn’t turn too much to the United Nations. ...At least we didn’t have any resolution against our right to self-determination.

So when people say the United Nations’ involvement in East Timor was a huge success, do you agree with that?

I can agree. The presence of the United Nations there brought the East Timorese people a sense of security, of stability. But I must say that without the commitment of East Timorese people, without patience, without their willingness to forget war, to not take revenge, without their commitment to peace [this wouldn’t have happened]. We cannot say that [success is due] only [to] the United Nations presence there. It has also internal factors. You can see in other places, the United Nations didn’t succeed because internally [there were] factions, groups, who didn’t want to accept each other. And we know [that in some places] the United Nations was simply expelled from the country. And in other places—I just read a few days ago that the entering president of Afghanistan was the target of a killing attempt. This is why we cannot say the success was only because the United Nations was there, but [also because of] the commitment of our people to respect the process.

I’ve been interested in Indonesia’s Human Rights Court on East Timor and the debate about whether or not you’d like the United Nations to step in and have an International Criminal Tribunal for East Timor. As I understand it, you originally were opposed to the idea of a [international] tribunal...

I never opposed [the U.N. setting up an international tribunal]. I always stated that it was not my priority. And it was when I was an ordinary citizen. Now as president, unfortunately as president, I must say the same: It is not our priority. If we talk about an international tribunal, it is not an East Timorese tribunal. What I can say is that we are committed to trying East Timorese [nationals] in our national environment, in our country. If you talk about an international tribunal, I would say leave it to the international community, to the international organization, to do the job. Because, you know, we came from the ashes of a brutal destruction. Our people are demanding good life standards, good health, education, infrastructure, agriculture—and we must respond to this. I believe that if we talk about violence, killings... We’ll be able to forget the past if we provide social justice and improve their lives. If not, people will keep talking about justice, justice, justice. But what is the meaning of independence? Is it to achieve justice—or social justice? It is about measuring our priorities. Among East Timorese, our priority is reconciliation. Some people say justice must be first—before reconciliation. Maybe in other countries. But in our country, reconciliation must be the first step. After people forgive each other, we can be sure that the justice that we do will be without any sentiments of revenge or hatred. It is why we are taking very seriously the problem of reconciliation and justice in order to build a new mentality, a new generation, a new society—because we don’t want [this to happen again] in five years. Our people are willing to eradicate hatred, vengeance. Which is why I was never opposed to an international tribunal, I only stated it was not my priority. We believe that if the international community can do [it], yes, of course [they should]. We don’t believe so much that the Indonesian government will succeed in the process that they are doing. We were very disappointed in the first stage of the tribunal. Because Jakarta keeps saying it was only the beginning, we’d like to wait for the final stage. If they respond to the demands of the international community, of course there will not be a necessity to have an international tribunal. If not, we believe that the international community can make the right decision [whether that] is the international tribunal or [something else].

You have said that part of your role as president is to be the eyes and ears of the East Timorese people. Is the position you have been explaining [for social justice and reconciliation] the sentiment of the East Timorese people generally? Do people want to put that period of your history behind them and move on or...?

I believe so. I would like to explain to you how I would like to be the eyes and ears and mouth of our people. We are the very newest democracy in the world. During our struggle, we tried to understand the weaknesses and successes of independent countries. And we saw that many countries around the world, even after being independent for 50 or 60 years, they are not democratic. Independence didn’t yet mean something good to the people. That is why, right in the beginning, I must have the role of watching the bosses. We are committed to strengthening our democracy. We are committed to having good governance. We are committed to combating corruption. We are committed to making justice a fundamental [part of our] democracy. We are committed to building a strong civil society.... This is why, right in the beginning, I must have the capacity to tell people we are doing wrong or we are doing right, we are doing what we can or we are not doing what we can do. [What I have been describing] is the perception of our people because we tried to put the people’s vision in the development plan of our government. We set up a mechanism of consultation with our people and our people gave [their] vision. And the vision was education for our people; health care to everybody; good infrastructure; agriculture; [creating] mechanisms [where] people [are] able to produce, to sell, to get benefits from their products; and [creating a] strong civil society; an anti-corruption policy; good governance; clean governance. It was the will of our people. It was the vision of our people.

My next question is about the United States and its war on terrorism and its funding of the Indonesian military. A number of human rights groups and organizations have written to the U.S. Congress and asked them not to renew funding to the Indonesian military, funding that had been cut off because Indonesia hadn’t fulfilled its responsibilities toward East Timor. As I understand it now, the East Timorese government is not opposed to the funding of the Indonesian military. Is that correct?

The human rights organizations have the right to have their opinion.... We don’t have any problem if they renew links with some kind of pressure that Indonesia must answer to the demands of the international community.... I think it is fine if they renew with some kind of conditions, some kind of pressure. I believe it could work.

East Timor ratified the Rome Treaty for the International Criminal Court in August. Then East Timor agreed to give U.S. troops in East Timor immunity from prosecution before the Criminal Court... What was the thinking behind those two decisions?

Our government agrees with this agreement. I believe that the thinking in East Timor is that we will not have any American soldiers there [in East Timor, so it is really a moot point]....

Another question is about the role of women in East Timorese society. I know domestic violence is reported to be a big problem. I know your wife is active in women’s rights [issues]. What is the government’s plan for bettering the position of women in your society?

It is a process like women’s emancipation. We are a society of an underdeveloped country. We need to make a change of mentality in everything. One of the issues is domestic violence. ...Economically we have to improve the opportunities of women, [so they are] not so dependent on men. It is not only a question of raising the issue, of education—but of changes in the economic and social life of our people. We are spending more money on education. With education, we believe our people will be able to understand all these problems, and will participate to [solve] problems like domestic violence. We cannot change society in one day. ...It is a process, a social, political process.