Titled Chega (“Enough”), and consisting of interviews with almost 18,000 eye-witnesses throughout the now independent East Timor, the 2500-page testimony catalogues human rights abuses between the time of the invasion of the island in 1975 until the independence referendum in 1999 when Indonesian-backed militias used terror tactics to intimidate voters.
The commission found evidence to suggest the Indonesian military made deliberate use of starvation, torture and sexual assault to subjugate East Timorese civilians during the occupation.
“Rape, sexual slavery and sexual violence were tools used as part of the campaign designed to inflict a deep experience of terror, powerlessness and hopelessness upon pro-independence supporters,” the report said.
CAVR also documented other atrocities such as the now infamous “fence of legs” military operation in 1981. Designed to flush out insurgent fighters, as many as 60,000 civilians, including children as young as twelve, were rounded up in two separate groups and forced to march westwards across the island eventually arriving at the small town of Lacluta where “the commission received evidence of a large massacre of civilians, including women and children.”
In one of the commission’s more contentious findings, CAVR found countries that supported the Indonesian invasion and occupation of Timor-Leste to be culpable for the atrocities committed against the East Timorese people and recommended they be asked to pay reparations. The report cites the United States, Japan and Australia as particularly blameworthy for their diplomatic and logistical support throughout the occupation of the country.
Suharto’s abysmal human rights record was tolerated in Western capitals as his regime (1966-1998) was seen as an important bulwark against the perceived spread of communism from Northern Asia. It had been just seven months since communist forces had emerged victorious from a long and bloody conflict in Vietnam at the time of the invasion of East Timor (December 1975), and fears of communist influence extending further south held sway in Western capitals.
In accordance with this strategy, Washington and its allies supported the invasion both in the supplying of arms and diplomatically at a time when communist gains elsewhere in Asia were at their ascendancy.
While the West gained a strategic partner in its defence against communism, near-neighbour Australia also received important economic gains for their unquestioning support for the regime. Access to lucrative oil and gas reserves in the Timor Sea was negotiated under successive Australian governments and, despite mounting international criticism over the conduct of the military operations in East Timor, Australia extended diplomatic recognition when Indonesia announced its annexation over the territory.
Writing in the Australian Age newspaper, Scott Burchill of the School of International & Political Studies at Deakin University outlined the Australian government’s priorities.
“When ‘stability,’ oil and gas reserves and ‘good relations’ with Jakarta were (mistakenly) thought to be at stake, the state terrorism of the Indonesian military was uncomfortable for Canberra but acceptable, providing most of it could be concealed from the Australian public,” he said.
“When that proved impossible…damage control designed to protect the bilateral relationship rather than humanitarian concern was the order of the day.”
According to the report, Australia “did not use its international influence to try to block the invasion and spare Timor-Leste its predictable humanitarian consequences. Australia acknowledged the right of self-determination, but undermined it in practice by accommodating Indonesia's designs on the territory and opposing independence.”<!--page-->
Going on to criticise other regional countries CAVR said, “In reality key member states did little to challenge Indonesia's annexation of Timor-Leste or the violent means used to enforce it. Most nations were prepared to appease Indonesia as a major power in the South-East Asian region.”
While President Xanano Gusmao - a veteran of the fight for East Timorese independence- has sought to play down the report for fear of disrupting relations with Indonesia, - and has pointedly refused to press Western nations for reparations - human rights groups have urged the international community to heed the commission’s findings.
“Widespread understanding of the truth commission's report and recommendations is essential in charting a course of justice for victims,” said John M. Miller, National Coordinator of East Timor and Indonesia Action Network (ETAN).
“If such crimes are not to be repeated, the international community must acknowledge the devastating impact of the 1975 U.S.-backed Indonesian invasion and quarter-century of illegal occupation. We hope the CAVR report will spur the international community to act to end impunity.”
Jakarta though has dismissed the commission’s findings with Indonesia’s Defence Minister Juwono Sudarsono describing it to the Jakarta Post as, “a war of numbers and data about things that never occurred.”
The report was formally presented to UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan on Friday 20th January and can be viewed on the website of the United States-based International Centre for Transitional Justice.