Should Indonesians feel guilt over Timor-Leste when voting for president?

Commentary by David Hutt
2024.02.08
Should Indonesians feel guilt over Timor-Leste when voting for president? East Timorese take to the streets to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the 1991 Santa Cruz massacre when Indonesian troops opened fire on a peaceful protest killing more than 200 people.
[Valentino Dariel Sousa/AF]

The bloody and rapacious occupation of East Timor by Indonesia from 1975 to 1999, when nearly a quarter of the population died of famine and violence, is not the responsibility of the current Indonesian government.

But Prabowo Subianto has been widely accused of some of the atrocities that led to the carnage, and most surveys show the Indonesian people are set to elect him as their new president this month.

What are we supposed to make of this?

Ought we say “for shame” on the hundreds of millions of people who will vote for an alleged war criminal who, until very recently, was said to have been blacklisted by Washington? 

Should this election force Indonesia into a historical reckoning with its past, tearing open the wounds that many had been happy to cauterize after the Suharto dictatorship fell in 1998??

At home, Prabowo’s brutality is better known for the reactionary repression of the protests that helped topple Suharto, once his father-in-law.

The army threw him out in 1998 after it found he was implicated in the kidnapping of nine activists – 13 are still missing – a claim Prabowo vehemently denied.

In 2014, though, he admitted to media group Al Jazeera that he participated in the abductions, and added that he was just following orders. But no charges have ever been filed against him nor have the allegations against him been tried in court.

Many Indonesians apparently do not know that their likely future premier (and their defense minister since 2019) had been accused of bloodying his hands decades earlier – in East Timor.

The Indonesian media has been silent on this rather lengthy period of Prabowo’s life.

Prabowo served as commander of Kopassandha, Indonesia’s special forces that later became known as Kopassus, from 1995.

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Then Lt. Gen. Prabowo Subianto (left) poses with Maj. Gen. Muchdi Purwopranjono who succeeded him to become chief of Indonesia's special forces (Kopassus) after the hand-over ceremony, Jakarta, March 28, 1998. [Reuters]

A post-imperial truth and reconciliation commission found that the Indonesian armed forces (and Kopassus, especially) were responsible for war crimes and crimes against humanity during the 24-year occupation of Timor-Leste.

Indeed, because of this, Prabowo was banned from entering the United States until recently, after he became defense minister.

When The Jakarta Post reminded readers in 2013 of Prabowo’s alleged atrocities, he replied with a letter claiming it was all an “unproven allegation”.

Since the 1990s, he has claimed that what happened in Timor-Leste was an “internal conflict.” And he says he wasn’t even in Timor-Leste in 1999 when Indonesian troops brutally massacred hundreds of East Timorese to subvert the successful United Nations referendum on the country’s independence.

(In fact, it’s more accurate to say that the Indonesian troops massacred hundreds in revenge for the East Timorese bravery in proclaiming their own liberty.)

Even if Prabowo wasn’t present in 1999, subsequent investigations found that the events of that year weren’t an aberration.

The Joint Indonesia/Timor-Leste Commission for Truth and Friendship argued that the crimes of 1999 “cannot be understood in isolation from the longer period of conflict.” It also stated that “the nature of the violence that occurred in 1999 was shaped by previous patterns of conflict.”

According to the Commission for Reception, Truth and Reconciliation in East Timor, Prabowo’s Kopassandha/ Kopassus was responsible for the largest number of human rights violations.

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East Timorese youth carry the then-territory's flag and shout “Long Live East Timor” as they enter the Austrian embassy in Jakarta demanding a meeting with the then-U.N. special envoy for East Timor, March 25. [Reuters]

While Jakarta is quick to evoke imperialism and colonialism in rebuffing global policies it finds unsuitable – it called the European Union’s new environmental rules “regulatory imperialism” – no Indonesian president has ever apologized to the East Timorese.

The closest one came was after a bilateral truth commission report said that Indonesian soldiers, police and civil authorities engaged in an “organized campaign of violence” against East Timorese independence supporters.

Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, the Indonesian president at the time, could only muster:  “We convey our deep regret over what happened” and expressed “remorse”.

And with the solipsism that characterizes Indonesian statements on this matter, he added: “Let us not forget those who were victimized during this dark period in our past.”

He was referring to the Indonesians killed during dictator Suharto’s regime.

Indonesians alive during Suharto’s regime never voted for him.

Yet, because of the atrocities committed in Timor-Leste, Indonesians suffered international condemnation in the 1990s, particularly from Western democracies. It’s for others to say whether their response to this criticism elicited soul-searching or merely more rally-around-the-flag anger at Indonesia’s foreign critics.

Many brave Indonesians did, however, oppose their country’s imperialist venture at the time and assisted the pro-independence East Timorese diaspora in Jakarta.

And the median age of Indonesians now is 29.4 years, so half the population was barely in school by the time the troops left Timor-Leste.

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East Timor’s Defense Minister Donaciano do Rosario da Costa Gomes (right) is welcomed by his Indonesian counterpart Prabowo Subianto as he arrives for the 17th ASEAN Defense Ministers’ Meeting (ADMM) in Jakarta, Nov. 15, 2023. [Tatan Syuflana/Pool/AFP]

Historical wounds should be allowed to heal without being constantly picked at. But there must be some distinction between putting the past to rest and resurrecting it by electing a leader who was widely accused of being responsible for those past atrocities.

From the 1970s until the 1990s, the Indonesian public had no real say over what their government and military did. However, today they do have a say, and they’re using it to potentially elect an alleged war criminal.

Clearly, the fact that Prabowo has been repeatedly accused of such horrors in Timor-Leste does not seem to bother most voters.

Indonesia needs “a truth-telling process,” Pat Walsh, an adviser to the East Timor truth commissions, wrote in December.

Because it doesn’t have such a process, “a person with demonstrated disregard for the rule of law, of both the domestic and international kind, and regarded by many as a war criminal, may be elected Indonesia’s next president,” Walsh, who’s also a co-founder of Inside Indonesia magazine, added.

The country next door is watching, and Walsh didn’t mince words about what a Prabowo presidency would mean for the East Timorese.

“Neither is it fair for East Timorese victims of crimes against humanity to have to accommodate their tormentor as leader of the important neighbor their country needs to work with,” he wrote in January.

But the Timorese can take some comfort in knowing that as Indonesia seems to be hurtling backwards towards autocracy (“an opposition-free country in the hands of a bloodstained general from the bad old days. So much for reformasi,” as the Economist put it), Timor-Leste is safely Southeast Asia’s best democracy.

David Hutt is a research fellow at the Central European Institute of Asian Studies (CEIAS) and Southeast Asia columnist at The Diplomat. The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect the position of the U.S. Department of Defense, CEIAS or BenarNews.

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