August 12th, 2015

Santana, Konis

Marie Leadbeater: Defence ties with Indonesia valued over Timor Leste justice

I have just visited Timor Leste, 16 years after my last visit.

It was a study in contrasts.

I went to contribute to a conference at the National University of Timor-Lorosa'e, where one theme was the role of Western nations during the 1975 Indonesian invasion and 24 years of occupation.

In April 1999, the Indonesian military was still in control and, unbeknown to me, about to unleash a wave of unspeakable violence against the population. Three months earlier, Indonesian President Habibie had proclaimed that the Timorese people could choose whether or not to remain with Indonesia. Portugal and Indonesia were finalising terms and the National Council of Timorese Resistance (CNRT) was preparing to campaign.

The Liquica massacre took place two days after my arrival. Some 60 civilians who had taken shelter in the Catholic church were killed by the ferocious "Red and White" militia. Instead of relaxed meetings with community figures, I found myself visiting severely wounded victims in the Motael Clinic in Dili.

I came home to campaign against the crazy notion that the Indonesian security forces could be trusted to ensure the security of the referendum process. Sadly, the Government believed the violence was caused by "competing factions" and only changed tack when the country was in flames following the cataclysmic post-referendum violence of September 1999.

On my return visit, I strolled along the beautiful Dili beachfront and saw not soldiers but courting couples, hawkers offering sweet oranges and women performing traditional dances. Timor Leste's distinctive red, yellow and black flag, which once adorned New Zealand campaign badges, was everywhere.

This image of serenity is not the whole story: the country was forced to rebuild after the departing Indonesian military ravaged the country and forcibly displaced much of its population. The container ship anchored offshore came in loaded with cheap imported goods, but many bemoaned the lack of export production, beyond crafts and coffee growing. Oil boosts the Government's coffers, but Australia refuses to negotiate a fair maritime boundary while continuing to exploit oil fields that ought to belong to Timor.

In Liquica, 26km from Dili, a memorial garden honours the heroes of the independence struggle. Further on, 'Balibo Five' graffiti is daubed on the road embankments. Five western journalists, including New Zealander Gary Cunningham, were killed in October 1975 as they tried to tell the world about Indonesia's covert incursions into then Portuguese territory. Two important buildings have been restored to commemorate the events and the journalists. The Balibo Flag House and Community Learning Centre is funded by an Australian trust. Behind protective glass it still bears the Australian flag one of the journalists etched on its wall in a futile effort at self-preservation.

It is ironic that the Balibo Five are honoured here, while in their homelands governments do little, notwithstanding a 2007 Sydney inquest which determined they were killed in cold blood by Indonesian Special Forces. Successive New Zealand governments have opted to leave the initiative up to Australia.

Statues and gardens commemorate resistance heroes in Dili. There is a well-appointed Resistance Archive and Museum, and a Xanana Gusmao reading room. The Chega exhibition occupies several rooms and cells in the old prison at Balide. Graffiti from former inmates has been preserved while multimedia displays summarise the story told in the five-volume report of Timor's impressive Commission for Reception, Truth and Reconciliation. CAVR's careful forensic assessment concludes that there were up to 183,000 conflict-related deaths

Unfortunately, only minor players have faced sanctions while Indonesian officers charged before the UN backed tribunal a decade ago have gone on to new terror fields in West Papua, continue to travel the world freely and even stand for the highest political office.

In 2002, then Foreign Minister Phil Goff said New Zealand should share some responsibility for its failure to condemn the 1975 invasion and the subsequent suffering of the Timorese people. At present, however, it seems defence ties and a good relationship with Indonesia come ahead of historic justice.

• Maire Leadbeater is the former spokesperson for the Auckland East Timor Independence Committee and author of Negligent Neighbour; New Zealand's complicity in the invasion and occupation of Timor-Leste, Craig Potton, 2006.

- NZ Herald