This November 12 marks the fifteenth anniversary of the 1991 massacre at the Santa Cruz cemetery in Dili, East Timor (also called Timor-Leste).
On that day, Indonesian soldiers killed at least 271 East Timorese civilians nonviolently marching to demand a UN-supervised referendum after years of illegal Indonesian military occupation.
U.S. reporter Allan Nairn, who joined the marchers and had his skull fractured by a soldier wielding a U.S.-supplied M-16, wrote later: “The troops fired no warning shots and did not tell the crowd to disperse. They . . . raised their rifles to their shoulders all at once and opened fire.”
By the time of the Santa Cruz massacre, more than 100,000 East Timorese had died as a result of the U.S.-backed occupation. But the testimony and documentation of Nairn, Amy Goodman and other foreign journalists who survived Santa Cruz exposed the brutality of Indonesian military occupation to the outside world, and helped spark a campaign in the U.S. to block military aid to Jakarta.
East Timor finally achieved independence after a hard-won referendum in 1999, a process steeped in yet more Indonesian military mass killings. Under intense U.S. grassroots pressure, the Clinton administration suspended all military assistance to Jakarta when the Indonesian military responded to the pro-independence vote by laying waste to East Timor in September 1999, and Congress subsequently legislated continuing limits on aid. But after seven years and countless processes, Indonesia, Timor-Leste and the United Nations have failed to achieve accountability for crimes against humanity committed between 1975 and 1999. This impunity has led some in Timor-Leste to believe that they will not be held accountable when they commit violent crimes.
Timor-Leste’s people still live with their memories of Indonesia’s quarter-century of illegal military occupation; the majority of them experienced this brutality first-hand or have victims in their immediate families. This unhealed mass trauma continues to strongly influence the reactions of Dili residents, both in their decisions to flee en masse during armed battles between police and military this past April and in the fact that many still refuse to return home. The secrecy and self-reliance essential to the independence struggle needs to be transformed into transparency, accountability, and open debate.
The majority of East Timorese, and their supporters internationally, continue to view an international tribunal to pursue Indonesian generals and political leaders who organized and ordered the worst atrocities during the occupation as the only resolution for the current situation of impunity and post-traumatic stress. A credible international tribunal can demonstrate that impunity will not prevail, as indicated by a May 2005 UN Commission of Experts report on 1999 human rights violations in East Timor. That report concluded, “The Commission wishes to emphasize the extreme cruelty with which these acts were committed, and that the aftermath of these events still burdens the Timorese society. The situation calls not only for sympathy and reparations, but also for justice. While recognizing the virtue of forgiveness and that it may be justified in individual cases, forgiveness without justice for the untold privation and suffering inflicted would be an act of weakness rather than of strength.”
Timor-Leste’s truth commission, the Commission for Reception, Truth and Reconciliation in East Timor (known by its Portuguese initials, CAVR) came to equally strong conclusions on the need for concrete justice. The product of three years of extensive research by dozens of East Timorese and international experts, the CAVR report (called “Chega!”, Portuguese for “Enough!”) recommended reparations to East Timorese victims from countries — including the U.S. — which backed the occupation, and from corporations which sold weapons to Indonesia during that period.
An East Timorese involved in disseminating the report throughout the country remarked, “It is clear that many in the community who took part in seminars on Chega! over the last two months saw a strong connection between the findings and recommendations of Chega! and the re-emergence of violence and instability. Many asked why East Timorese leaders have failed to learn the lessons of the past.”
Unfortunately, the Bush Administration refuses to learn past lessons. It is willing to give the Indonesian military nearly anything, sacrificing justice in the name of fighting terrorism. On November 22, 2005, the State Department announced, “it is in the national security interests of the United States to waive conditionality pertaining to Foreign Military Financing (FMF) and defense exports to Indonesia.” Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT), author of Congressional restrictions this maneuver overrode, called the move “an abuse of discretion and an affront to the Congress. To waive on national security grounds a law that seeks justice for crimes against humanity — without even obtaining the Indonesian government’s assurance that it will address these concerns — makes a mockery of the process and sends a terrible message.”
Given the US electorate’s strong rejection of Bush’s politics of empire in the recent congressional elections, there now exists the potential to change that message and to once again move toward a process of justice for the many victim’s of U.S.-backed Indonesian military crimes in East Timor, including those at Santa Cruz 15 years ago.
Ben Terrall is a San Francisco-based writer. John M. Miller is National Coordinator of the East Timor and Indonesia Action Network in New York.