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Time to End Impunity for Suharto’’s Crimes in Indonesia and Timor-Leste

Indonesia recently held a symposium on the violent events of 50 years ago which brought the Indonesian General Suharto to power. The results were inconclusive as the dictator’s defenders denied the massacres and attacked those who want Indonesia to finally deal with its blood past.

The tragedy of 1965-1966 is part of a long history of massacres by the Indonesian military. As East Timorese, we know very well the brutality of the Indonesian dictator’s regime. I was born after the initial Indonesian invasion in 1975, but grew up under the occupation. As a young student, I saw the Indonesian military intimidate and abuse youth suspected of supporting East Timorese independence. We were not safe anywhere: Suharto’s troops would seize us at home, school or on the streets; many were never seen again. I watched helplessly as soldiers murdered my cousin, Luis Gusmaõ Pereira, in a public market in Triloedae-Laga.

During 1965-1966, the Indonesian military and its militias carried out mass executions of those suspected of involvement or support for the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI). Amnesty International estimates that between 500,000 to one million people lost their lives. Others were tortured and imprisoned, some for decades. Members of their families were denied employment and schooling. Many had no option but to live among their persecutors, as shown in the Oscar-nominated documentaries The Act of Killing and The Look of Silence.

Cold War fears often justified U.S.-backed military interventions against democratically-elected governments. Sukarno, the founding president of Indonesia and Suharto’s predecessor, carried out a populist political program linked to social and economic justice, supported by the PKI and many other groups. Sukarno also helped found the Non-Aligned Movement that stood apart from the Cold War blocs. The U.S., believing Indonesia was acting too independently, supported Suharto’s seizure of power and cheered the mass killings.

A decade later, Suharto sought and received U.S. backing for its plan to launch the brutal invasion and illegal occupation of Timor-Leste. Up to 200,000 East Timorese were killed, as the U.S. showered military and other support on Indonesia. Timor-Leste’s Commission for Reception, Truth and Reconciliation final report, Chega!, documented numerous crimes against humanity during Indonesia’s 24-year occupation, including massacres, rape, torture, and forced disappearances. Many died of starvation when the Indonesians forced communities from their farms and gardens and then blockaded food supplies. Declassified documents show that the US government understood that both the invasion and occupation were illegal, yet it still provided military assistance, knowing that it would be used against the people of Timor-Leste.

Justice and accountability for genocide and crimes against humanity

Survivors, the families of victims, and human rights activists have worked to win justice and accountability for the crimes against humanity during the 1965-1966 period. While we’ve seen some light in democratic progress under Indonesia’s current President Joko Widodo, justice and accountability continue to elude us. President Widodo has made some efforts at accountability for the human rights violations during the Suharto years, these efforts have been challenged by members of his own government.

Since we voted for our independence in 1999, there have been several efforts at accountability for the crimes committed in Timor-Leste. However, only East Timorese members of militia that were created and controlled by Indonesia have been convicted and received minimal punishments. Meanwhile, the principal architects of the crimes remain free in Indonesia, some of them still in positions of power. Several have run for President of Indonesia. While the political establishments in both countries are currently determined to ignore them, the people of Timor-Leste and human rights activists continue to push for and demand accountability and justice.

The chains of impunity remain strong in Indonesia; U.S. leaders who supported crimes against humanity in Indonesia and elsewhere continue to avoid accountability and punishment. The U.S. and Indonesia claim they are democratic and law-abiding nations, but they openly resist holding their own officials accountable.

This is not just a matter of dealing with the past. Indonesia’s security forces continue to commit serious crimes in West Papua and elsewhere in Indonesia. In recent months, thousands of West Papuans have been detained while demonstrating for their right to self-determination. Indonesian activists faced intimidation from the state and the military when they dare to speak about massacres or serious crimes of the past. Last October, security officials forced the cancellation of sessions addressing the 1965 massacres at an international writers’ festival in Bali. Recent showings of films about the massacres, including “The Look of Silence,” have been attacked.

Together, we can end impunity. First, the U.S. and Indonesia must release all their records concerning the crimes committed in 1965-66 and 1975-1999. Revealing the truth is necessary for a genuine justice and accountability for these serious crimes.

Chega! recommends that countries like the U.S. that armed and trained Indonesia’s military provide reparations to the people of Timor-Leste. The U.S. knew very well that its weapons– from military aircraft to M-16 rifles – would rain death and destruction on many thousands of innocent people.

Since Indonesia has proved unable to credibly prosecute its own, international tribunals are needed if those responsible for the crimes of 1965-66 and the crimes in Timor-Leste from 1975-1999 are to be brought to justice.

50 years of silence and repression must end. The cycle of impunity must be broken.

Celestino Gusmao is a member of ANTI (Timor-Leste National Alliance for an International Tribunal) and a researcher with La’o Hamutuk, the Timor-Leste Institute for Development Monitoring and Analysis.

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