Timor-Leste: The Problem With Victory


Gerry van Klinken

National liberation movements rarely succeed, and when they do they often can deliver little of what they promised. Certainly all victorious liberation fighters end up making compromises once they win power. But some, like Nelson Mandela, retain their support by holding on to the key symbols of their long fight. Others, like guerrilla commander Joaquin Villalobos of El Salvador, lose post-conflict elections by abandoning the struggle and cuddling up to their former enemies. Villalobos broke with his revolutionary movement in 1994 to make a new centrist party, but it did not get enough votes to remain a legal entity. The problem with victory is that it seems more final than it is. President Xanana Gusmao led a great fight to defeat the army of the world’s fourth largest nation. He now faces a similar dilemma.

The pressures for compromise on him and his government have been enormous. The multilateral agencies that nursed the state through infancy have ensured its capacities are circumscribed, as states in the neo-liberal era should be. Its rightful oil wealth has been eroded by manoeuvres of dubious legality by its big neighbour to the south. Meanwhile to the north, Jakarta’s ad hoc tribunal has flung a string of cynical acquittals at this nation of victims. Squeezed between two giants, the leaders in Dili are not wrong to feel the sovereign space for which they fought is narrow indeed.

But this is where victory becomes a trap. Sovereign space was not the only meaning of the struggle for a ‘Free East Timor’. That struggle did not end with yesterday’s national independence, but is the essential basis for tomorrow’s democratic East Timor. It is a mistake to say the past should be ‘forgotten’.

Probably everyone in East Timor lost close relatives, mostly during the invasion-induced famine of the late 1970s and early 80s. Public hearings at the East Timor truth commission show that the trauma remains very deep. Yet even now the story of what happened there has been written only in fragments. Four years after the Indonesian army departed, schools still teach no national history. As far as I know, no one is even writing a curriculum. Officials in Dili worry that whatever they say about the past will spark an angry reaction in Jakarta. They have repeatedly refused to call for an international tribunal. But the people will not forget. If the leadership does not recover some of its fighting spirit to speak openly about the past, it runs the risk of destroying the democracy for which it fought.

UN Secretary General Kofi Annan will soon issue a report to the Security Council about how well the Indonesian ad hoc tribunal has fulfilled its promise to the UN to try those who destroyed East Timor in 1999. If he finds the process was inadequate – and how can he find otherwise? – he may recommend that a panel of experts be established to conduct an independent investigation. The East Timorese should hope that this panel will then recommend an international tribunal. This must deal not only with 1999, but with all crimes committed since the invasion in December 1975.

WATCHPOINT: What will be the findings and outcome of Kofi Annan's report to the Security Council?


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