East Timor's bitter enemies meet at last

  • @kathymarksoz

The passage of time can have singular effects. How else to explain the meeting planned in Bali this weekend between Xanana Gusmao, the former East Timorese resistance leader, and General Wiranto, whose Indonesian forces laid waste to his homeland in 1999?

That Mr Gusmao, East Timor's President since independence in 2002, is willing to sit down in the same room as the former military commander illustrates the lengths to which he is prepared to go to safeguard the future of his tiny, war-scarred nation.

Indonesian troops aided by local militias killed at least 150,000 people in a vengeful rampage after East Timor voted for independence from Jakarta. Tens of thousands of homes were burnt down and a quarter of the population was forced to flee across the border into Indonesian West Timor.

Nearly five years on, as the country struggles to lift itself out of grinding poverty, pragmatism takes precedence over retribution. General Wiranto may have been indicted for war crimes by a tribunal in Dili, but he could be Indonesia's president within a few weeks, and East Timor - so the theory goes - cannot afford to alienate its largest neighbour.

Indeed, Mr Gusmao told The Independent on Sunday last week that he accepted General Wiranto's assertion that he was no more responsible for the bloodshed than the Pentagon was for the My Lai massacre by US troops during the Vietnam War.

"I say 'just forget the past'," he said. "Will the victims feel better if people are put on trial? They accepted the sacrifice to liberate the country. The East Timorese committed crimes also. We apologise, embrace each other and cry."

But the views of the former guerrilla fighter are not shared by all of East Timor's leaders, nor by ordinary people for whom memories of the 1999 violence - and the 24 years of brutal military occupation that preceded it - are still fresh.

The Foreign Minister, Jose Ramos-Horta, warned him that the Bali meeting could send the wrong message to both countries ahead of presidential elections in Indonesia in July, in which General Wiranto is a leading candidate.

Mr Gusmao's stance has also infuriated staff at the Serious Crimes Unit (SCU), the body set up by the country's former United Nations administration to investigate crimes against humanity.

It was the SCU's tribunal that indicted General Wiranto last year, accusing him of ultimate responsibility for the atrocities. But when it issued an arrest warrant for him this month, the move was denounced by East Timor's Prosecutor General, Longuinhos Monteiro.

The Wiranto case demonstrates the obstacles facing the SCU. Of 373 people indicted by its prosecutors, 279 are living freely in Indonesia, which refuses to extradite them. Of 52 defendants so far convicted, only one, Beny Ludji, a former commander of the Aitarak militia, is Indonesian.

The Dili government's attitude is another source of frustration. One SCU lawyer said: "There is no outcry when we indict a farmer who was brainwashed into joining the militia. But when we go after those who instigated and organised the violence, it's a different matter."

East Timor's Commission on Reception, Truth and Reconciliation, which is preparing a report on human rights violations, has staged public hearings around the country as well as "reconciliation meetings" between low-level militia members and their victims.

Kieran Dwyer, an adviser to the commission, said: "People told us 'we can reconcile at this level, but justice must reach those who organised the crimes'. How can people have faith in the justice system if they've seen their families killed and nothing happens?"

As the government pursues its policy of appeasement towards Indonesia, human remains are still being dug up and analysed in the SCU's mortuary. Dr Nurul Islam, the pathologist, wearily pointed out bones splintered by bullets and machetes. He has already examined 600 sets of remains. "So much tragedy in this country," he said.