The Jakarta Post
Forgive, but never forget! We cannot agree more with that sentiment today as we recall a referendum 20 years ago, which has defined the history of two neighbors, Indonesia and Timor Leste. While the people of Timor Leste will celebrate the end of their oppression, many in Indonesia will quietly remember with sadness their Seroja heroes, soldiers who died in defense of Indonesia’s 24-year rule of the territory then called East Timor.
We can hardly forget how acts of violence prevailed before and after the historic referendum, when nearly 80 percent of East Timorese opted for separation from Indonesia, which later on prompted the arrival of multinational forces to restore peace and order.
Newly released intelligence documents declassified by the United States have revealed the role of the Indonesian Military (TNI) and militia groups that the military had formed and trained, in widespread atrocities, which was why Washington put pressure on Jakarta to respect the independence vote. “Further deterioration of the situation […] will do potentially irrevocable damage to Indonesia’s relationship with the rest of the world, including the US,” one of the declassified documents says.
Thousands were killed and many others fled their homes and sought refuge in West Timor in Indonesia as a result of the “scorched earth” tactic to make the people of East Timor pay the price for their choice.
No doubt the whole story of occupation and human rights violations will stay in the memory of the Timor Leste people. Efforts to bring alleged perpetrators of the crimes against humanity to justice ended in a stalemate as a result of resistance from the Indonesian side and pragmatism by Timor Leste leaders.
That the two nations opted to move on and look forward was evident in the final report of their joint Commission of Truth and Friendship submitted to the presidents of both countries in July 2008. While concluding that militia groups, the TNI, the Indonesian government and National Police must all bear institutional responsibility it made no recommendations on amnesty or rehabilitation.
Despite all the horrors that occurred during Indonesia’s 24-year occupation, it is undeniable and unavoidable that Indonesia and Timor Leste will remain neighbors. No matter the vast disparity in size between the two nations in economic and population terms, a stable and prosperous Timor Leste will always be a strategic goal for Indonesia.
In terms of Timor Leste’s economy, Indonesia plays a crucial role although Australia has interests in terms of the oil and gas industry and China has a rising presence. As economic overdependence could trigger new frictions, Indonesia needs to boost cultural and educational links with Timor Leste.
Bilateral ties between Indonesia and Timor Leste should be based on mutual respect and on equality, although it is probably true that Timor Leste needs Indonesia much more than the latter needs the tiny state next door.
Congratulations to the Timor Leste people for their courage in voting for independence 20 years ago. Their nation’s stability and prosperity is very important not just for its own people but also those of its neighbors.