What will a new Indonesian President mean for Timor-Leste?

As the votes for the next President of Indonesia are being counted, the people of Timor-Leste are also watching the outcome. Yara Murray-Atfield is in the Timorese capital of Dili and reports on what a new Indonesian leader may mean for the young country.

The village of Kraras in Timor-Leste is known to some as ‘the village of widows’. In September of 1983, Indonesian troops opened fire on the village’s unarmed civilians as a part of their ongoing suppression of the Timorese resistance movement. More than 300 people were buried in mass graves.

The Kraras massacre was not the first since the Indonesian occupation began in 1975, nor was it the last. Until Timor-Leste achieved independence in 1999 from 100,000 to 200,000 people were killed, out of a population of only 800,000. Thousands of people, especially children, were forcibly removed from the country and taken to Indonesia.

Eyewitnesses and human rights organisations allege the commander of the troops who committed the atrocities in Kraras was Prabowo Subianto, the man who has about a fifty per cent chance of becoming the next President of Indonesia.

Ballots are still being counted as more than 186 million Indonesian voters have made their decision between Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo and Prabowo Subianto. A quick count of 90% of the vote has Jokowi in the lead, but Prabowo will not admit defeat until the official result is announced in two weeks’ time.

In 1976, at the age of 26, Prabowo was made a commander of one of the Indonesian army’s Nanggala commando units in Timor-Leste. He spent the next two decades as a high-ranking official.

“Prabowo is one of the actors who committed the crimes that happened in 1983 in the district of Kraras, Viqueque,” says Sisto Dos Santos, the advocacy program coordinator for Law, Basic Rights and Justice (HAK). When I meet Dos Santos in the HAK offices in Dili, he’s wearing a Che Guevara t-shirt. It’s a reminder of just how recently Timor-Leste was a nation where freedom fighting was necessary, but fighting for justice is different in 2014. Rather than guerilla warfare, it’s done through diplomacy and advocacy. In his role at HAK and as a member of the Timor-Leste Alliance for an International Tribual (ANTI), Dos Santos campaigns to governments and the United Nations to bring those responsible for war crimes to court.

The relationship between Indonesia and Timor-Leste is different now, too. In 2005, the Commission of Truth and Friendship was set up between the two nations. It operated until 2008 and worked to bring the nations together after decades of conflict. Dos Santos is hopeful the legacy of the Commission on Truth and Friendship and the diplomatic efforts of both nations will mean justice is still a priority for governments.

“It is dependent on the Indonesian people to determine their new President, Prabowo or Jokowi,” he says. “But we are the victims who still survive after the Indonesian occupation for twenty four years.

“Our leaders have already established a good relationship with Indonesia, this is the priority of both governments, and they also have a commitment to strengthen the relationship between Timor-Leste and Indonesia.

“But as a civil society, we are still demanding for formal accountability. To strengthen the relationship should not mean we forget the crimes against humanity that happened in the past.”

Dos Santos is talking about all war criminals, not just Prabowo. In fact, no formal charges have been ever been placed on the military general. In a letter to the Jakarta Post late last year, Prabowo denied any association with the massacre, calling the accusations “scurrilous” and “based on unproved allegations”.

In 2009, Prabowo ran as the candidate for Vice President alongside Megawati. Her approval is seen as a sign Prawbowo is innocent.

Dr Ian Wilson, Research Fellow at the Asia Research Centre, says “in his campaign he has attempted to frame the allegations as positives, as him being a loyal soldier doing what he had to do to protect the nation.”

The accusations have not stopped at Kraras, with his former military boss telling a televised press conference Prabowo’s discharge from the military was due to him ordering the abduction of pro-democracy activists.

Rather than dissuading voters, Prabowo’s military past has endeared him to many in Indonesia. He often wears a military-style fez and is known for passionate nationalistic speeches. Amongst many of his supporters is a view of Timor-Leste’s independence as a ‘loss’ to the Indonesian Republic.

“Often during the campaign it has been rhetorically positioned as against unnamed forces seeking to ‘break up Indonesia’ or ‘foreign interests’,” says Dr Wilson, who sees similarities with the doctrine of Prabowo’s collation and the ideas of the New Order, which guided the Suharto dictatorship of 1965-1998. It was under Suharto’s rule Timor-Leste was invaded.

Conversations I’ve had privately with people in Dili have reflected this sentiment. Some people see Prabowo’s military past as a way to protect against extremism in the region, which they worry would spread to Timor-Leste.

Although the approach to foreign affairs is at this stage speculation, the candidates’ televised debates have outlined a strong rhetoric of Indonesian independence. Both Jokowi and Prabowo have indicated they’ll attempt to reduce their reliance on Australian beef imports, for example.

“Jokowi is a foreign relations novice,” Dr Wilson says. “Though I think, certainly in relation to Timor, he will seek to strengthen ties. He is a pragmatist, and I don’t see him seeking to use foreign policy as a tool for stirring up sentiment at home.”

If Prabowo is elected, what is certain, Dr Wilson says, “is that there will be no progress in pursuing justice in relation to previous human rights in Timor.” As a part of his campaign, Jokowi has promised to pursue past human rights abuses.

“We hope if Jokowi be elected, it bring the truth to the victims’ families about their families that are still disappeared,” HAK’s Sisto Dos Santos says. “During Indonesian occupation time, we had more than four thousand that the Indonesian military brought to Indonesia, and today they are still living there.”

“The issue will be,” Dr Wilson says, “and this applies to disappearances in Timor as well, whether Jokowi will be able to pursue this within the context of strong opposition not just from Prabowo’s camp, but members of his own coalition as well.”

Dos Santos is hopeful the legacy of the Commission for Reception, Truth and Reconciliation and the diplomatic efforts of both nations will mean justice is still a priority for governments.

“To strengthen the relationship with Timor-Leste and Indonesia is fundamental, how we can learn to not repeat the same human rights violations and the same crimes against humanity that happened in the past.”

After the results of today’s vote is announced, the eyes of the world will be firmly placed upon the new Indonesian President, whether it be Jokowi or Prabowo. Here in Timor-Leste, people are hoping the new leader will bring new opportunities for peace and reconciliation, not more struggle.

Photograph via Flickr.


Catalyst has been the student publication of RMIT University since 1944. We may be older than your parents but we’re still going strong!

Sign up for Catalyst Magazine

Get the latest on what's happening
* = required field