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East Timorís policy of appeasement towards Indonesia

By Dionisio Da Cruz Pereira - posted Wednesday, 15 April 2009

Nearly ten years after the East Timorese people voted overwhelmingly to separate from Indonesia, East Timor’s foreign policy towards Indonesian has been characterised by a policy of appeasement.

Since assuming power in 2002, the first constitutional government led by Fretilin, as well as the current coalition government, have been trying to avoid any action that will directly or indirectly upset East Timor’s giant neighbour, Indonesia.

The repeated calls by prominent human rights groups to bring the perpetrators of human rights violations in 1999 to trial before an international tribunal has so far met an unenthusiastic response among leaders in East Timor.


In an interview with the Washington Post in 2006, the current president of East Timor, Ramos Horta said "we have consciously rejected the notion of pushing for an international tribunal for East Timor because, A, it is not practical, B, it would wreck our relationship with Indonesia, and, C, we are serious about supporting Indonesia's own transition towards democracy".

The East Timor government fears that any attempt to prosecute those responsible for atrocities, including the powerful Indonesian generals, could undermine the fragile democratic process underway in both East Timor and Indonesia.

This relationship is often put to the test. Last year, the East Timor president, Ramos Horta, while recovering from his gun-shot wound operation in a Darwin hospital, criticised the involvement of some Indonesian elements in his shooting. Among them he included the Indonesian private TV Network (Metro TV) whom he censured for conducting an interview with the late deserted army leader Alfredo Reinaldo in an unknown location in Indonesia.

The allegation drew strong criticism from the Indonesian public. In an interactive live debate carried by Metro TV many Indonesians expressed outrage over the allegation and called on the Indonesian government to suspend bilateral relations with East Timor.

The tension remained and was only eased after the East Timor Prime Minister, Xanana Gusmao, went to Indonesian to both clarify and formally apologise for the president’s remarks.

The report produced by the Timorese-Indonesian Commission Truth and Friendship (CTF) into crimes committed during the Indonesian occupation of East Timor from 1975 to 1999 is an example of where the East Timorese government tried to appease and avoid upsetting the Indonesian government. It focuses exclusively on events in 1999, ignoring even worse crimes against humanity in the previous 23 years of Indonesian occupation.


The International Center for Transitional Justice (ICTJ) (2009) in their 42-page analysis of the CTF’s report concluded that they avoided a number of important questions relating to institutional responsibility. Did senior officials instigate the violence or simply fail to prevent it? What was the role of discrete units, such as the Special Forces? Notably, the CTF report further fails to recommend the perpetrators to be brought to justice.

Although the CTF report did suggest that Indonesia’s military was responsible for “supporting” and equipping the militia units responsible for the massacres in 1999 and the many cases of torture and intimidation, some Timorese and Indonesian leaders now comfortably claim that the report implies that the two countries should put the past behind, bringing closure to the matter.

Balanced against the above, it can be argued that there are three main reasons why the policy of appeasement is necessary - security, economic trade and regional co-operation.

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About the Author

Dionisio Da Cruz Pereira is pursuing an M.Sc in International Development at the University of Birmingham, United Kingdom.

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