The return of thousands of former refugees who fled across the border from Timor-Leste to Indonesia after the 1999 referendum should be encouraged by both governments as another step towards deeper reconciliation.
Timor-Leste: Reconciliation and Return from Indonesia, the latest briefing from the International Crisis Group, analyses how several factors are holding back the remaining refugees who might otherwise be attracted to return to Timor-Leste as a result of the country’s increased political stability and growing prosperity. Fears of politicisation, an unclear legal basis for leaving Indonesia, and concerns that access to property and basic political rights will not be upheld are deterring potential returns.
“Returns should be encouraged by both countries as a good opportunity to promote reconciliation between the two communities divided by the border,” says Cillian Nolan, Crisis Group South East Asia Analyst. “But doing so will expose the costs of impunity for the violence that surrounded the 1999 referendum and highlight the failure to implement practical recommendations from two truth commissions, Timor-Leste’s own CAVR and the bilateral Commission on Truth and Friendship created with Indonesia”.
A small minority of several hundred former militia and pro-integration leaders have politicised the question of return. They seek assurances that they will not be prosecuted for standing charges of crimes against humanity and want recognition as “political victims” of Indonesia’s withdrawal. The former militia no longer pose any security threat to Timor-Leste as they are unarmed and privately acknowledge independence as an irreversible truth. But the prospect of their return could be politically explosive for the country, particularly in the absence of prosecutions. Even though Timor-Leste’s political leadership has consistently underscored that the “door is always open”, and police and community leaders acknowledge the need to ensure the security of returnees, there are signs that it will be difficult to uphold the basic rights of former integration supporters.
Working with Indonesia to set up a formal process would be the best way to de-politicise returns and lessen what political leverage the former militia and pro-autonomy leaders still hold. It would support longer-term reconciliation efforts even as implementation of the practical recommendations from the truth commissions have stalled. It will need to be accompanied by renewed efforts at community-level reconciliation and vigorous monitoring of returns, to ensure those involved in low-level violence or those whose absence may have engendered suspicion are able to reintegrate. It will also require a clear policy on how to handle prosecutions as well as incomplete investigations.
For Timor-Leste, deciding what it will actually mean to work towards or achieve justice and reconciliation will not be easy as there are often wide gaps between the perspectives of its leaders and citizens as well as between perpetrators and victims. Such difficult questions will need to be answered by taking into account a web of competing interests bequeathed by decades of conflict. Timor-Leste wants good relations with its biggest neighbour, but also stable domestic politics.
“The unresolved status of thousands of former refugees who fled across the border following a 1999 vote for independence remains a challenge to Timor-Leste’s long-term stability”, says Crisis Group’s South East Asia Project Director, Jim Della-Giacoma. “The country cannot afford to further delay broad discussion on solutions to this pressing issue”.