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  5. From a Dark and Brutal History: Enforced Disappearances in Timor-Leste

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FOCUS March 2014 Volume Volume 75

From a Dark and Brutal History: Enforced Disappearances in Timor-Leste

Sisto dos Santos

Timor-Leste has a dark and brutal history. After four hundred and fifty years of Portuguese colonization and the Japanese military invasion during World War II, Timor-Leste achieved just eleven days of unilaterally declared independence before it was invaded by Indonesia on 7 December 1975. This came to be known to, and commemorated by, most Timorese as “Invasion Day.”
During the occupation period from 1975 until its brutal end in 1999, between 186,000 and 250,000 people were killed or went missing caused by the human rights violations committed or ordered by the Indonesian military. The fate of another eight hundred fifty-three people is still unknown.
The circumstances of disappearances include the following:

  • • The Indonesian military forcibly took people who, until now, have never returned;
  • • The Indonesian military forcibly moved the population and people disappeared in the process;
  • • The Indonesian military captured and detained people who were never released.

These actions were most often associated with massacres such as the 1983 massacre in Craras village, now referred to as the “widows village,” and the 1991 Santa Cruz massacre. In addition, as many as four thousand five hundred children aged between eight  and fourteen years were abducted by the Indonesian military and brought to Indonesia as part of Tenaga Bantuan Operasi, a labor support operation. Many of these children—their whereabouts unknown and links to their families severed—remain in Indonesia to this day.
While no new cases of enforced disappearance occur recently, the impacts of the past cases are still very much part of many peoples’ everyday realities. Hence, the families of the disappeared, most of whom remain in the dark about the whereabouts of their loved ones, continue to cry out for truth and justice and seek information about their disappeared relatives. Oftentimes, the families struggle to meet their basic necessities; and for most, each day is a new fight for survival. This situation further aggravates their oppression and suffering. Socially, they have lost an important connection with their loved ones that makes them feel that their lives are empty. This affects their cultural identity because when Timorese people lose a person in their family, they lose a part of their social and cultural history. Without confirmation of their loved one’s whereabouts, families are unable to say goodbye and hold candlelight remembrance ceremonies – acts which are essential in their grieving process. This prevents the missing person’s presence or spirit from moving on and leaves the victims’ families in a kind of limbo with this shadow over their lives and homes. Many relatives of the disappeared are left in despair not knowing if justice would ever be achieved.

Attempts at Finding Justice

In the aftermath of independence, the government established several mechanisms in a bid to understand and address the violations and suffering of the people. In 2002, the Commission for Reception, Truth, and Reconciliation (CAVR –Comissão de Acolhimento, Verdade e Reconciliação de Timor-Leste) was created to uncover the truth. During its three years of operation, CAVR interviewed more than ten thousand people including victims, combatants, and witnesses of the conflict and human rights violations. This process created a strong expectation that justice would be achieved—i.e., the perpetrators would be held accountable and the victims would regain their dignity. As a result, the victims demonstrated enthusiasm and enormous courage in sharing their stories with the public, regardless of the circumstance of the crime.
The 2005 CAVR report was a step forward with many positive recommendations, including one particularly relating to the missing children. The CAVR recommended that Indonesia and Timor-Leste should continue to uphold the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) signed in December 2004. Facilitated by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the MOU guarantees children’s right to freely access information about their families in order for the children to determine their future without any intimidation. According to the MOU, both countries must help vulnerable people living in rural areas and children who were separated from their families and who are now likely in their adulthood, find information as to the whereabouts of each other, and give assistance to reunite them.
In 2003, the United Nations (UN) Special Panel for Serious Crimes issued an indictment against retired General Wiranto. The Timorese considered the indictment a particularly significant moment because then General Wiranto was the top Indonesian official responsible for security before and after the popular consultation referendum was held in 1999. However, because of formal procedures and a lack of political will from the governments of Timor-Leste and Indonesia as well as the UN Security Council, Wiranto was never arrested and this indictment was never pursued. Without UN’s political will and an effective mechanism in Timor-Leste to address crimes against humanity, an environment of impunity persists in Timor-Leste and Indonesia.
Shortly after, Indonesia established the almost farcical Ad Hoc Human Rights Tribunal for Timor-Leste, which proved to be little more than a thinly veiled attempt by Indonesia to demonstrate to the international community that it was serious in addressing human rights violations. In 2005, the Governments of Indonesia and Timor-Leste created the Commission of Truth and Friendship (CTF). The CTF, however, focused more on establishing good relations between the two countries rather than prioritizing accountability. Therefore, while recognizing the existence of these human rights violations, its failure to identify the perpetrators once again denied justice to the victims. The final reports of both CAVR and CTF, which were handed to the National Parliament, recommended the need to gather information about the whereabouts of the disappeared. Since then, minimal concrete action has been taken to implement these reports’ recommendations. Then in 2009, Timor-Leste’s Provedoria dos Direitos Humanos e Justiça (PDHJ – Ombudsman for Human Rights and Justice) and Indonesia’s Komisi Nasional Hak Asasi Manusia (Komnas HAM – National Commission on Human Rights) signed another MOU on the issue of enforced disappearances and the security along the border between East and West Timor. Without serious follow-up, the MOU expired.
The presidential and parliamentary elections of 2012 once again brought new hope for justice to the victims and their families—a hope that finally an end to their long- standing pain and suffering was possible. During his election campaign for the presidency, Taur Matan Ruak often referred to the lamentation of the widows and orphans as his reason for running for the public office and declared that he wanted to play his part in putting an end to their tears. It was this connection to the people that led to his election as the fifth President of the Democratic Republic of Timor- Leste.
As President, Taur Matan Ruak holds substantial power to push forward the legislative process to dignify the victims; but this will not be an easy process. Politics and government machinery present considerable impediments to real progress. The open criticism of the veterans’ pension scheme by the President, a former veteran and head of the National Defence Force (FFDTL), was viewed as a positive sign. This pension scheme has resulted in social injustice and inequality, especially for human rights crime victims who similarly sacrificed for the freedom of Timor-Leste.
However, his criticism on the attitude of greed and hunger for money among veterans was a clear signal that human rights organizations must emphasize in their advocacy that the victims’ reparation was about giving dignity, not mere financial compensation to the victims, with the hope of improving their situation.
After more than six months, hope began to wane. Little tangible action had been taken to change or improve the situation of the victims. Their remaining hopes rest on a set of draft laws outlining the establishment of a Memorial Institute and a reparation system. While generally accepted by the members of the Parliament, it has not yet undergone the detailed article- by-article deliberation required before enactment.

Supporting the Victims and their Families

In order for decision-makers and the public not to forget these horrific crimes and for these crimes never to be repeated, it is important that victims and families form a unified voice in advocating for justice. The HAK Association or  HAK (Hukum Hak Asasi dan Keadilan – Law, Human Rights and Justice) has been organizing the victims of all past crimes since 2001 toward this end.
In 2009, together with the International Center for Transitional Justice (ICTJ), the HAK held a national congress of victims. The congress established the National Association of Victims with sub-associations in every district of Timor-Leste. The National Association of Victims aims to support victims in their advocacy efforts and help meet their everyday needs.
One success story is that of Eliza dos Santos from Liquiça, whose husband is still missing. For Eliza, every day was a struggle during the time when the HAK first met her. Now, she serves as coordinator of the National Association of Victims in her district and leads in organizing public discussions and memorials, and in lobbying the parliament and religious leaders.
The HAK has been holding various activities to support the victims: discussions with affected families, commemoration of the massacre days, filing petitions to the government, issuing statements, and organizing demonstrations to make the voices of the families heard. The HAK has also been working to identify vulnerable victims. The HAK and other partners have been organizing the victims, building their skills, seeking educational opportunities, and establishing livelihood projects such as sewing, selling of local products, and other enterprises.
Commemoration days provide an important opportunity for families to remember their loved ones and preserve their memories though their deaths have not been confirmed yet. In 2012, the HAK organized the victims and the families to commemorate the following massacre days, during which many people disappeared and were never found: the Marabia- Dili massacre of 1980—a tragedy which resulted in seventy-two disappearances; Craras-Viqueque massacre of 1983; Maliana massacre of August 1999; Tumin-Oecusse massacre of August 1999; Santa Cruz massacre of November 1991; Oedaberek-Manufahi massacre of 1975; and, Invasion Day massacre on 7 December 1975.
The HAK, together with other partner organizations, has been documenting cases of enforced disappearances with the aim of producing the story of the disappearances told from the perspective of the victims and their families. The information collection, including details about the families of the disappeared, also aims to determine the level of involvement of state authorities in the disappearance cases. To date, the HAK has collected information on ninety-two disappeared persons from seven massacre sites, including Marabia-Dili, Liquica Church, Ainaro, Craras in Viqueque, Mehara in Lautem, Polres Maliana in Bobonaro and Aileu.
These advocacy activities contribute to increased community enthusiasm and awareness on the need and difficulties in seeking the return of the disappeared. They are important in pressing the Parliament on the enactment of a law on the proposed Memorial Institute that would oblige the State to find out the whereabouts of those who disappeared during the Indonesian occupation. Such law would make the State responsible for the fulfillment of the victims’ right to reparation and the investigation of the cases to determine how the disappearances occurred and who were the perpetrators.
The HAK and its partners continue to pressure political leaders to pay attention to the victims and to finalize the report of the CAVR. From 2008 to 2009, the HAK was part of the steering committee that drafted the legislative bills on the Memorial Institute and victim reparations. The HAK, with its partners, continue to lobby the Members of Parliament, as well as officers of political parties and veterans, to ensure their understanding of the importance of the pending bills. The HAK has also approached religious leaders, particularly Catholic church bishops, in an effort to encourage them to work towards convincing Members of Parliament, the Government, and Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao, to prioritize and approve these legislative proposals.
A supportive statement from the General Commander of the National Defence Force (F-FDTL) issued on 25 June 2012 provided indication of a slight shift in key political support. However, given the international nature of the issue, justice will remain elusive despite action at the domestic level without bilateral cooperation and political will.
The HAK and its partners in Indonesia, particularly ICTJ- Jakarta, Ikatan Keluarga Orang Hilang Indonesia (Indonesian Association of Families of the Disappeared [IKOHI]), and Commission for the Disappeared Victims of Violence (KontraS), have been working together to lobby and pressure the Indonesian Ministry of Foreign Affairs to uphold the MOU between the PDHJ and Komnas HAM in addressing border security and enforced disappearances.
Upon the invitation of the government, Chair-Rapporteur Jeremy Sarkin and member Jasminka Dzumhur of the United Nations Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances (UN WGEID) visited Timor-Leste from 7 to 14 June 2011 to review the government’s action in addressing enforced disappearances and the collection of data needed to clarify the outstanding cases in the country. The UN WGEID team met various government officials including the then President José Ramos-Horta. The visit report recommended the enactment of the proposed law on a “framework for the national reparations programme and the draft bill establishing the public Memory Institute” and reiterated the implementation of the CAVR recommendations.1
The HAK, together with members of The Timor-Leste National Alliance for an International Tribunal or ANTI, delivered a letter to His Excellency Ban Ki- Moon, United Nations Secretary- General during his Timor-Leste visit in August 2012. The letter contained a specific appeal related to achieving justice for past crimes and bringing to account the perpetrators, who until now, have not faced any credible legal process that would bring justice for victims in Timor-Leste.
Importantly, from this work on past crimes, the HAK has been able to forge three additional civil society partnerships with the Judicial System Monitoring Programme (JSMP), Lao Hamutuk, and ACbit in addressing the problem of enforced disappearance. Given the linkage with these organizations, the strength of civil society’s collective voice is increased and the possibility of progress is made more tangible.
The HAK was optimistic that the law on the Memorial Institute would be enacted in 2013. But the bill is still pending at the Parliament till the first quarter of 2014. The stance of the Parliament has always been more in favor of the veterans rather than the victims. Now that the law on veterans’ pensions has been passed, it is time that victims’ needs are addressed. The passage of draft law on the Memorial Institute will present a new opportunity to genuinely pursue the issue of enforced disappearances, while getting reparations for the victims may take a while longer.

Sisto dos Santos is the Advocacy Coordinator of HAK Association (Hukum, Hak Asasi dan Keadilan – Law, Human Rights and Justice) or HAK, a member- organization of the Asian Federation Against Involuntary Disappearances (AFAD).

For further information, please contact The HAK Association, Rua Gov. Serpa Rosa, T-091, Farol, Dili, Timor-Leste; ph (670) 3313-323; fax (670) 77179655, e-mail: or;

* This is an edited version of the report of the same title and author in Beyond tears and borders: A compilation of country situation reports in nine countries in Asia, published by the Asian Federation Against Involuntary Disappearances (Manila, 2013).


1. Report of the Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances Mission to Timor-Leste, Addendum, A/HRC/19/58/Add.1, 26 December 2011, pages 15-16. Full text of the report available at