East Timor: Where is Justice for the Suai Church Massacre?

Exactly ten years ago today, on the 6th of September 1999 – two days after the announcement of the referendum results – the town of  Suai, in the south west of East Timor, suffered the consequences of the 80% result for ukun rasik-an: independence, self-determination. The Suai Church Massacre saw the brutal death of three priests and dozens – possibly hundreds – of people who had sought refuge in the local church, many of them women and children.

This devastating episode has become known as the Black September of East Timor. According to this documentary, the violence was such that the Laksaur (a pro-Indonesia militia) didn't even shoot people, choosing to butcher the victims with machetes instead in order to save expensive bullets.

Church of Suai. Photo by J. Orosco shared on Flickr by Patfranca

The Church of Suai. Photo by J. Orosco shared on Flickr by Patfranca

The campaign of terror had been spread around the country several months before the popular consultation by pro-Indonesian militias called Besih Merah Putih (White and Red Iron, the colours of the Indonesian flag). Although they intended to keep people away from voting, 90% of the eligible citizens went out and the result showed that a vast majority of the population wanted freedom. Mari Alkatiri, the opposition leader, recently alleged the manipulation of results, to which former Ambassador of Portugal in Jakarta, Ana Gomes (@anargomes) replied on Twitter:

12:54 AM Sep 1st: Alkatiri disse LUSA resultados referendo seriam 90/cento, mas ONUalterara-os para salvar face a Indonesia. Mas 80/cento salvam face?

Alkatiri stated to LUSA that referendum results would be 90%, but the UN changed them to save Indonesian face. But does 80% save face?

Back in 1999, the Timorese knew that people would have to die in order to bring Timor Leste its independence. However, no one ever expected such violent crimes against humanity as those that took place in Suai. Despite the violence, trauma and destruction, in the commemorations of the 10th anniversary of the referendum, President Ramos Horta has asked for forgiveness, in what Amnesty International calls a “culture of impunity” as it urges the “International Tribunal to examine the human rights violations in East Timor“.

East Timor, Suai 2000. Photo by Rusty Stewart on Flickr.

East Timor, Suai 2000. Photo by Rusty Stewart on Flickr.

Meanwhile, former Laksaur militia commander Martenus Bere, who allegedly led the attack on the church in the town of Suai in September 1999, has been released from prison. The Dili Insider translates the Indonesian news to English:

As an anniversary ceremony was taking place, authorities in Dili released an Indonesian citizen accused of leading one of the worst massacres in East Timor in 1999. Martenus Bere was brought from cells at Dili's main jail and handed over to Indonesian officials. Bere, a commander of a brutal pro-Indonesian militia group responsible for a reign of terror, led an attack on a church in the town of Suai during which three priests and dozens of people were killed. Prison officials said Bere was released on the order of Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao. He had been indicted for crimes against humanity by the UN's Serious Crimes Unit in 2003. Indonesian authorities had pressured East Timor to release Bere after he was arrested two weeks ago after crossing the East Timor border from Indonesian West Timor.

A growing wave of netcitizens against the release of Martenus Bere immediately started to spread the word on the case, many discussions have taken place and Facebook groups been created (such as Don't let Martenus Bere Escape Justice and Justice NOW for East Timor).

On the same day of the celebrations, a peaceful demonstration in Dili finished up with one more attack on justice and democracy. Ana Gomes broke the news on Twitter, and then reported on the blog Causa Nossa (Our Cause, pt):

12:39 AM Sep 1st Pedro conta 3 estudantes foram presos véspera em manif sobre Justiça. Arrancamos p/ Policia Dili

Pedro tells us that 3 students were arrested yesterday in demo on Justice. We head over to Dili Police

12:41 AM Sep 1st: Esquadra Policia Dili, dia 31/8 – confirmam-nos presos. Razões suharto/salazarentas: manif ilegal.

Dili Police, on 31 8 – confirmed the arrest. Reasons suharto/salazarish: illegal demonstration.

12:45 AM Sep 1st: Telefonema a Vice PM, velho amigo Lugo: “Sabes dos presos?”. Nao sabia. 10 minutos depois: “Vao já ser soltos”. Excesso zelo policial.

Call to Deputy PM, Lugo old friend: “You know the prisoners?”. Did not know. 10 minutes later: “They're already being released.” Excessive police zeal.

12:47 AM Sep 1st: Conclusao: Policia timorense precisa muito aprender democracia.

Conclusion: the Timorese Police has a lot to learn on democracy.

Disillusioned with politics and governance in East Timor, Loro Foho reflects on the future implications that such an act against democracy may have, especially for the younger population. In a post [pt] on the Timor Lorosae Nação blog:

Liberdade para os criminosos, repressão para o Povo, é o lema que nos parece estar a ser seguido pelos governantes.

A libertação de Martenes Bere, que liderou crimes contra timorenses, a punição de estudantes que pacifica e justamente (felizmente já libertados) pediam o fim da impunidade reinante em Timor-Leste, a política insana da AMP persistindo em duvidar da nossa clareza de análise, levam-nos a manter o sentimento de que urgente se torna reconquistar os valores que fizeram de nós Gente Respeitável. (…)

A realidade Mundial que muitos ainda não perceberam, flui na direcção da Justiça, da Verdade, do Desenvolvimento e Integridade dos Povos. Sabemos que a nossa luta flui na direcção certa, e é comum à luta de qualquer povo que se sinta injustiçado e descriminado. Fomos afastados e perseguidos, mas isso já é para nós a força da nossa da razão.

É previsível que os grandes senhores das cadeiras do poder dominante se irão gloriar futuramente de nos terem transformado num povo desprezível, cujos filhos irão cultuar o roubo, a mentira, a repressão… não nos bastando a cultura deixada no tempo das milícias desumanas e cruéis, eis os exemplos de uma política que facilita a impunidade a quem matou e destruiu massivamente, e que nos rouba a dignidade da justiça.

Freedom for the criminals, repression for the people, this seem to be the motto for the government to follow.

The release of Martene Bere, who led crimes against Timorese, the punishment of students (fortunately already released) who peacefully and fairly called for an end to impunity in Timor-Leste, the insane policy of the AMP [Parliamentary Majority Alliance] insisting on casting doubt on our ability for clear analysis leading us to maintain a sense that it is urgent to regain the values that made us respectable people. (…)

The world reality that many have not yet realized, flows in the direction of Justice, Truth, Integrity and the Development of People. We know that our struggle flows in the right direction, and that it is as common as the struggle of any people who feel wronged and discriminated against. We were put away and persecuted, but that is for us the strength of our reason.

It is expected that the great lords of the seats in the dominant power will boast in future about having made us despicable people, whose children will worship the theft, lies, repression… as if the culture left by inhumane and cruel militia times wasn't enough, these are examples of a policy that facilitates impunity for those who have killed and destroyed on a massive scale, and who rob us of the dignity of justice.

This sequence of events has put the first democracy of the millennium in jeopardy and once again shown that a path still needs to be made for the true self-determination of the Timorese people, including a fair mourning needed for Justice before Reconcilliation. Ivete de Oliveira shares the tragic story of her father, Manuel Magalhaes, who was the leader of the CNRT in Bobonaro District during the Indonesian occupation. He was killed on Sept. 9, 1999, at a lagoon near Maliana:

(…) He fought with all his heart and he did not get to experience how independence is like. is justice too big to ask?

Till today I still wonder how and where exactly my father was killed. We have never found the body because it was hacked to pieces and thrown into the sea.

Few years ago the serious crime unit collected the evidence from our family, which was the remaining of my father’s clothes on the day he was killed. Since then we have not heard any progress of the investigation.

This is just a story from one person and I could not speak for everyone but I strongly believe victims will say justice needs to be done in order for us to move on. We shouldn't just forget the past because past is what has brought us to where we are today.

An online petition imploresthe United Nations institutions to take all necessary action to establish an international criminal tribunal to bring those responsible for the grave violations of international law in East Timor to justice without further delay”. The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights has already reacted in an open letter to the President of the Democratic Republic of East Timor.

A mosaic of rocks written and painted by residents in Port Phillip to send condolences for the people of Suai. From suaimediaspace.ning.com

A mosaic of rocks written and painted by residents in Port Phillip to send condolences to the people of Suai. From suaimediaspace.ning.com

A previous post on Global Voices with an interview with Jen Hughes from Suai Media Space highlights a video-documentary with a dramatization of the genocide in the Church of Suai. This post is the last of a series to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the popular referendum in East Timor, which led to the territory's internationally recognized independence. In the first post we highlighted the support of the international community for the freedom of East Timor. In the second, we interviewed Abe Barreto Soares who is one of the organizers of the celebration events for solidarity taking place in East Timor in August and September 2009. The third post amplifies Timorese bloggers’ celebrations while questioning and comparing the current and the past status of the Nation. In the fourth post we amplified the debate on the draft Land Law, and among other things, its implications for community lands.

1 comment

  • It is very true indeed that the consequences of the crisis in 1999 have mentally and physically impacted on the young generation. Kids lost their parents and parents lost their beloved kids. Furthermore, many of the victims disappeared and cannot be found till now. To gain independence is not easy as it seems, we have to sacrifice and fight till end. Most locals were suffered severely by it and tragically the victimised people who are still alive are still far from happiness due to lack of support from government and unemployed. Hope this will bring us into reflection of how hard it is to gain independence and be united in newly nation, Timor – Leste. New Sun Rise, New Spirit to all Timorese people.

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