Thursday, February 24, 2005

Where Monsoons Meet No.8

Being a miscellany of recent stories from Southeast Asia (a little later than usual).
  • East Timor. The UN peace mission to East Timor is supposed to come to an end in May. But this is a turbulent time in the brief history of the fledgling country. The war crimes tribunal that was set up to try those suspected of killings when the Indonesian military and their militias went on the rampage is due to be concluded. Altogether some 75 people have been jailed for these terrible crimes. But none of the major military commanders has been brought to trial. This includes the notorious General Wiranto, despite being found "morally responsible" for the events of 1999 by a government-sponsored human rights inquiry. The decision to wind up the tribunal is a sad reflection of the realities of power politics. East Timor's foreign minister, Jose Ramos Horta, says that the political priority now is to build bridges with the new government in Jakarta. Ramos Horta compares East Timor with Jonathan Swift's Lilliput:
    East Timor is not going to be the Lilliputian judge, which is going to bring to justice very powerful Indonesian ministers. If we are seen by Indonesia as conniving with the international community to continue to embarrass Indonesia, it could have a backlash against East Timor.
    Instead a new judicial process has been agreed – a Truth and Friendship Commission – modelled on similar efforts as those in South Africa. There are numerous outstanding problems that need to be resolved during this crucial transition. For example, there are signs that the UN-sponsored criminal justice system is not working very effectively and is mired in corruption and incompetence. Some political parties oppose the new establishment of the new Commission and want a more confrontational stance which Ramos Horta fears will upset the still-delicate relationship with Jakarta. More seriously still, there is the real possibility that the new Commission will run into the same problems with truth-telling that have been experienced elsewhere. In this context, as Norm once forcefully argued, the truth disappears and there can therefore be no justice:
    The victims and protesters of any putative injustice are deprived of their last and often best weapon, that of telling what really happened. They can only tell their story, which is something else. Morally and politically, therefore, anything goes.
    Of course it is hoped that this is not what transpires. But the portents are not good. For all its problems the war crimes tribunal had a specificity of prosecution and a regard for admissable evidence that a generic Truth Commission cannot hope to possess. Meanwhile, Kofi Annan is said to be in favour of a scaled-down UN peacekeeping presence after May. If that's the case let's hope that the UN does a better job than it has hitherto. And let's hope, too, that good neighbourliness does not eclipse justice.
  • Burma. The hardening of the Burmese military junta continues apace - with barely a comment from the international media. In danger of stating the bleeding obvious, this week the UN representative to Burma, Razali Ismail (who is a Malaysian), said the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) is not taking the mediation efforts of the UN seriously. Razli does not even know when he will be allowed to return to the country. This is a blow to the long-held Malaysian position of so-called "constructive engagement" with the goons. Under Mahathir this was always a rather self-serving position. Today the junta shows what it really thinks of it. Sources in Kuala Lumpur's diplomatic missions have told me that, privately, Razli is absolutely livid with the junta and at the loss of his own dignity. Meanwhile, high level officials from the International Labour Organisation who went to Rangoon to discuss widespread forced labour practices left the country the next day. Forced labour is the accumulation regime favoured by military officers. The junta's top brass simply refused to meet with the ILO delegation. When will this wretched state of affairs end?
  • Indonesia-Aceh. There does seem to have been some progress in the Helsinki talks between the Indonesian government and the Free Ache Movement (GAM), reported here, here and here. Martti Ahtisaari, of the Crisis Management Initiative, which is sponsoring the talks, says that
    Discussions were carried out in a constructive manner. Both delegations engaged in a substantive dialogue in an attempt to identify common ground. It was agreed that this process should be continued.
    Among the key issues discussed were "special autonomy" versus self-government; amnesty (again); security arrangements; monitoring of the implementation of the commitments; and a timetable for action.
    President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono is saying publicaly that he wants a peaceful solution to the separatist conflict. For its part, the GAM is offering a more cautious note: "we never close doors on a possible negotiated settlement". I just hope that the Indonesian military commanders on the ground are listening.


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