Memory as the mother of wisdom
In the 2012 British comedy film The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, the ultra-optimistic manager Sonny explains away his dysfunctional business with the memorable line: ‘Everything will be all right in the end... if it's not all right then it's not yet the end’.
Seasoned Australian human rights campaigner Pat Walsh, 74, has adopted this reasoning to explain his optimism as he struggles to help Indonesians know the facts of their country’s recent history – and take responsibility for the crimes “that have so deeply scarred Timor-Leste”.
His brief on behalf of a non-government organization [NGO] covers the 25-year occupation of East Timor, a Portuguese colony from the 16th century till invaded by Indonesian troops in 1975. It’s now the nation of Timor-Leste with a population of about 1.2 million.
In the August 1999 referendum authorized by Indonesian President BJ Habibie, almost 80 per cent voted for independence. The Indonesian army (TNI) was outraged. Aided by militants it embarked on what Walsh calls “flat earth retribution.”
He was among official observers of the vote but the team pulled out when it became clear the result would not be accepted peacefully by the TNI.
Walsh returned three months later to a tragic scene. Up to 2,600 people had been killed or disappeared. “From the number and destruction of so many Indonesian government buildings in town after town we concluded two things,” he said.
“Indonesia had planned to stay forever, and that having lost, had no intention of coming back.”
But Walsh did come back, and for the next ten years worked in Dili for international agencies, including the United Nations. His main job was with the independent Timor-Leste Commission for Reception, Truth and Reconciliation, known by its Portuguese acronym as CAVR.
The seven East Timorese commissioners were tasked with ‘truth seeking’ for the period 1974 to 1999. Their report Chega! [Portuguese for ‘enough’] was published in Indonesian and Portuguese. To Walsh’s dismay there have been no mainstream media reviews or doctoral theses on the document.
Now a new five volume English version has been edited by Walsh after six months’ work in Jakarta. The study found almost 103,800 civilians died during the quarter-century conflict. Around 18,600 of them were killed or disappeared and at least 84,200 people died from hunger and disease.
The report has evidence from almost 8,000 victims, and includes sickening first person testimonies of rape and torture. Reading these made Walsh “very emotional … distressed and angry.”
His current job is with Asia Justice and Rights [AJAR], a European-funded NGO based in Jakarta ‘to strengthen accountability and respect for human rights’.
Walsh is distributing 1,500 boxed sets of Chega! to university libraries, NGOs and media organisations. He’s criss-crossing the archipelago, lobbying politicians, showing videos and addressing law students, activists and anyone who’ll cock an ear. Condensed versions of Chega!, including comics, will be released next year.
“Many Indonesians still don’t know the truth about East Timor,” he said. “They accepted President Soeharto’s line that East Timor was to Indonesia what Cuba was to the US – an offshore Communist enclave which could not be tolerated.
“That wasn’t true. Fretilin [the political party fighting for independence] was not a Marxist or Communist movement, and it never wanted all Timor. Nor did it want to see the Balkanisation [fragmentation] of Indonesia.”
Walsh was speaking in Batu, East Java at Omah Munir, the museum celebrating the life of human rights activist and lawyer Munir Said Thalib who was assassinated in 2004. Although some of those allegedly involved were jailed, the masterminds behind his poisoning on board a Garuda flight have never been convicted.
Walsh’s presentation was titled Rediscovering Indonesia. The subtitle came from the ancient Greek playwright Aeschylus: ‘Memory is the mother of wisdom’. To this was added: ‘But a lost memory is the mother of a mistake!’.
Walsh has a resume that punctures the image of reconcilers as unworldly theorists who can’t face the rawness of realpolitik outside their aid-funded offices. He has fronted the Vatican and the US Congress to plead for the victims of brutality in East Timor.
Walsh studied military strategy to understand how soldiers think. He
“I’m a sitting duck,” Walsh said. “Many still blame Australia for the referendum and Indonesia losing its most easterly province. So far no problems. My concerns are with the actions of governments, not the Indonesian people.”
Walsh was raised on a dairy farm in rural Victoria and educated in a seminary. For seven years he was a Catholic priest with the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart. He taught Latin, then Indonesian.
Walsh eventually left the priesthood, married, fathered three daughters and turned to the quest for a just world.
His studies aroused a strong concern for human rights and abuse of power. In 1975 Indonesia invaded East Timor, and Melbourne became activism central. Scores of political refugees gathered in the Victorian capital and worked to tell the world what was happening.
When Walsh wasn’t there he was in Indonesia until blacklisted in 1993. Walsh told Immigration they’d got the wrong person because Pat is also a woman’s name; no deal.
The recommendations in Chega! include reparation – from Indonesia and Australia which allegedly supplied arms to the TNI that were used against the Timorese. So far - nothing.
“I’d like an independent Indonesian commission to examine how history is taught,” Walsh said. “Reparation isn’t money, but social services and support for victims.
“I feel a strong responsibility to ensure their voice gets out. I believe Indonesians will respond to this challenge.”
[Chega! Is on line at www.chegareport.net]
(First published in The Jakarta Post 29 December 2014)