In 2006, José Ramos-Horta, then the prime minister of East Timor, spoke about the importance of establishing the truth around past atrocities: “We owe it to the people. We owe it to the victims. We owe it to the current generation and the future generation.”
His country had only recently emerged from the brutal, decades-long occupation by Indonesia, and a year earlier a truth commission had published a historic report into atrocities by Indonesian forces. There was a genuine sense of hope that crimes of the past would, for once, not be swept under the carpet.
Sadly, not much has happened since. Although a joint Indonesian-Timorese “Commission for Truth and Friendship” published another important report a few years later, there has been little progress in providing reparations for victims, finding out what happened to the disappeared, or holding those responsible to account.
The experiences in East Timor are hardly unique in Asia. Across the continent, states emerging from conflicts are struggling to come to terms with violent pasts. Victims suffer in silence while perpetrators not only walk free but often hold positions of power.
In too many countries, truth and justice are considered dispensable “luxuries” that get in the way of economic growth and political progress. But “Asian values” cannot mean no respect for rights at all – this is all the more important to remember today with conflicts raging from Myanmar to the Philippines.
In too many countries, truth and justice are considered dispensable ‘luxuries’ that get in the way of economic growth and political progress
Take Sri Lanka, for example. This May marked the ninth anniversary of the end of the brutal conflict between the government and the Tamil Tigers (LTTE), in which some 100,000 civilians lost their lives during 25 years of fighting. More than 40,000 were likely killed just in the final bloody months when government forces shelled Tamil areas indiscriminately. Yet despite these atrocities being well documented, genuine justice seems a distant prospect.
The surprise election victory of a coalition led by President Maithripala Sirisena in 2015 raised many victims’ hopes that they would no longer be ignored. The new government promised to deal with the past, and even sponsored a landmark United Nations resolution to this effect not long after it took office.
But since then, progress has been incremental. The government has stalled on setting up the four transitional justice mechanisms, including a truth commission, it has pledged to do. As of this year’s anniversary, only a single body dealing with enforced disappearances had been established, and even that had barely begun its work.
The uncertainty is taking its toll on victims. In the northern Tamil areas, families wait for answers about missing loved ones while still surrounded by a heavy military presence. The situation has been particularly hard for tens of thousands of Tamil war widows who have been left as sole bread winners. A lack of political will has been a huge factor in the delays in delivering justice, not least since the war-time president Mahinda Rajapaksa has enjoyed a resurgence in popularity.
Indonesia, where hundreds of thousands of people were killed by the army and its proxies during the dark New Order era (1966-1998), is another discouraging tale. President Joko Widodo, who took office as a breath of fresh air in 2014, has failed to deliver on his campaign promise to take transitional justice seriously. He has appointed military figures accused of human-rights violations to senior government positions, and his attorney general recently rejected a landmark report on past abuses as “opinions and assumptions”.
As in many other Asian countries, it has been up to civil society to step in where authorities have been unwilling to. Across Indonesia, activists are working to collect stories from survivors, provide care to victims and to ensure that the past is not forgotten. One such group is the Kamisan movement, who for the past 11 years have gathered on every Thursday outside the Presidential Palace in Jakarta in silent protest. Their black umbrellas have become a powerful symbol of the enduring quest for truth.
Even in countries where formal transitional justice processes have started, progress has been slow.
In Nepal, chronic political instability since the civil war’s end in 2006 has impeded justice efforts. A truth commission finally started hearing accounts from tens of thousands of victims in 2016, but flaws in its mandate and resource shortages remain serious roadblocks.
In Cambodia, a hybrid court investigating the murderous Khmer Rouge regime has had more impact and led to a handful of encouraging convictions. Critics, however, question whether the 11 years and US$300 million poured into the court could have been used better, and whether deterrence really works given Prime Minister Hun Sen’s increasingly brazen power grab.
In the absence of an effective regional human-rights system, citizens of Asian countries need to make the most of the existing arrangements
It is not all bad news, however, as recent events in Taiwan have been more encouraging. This year, its parliament passed a historic truth and justice law meant to be a “bridge of reconciliation.” The law calls for the removal of all symbols of the country’s authoritarian past, and a thorough investigation into the thousands of killings and arbitrary detentions during the “White Terror” of late leader Chiang Kai-shek. Implementing the law will be a challenge, but the fact that it exists is a real cause for hope.
In the absence of an effective regional human-rights system – something that has been beneficial in other parts of the world – citizens of Asian countries need to make the most of the existing arrangements. This includes regular UN human-rights reviews, as well as bilateral and multilateral conversations about human rights.
Transitional justice means not only putting a war criminal on trial, but also ensuring that victims are compensated and that the truth is both unearthed and acknowledged. Institutional reform and vetting of law-enforcement and military personnel also serve as guarantees of non- recurrence. Truth or justice is not a binary choice, but things that go hand in hand.
It is important to remember that creating such a culture of justice is not just important for yesterday’s victims, but also for today’s.
Accounts of atrocities by the Myanmar security forces and their proxies against the Rohingya minority have dominated international headlines since August 2017. But despite international rights groups documenting these horrific abuses in detail, the countless investigative commissions set up by Myanmar authorities have failed to deliver any real accountability.
The Myanmar military has little incentive to investigate its own alleged crimes, and the civilian government under the National League for Democracy appears unable or unwilling to prosecute the perpetrators. Rohingya groups are increasingly pinning their hopes on the international community and a referral to the International Criminal Court.
In the end, Asia’s development model will not be assessed – even by citizens themselves – solely by its capacity to deliver material goods, but also on whether it can create and sustain conditions under which citizens can trust their state institutions. Justice for past atrocities is a crucial factor in this – to end the culture of impunity, break cycles of violence, and build national unity for the long term.