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How Timorese Women Perceive the Election of Prabowo Subianto in Indonesia

Prabowo Subianto in IndonesiaWhile Dili has publicly welcomed the former general’s election, other Timorese — particularly women — want justice for his role in past atrocities.

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G-NEWS (INTERNATIONAL) – Despite protests from his rivals, the victory of Indonesia’s newly elected president, Prabowo Subianto, was verified by the country’s Constitutional Court last month. His win has stirred mixed feelings among the people of neighboring Timor-Leste, which was invaded by Indonesia in 1975 and only gained its independence from Indonesian rule in 2002. While some Timorese officials, including the current president and prime minister, congratulated Prabowo on his victory, others are worried that Indonesia may see a regression of the country’s democracy and human rights achievements once Prabowo takes office. This is unsurprising, given that Prabowo was reportedly involved in crimes targeting Timorese resistance fighters and women, including the killing in 1978 of the freedom fighter Nicolau Lobato, Timor-Leste’s first prime minister.

Prabowo’s election victory may bring Timor-Leste and Indonesia closer, especially at a time when Timor-Leste is seeking membership in the World Trade Organization and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). At the same time, however, it is not clear whether this will present an opportunity for deeper healing and reconciliation for the Timorese people, particularly for women who suffered a particularly grim toll during the Indonesian occupation.

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Indonesia was not Timor-Leste’s only colonizer but its invasion and occupation in Timor-Leste during 1975-1999 had a particularly traumatic impact on the country and its people. The occupation authorities introduced policies of military control, taxation, and resettlement, accompanied by starvation and sexual violence. Many activists and independence fighters were detained, tortured, and killed. During the 24 years of colonial rule, an estimated 200,000 Timorese perished and many were subject to human rights violations. The violence of 1999 displaced one-third of the population into West Timor, with the majority in Timor-Leste displaced internally, while most of the country’s infrastructure was destroyed or burnt down.

Although all Timorese were victims of the Indonesian occupation, women were systematically targeted. One of the most notorious policies was the Indonesian National Population Control Program (Program Keluarga Berencana, or KB program), involving the forced sterilization of hundreds of thousands of Timorese women and young girls, with an underlying political attempt to wipe out the possibility of the reproduction of the whole population.

In addition to this, women related to independence fighters were systematically targeted, arrested, tortured, raped, and even killed in a bid to force husbands connected with the guerrilla fighters to come out of hiding. Some of them were forced to marry Indonesian soldiers and mothered children of mixed race, resulting in them being revictimized by rejection by their family and community.

Meanwhile, many others were left alone as their husbands were killed by the Indonesian army, such as during the Kraras massacre in Viqueque on September 1983, which caused at least 200 deaths. One survivor, S, whose uncle and cousin were killed and forcibly disappeared by the Indonesian military in the Kraras massacre, was arrested, tortured, and raped at the time. She recalled in an earlier interview: “If reminiscing about those times, my heart hurts so much. I appeal to leaders to remember the sacrifices and pay attention to the women who have sacrificed, especially those who have suffered, who have been tortured, verbally abused, and discriminated against.” For many Timorese women, the atrocities of the past are never settled in the past but continue to exist as a living memory and reality.

Some Timorese men believe that Prabowo has changed, and become more accountable in terms of democracy and human rights violations which are both fundamental for the sustainable stability and prosperity of Indonesia and the region. However, many Timorese women disagree. When they heard that President Jose Ramos-Horta held talks with Prabowo in February to congratulate him on his victory and even invite him to visit Timor-Leste, many women survivors from the Marabia incident, which took place at a community of the Atauro island at the outskirts of the capital Dili, and caused the deaths and disappearance of more than 121 on June 10, 1980, were enraged.

Several victims who were detained, tortured, and sexually violated during the 1980s say that they heard Prabowo’s name coming up throughout the decade. One survivor, F, who was repetitively raped and eventually became pregnant, recalled in a recent interview how her husband was killed on Prabowo’s orders in Venilale: “Prabowo has become President. One day if he visits Timor-Leste, if he wants to visit us victims, I just want to ask him: ‘Where did they throw my husband who was killed in Venilale? I know from surviving witnesses that Prabowo was one of the actors in the murder, including my husband.”

For many victims, the truth might bring a measure of closure, at least if they knew where their families were taken, tortured, killed, and thrown away. As L, another survivor, put it: “I also hope that the Timor-Leste government will demand that the Indonesian government take responsibility for their actions against Timorese women, so that these violations will not happen again.”

Prabowo’s long military background and experiences of Prabowo have inculcated him to live up to and aspire to the model of militarized masculinity. As the son-in-law of the former authoritarian leader, Suharto, Prabowo was a key figure in the crushing of the Timorese resistance. He was appointed as a commander leading the Kopassus special forces, and is alleged to have been involved in war crimes and crimes against humanity in Timor-Leste during the Indonesian occupation. Association of Chega! Ba Ita, a local NGO in Timor-Leste, identified that among the groups involved in humanitarian abuses of Timor-Leste between 1974 and 1999, Kopassandha/Kopassus was the one which linked to the most breaches, including the suppression of the levantamento, or rising, of 1983-1984.

The Timor-Leste National Alliance for an International Tribunal report, published in 2023, also pointed out that Prabowo was responsible for several high-level human rights violations and crimes, such as the Santa Cruz massacre in 1991, in which around 300 people were killed. Moreover, as mentioned above, Kopassus was responsible for the killing of Nicolau Lobato, Timor-Leste’s first prime minister, whose remains have never been recovered. Nevertheless, Prabowo has never acknowledged, let alone apologized, for his behavior, nor been tried at court for his involvement in the violation of human rights in Timor-Leste, but stated that he was just following orders.

Prabowo’s progression into peak power through this election may bring a bitter taste to many Timorese people, particularly women who survived the atrocities in which Prabowo had a direct or indirect hand. It is particularly worrying that Prabowo may be ready to give a greater role to the military in decision-making.

While some are optimistic that Prabowo’s win will strengthen the bilateral relations between the two states, supporting Timor-Leste’s ASEAN membership bid or addressing social issues facing both states, this may lose sight of the fact that these scenarios are only possible with the selected silence and forgetting of women who make the half of the state and the history of Timor-Leste.

By only looking forward to future cooperation of the two states, women and the injustice they faced are inevitably relegated to the past and forgotten. A survivor from Lacluta who was captured, tortured, and locked up in a military barracks in 1979 to satisfy the lust of soldiers from Battalion 312, expressed disappointment that even the government of Timor-Leste had failed to recognize the women victims. She insisted that the government must recognize the crimes and must retrieve justice and truth for the women to prevent the tragedy from repeating. “I don’t want it to happen again, it’s enough for us to be the victims, not for future generations.”

This article does not deny the importance of state or bilateral relations between Timor-Leste and Indonesia, but it wishes to ensure that Timorese women who have survived Prabowo’s complicit and implicit engagement in organized violence are recognized and included meaningfully in Timorese history, politics, and beyond. Only by putting women first can we understand what Prabowo’s rise to power means and could possibly do to Timor-Leste as well as international peace and security in the region and beyond.

By: Maria Manuela Leong Pereira and Li-Li Chen

The Diplomat