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  • Learning from Timor-Leste’s experience for Victoria’s Yoo-rrook commission

Learning from Timor-Leste’s experience for Victoria’s Yoo-rrook commission



Victoria’s Yoo-rrook Justice Commission, a truth-telling inquiry that will investigate injustices committed against Aboriginal Victorians since colonisation, rightly looks to similar models in South Africa and Canada. Each of these also had a clear Indigenous focus and addressed the ravaging impact of white settlement on traditional lands, cultures and communities in their respective countries.

Aboriginal flag waving (Darrian Traynor/Getty Images)

Though surprisingly little known in Australia, neighbouring Timor-Leste’s truth and reconciliation commission is also relevant. Known as CAVR after its Portuguese acronym, Timor-Leste’s Commission functioned 2002-2005, immediately after independence. It was the first of its kind in this part of the world. Experts rate it as one of the most impressive of the forty or so commissions to date.

Timor-Leste’s commission involved Australia in a way the other models did not. Australia co-financed the Commission; Australian experts testified to it and a number of Australians worked for it, garnering experience of potential use to Victoria’s new body. Drawing on its experience would be welcomed by Victoria’s government and the local councils, community and educational institutions that actively engage with Timor-Leste.

It was Timorese led and victim-centric. Its fourfold mandate was to impartially establish the truth about human rights violations committed during the Indonesian occupation; to faciliate intra-Timorese reconciliation; to restore the dignity of victims; and to publish its evidence that Timor-Leste had suffered crimes against humanity and to recommend what should be done at home and abroad to prevent a recurrence of such crimes. Regrettably, the report has been largely ignored by Indonesia and the world.

Timor-Leste’s commission addressed issues that, broadly speaking, are also central to the Yoo-rrook inquiry — the violent impact of colonialism and its attendant denial of self-determination. As in Australia, Timor-Leste experienced appropriation, dispossession, massacres, displacement, splitting of families whose children were taken away, and attempts at cultural assimilation. The Commission found that Australia largely connived with Indonesia in these crimes. That is, Australia sided with the coloniser, not the colonised, and, until late in the piece, paid only lip service to Timor-Leste's right to self-determination.

Many factors were at play here, but one wonders if, faced with what it wrongly saw as a policy dilemma, Canberra defaulted to a colonial reflex shaped by two centuries of colonisation at home. It was only thanks to the East Timorese people’s dogged resistance against the odds that Canberra came around, a pattern we are seeing play out in Victoria to the credit of generations of Aboriginal activism and lately the Andrews government.


'The goodwill of Victorians should not be underestimated and a sea-change is well on the way, but engaging the wider community will require non-Indigenous Victorians to step up.'


As Marcia Langton puts it, the Yoo-rrook commission will be ‘a significant step forward in educating the wider community about Indigenous history.’ One hopes getting Victorian non-Indigenous communities to listen closely in the spirit of dadirriadvocated by Senior Australian of the Year Miriam-Rose Ungunmerr, which will be a demanding task in its own right, time-consuming, even inter-generational.

Timor-Leste's experience in this regard is instructive. Survivors were ready to tell their stories and contribute to embedding the values of non-violence, respect and accountability required in their new country. But they also expected bread and butter redress in the form of practical, often financial, assistance and tended to assess CAVR’s effectiveness from that angle. Reparations, however, have been slow in coming in Timor-Leste.

Reaching out to Indonesia is proving challenging. Reminiscent of Australians who were taught nothing about Indigenous history, most Indonesians have been kept ignorant of the country’s failed Timor-Leste chapter by a government and military in denial.

To carry CAVR’s work forward, Timor-Leste has recently established a centre of memory called Centro Nasional Chega! (CNC) Located in a site of conscience in Dili, a former colonial political prison, the centre’s mandate is to facilitate the implementation of many of CAVR’s 204 recommendations, including reaching out to Indonesia. Getting the centre up took a decade of advocacy, further evidence that none of this work is easy. It owes its existence largely to the prime minister of the day, a reminder that champions on all sides are needed to make things happen in this space. The centre is a rare example of the sort of follow-up to a truth commission that a UN study found should be planned for from the beginning as a long-term feature of any commission’s work.  

The goodwill of Victorians should not be underestimated and a sea-change is well on the way, but engaging the wider community will require non-Indigenous Victorians to step up. It takes two to tango. As with international support for Timor-Leste’s centre of memory, the Commission deserves a range of non-Indigenous champions in its corner, including across the political divide.



Pat WalshPat Walsh is the author of The Day Hope and History Rhymed in East Timor and Other East Timor Stories (2019). Pat served as special adviser to East Timor's CAVR commission, and helped design the country's successor body, Centro Nasional Chega!, to which he is an advisor.

Main image: Aboriginal flag waving (Darrian Traynor/Getty Images)

Topic tags: Pat Walsh, East Timor, Timor-Leste, Yoo-rrook commission, truth telling, Aboriginal, Indigenous



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Existing comments

Whilst I acknowledge your expertise on Timor-Leste's truth and reconciliation commission, Pat and have a genuine respect for you, gleaned from reading your articles in Eureka Street over many years, I am unsure whether CAVR can directly translate to the situation of the Yoo-rrook Justice Commission in Victoria. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were subject to a much longer period of colonial rule, with all that entailed, than the people of Timor-Leste were subject to Indonesian rule. Portuguese rule was far longer and comparison with that possibly more appropriate. As someone who came here with my parents when I was a boy, I have no long term family history of the colonisation of this country. My own family's history in India from East India Company times is probably inappropriate. I think there needs to be a nationwide just and negotiated agreement with all ATSI people. There are problems here with contested leadership and different ideas. Who really speaks for all ATSI people? There are also vocal, highly contested claims of Aboriginality from the likes of Bruce Pascoe. Where do these stand? Local recognition and reconciliation and all that entails are important but the national, overriding recognition and reconciliation are most important. The two must go together.

Edward Fido | 23 March 2021  

This is such a fine article. Thank you Pat, and thank you for the work you did towards the CAVR Report. It is heart-rending to know that Australian Indigenous suffering has gone on for so long and that the centuries of silence, deceit and cover-up have meant that so much is lost - not only evidence of the criminality, but so much cultural memory. Even though the CAVR has been ignored (very much so by Australia) it's there, it exists, and there's nothing like it in Australia for our people. I've just found out about the Federal Government's Interim Report Indigenous Voice Co-Design Process. It looks good, but it evades the matter of Constitutional recognition. Submissions are being received for another week.

Susan Connelly | 23 March 2021  

Hmm...an interesting approach but I'd like to challenge the relevance of the CAVR in Victoria's case; Timor-Leste was atrocities committed by "NGO" pro-autonomy militia in a short, succinct one year, (1999) space of time whereas the Victorian consideration will encompass 200+ years of pre and post colonization and allegations of Austalian (and British too, I guess.. ) Government influence and actions, little of it documented by the plaintiffs or their ancestors themselves. The Commission of Truth and Friendship (CTF) submitted its findings on Timor Leste CAVR in 2008 and it was fairly inconclusive but identified problems with weak prosecution of witnesses, inadequacies in evidence and criticism the process was Ad Hoc. Another ugly part is the findings of expectations of compensation and, of course, the failing of any money to materialize. Just what we need here... a bunch of wigs getting paid solicitor rates to listen to verbal, anecdotal evidence. There are truths waiting to be told but I have an inkling those telling the story don't want it to fall on the ears of someone just being paid to listen, notorize and file away. We don't need this exercise to fail due to poor planning or selecting some particular jurisprudence to suit a desired outcome for either side.

ray | 24 March 2021  

Great to see the comments. I totally agree with Edward that CAVR cannot directly translate to Yoo-rrook. My intention was rather to point to CAVR's experience in a few areas in case it was useful, e.g. its Timorese leadership, its work on intra-Timorese reconciliation, long-term follow through, challenges in educating for transformation (e.g. Indonesia for Timor, white Australia for Yoorrook), victim expectations exceeding truth-telling, Australia's record on self-determination etc. PS. CTF should not be conflated with CAVR.

Pat Walsh | 25 March 2021  

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