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

  • 23 March 2021
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.

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