The transition to democracy in Indonesia and the subsequent independence of East Timor generated a flurry of ‘transitional justice’ – activities in both countries attempting to deal with an atrocious past of human rights violations. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), well known from the South African experience, became a popular model for the Indonesian government which favoured the military’s demand for impunity over public pressure for accountability. Within a short period of time a number of TRCs were debated and drafted throughout the region: two national TRCs in Indonesia and East Timor, a joint ‘friendship’ commission between the two countries, and a regional TRC in Aceh, stipulated in the August 2005 peace agreement between the Indonesian government and the rebel movement, GAM (the Free Aceh movement).
Despite initial optimism, the outcomes of these commissions have been disappointing; moreover, some have possibly contributed to the strengthening of an official history of denial. The global ‘transitional justice’ debate has been dominated by normative and legal arguments about what a society ought to do with a past of human rights abuses in order to promote justice and reconciliation. Less attention has been devoted to the contextual factors and underlying political dynamics accompanying these processes. Many of these commissions become de facto ‘white-wash’ machines, earning a reputation of being merely ‘routine’ exercises implemented in the context of negotiated transitions to democracy or as a ceremonial clause in peace agreements.
This thesis attempts to critically analyse the processes of establishing TRCs by first identifying the central arguments in the debate on truth and reconciliation and second, exploring their empirical validity in the context of Indonesia and East Timor. This thesis finds that these Commissions to some extent were driven by arguments that were less concerned about truth and reconciliation and instead focused more on economic development. In Indonesia, a ‘collective amnesia’ of past wrongdoings seems to have been the major obstacle in the creation of a TRC.