Truth and reconciliation as ongoing, activist processes

By David Webster

Does a truth and reconciliation process end when a truth commission hands in its final report? The experience of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada’s (TRC) brutal residential schools system implies that it definitely should not. The TRC’s calls to action call on settler society to do some of the heavy lifting necessary for true reconciliation.

A new research project into truth and reconciliation processes in Southeast Asia and Melanesia draws similar conclusions. We need to understand truth and reconciliation as processes – starting with a pre-TRC phase in which individuals and groups begin to call for truth-telling about a violent past, and continuing with a post-TRC phase in which a report’s findings are disseminated and turned into action.

That’s one of the main findings of a collaborative research project into truth and reconciliation in post-conflict and post-dictatorship Asian and Pacific cases discussed in a forthcoming University of Calgary Press book, Flowers in the Wall: Truth and Reconciliation in East Timor, Indonesia, and Melanesia.

Flowers in the Wall references an Indonesian poem by Wiji Thikul likening activists to flowers, whose growth makes walls of denial crumble over time. It’s a metaphor that speaks to the need to reveal uncomfortable truths, a metaphor that highlights the central role of activists who often have to force reluctant governments into action.

Researchers from Indonesia, Timor-Leste, Solomon Islands and Canada found common lessons about truth processes. When TRC Canada launched its hearings, it acknowledged that commissions could learn from each other by inviting truth commission participants from other countries to attend and share their experiences. TRC Canada has much to teach other countries in areas such as respect for the Earth and centering Indigenous experiences.

We found similar points being put forward by those trying to melurusankan sejarah (set the history straight) in Indonesian-ruled West Papua, who seek reconciliation with the natural environment and respect for Indigenous tellings of the past and Indigenous ways of resolving conflict. The Solomons and Timorese truth commissions focused on similar points with an emphasis on Indigenous kastom (custom) in the Solomons and Timorese community reconciliation processes. Both commissions also stressed economic factors, highlighting the role of foreign corporations and calling for human rights to include economic justice and apologies from Western countries whose investments and weapons fueled wars.

This year, Timor-Leste is opening a permanent truth and reconciliation centre in the aim of moving “from memory to hope.” The Indonesian province of Aceh is setting up a permanent truth commission: a concrete assertion that the work of truth and reconciliation does not end when a commission hands in its report. In these choices there are models for how truth and reconciliation are understood globally. Truth and reconciliation are ongoing processes; a commission’s final report is not an end, but a new beginning.

Edited from a post originally published on Congress 2017 Ideas blog, Canadian Federation of the Humanities and Social Sciences, May 2017. Click to access original

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