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November 30, 2000

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MARCH 17, 2000 VOL. 26 NO. 10

We Won . . . So Now What?
Falintil guerrillas grope for a peacetime role

In the mountains south of Dili, men with long hair and guns stand in the pre-dawn mist. They introduce themselves to a visitor with noms de guerre. "Earth-quake. Nice to meet you." "Hi, I'm Every-where." They wait patiently for their patrol shift to end. They are used to waiting. They are members of Falintil, East Timor's rebel army. After 24 years of armed struggle, Falintil won in the end by waiting. When pro-Jakarta militia rampaged through East Timor after last-year's United Nations-sponsored vote on independence, the rebels stayed in the hills as they promised to the international community, avoiding an all-out civil war. They won the respect of Interfet multinational peacekeepers for their local intelligence, and their restraint. Today, Earthquake, Everywhere and 800 or so fellow guerrillas are cantoned in Ailieu, meaning they can carry arms only within a designated area. And they wait while their leaders and U.N. officials try to work out if they have anything to wait for.

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n what ought to be a time of triumph, Falintil floats in limbo. All agree that it played a big part in East Timor's independence, but what is its role now? The group wants to keep its arms and eventually form the core of a national army. "Interfet turned over its mandate to PKF [U.N. peacekeeping forces]. Who will PKF turn the mandate over to?" asks Falintil field commander Taur Matan Ruak. "One day they will leave, and we must be prepared to keep the peace." But the U.N. Transitional Administration in East Timor (UNTAET) maintains that all "irregular" forces must disarm and disband if the territory is to heal its divisions and build a new civil society. Also, while no one suggests that Falintil would ever become oppressors, U.N. officials fret about the many rebels in other countries who turned into repressive regimes after gaining power. "Falintil was a force which had a cause, and now that cause has changed," says one official. "So what you have is an armed force without a cause and that is a dangerous thing."

For the moment, Falintil is a stabilizing force in the shell-shocked territory - although it turns rough at times. UNTAET and other international agencies rely heavily on Falintil's local knowledge and intelligence channels. While anger toward pro-Jakarta militia, many of whom fled to Indonesian West Timor, remains wide-spread, Falintil recently met militia leaders in Singapore for talks on reconciliation. At the village level, Falintil has helped the reintegration of returning militia members in the absence of a functioning judicial system by administering home-brew justice, generally relying on community service-type sentences but sometimes veering to beatings. As long as things do not go too far, UNTAET and others have been willing to turn a blind eye.

But questions over the group's future are mounting. UNTAET had hoped that some members of Falintil might join the police force now being set up. But the rebel group forbade its members from applying. Ruak says Falintil troops are too busy to become policemen - an assertion belied by the rowdy volleyball and soccer games that mark afternoons in Ailieu. The group also launched a recruitment and remobilization campaign recently. Training camps are springing up outside the cantonment area. Some guerrillas in Ailieu say they expect to be deployed to towns like Same, Los Palos and Suai in the coming weeks, which would put Falintil clearly in violation of their cantonment and could lead to an embarrassing standoff with U.N. peacekeepers. The possibility of confrontation is at odds with the record of cooperation between the two sides but Falintil seems determined to go about its business as an army-in-waiting - and in the process is strengthening its bargaining position in discussions on its future.

Those discussions are set to intensify. A meeting of top decision-makers - including UNTAET chief Sergio Vieira de Mello and independence leader Xanana Gusmao, Falintil's supreme commander and East Timor's de facto president, and field commander Rauk - is expected shortly, following several weeks of working-level talks. A senior U.N. official says several ideas have been floated, such as incorporating some Falintil members or units within the PKF, although nothing is likely to be settled quickly. UNTAET realizes that it needs Falintil's local knowledge and contacts, and that it cannot stop all recruitment and training. What it wants to avoid is a parallel military structure acting outside its control. Falintil needs UNTAET's expertise and humanitarian assistance, as well as its blessing to pursue links with countries like Australia and Portugal which are offering training and other incentives.

Is Falintil the seed of a future national army? The question is moot. East Timor may need international peacekeepers for years, and Falintil's 1,000-plus troops (compared to the PKF's 8,500) are not about to replace them any time soon. The powers-that-be are scrambling to provide alternatives. The International Organization for Migration is working on plans to reintegrate Falintil members into society. Chris Gascon, the IOM's head of mission, says a program could offer vocational training or support in starting up micro-enterprises. "Falintil's return to the community is a great opportunity," he says. "They are local heroes and in some cases charismatic leaders who can function as catalysts for community rebuilding." Meanwhile, Earthquake and his comrades pass their time playing volleyball and mooching cigarettes from passing cars - rebels waiting for a cause.

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