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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story

SEPTEMBER 17, 1999 VOL. 25 NO. 37

East Timor's Agony
The former Portuguese colony descends into anarchy as pro-Indonesia militias go on a campaign of violence to thwart independence

Members of the Aitarak militia attack independence supporters in Dili. The militias' campaign of terror has been aided by Indonesian soldiers
Anastasia Vrachnos
Such was their terror that they were willing to lacerate themselves to escape. On the night of Sept. 5, some 1,500 refugees were huddled in a schoolyard in Dili when pro-Jakarta militiamen arrived and started shooting. The panicked crowd tried to flee into the adjacent United Nations compound. People sliced up their skin scrambling over the razor-wire fence - some mothers even threw their children over the barricade - before U.N. guards opened the gate to let the refugees in. Later, trails of blood leading into the compound's waiting rooms testified to the desperation of those trying to escape the horrors outside.

The terror of that night contrasted starkly with the brief bloom of hope and euphoria that had accompanied East Timor's historic Aug. 30 referendum. Although a campaign of violence by pro-integration militias clouded the event, the polling day proceeded relatively peacefully. An amazing 98.6% of registered voters turned out to cast their ballots. A large majority - 78.5% - opted for separation, rather than autonomy within Indonesia. When the result was announced on Sept. 4, independence supporters celebrated in the streets of Dili, while their exiled counterparts in Lisbon and Sydney wept for joy. "We have achieved victory, we have achieved freedom, we have achieved independence," said pro-independence leader Leandro de Ishac in Dili. But the euphoria was short-lived. Barely minutes passed before uneasy tension returned to the streets. "They're coming," whispered Esmerelda Pereira, a mother of two, as she hurried home. "How can I be happy when we know what will happen?"

She may have known, but the world didn't - or at least, it didn't expect the situation to degenerate so quickly, so completely. Even before the result was announced, pro-integrationists were alleging voting irregularities and claiming that UNAMET (United Nations Assistance Mission in East Timor), which oversaw the referendum, was biased toward the independence cause. When later challenged over the matter, South African justice Johann Kriegler, a member of the U.N. commission certifying the result, angrily retorted that "singly, jointly, put them all together, none of the irregularities could have affected the outcome."

By then, the militias were already on a murderous rampage, firing into crowds and torching houses and buildings, including Dili's main hotel and the residence of Nobel laureate Bishop Carlos Belo. (The bishop was safely evacuated to Darwin, Australia.) There were reports of a massacre in the southern town of Suai; one witness even claimed that decapitated heads of independence supporters were mounted on stakes along roads leading out of Dili. As the violence intensified, frightened locals and foreigners streamed out of the territory - to West Timor, to other parts of Indonesia, to Australia.

Also under the gun

Who they are; what they want

Indonesia will need foreign help to sort out the mess in violence-wracked East Timor

Breaking news from East Timor

Birth of a Nation: East Timorese vote overwhelmingly to secede from Indonesia, but ongoing militia violence insures a bloody transition to independence

All the while, Indonesian police and soldiers stationed in the former Portuguese colony did little to rein in the militias and protect the populace. When Aniceto Guterres, chairman of the Foundation for Human Rights and Justice, tried to report to police that his house had been ransacked by militiamen, "they calmly told me that since we had opted to reject autonomy, it was no longer their business to investigate the crime."

In some instances, the security forces actively helped the militias spread terror. Tim Howard, a New Zealand-based activist who left East Timor with Bishop Belo on Sept. 7, told Asiaweek that elite troops were participating in the intimidation campaign. Part of that campaign was the rounding up of both locals and foreigners and forcing them out of East Timor. According to the Red Cross, some 60,000 East Timorese have been herded to police headquarters in Dili to be forcibly deported to West Timor. Critics have labeled this political cleansing.

On Sept. 7, Jakarta imposed martial law on East Timor, but doubts remain as to whether sending more troops to the region would solve matters when the army is clearly part of the problem. "The military's history in the territory is too emotional and it is unlikely that they can be neutral if they take over the security command in the territory now," commented retired major-general Theo Syafei, a onetime army commander overseeing East Timor.

The same day, former East Timorese rebel leader Xanana Gusmao was released from house arrest in Jakarta. Originally scheduled to be flown back to East Timor, he instead made his way to the British embassy where he gave an impassioned plea for international assistance: "Help to stop the violence, the killings, help to save lives, children's lives, the elderly, youths, everyone." He also affirmed that the pro-independence National Council for the Timorese Resistance and its armed wing Falintil would not retaliate against the militias but remain in their cantonments, as according to the May agreement between Portugal and Indonesia that laid the framework for the referendum. He told Asiaweek that Falintil was currently helping evacuate refugees to safety.

Most of the world has been united in urging Jakarta to respect the result and bring law and order to East Timor. A number of nations, including Australia, Malaysia and Thailand, have expressed a willingness to send their troops into East Timor under U.N. auspices. U.S. Defense Secretary William Cohen warned Indonesia would face "serious financial consequences" if it failed to deal with the violence. The turmoil has already led to a weakening rupiah, while the IMF has expressed its concern over the situation. In Auckland, where APEC meetings are underway, the hosts hastily organized a special conference to discuss "what response the international community is in a position to give if that were necessary."

But for all the talk, international action has so far been limited to pressing Jakarta to do something about the crisis. No country has shown any inclination to act without a go-ahead from the U.N., and the U.N. itself is unwilling to intervene without Indonesia's permission, which has not been forthcoming. ("We have all the capacity to handle the situation," said armed forces chief Gen. Wiranto.) In Australia there were calls for unilateral action, but Prime Minister John Howard ruled out any such move: "People who are saying, 'We must not wait for the United Nations, we must not wait for Indonesia,' must understand that one of the consequences of that would be that Australian soldiers would be fighting Indonesian soldiers."

Howard's comments underline a stark reality: that nationalist sentiments in Indonesia make any foreign intervention in East Timor a potentially explosive issue. Many Indonesians remain sensitive about letting East Timor go, and conspiracy theories are abounding on how foreign powers are out to divide Indonesia. In Jakarta, protesters have staged demonstrations condemning the referendum outside the U.N. offices and the Australian embassy. Even Muslim leader Abdurrahman Wahid said he suspected that "foreign interests wish to use East Timor as a military base, especially Australia." The overall sense, especially in government circles, is that Indonesia has been betrayed by the international community. "Indonesians shed blood to save the blood of U.S. and Australian soldiers," says Jakarta-based military analyst Salim Said, "and now the world treats us like bandits."

Part of the Indonesians' worry is that, as Philippine Budget Secretary Benjamin Diokno puts it, "independence for East Timor could give the other Indonesian provinces ideas." Indeed, after the vote result was announced, the mood in separatist-minded Aceh was unusually festive. In the town of Sigli, a drunken man staggered into a coffee stall and asked: "Now we have a free East Timor, so when will it be our turn?" Aware of the potential spillover effects, the Philippine government has itself warned Muslim separatists in Mindanao not to draw any parallels.

If Indonesian civilians feel strongly about East Timor, then the depth of feeling is even more pronounced among army officers, many of whom were blooded during Indonesia's 1975 invasion - and its subsequent occupation - of the half-island. According to sources, the military was furious when President B.J. Habibie offered East Timor the referendum in January without consulting the top brass. "Habibie was convinced that the ratio was at least 60-40 in favor of autonomy," says one army insider. "That fool believed it."

Given the inevitability of the referendum, the military may have decided to take matters into its own hands. Sources say that in the lead-up to the vote, members of the Kopassus special-forces group were sent into East Timor, where they recruited some 50,000 activists and provided the militias with at least 10,000 weapons, including military-issue M16s. The goal: to intimidate the populace into voting for integration. Now that the East Timorese have voted for independence, there is, according to Harold Crouch, an Australian expert on the Indonesian armed forces, a "sense of deep shame and humiliation within the army" for having failed, despite the passage of 24 years, to pacify and integrate East Timor. A diplomat notes: "There is massive denial and rage within the army. They simply cannot accept that they have lost."

While the military's role in the violence seems undeniable, it is less clear where the buck stops in the chain of command and how much control the army has over events in East Timor. Some speculate the military is fully in charge, pointing to the relative peacefulness of the polling day, after weeks of violence, as evidence that the brass can unleash and rein in the militias at will. Another view is that the chain of command has been broken and the violence is the result of soldiers at ground level going out of control. "Many of the 6,000 East Timorese troops have natural sympathies with the militias," says Said. "They have lost their country and are now fighting for their lives."

Western military analysts in Jakarta say Wiranto may be bowing to deep internal dissent within the ranks against civilian policy on East Timor. The general, a dark horse for the presidency, may also be trying to assure his political future. Military sources say Wiranto is resigned to losing East Timor but is still trying to score points at home by holding off on a U.N. peacekeeping force until November, when the People's Consultative Assembly meets to formalize - or reject - the separation.

In the meantime, Habibie's political career appears as good as over. On top of upsetting the military, he has pleased neither the nationalists nor the liberal-minded reformists with the way he has handled matters. Leading presidential contender Megawati Sukarnoputri, who opposes separation but has said she would respect the vote result, assailed the Habibie government: "On the one hand, it offers a referendum with appearance of a democratic policy, while on the other hand it exerts efforts to retain East Timor as part of the unified republic of Indonesia, by whatever means, including by letting violence drag on."

And barring a sudden (and unlikely) change of heart by the government or the military, the violence looks set to drag on. Speaking in the West Timorese capital of Kupang on Sept. 8, Dili's pro-Indonesia mayor, Mateus Haia, subjected the world to what was essentially blackmail when he said the rampage would continue as long as the U.N. - "the new colonialists" - remained in East Timor. He received his wish. Later that day, the U.N. announced that it would be closing its mission in Dili. With food supplies running out, said UNAMET spokesman David Wimhurst, the situation had become "untenable."

While Jakarta dithers, while the world wrings its hands, while the violence continues, some ponder the fallout from the affair. Onetime environment minister Sarwono Kusumaatmadja, a reformist formerly of the ruling Golkar party, feels that Indonesia has lost any chance of wooing East Timor back. "Don't expect East Timor to be back," he says. "Never." At the moment, though, most East Timorese are probably less concerned about independence than about just staying alive. In the words of one interpreter: "If UNAMET goes, we will all be killed." With over 1,000 already dead by one estimate, that would compound East Timor's tragedy - and Indonesia's shame.

- With additional reporting by Dewi Loveard / Jakarta, Alejandro Reyes / Auckland and Antonio Lopez / Manila

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