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November 30, 2000

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Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story

SEPTEMBER 17, 1999 VOL. 25 NO. 37

Murderous Puppets
Fueled by army support and old grudges, East Timor's militias are sowing death and hate

East Timor slides into anarchy and Jakarta comes under fire from the international community

Also under the gun

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

It is a by-now familiar scene in East Timor. A grim Timorese wearing a red-and-white headband and armed with a rifle and machete waved our car through the checkpoint into Hera, a seaside town 14 km east of Dili where the Aitarak militia has taken over. The streets are deserted. Most of the residents have fled. Plumes of smoke rise from several houses. At further checkpoints, children stand guard armed with home-made weapons, some of them wearing the black T-shirts that mark Aitarak, hanging out with their uncles and elder brothers. One of the adults says he is from Kupang in Indonesian West Timor. Another admits to being from Flores, a different island altogether. At yet another checkpoint, men in tattered military-style uniforms are speaking into walkie-talkies. One of them stands out - tall, muscular, with a Javanese accent. "Kopassus," the driver whispers, naming the army's special forces. The officer glances up and says, "Go."

Who are the militia that are terrorizing East Timor? They say they are patriots fighting to protect themselves from pro-independence forces. "I am a son of East Timor, but also a son of Indonesia," says Eurico Guterres, the 27-year-old leader of Aitarak in Dili. "I will fight to defend the 21% who voted to remain part of Indonesia." But their history and actions indicate that these men are creatures of Indonesia's military occupation. "Police, army, intelligence, militia, they are all the same," says a priest in the highlands village of Balibo, where militia members went door to door after the Aug. 30 ballot asking how each family voted, reporting their findings to the police. An internal U.N. report has documented hundreds of cases of police and military collaboration with militias. Their goal ahead of the poll was obvious: To swing the vote against independence. Now, as the violence mounts, it is unclear what their goal is beyond destroying what they cannot have - and whether anybody has the will and the power to stop them.

Most of the 13 major militias sprang into being around the beginning of the year, when momentum for a referendum on independence in East Timor was picking up. But they have their roots in organizations set up after the Indonesian invasion of East Timor in 1975 to enhance social control and fight the Fretilin independence movement. Many leaders are alumni of the Garda Paksi, a Kopassus-organized civilian guard corps active since the early 1990s. Some are also from families linked to pro-colonial or pro-Jakarta parties who clashed with Fretilin before the Indonesian takeover, who now fear retribution from their old foe. "We are just protecting our homes," says Cancio Lopes, head of the Mahindi militia. As for the foot soldiers, many are drawn from the down and out. Some are attracted by army-provided money - pay of $12 to $32 a month goes a long way in depressed East Timor. Some are given a choice - join or die. "I joined out of fear and terror," says Alfonso da Silva, a member of Aitarak. Many others are recruited in West Timor or further afield, non-locals more likely to follow orders to brutalize local villagers. And army troops have been seen putting on militia colors and joining attacks.

But if the militia and their military sponsors thought their intimidation would bind East Timor closer to Indonesia, they were wrong. "The militia attacks made my parish more determined than ever to fight back in the ballot," says Joao da Silva, a priest in a suburb of Dili. Thwarted at the ballot box, they have embarked on a rampage that has killed hundreds and forced thousands to flee their homes. Some militia leaders may be hoping to split the territory, keeping western districts a part of Indonesia. Others talk of forcing a new vote. Some pro-independence leaders fear the military wants to force out a third of the population and bring in new settlers. The only certain prospect seems to be of more violence. "We have to work together, but if that can't be done and the international community does not review the [vote] process, we are ready to destroy everything," Herminio da Silva da Costa, a militia official, told Agence France-Presse in Kupang. "We'll burn everything."

And no one seems ready to stop them. To start with, no one appears to be in command. The militia claim an umbrella organization led by Joao Tavares, a long-time pro-Indonesia activist who heads the Halilintar group. Actual control was said to be in the hands of the local military regiment commander, Col. Tono Suratman, but he was replaced just before the vote. And whether local commanders are getting their orders from armed forces chief Gen. Wiranto in Jakarta, from the semi-independent fiefdom of Kopassus or from other factions is not known. The military also will be reluctant to crack down hard on its creatures. "[The militia] was formed by the [military] to help us fight the Fretilin," retired major general Theo Syafei, a former commander overseeing East Timor, told The Jakarta Post. "They would not hurt the militia, who are like their distant brothers." But there are cracks within militia ranks. Some groups are helping Fretilin escort refugees to the hills. One leader is hinting he may defect. Given their dependence on military support, the militia could have a hard time surviving if that support weakens. "The Timorese component of the militia is minimal," says a diplomat in Dili. "If the army withdrew, the militia would disappear overnight." But the destruction, fear and hatred they are sowing now will take years to fade.
- With additional reporting by Dewi Loveard / Jakarta and Yenni Kwok / Hong Kong

This edition's table of contents | Asiaweek home



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COVER: President Joseph Estrada gives in to the chanting crowds on the streets of Manila and agrees to make room for his Vice President

THAILAND: Twin teenage warriors turn themselves in to Bangkok officials

CHINA: Despite official vilification, hip Chinese dig Lamaist culture

PHOTO ESSAY: Estrada Calls Snap Election

WEB-ONLY INTERVIEW: Jimmy Lai on feeling lucky -- and why he's committed to the island state


COVER: The DoCoMo generation - Japan's leading mobile phone company goes global

Bandwidth Boom: Racing to wire - how underseas cable systems may yet fall short

TAIWAN: Party intrigues add to Chen Shui-bian's woes

JAPAN: Japan's ruling party crushes a rebel ž at a cost

SINGAPORE: Singaporeans need to have more babies. But success breeds selfishness

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