ISSN #1088-8136

Vol. 6, No. 2
Summer 2000

CONTENTS: Summer 2000 Estafeta

John Sayles on East & West Timor

Keeping up the Pressure

La’o Hamutuk

Election 2000

Constancio Pinto

Helping East Timor's Grassroots

West Papua

Short Takes

back issues

ETAN Home Page


East Timor Enters Reconstruction Era: 
A Work in Progress

by John Sayles

“Welcome,” reads the banner hung in the sauna-like airport lobby in Dili, East Timor, “to the World’s Most Recent Nation” (see photo). This newly independent half-island has suffered invasions by the Portuguese, the Japanese, the Indonesians, and most recently by a well-meaning horde of international relief agencies. I passed through Dili at the end of April after visiting refugee camps scattered within neighboring West Timor and talking with concerned parties of various backgrounds in Jakarta as part of a delegation examining the plight of refugees generated by September’s murder and scorched-earth campaign. With me were a trio of congressional staffers, a graduate student expert in Indonesian affairs and a representative from the East Timor Action Network (ETAN). We spoke with relief workers, rights activists, bishops, colonels, governors, ambassadors, and mass murderers in an attempt to learn if the bleeding had ended and the healing begun. 

We roll through the dust-choked streets of Dili. Large, bristly hogs strut through the endless reconstruction sites — survivors. Water buffalo, still used to work the rice fields here, were gunned down systematically in the militias’ retreat. 

“The World Bank sent a representative down,” grumbles an American volunteer we meet with. “Listens to the long list of immediate crises we’re facing here — no medicine, no doctors, no anything — then launches into this speech about how important it is to make sure health care is privatized. Before it can be privatized it has to exist.”

Into the West

The camps in West Timor are unusual in that a large percentage of the original refugees did not flee there willingly but were kidnapped — forced at gunpoint onto ships, planes, and trucks, and dumped in Indonesian territory as the TNI and their militias destroyed East Timor. And once UN peacekeeping forces were allowed into East Timor, these unfortunate people were joined by the very people who’d sent them packing in the first place, the militias and demobilized East Timorese who’d served in TNI battalions. The first months were punctuated by militias murdering political enemies and openly training. Decapitated bodies were found miles away. UN and other aid workers were threatened upon entering the camps, delivery of health services was difficult, and any sort of reliable census or rapid repatriation impossible. The bulk of refugees became hostages to the pro-integration militias. People have managed to return home though, some on their own, most through the efforts of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Nearly 150,000 had gone back by the time our delegation arrived (more than 100,000 still remain). What became clear from source after source, however, was that tens of thousands more would return if militia ringleaders were taken out of the camps, and that the current military leadership in the area was not willing to do this. 

“[The TNI is] still recruiting new militia and training them,” one West Timorese activist tells us. “Only now they put them in TNI uniforms and drill them with the regulars. Never more than 15 at a time. Five leave and another five go in, so you never see a big concentration of people.” 

“What a fiasco,” says the nervous UN official who whisks us through one of the largest camps in West Timor, near Kupang. He isn’t referring to the operation of the camp, but to the sudden escort of police following us through the rows of tents and metal-roofed huts. “Usually they’re afraid to come in here. It’s the TNI [Indonesia regular army] who control security here.” 

The TNI colonel in charge of all camps in West Timor had assured us the day before that his soldiers were only used in emergencies and that it was the local police actually keeping order. 

The camp is like a poor village grown huge — no fences marking its boundaries, just mud and barefoot kids, a tentative stringing of electrical wire, and every so often the large round water tanks that are refilled from trucks every day. Slight variations on the basic short-haired, famine-ribbed, rat-tailed Third World Dog root for scraps all around us. The feeling is not desperate, only tense and a bit aimless — too many people crowded together with nothing to do and no clear end in sight. 

“The rains have lasted longer this year,” a doctor treating refugees in West Timor tells us. “This makes the respiratory problems even worse. We can’t really treat TB in this situation. But when the rains stop and the puddles have a chance to settle, the malaria will start up again. Last season we lost at least 600, most of them children.” 

We are surrounded by silent, sullen militia members in a camp near the border. “No meetings are allowed,” our colonel reassured us, but the summit we walked in on had been going on for two days. Hard rain drums on the metal roof overhead as lower-ranking men take over food distribution in the background. The leader of the local militias is passionate as he speaks in the carefully wrought phrases of a political information officer. “This is a time for reconciliation,” he begins, “not for justice. My troops want a peaceful transition, but of course they are willing to fight for their rights.” He indicates that any negotiations with his group should be preceded by granting them a secure area of land in East Timor. This is a refrain we hear a few times — because 20% voted against independence, they should get 20% of the country. “We have no weapons,” he continues. “Of course I can’t speak for everybody.” 

The most common attitude toward East Timor’s referendum I encountered among Indonesians was suspicion that it had been rigged by sinister international powers — something akin to what you heard in 1960s Mississippi about “our colored” being stirred up by “outside agitators.” The people who seemed to accept, if not celebrate, the new nation most pragmatically were in West Timor. Rather than fearing a foreign power next door, they worried about the possible permanent dumping of pro-integration militias and refugees in their territory. This is not paranoia. Whether the change is viewed as positive or negative, Miami has clearly never been the same after the Cuban revolution and the subsequent arrival of exiles. The West Timorese don’t want to become a staging area for raids into the east. 

East Timor remains a work in progress. Hopes to extradite and try militia leaders for human-rights violations are made speculative at best by the lack of a judicial system. Justices, prosecutors, and defense lawyers will have to be trained. The older, exiled professional class has begun to return, but their long absence and advocacy of Portuguese as the official language alienates them from the masses. Resentment over the slow pace of recovery, inequity between salaries for international aid workers and those few East Timorese who have found jobs, ethnic and class differences continue to cause tension. The UN transitional authority will be in place for a long time. 

It is vital for both East Timor and Indonesia that some sort of trials take place, and inevitable that some high-ranking TNI officers are implicated in the post-referendum murders. But it is equally important that these trials proceed with regard to rule of law. We should not be surprised if some of the worst perpetrators walk in this highly charged political situation. But better an honest process that leaves a couple of fish unfried than an autocratic sacrifice of a few colonels to protect business as usual. 

[Editor’s note: in ETAN staffer Karen Orenstein’s report on the delegation, she recommended support for an international tribunal on East Timor, pointing out that many Indonesian NGO leaders have lost faith in the Indonesian process and now see such a tribunal as the only alternative.] 

Indonesia is the fourth most populous country in the world. Governing it democratically is a near-impossible challenge that calls for international support. It is important that the U.S. continue to suspend military sales and training (and by extension, approval) from the TNI. Military reform will be slow in Indonesia; resumption of arms sales should wait until lasting reform is apparent. East Timor’s development as a viable nation will be equally slow. They need everything but spirit. During our late adventure in the Gulf, restoring royalty to Kuwait, George Bush talked a lot about doing “the hard work of democracy,” which added in no small way to the cynicism of the young people I know. What has to happen next in Timor, East and West, is the actual hard work of democracy. If we in the West are to sell that concept without cynicism, we had better care about what happens to people in places like East Timor.

In April, writer/director John Sayles participated in an ETAN-organized delegation to East Timor, West Timor, and Jakarta. 

ETAN Washington Organizer Karen Orenstein’s report on the group’s findings, and related news articles, are available on the web at or on paper from ETAN’s Washington DC or White Plains offices. A longer version of this article appeared in the Austin Chronicle.