Subject: FEER: Indonesian military looks set to sour independence plans
From: "John M. Miller" <>

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Far Eastern Economic Review February 18, 1999

*East Timor Up in Arms

Indonesian military looks set to sour independence plans
By Dan Murphy in Barro Pite, East Timor

Martinho Fernandes stands four-square like an ageing middleweight, takes a pull on his beer and declares that he doesn't want to fight--but will if he feels he has to. And he may get that feeling. The 52-year-old civil servant leads a group of East Timorese who favour integration with Indonesia. The prospect of a fast Indonesian withdrawal from the territory fills Fernandes with foreboding.

He has the look of a man who is not to be trifled with, starting with his thick build, down to the rough tattoo of a naked woman on his left forearm. He keeps a flak jacket hanging on his bedroom wall and a rifle in his closet--both mementoes of his days as a Portuguese soldier. Across from his bed is a clock sporting the Indonesian special forces, or Kopassus, logo of red beret, mirrored sunglasses and hunting knife.

"Fretilin is still armed," he explains, referring to the independence group that has waged a guerrilla action against Indonesia since shortly after it invaded the former Portuguese territory in 1975. "If they put down their weapons, we won't need weapons. But as long as they have them, and the military is no longer standing between us, it's safer for everybody to put guns in our hands."

Like a lot of people, he predicts dire consequences if independence comes without substantial preparation. "If Indonesia lets us go immediately, there will be war."

There's no doubt the government is prepared to let East Timor go. On January 27, in an unexpected turn, Indonesia said it would consider leaving the territory if East Timor rejects a plan that would give it more autonomy. Under the autonomy proposal, the territory would gain more control over its finances and government while remaining part of Indonesia; rejection would lead to swift independence. Just 12 days later, however, in talks with Portugal at the United Nations' headquarters in New York, Indonesia would not agree to allow the East Timorese to vote on their future. A referendum, it said, would lead to a civil war.

So far, it's unclear what mechanism will be used to determine East Timor's fate. But judging by the mood on the ground, most East Timorese would choose independence, with Fretilin almost certain to come to power.

That frightens the significant minority of people who have stood with Indonesia. They have benefited handsomely under Indonesian rule and have everything to lose. Many of them fought Fretilin in the civil war that erupted before the Indonesian invasion and fear being at the mercy of their old enemies.

Those fears aside, the key variable for peace will be the behaviour of the Indonesian military in the coming months. The armed forces, or Abri, have had a free hand in the territory since the invasion: Intelligence operatives have penetrated most segments of society and the military has a record of using civilians to sow fear or intimidate citizens into supporting Indonesia.

Given that track record, many East Timorese fear the military will play on existing divisions to undermine the independence process. Salvador Soares, a member of parliament and editor of The Voice of East Timor newspaper, says Abri has invested too much time and blood in the region to walk away quietly. The government threatened this week to remove Soares from the legislature for his views.

However, he speaks for many who have grown alarmed by the military's recruitment and training of pro-integration civilian guards, or Wanra, in the past two months--a recruitment drive that was boosted by 1,000 new entrants in early February. The military has no pretensions to arming anybody but pro- integrationists, and acknowledges that part of its intention is to help them protect themselves against what it calls "terrorists." But for the most part, the East Timor military command and the central government insist the new militia are part of a national programme to provide extra security during the country's June general election.

Though there have long been informal and armed pro-integration groups (Fernandes is the leader of one) they bear little resemblance to the Wanra. The new recruits are younger and hotter-headed and, in some cases at least, sport modern M-16 rifles. They have already killed, most recently slaying four men in the town of Ainaro. A Western diplomat in Jakarta worries that "they're little more than thugs." In a separate incident, as many as 6,000 people fled their villages to take refuge in the town of Suai at the end of January after what independence activists say was a Wanra attack.

Many residents fret that the Wanra have been mustered to limit East Timor's chances of a peaceful transition. The military dismisses the accusations. "Abri adheres to human rights and sticks to central-government policy. Our role is to protect the people," says Col. Mudjiono, Abri's second in command on the ground. He says that reductions in military staffing have made it harder to protect everyone, though, and admits 100 rifles were distributed to integrationists in January to even the odds between them and Fretilin guerrillas.

Independence supporters and Catholic leaders like Nobel Peace Prize winner Bishop Carlos Felipe Ximenes Belo don't buy the self-defence line, pointing out that the larger, better-equipped Indonesian military is more than a match for Fretilin. "What are the professional soldiers doing? What are they getting paid for?" Belo complains. "In 15 years here, I've never heard of Fretilin raiding a village and causing 6,000 people to flee. Yet, the moment the Wanra are formed, 6,000 had to flee."

The military says the Wanra weren't responsible for the exodus from Suai and says the Ainaro killings were an act of self-defence against a raid by Fretilin fighters, who it accuses of "terrorizing" the local populace. "People have to protect themselves," Mudjiono says, adding that Abri reclaimed the weapons after the shootings. Villagers from Ainaro disagree. They say the killings were unprovoked.

Fernandes is no thug but he does support the general idea of arming civilians, using his personal history to illustrate why. He joined Apodeti, a small party that favoured integration with Indonesia (and had significant Indonesian backing) in 1974. He says his reasons were practical and that Indonesia promised--and delivered--a much better life to the territory after 450 years under Portugal, something he doesn't think the poor region of 830,000 could have done on its own. "We had nothing; the people lived on dirt floors," he says. "Now people have permanent homes, some even have cars! Under the Portuguese, no one even had a horse."

He says he was jailed by Fretilin for about six months in 1975 for his political views, and subject to periodic harassment until 1977, when Fretilin lost control of the region around the town of Wikeke, where he grew up.

Fernandes put his military skills to work, acting as a guide and all-round assistant to Kopassus as they hunted independence fighters across the island. Kopassus developed a reputation for its own brand of brutality, often executing prisoners out of hand and dabbling in so-called psychological operations. Though the special forces are a particularly hated element of Indonesian rule, Fernandes is unapologetic, saying it was war on all sides and that he was proud to be with them. "They're the best soldiers the army has. The rest never wanted to work." Now he says he wants to give reconciliation a shot--but he adds that he won't be able to trust Fretilin as long as it remains armed.

Among the military's victims was the father of Francisco Gusmao, a relation of jailed Fretilin leader Xanana Gusmao. When Francisco was five, he watched as his father was executed by an Indonesian soldier who cut his throat. Fernandes later adopted the boy. Francisco, now 26, says he has been pro-independence ever since his father's death--but that he and his adoptive father get along well.

Ironically, their relationship illustrates one of the things peace has got going for it. As in Belfast or Jerusalem, there is a tangle of tragic histories that many people struggle to put behind them. But the key difference from those troubled cities is that East Timor's divide doesn't break down on religious or tribal lines. In Dili, the lines between the two camps are crossed every day, with political opponents attending church together, doing business together and occasionally living together.

Though many in East Timor are clinging to hopes that those communal ties will help prevent more bloodletting as they take their first steps towards independence, it's clear the province's short-term stability is in Abri's hands. After 23 years of well-documented extra-judicial killings and torture by the army, the local population isn't relying on its good faith.

"After 23 years of abuse, they have a moral responsibility to see that the transition is peaceful," says Francisco Gueterres, a politics professor at East Timor University who's trying to promote reconciliation. "But will they?"

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