Subject: Jane's: FALINTIL: guerrilla army to professional force

Jane's Intelligence Review July 1, 2000 ASIA; Vol. 12; No. 7 FALINTIL: guerrilla army to professional force

Tom Fawthrop

Political expediency persuaded the UN mission in East Timor to revoke its original requirement to disarm FALINTIL, the army of the pro-independence rebel group Fretilin, but what of its future status?

SINCE THE beginning of the year, FALINTIL - the army of the Revolutionary Front for an Independent East Timor (FRETILIN) - has put increasing political pressure on the UN Transitional Authority in East Timor (UNTAET). Their demands range from the granting of official status, to involvement in the on-going peacekeeping operation and the eventual formation of a professional army of the independent republic.

UNTAET and UN peacekeeping headquarters in New York are undecided as to how to deal with FALINTIL's demands, as well as the prime issue of the future security needs of an independent state of East Timor. The UN mandate for East Timor does not mention FALINTIL, and authorises peacekeepers to 'disarm all irregular forces'. Although primarily directed at the Indonesian Army-backed militias that inflicted such chaos on the territory last September, this directive also includes FALINTIL.

Whether FALINTIL constitutes a legally recognised army that resisted the 1975 Indonesian invasion (the Portuguese view), a disciplined guerrilla movement or some kind of 'irregular force', is at the heart of UN confusion.

Many of the surviving FALINTIL guerrilla commanders were officers in the colonial army of the Portuguese garrison in East Timor. After the 1974 revolution in Portugal (when its colonies in Africa and East Timor gained independence) and the 1975 election in East Timor, the pro-independence movement, FRETILIN, formed a government. Most of the Timorese soldiers from the Portuguese garrison became the backbone of the FRETILIN army.

Regarding the FRETILIN government as 'dangerously leftist', the regime of Indonesian President Suharto invaded in December 1975. This was condemned by the UN General Assembly with a series of resolutions that upheld East Timor as a Portuguese administrative territory engaged in the unfinished process of decolonisation.

Although FALINTIL claimed that it was the legally-constituted army formed in 1975, and has as such rejected labels such as 'rebels' or 'insurgents', it was forced to withdraw to the jungles and mountains of East Timor by the overwhelming force of Indonesian aggression.

Cut off in the remote jungles and mountains of East Timor, FALINTIL had no materiel support from abroad. Apart from their old Portuguese equipment, all guns, ammunition and uniforms came from ambushing Indonesian forces. Their 24-year survival helped to keep the question of independence on the international agenda.

After the 5 May 1999 agreement signed between Indonesia, Portugal and the UN to peacefully settle the East Timor conflict through a referendum, FALINTIL adopted a unilateral ceasefire and complied with the UN plan for the cantonment of all military forces. This was to prove one-sided as the Indonesian Army and the militias refused to comply with the UN's plan.

While under house arrest in Jakarta, commander-in-chief of FALINTIL Xanana Gusmao ordered his forces to exercise self-restraint in the face of provocation from other Indonesian-backed militias after the results of the referendum were announced on 4 September 1999. Gusmao calculated that any move by FALINTIL forces to abandon their four cantonment zones would be used by the Indonesian Army as a pretext to pour more troops into East Timor and once again engage in all-out war, thereby nullifying the referendum verdict. Despite FRETILIN's restraint, INTERFET still attempted to disarm Gusmao's forces.

Following negotiations between the INTERFET commander, Australian General Peter Cosgrove and FALINTIL commanders, INTERFET retreated from further attempts to disarm the guerrilla army on the understanding that FALINTIL would continue to adhere to maintaining their weapons in the cantonment zone.

FALINTIL believes that the cantonment policy, in effect since July 1999, cannot continue indefinitely. FALINTIL's deputy-chief of staff Commander Lere Anan Timor complained that they are being excluded from the transition process; Ana Gomez, the Portuguese ambassador in Jakarta warned that: "It is very dangerous to leave FALINTIL out there in limbo and very unjust. The UN should find a way to include FALINTIL in their peacekeeping operations."

Pressures were building in March for the follow-on peacekeeping force, the UN Transitional Authority in East Timor (UNTAET), to seriously address FALINTIL's demands and to consider possibilities for taking them out of cantonment and into the peacekeeping framework. Brainstorming sessions were convened in Dili, bringing together UN peacekeeping officers, UN political advisors, military observers and civilian police.

According to the UN's chief administrator in Dili, Sergio Vieira de Mello, speaking in March: "We were counting on the discipline of FALINTIL and I pay tribute to their patience." He added that UNTAET faces a dilemma because the UN Security Council (UNSC) resolution 1,272, which provided the mandate for governing East Timor, "makes no mention of FALINTIL and does not cover setting up a new army".

De Mello acknowledged FALINTIL's positive role as a stabilising force in society and conceded that " FALINTIL could have a very useful and possibly essential role in providing intelligence". He argued, however, that it would be impossible to convince the UNSC to permit them to carry their arms outside of the cantonment area.

By the end of April, UNTAET reported that firm recommendations had been sent to UN headquarters to "recognise FALINTIL's role in the past, the discipline with which they carried out their duties last year and also recognise that a part of FALINTIL will make up the backbone of the security forces in East Timor".

In a landmark decision, the UN agreed in May that FALINTIL should work alongside UN peacekeepers as liaison officers. Four senior FALINTIL officers will be integrated into the three UN military sectors, and the headquarters command centre in Dili. There are now 10 FALINTIL officers in the UN peacekeeping force, three attached to each military sector and one to Dili HQ. They advise the UN on security matters, especially the militias and provide community liaison.

For the first time, UN peacekeeping spokesman in Dili, Colonel Brynjar Nymo acknowledged: "We cannot be seen to leave East Timor in a total security vacuum. They need to be able to start and develop their future security force, and FALINTIL could be the core of this group."

It is assumed that the four East Timorese liaison officers will assist the UN mission with intelligence reports, and help to identify militia infiltrators and saboteurs sent from West Timor to disrupt East Timor's development process.

FALINTIL offered 800 fighters for peacekeeping duties. Although this proposal has not been accepted, various options are still under consideration. A senior UN military observer commented that: " FALINTIL can only carry arms outside a cantonment area if they are given some de facto regular status."

FALINTIL's new status as liaison officers, and their future role as the core of a new defence force is far from clear. De Mello the UN chief in Dili, has sought further clarification from the UN in New York about their official status, which could have a critical bearing on the further integration of FALINTIL members at the operational level. UN military observers feel that FALINTIL fighters must accept major reorientation before they become part of a professional army within a democracy.

July Menu
World Leaders Contact List
Human Rights Violations in East Timor
Main Postings Menu

Note: For those who would like to fax "the powers that be" - CallCenter V3.5.8, is a Native 32-bit Voice Telephony software application integrated with fax and data communications... and it's free of charge! Download from