Subject: SMH: East Timor: Uncivil war
Date: Fri, 12 Mar 1999 18:38:01 -0500
From: "John M. Miller" <>

Received from Joyo:

Sydney Morning Herald 13/03/99

*East Timor: Uncivil war

The power struggle emerging in East Timor, amid the public clamour for independence from Indonesia, may yet become a civil war. LINDSAY MURDOCH and JOHN MARTINKUS report.

WHEN Indonesia's former President Soeharto, a devout Muslim, ordered the building of a statue of Christ the King at the eastern tip of Dili's harbour, he thought it would help put an end to rebellion in predominantly Catholic East Timor. But the 27-metre-high statue that dominates the skyline of the capital of the former Portuguese colony has become a symbol of Timorese resistance to Indonesia's brutal rule.

"If our people go to that place they often cry," says a Catholic priest, Father Domingo Soares.

Timorese on Sundays shun Soeharto's gift, preferring to cram Dili's stifling hot colonial-era churches.

It is standing room only in the oldest church, the waterfront Motael, and dozens of worshippers unable to squeeze inside are content to hear the priest's words relayed through speakers. The church has its own statue: an agonised Christ on one knee carrying his cross, which many Timorese see as symbolic of their own suffering and struggle for freedom.

Beneath Soeharto's statue, cobbled areas of worship in front of a chapel are empty, except for 12 black-clad Indonesian soldiers practising martial arts. They stare coldly at our driver, a former anti-Indonesian guerilla who had his hair burnt off during a torture session after his capture. "They are from Intel [an army intelligence unit]. Stay away from them, they are dangerous," he warns.

Fast forward into the new millennium. Qantas flights make their first Asian stop on the tiny tourist enclave of independent East Timor, just a few minutes by air from the Australian coast. Lobster and fine Portuguese wine are half the price of that in Sydney and Melbourne. Luxury resorts dot the unspoilt beaches. You can taste some of the best coffee or wander through restored mansions built during Portugal's 450 years of benign neglect until it abandoned the Timorese to their fate in 1975.

The "Nationalists United" government that took power after Indonesia abruptly left amid nationwide upheavals in early 2000 is preparing for a democratic election and polls show that the softly spoken former guerilla leader Xanana Gusmao is favoured to win re-election as president.

A forlorn dream?

Despite an endless cycle of increasing violence among independence supporters and other Timorese wanting to remain part of Indonesia, the rapid collapse of the territory's basic infrastructure, especially health and education, and the mass evacuation of key Indonesian traders and civil servants, East Timor is no longer a place of pervasive fear. It is almost certainly more dangerous than at any time in the past decade, especially for non-Timorese, mostly Muslim migrants, thousands of whom are fleeing ahead of what they believe will be a violent backlash against the ruthlessness of the Indonesian military over decades.

Some people even talk of the outbreak of a full-scale civil war and rumours are rife about an attack on Dili by pro-Indonesian militia and targeted assassinations. But the psychological climate has changed. Timorese no longer feel frightened to say what they think. Visitors to East Timor in the past have always been told there were "eyes and ears" everywhere. But now nobody seems to be taking notice.

The goons of Intel no longer drag people from their homes in the night and torture with electric shocks, cigarettes and pliers. Their dirty work is still being carried out by paid civilian militia but they are largely an undisciplined and untrained rabble under the command of regional strongmen who have reaped rewards over the years for their support of Jakarta's rule and do not want to see their corrupt fiefdoms disappear.

In far-away Jakarta, Soeharto's successor, Dr B.J. Habibie, has promised that East Timor's 850,000 people could form one of the world's smallest and poorest countries by January next year if East Timorese reject an offer of wide-ranging autonomy, fuelling a momentum towards independence that seems unstoppable. Expectations have been raised so high among activists who have fought for independence that if it is denied them, a bloodbath seems inevitable.

Nobody is denying in East Timor that given a free choice, a majority of Timorese would favour breaking away from Indonesia, although some of Dili's elite believe the territory would be better off accepting autonomy and allowing an emerging new, democratic Indonesia to take care of East Timor's foreign affairs and defence rather than becoming a tiny, insecure half-island nation heavily reliant on foreign aid.

ANTONIO da Costa, better known as "Muhuno", the 49-year-old bearded leader of anti-Indonesian Fretilin guerillas in the early 1990s, sits chain-smoking inDili's airport restaurant and talks with friends about the independent East Timor which, he says, is already assured. At the next table sit several Indonesian army officers, one of them wearing jungle fatigues. They take little notice of their former No1 enemy.

For the first time since Indonesian troops invaded East Timor in 1975 the leaders of anti-Indonesian groups, including the outlawed Fretilin, are regularly meeting openly at a two-storey colonial house on the outskirts of Dili. Just up the road Indonesian soldiers lounge under trees at a military base, sharpening their knives and looking bored.

"We have to adopt a process of reconciliation no matter how much revenge is in our hearts," says David Ximines, the 45-year-old spokesman for the leaders' umbrella group, the Timor National Resistance Council. Ximines is qualified to speak of revenge, having spent a total of 12 years in jail for his anti- Indonesian activities. His hands and genitals bear the scars of electric shocks.

High in the mountains of eastern Timor a squad of 200 anti-Indonesian guerillas - part of a force of up to 1,000 across East Timor - have become the unchallenged authority, mocking a demoralised and discredited Indonesian military apparently unwilling or incapable of attacking. No matter what the outcome of United Nations-sponsored talks under way in New York between Indonesia and Portugal, which resumed this week, the soldiers know most of them are leaving: one of the few known details of Jakarta's autonomy offer is that the military would be responsible only for the external defence of East Timor, dumping its long-hailed role in civilian affairs.

The guerillas have created new "liberated zones" where they are greeted with waves, laughter and food in villages reached only by foot, where there are no telephones, running water, electricity or any other basic infrastructure. These are among the world's most deprived people.

According to 44-year-old Sabica, the guerilla's regional commander, villagers' loyalty to their fight has never wavered, not even in the three years after 1978 when, he claims, "12 times a day the planes would come from Baucau ... we can't count the number of people who were killed" when the Indonesians tried to bomb the villagers into submission. Outside one house a twisted bomb casing hangs like a gong. "Don't leave a stain on the place where you are doing your duty," somebody has scrawled in Bahasa Indonesia.

Sabica, one of only 10 guerillas who have survived in the mountains since 1975, says: "This area has been calm since last May. We hear the Indonesian troops on the radio and they are very dispirited and very afraid in this area [because] they know how strong we are here."

Even in these mountains, beyond rivers swollen by the wet season and swept away Indonesian-built roads, the guerillas hear the orders of Xanana, who has called for restraint on all sides and has been included in peace talks while under house arrest in Jakarta.

But Sabica's boys are restless. When one of them hears by radio that four carloads of an anti-independence militia called "Live or Die With Integration" have arrived in the coastal town of Baccau, where there is a big Indonesian military garrison, he shoves a bullet into his rifle, naming it after them. The guerillas see the militia and others with names such as the "Red and White Iron" as weak forces in the pay of the Indonesia military, which many resistance leaders believe has not accepted the reality of a retreat from East Timor, where thousands of soldiers have died.

But Sabica says that if the militia keep intimidating and attacking people in towns and villages, forcing thousands to be refugees, particularly near the border with West Timor, "we don't know how long we can stop our people from responding ... we will have to do something if it continues."

In Dili and other towns there are signs of escalating trouble. At night pro- independence vigilantes block off their suburbs and wait in the dark for the arrival of pro-Indonesian militia who roam the streets, often opening fire at random.

The day before Australia's ambassador in Indonesia, Mr John McCarthy, arrived in Dili for a two-day visit a volley of shots rang out outside the hotel where he stayed (militia commanders vowed to kill an Australian because the Howard Government changed its policy on East Timor, but they later backed away from the threat after talks with McCarthy).

The clan of 65-year-old Lorenso Smeth has lived in the now ramshackle former Australian consulate in Dili since Canberra abandoned it in 1971. Although he thinks the 13 families living there may have to move if Australia wants to reopen it soon, as the Habibie Government has promised to allow, Smeth thinks the arrival of foreigners will help protect them. Smeth, like many other Timorese, has long been a card-carrying member of Soeharto's party, Golkar, and fears revenge attacks from resistance supporters. "Tell your people to come, please come," he says.

Smeth's family has hidden the gold Golkar flag they used to fly at the front of the building, but unlike thousands of Indonesian migrant families who are packing up and leaving, the Smeth clan has nowhere else to go.

"East Timor is a mess," says Florentino Sarmento, the Dili representative of the Jakarta-appointed National Human Rights Commission. "The international community only see Xanana as a freedom fighter ... they don't see the atrocities that have occurred, for which he must remain responsible."

Along the Dili waterfront, outdoor restaurants serving fresh lobster, squad and fish have closed. Their Indonesian owners have packed up and left East Timor along with badly needed doctors, teachers and civil servants, abandoning the territory to a humanitarian crisis. Probably none of them will ever return.

John Peira, a hotel waiter, has seen a lot of suffering in his 56 years. He remembers with sorrow the last meal - it was fried potatoes and salad - that he served to the Australian journalist Roger East before he was machine-gunned on Dili's wharf by invading Indonesian soldiers in 1975. "I don't like the way things look for the future," he says.

In the mountains above Dili, vandals have desecrated a memorial built to thank "the Portuguese" who helped Australians fight the Japanese during World War II. They appear to have tried to chisel out the marble plaque, which Indonesian authorities in Dili have never liked because it refers to the Timorese as Portuguese. Down at the harbour, Soeharto's statue has also been desecrated. Somebody has scrawled at Christ's feet: "We never forget."

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