East Timor: Army's Plot and A Human Tragedy.

By: Aboeprijadi Santoso

On August 30, 1999, after almost 24 years military occupation, the people of East Timor have finally enacted their rights to self-determination in a referendum held by the United Nations. They overwhelmingly chose to reject autonomy under Indonesia, thus opting for independence.

But, soon as that result was announced on Sept. 4, a human tragedy took place. Some five thousands members of militia units, joined and backed by the Indonesian military, took their anger into the streets. The violence sent hundreds of thousands fleeing from their homes and leaving scores dead. The savagery took place under the guidance and protection of the army's special troops. This state terror becomes Indonesia's greatest shame in 1999.

The pro-Jakarta militia's acted at will persecuting youth, students, pro- independence leaders, the clergy and the common people. A great number of people became victims of unlawful killings or had to run for safety. Hundreds of thousands fled to the hills around capital Dili and to the eastern region as the militia's started to loot the shops, and destroyed and burned the city. Within a few weeks the barbaric scorched earth operation has leveled a number of towns - from Dili, Manatuto, Baucau to Los Palos and to Maliana. In the western region, another hundreds of thousands were forced to join public and military vehicles and transported to West Timor, part of the Indonesian province of NTT (Eastern Nusa Tenggara).


As a result, some two thousands or so people are dead or missing. (UN early report of 7.000 deaths may be exaggerated). Almost half of the total population of East Timor of 780.000, is displaced. Around two hundreds of thousands people stayed in the mountain for weeks without foods. As the multinational troops INTERFET arrived on Sept.20, the refugees started to come down and received assistance.

Most worrying is the fate of another two hundreds of thousands people displaced in the western regions. Some departed freely (since March), but most were forced to leave their homes very recently by the militia's, offered free transport organized by the authorities, and remain ever since surrounded by these rogue elements in camps mainly in and near Atambua and Kupang, in NTT. With their ID cards taken by the militia's, they can be easily deported to other Indonesian provinces at any time. In fact, some have already become "transmigrates" in Flores, Irian Jaya and Ujung Pandang, Celebes. The transmigration minister plans to evacuate at least half of them to elsewhere in Indonesia.

The UN organization for refugees UNHCR has inspected the refugee camps in both regions, but the western camps are not freely accessible due to the presence of the army and militia's. It should be assumed that most wish to return home, but without honest cooperation of the authorities, it is almost impossible for any international relied agency to guarantee their safety and re-evacuate them safely to East Timor.

In effect, they become hostages of Jakarta's plan. Any attempt by the authorities to force them to stay in NTT or to be transported to Flores, the Molucca's or Irian, or even to return home, may be part of future political scenario's to challenge the result of the votes and the prospect of peace in East Timor.

Another category deserving public concerns is East Timorese students and workers in Indonesia, in particular in Java and Bali. They too face some danger as the army intelligence and pro-Jakarta militias are also active in Indonesian cities to persecute pro-independence symphatisers. Two Timorese have been found dead and others injured near Jakarta. Unlike the refugees in East Timor and NTT, these students and workers are not taken care by the UNHCR and do not therefore acquire UNHCR-ID cards.


The issue of East Timor - a former Portuguese colony invaded by the Indonesian army in 1975 - became a greater burden as the Habibie government took over the state power from Soeharto and had to tackle the economic and credibility crises. When the president on Jan. 27 took the world by surprise by offering independence as second option next to autonomy, the army leaders were shocked and hurt. They only got two days to response, and their answer was officially 'yes', but the issue was too sensitive to take this at face value. Their careers (like those of most Indonesian generals), the death of tens of thousands Indonesian soldiers, the army's worst military performance and its greatest human rights atrocities - all of these were associated with the war in East Timor. East Timor has become the Achilles heel of the Indonesian military as its personal pride, esprit de corps and material interests are at stake.

Even prior to the new policy, some army officers had started to reactivate and organize armies of thugs to consolidate the pro-Indonesia forces in East Timor. They privately resisted the second option, but openly colluded with the militias. They trained, armed and financed them. No militias' members had been arrested in spite of their violent actions since March. But the Habibie government and the Indonesian public were not really aware of the magnitude of the army's disobedience and insubordination, which only grew as the ballot day drew closer. By July, these armed local gangs of mostly illiterate, drunken and unemployed youth were already active in thirteen districts and terrorized the population. These state-sponsored warlords were ready to challenge and disrupt the implementation of the vote should the people choose for independence - which is indeed what subsequently happened.

Under the secret guidance and participation of (ex) members of the special troops - Kopassus - the pro-Jakarta militia's systematically carried out their job in an operation similar to the US Phoenix mission against the Vietnamese peasants and the Contras violent campaign in Nicaragua. Once the local government collapsed, families of army and police were moved to Kupang and Jakarta officials returned home - leaving only few foreign journalists and UNAMET staff in Dili - the militia's started to harass the refugees. The great terror campaign, which began only two days after the results of the ballot was announced, on Sept. 6, was directed against students, pro-independence activists and the Catholic clergy. The operation involved forced evacuation, unlawful killings, rapes, and the destruction of public and private properties. The INTERFET troops came only two weeks later, too late to save many lives.

Not A Civil War

The army unit most often associated with killing and torture is S.G.I., the army intelligence task force formed by Kopassus units led by Soeharto's son in law, Prabowo Soebijanto, in 1986. The S.G.I., which only exists in East Timor, runs a hierarchy parallel to the organic local command, with a direct authority over some army units. The notorious paramilitary units, authorized by the SGI in early nineties, are the forerunners of the present militia's operating since March, which are recruited from East Timorese soldiers as well as West Timorese and other Indonesians.

As early as Oct. or Nov. 1998, some officers in Jakarta have reportedly drawn two plans to "rescue" East Timor. The so-called "Plan A" points to the build up of armed militia's to strengthen the pro-integration force to win the ballot, and "Plan B" should recover East Timor if Jakarta looses the ballot, by eliminating the CNRT leaders and destroying public utilities. Except the latter, the devastation of Dili and other towns, both plans have failed to a great extent.

Another Jakarta plan, the so-called "Garnadi Document", is a contingency one, drawn up only a month before the ballot, which predicts that the pro- autonomy will loose the vote. In that case, it emphasizes, Jakarta should quickly prepare mass evacuations and refugee accommodations in NTT and, "if necessary", destroy the infrastructure built by Indonesia. While annulling the ballot's result, if that is its objective, is obviously foolish, this plan may be part of some future scenario's to destabilize independent East Timor from the NTT borders.

Once their links with the army are cut, the militia units will obviously be powerless. If that happens, some officers have reportedly claimed, the army will risk a serious internal conflict, if not war. Instead of solving their own issues, the Indonesian army leaders punished the East Timorese for their resistance, and blamed them for the problems. In reality, however, there has never been a civil war among East Timorese ("pro-autonomy against anti-autonomy camps") as the government in Jakarta and some Indonesian media repeatedly claimed. It is a war of some army units and militia's against the people of East Timor, whose only 'sin' was to have humiliated the Indonesian army by massively voting for independence.

No more impunity

The September tragedy in East Timor is essentially a replay of 1965 and 1975 bloodbaths. In 1965 the army persecuted and killed hundreds of thousands people who were allegedly communists; in 1975 they did the same to East Timorese many of whom supported the independence movement Fretilin. At the height of the Cold War era in the sixties and seventies, the West applauded, if secretly, Jakarta, and the perpetrators enjoyed impunity. 

Now, however, the international community does not support Jakarta, and the UN High Commissariat for Human Rights is ready to investigate the atrocities, which, if the UN Security Council agrees, may bring about an international East Timor tribunal to prosecute the Indonesian generals and the militias' members.

If that happens, it will be a great lesson, which may improve the political climate and human rights awareness in Indonesia.

@ The writer is a journalist with Radio Netherlands and witnessed recent events in East Timor, Aug.17 to Sept. 6, 1999.