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East Timor vote threatened by terror

Special to the National Catholic Reporter
Jakarta, Indonesia
Dili, East Timor

Dili, the capital of East Timor, is under de facto siege, held hostage by marauding thugs armed with traditional knives, machetes and guns supplied by the Indonesian army.

Pro-Indonesian gangs have killed hundreds in recent months despite constant assurances from the Indonesian government and army that they will deal swiftly with violence.

Just weeks away from a historic vote that could allow East Timor to cast off 23 years of Indonesian occupation and embrace independence, people are dying, and everyone is afraid.

“The pro-independence movement is over now because ABRI [the Indonesian army] does not allow it to exist,” said Bishop Basilio Do Nascimento of Baucau, East Timor.

East Timorese are hoisting the red and white Indonesian flag just “to stay alive,” said Nascimento. Appointed two years ago, Nascimento is not as famous as the Nobel laureate Bishop Carlos Filipe Ximenes Belo of Dili, but Nascimento sometimes launches even tougher attacks against the Indonesian occupation.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan has warned that the continuing violence endangers the Aug. 8 referendum. It may be called off. A final decision was to be made June 13 (after NCR’s press date for this issue), when voter registration is to start.

Hope for freedom

The decline of Indonesian power since the fall of President Suharto a year ago gave hope to the Timorese that their freedom was coming, too. For months, anticipation grew.

When exiled East Timorese leader Jose Ramos Horta spoke with NCR in August 1998, he exuded excitement. He could see an end to his two decades of struggle. His home would be free of Indonesian occupation. “East Timor will be independent within three years,” said Ramos Horta, who shared the Nobel Peace Prize with Bishop Belo. The good news would come sooner.

In January, Indonesia’s interim president, B.J. Habibie, abandoned the East Timor policy of his predecessor Suharto and gave the green light for a referendum about the political future of the former Portuguese colony.

This was followed by another historic agreement May 5, when Indonesia and Portugal agreed to conduct under the auspices of the United Nations a “popular consultation” in East Timor about its political sovereignty. On Aug. 8, people are to choose between independence or autonomy under Indonesia.

Immediately following Habibie’s January decision, the East Timorese fighting for freedom from Indonesia enjoyed open politics -- but only briefly. In early February, “the militias” began their campaign of terror.

Ostensibly, the militias are East Timorese who want the territory to remain under Indonesian control. However, evidence gathered by many sources indicates that the militias are recruited, trained and armed by the Indonesian army. Their numbers are supplemented by plainclothes policemen and soldiers.

The militias, which go by various names such as “Besi Merah Puti” (Red and White Iron) use extremely brutal measures to persuade people to stay with Indonesia. Conservative estimates say the terror has displaced at least 18,000 people, and the militias have killed hundreds of people in the last couple months. Evidence suggests the Indonesian army has helped them.

“[To] describe machete-wielding thugs as advocates of ‘autonomy’ ” is “a grotesque corruption of language that would have made George Orwell blanch,” said Arnold S. Kohen, president of The Humanitarian Project in Washington, which supports East Timor’s independence.

Militias wreak havoc

The army leadership insists that their troops are neutral and can guarantee security for the vote in August, but the militias continue to use the same arms as the soldiers and make regular use of army helicopters, trucks and barracks.

Eyewitnesses say regular army units helped or at least stood by when militiamen slaughtered people who sought sanctuary in a Catholic church in the coastal city of Liquica on April 6 (see related story).

On April 17, army units did not stop the attack on the home of Manuel Viegas Carrascalao, who had been sheltering some 120 refugees from the countryside on his property since January. The high walls of their sanctuary prevented escape from the guns and knives of the militia. Between 12 and 30 were killed including Carrascalao’s 18-year-old son.

Carrascalao is a former legislator in the provincial assembly; his brother, Mario, was the Indonesian-appointed governor of the territory for nearly 10 years. The brothers recently had begun to support independence.

Earlier, Carrascalao had told NCR that the militias wouldn’t dare kill him. To be sure, he asked the army commander in the territory, Tono Suratman, for protection. Suratman assured Carrascalao that threats against him were “just rumors.”

At the time of the attack, Ireland’s foreign minister, David Andrews, was meeting with the military commander as part of a fact-finding trip to Dili. Andrews said that despite official denials, cooperation between the militias and the security forces was clear.

Manuel and Mario Carrascalao have sought political asylum abroad. “Evidently someone was trying to send a brutal message: ‘Oppose Indonesian rule and you may die.’ This message was not only aimed at the Carrascalaos, of course. It was also a clear signal to the rest of the people of East Timor, few of whom are as prominent or well-connected. If even a family like this would be so vulnerable, what about everyone else?” asked Kohen in testimony to the U.S. Congressional Human Rights Caucus.

Shortly after, Habibie’s political adviser on foreign issues, Dewi Fortuna Anwar, indirectly acknowledged the government’s responsibility for the mob-rule in East Timor but ruled out any presence of U.N. peacekeepers.

Steely self-reliance

Ramos Horta has demanded international sanctions against Jakarta. He also wants an evacuation of independence supporters out of East Timor. Most have already left on their own or are in hiding.

Ramos Horta announced June 10 that in July he will return to East Timor for the first time in 23 years. Although he said he believed his safety could not be guaranteed, he said he wanted to play an active role in preparation for the Aug. 8 vote.

For 23 years of Indonesian occupation, the people of East Timor have survived by steely self-reliance and a trickle of support from the international community. Just as it seemed the tide had turned in their favor, they are threatened more than ever.

“The paramilitaries have been going door-to-door, and in a bizarre rendition of ordinary electioneering, forcing citizens to sign forms in favor of continued Indonesian rule, which is now as it existed in the darkest days of the occupation,” Kohen said.

Observers believe that Habibie is serious about the referendum. Marwah Daud Ibrahim, a parliamentarian and close aide of Habibie, said that many in the government are tired of the East Timor situation. “We cannot carry the East Timor problem forever. When we went abroad, we used all our energy to explain our East Timor position. Now this burden is suddenly gone. Let the East Timorese decide.”

Unfortunately, Habibie’s government has little if any control over the military.

In April, defense minister and army head Gen. Wiranto rushed to East Timor in a public relations blitz and urged the church, the resistance and the militias to sign an armistice. But even Wiranto refuses to sign an agreement about disarming the militias.

The army’s reluctance to withdraw stems in part from the fact that 15,000 troops died in East Timor, some observers noted. Others said many elements in Indonesia fear that an autonomous East Timor may inspire long-suppressed but still alive independence groups in Irian Jaya (western Papau New Guinea) and Aceh province on Sumatra island.

Creating security

Whatever keeps the army entrenched in East Timor, it appears that only an international peacekeeping force will ensure a secure environment for a vote.

For the run-up to the referendum, the United Nations is assembling UNAMET (U.N. Assistance Mission to East Timor), which would put about 280 civilian police on patrol in the territory.

Belo described that as “a drop of water on a hot stone.” He said East Timor needs 6,000 to 7,000 armed U.N. soldiers to keep the peace. Ramos Horta has made similar requests.

Resistance leader Xanana Gusmao, who is under house arrest in Jakarta, paints a black picture. He told NCR that the solution to the East Timor conflict is overdue. “If the international community is concerned about Kosovo’s problem, the international community has also to remember that we are facing 23 years of genocide,” he said.

Ana Gomes, Portugal’s special envoy to Indonesia, also made parallels to Kosovo. “We, the international community, fight in Kosovo to protect the people, to enforce an international presence” but despite over two decades of terror, “nothing happens in East Timor,” she said.

A United Nations official in Dili calls the situation hopeless.

The word must have reached U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan. On May 24, he reported to the Security Council “that credible reports continued to be received of political violence, including intimidation and killings, by armed militias against unarmed pro-independence civilians.”

Indonesia broke its promises, Annan wrote. The militias’ checkpoints along the roads and the terror commandos would continue to threaten the people, and “there are indications” that the militias are “operating with the acquiescence of elements of the army.”

Annan warned that the August vote would be canceled if the Indonesian authorities failed to stop the terror of the militias immediately.

Militia leaders such as Joao Tavares and Basilio Araujo both said they would rather die fighting for Indonesia than to be separated from the “motherland.”

Dennis Coday in Bangkok, Thailand, contributed to this story. Daniel Kestenholz lives in Bangkok and writes for several Swiss and German papers.

National Catholic Reporter, June 18, 1999