via The Washington Post
Sunday, May 9, 1999; Page A18
By Keith B. Richburg
LIQUICA, East Timor - The Indonesian military, through armed surrogates and paramilitary groups, is using intimidation, violence and the forced relocation of thousands of people to ensure that residents of East Timor do not vote for independence in a referendum Aug. 8, according to relief workers, human rights groups, Western military analysts and independent reporting here.
The actions of the paramilitary groups stand in sharp contrast to the central government's commitment in a U.N.-brokered agreement last week to allow East Timor's 800,000 people to choose their own future in a referendum, even if they decide to sever ties with Indonesia and become the world's newest independent nation. The government promised a free and fair vote.
Hundreds of Timorese independence activists have been killed or have gone into hiding after receiving death threats from army-backed militias. The main independence group, the National Council for Timorese Resistance has been wiped out in the capital, Dili; its downtown office is shut and its leaders are on the run. Militia members armed with machetes and homemade rifles roam the streets, carrying what is believed to be a death list with the names of prominent activists, human rights lawyers and even Catholic priests.
And in the most ominous sign yet that the military intends to engineer the outcome of the vote, 20,000 people have been herded from their mountain villages and are being held in this town as virtual hostages of the militia - creating a captive bloc of votes in favor of Timor remaining a part of Indonesia. Each day, the men are separated from the women, are forced to stand and sing the Indonesian national anthem and to wear red-and-white armbands and scarves, the colors of the Indonesian flag.
The police say these people are refugees fleeing the pro-independence guerrillas in the hills, who have been waging a low-level insurgency against Indonesian occupation for 24 years. But local relief workers in Dili - no foreign aid workers are allowed here - say they have been barred from traveling to Liquica to check on the condition of these people, who are living in makeshift tents, under tarps or in abandoned buildings. What little food they have is provided by the local government, and water is scarce.
Last week, a small group of reporters was allowed into Liquica to see the detainees and take pictures. But interviews outside the presence of the police or militia were forbidden, and most of the people seemed too frightened to speak. A few times, someone in the crowd shouted to the journalists a line not in the official script - one shouted, for example, that they did not have enough to eat - but they were quickly silenced by militia members who raced into the crowds after them.
The police commander for East Timor, Col. Timbul Silaen, had said in Dili earlier that reports of people being held captive in Liquica were untrue. "At most, there are 100 [people being held], and they are from the pro-independence faction," he said in an interview.
But when journalists arrived in Liquica, they saw what appeared to be at least 20,000 people. The Liquica police commander, Lt. Col. Adios Salova, put the number at 10,000, but he insisted, "They can go back to their homes if they want."
"They've got Liquica like a concentration camp," said Dan Murphy, an American physician from Iowa working at a church-run clinic in Dili. "They need help. These people are in desperate shape. ... They're just sitting out in the open. It's a perfect setup for massive amounts of death" from disease, with so many people without access to clean water and medical care.
Other Timorese relief workers said the kind of forced relocation seen in Liquica is being repeated on a large scale elsewhere in the territory. The goal, they said, appears to be to hold the detainees captive until the referendum, to create a large bloc of voters who will support a government-sponsored package that would give broad autonomy to East Timor, but keep it as a part of Indonesia.
"Their plan is to keep the people there and make sure they vote for" autonomy, said Estanislau Martins, an official of the Catholic charity Caritas.
East Timor, a former Portuguese colony, has been a nettlesome problem for Indonesia since its troops invaded in 1975 on the pretext of stopping a civil war between rival Timorese factions. East Timor was annexed the following year as a province of Indonesia, but the United Nations never recognized the annexation.
For much of the past 24 years, Indonesia refused to budge on recognizing Timorese demands for independence. Displays of defiance were crushed, including a series of army massacres that are now etched in the psyche of Timorese. Human rights groups and Timorese activists estimate the conflict has killed as many as 200,000 Timorese. But for the most part, Timor has simmered on the back burners of international diplomacy.
All that changed this year, when President B.J. Habibie, who took power last May after the fall of longtime ruler Suharto, suddenly announced that Timorese could have independence if they rejected one last, broadened autonomy offer.
But while the civilian government in Jakarta was eager to rid itself of the East Timor problem, the Indonesian military apparently has other concerns. Senior military officers are known to fear that granting the territory independence will fuel separatist movements across the sprawling archipelago, particularly in the mineral-rich province of Irian Jaya, and in the troubled, Muslim fundamentalist-dominated province of Aceh on Sumatra island. Troops have been fighting insurgencies in both those provinces, and the rebels have been emboldened by the government's concessions to the Timorese.
"It's national unity, and fear of national disintegration," said a Western military analyst.
The armed forces created the militias ostensibly to help keep the peace. But Timorese activists, human rights lawyers, and Western military analysts point to a more sinister purpose - to use them to create the appearance of a civil war in East Timor, while embarking on a campaign to terrorize and intimidate enough people to ensure a vote against independence.
In recent weeks, the militias have rampaged unchecked in East Timor, killing and maiming suspected independence supporters and sympathizers. "Ever since [Secretary of State] Madeleine Albright came [in March], it's been terrible," said Murphy, the American physician. "Since then, they've decided to take a hard line, and bring out all the weapons of terror and intimidation."
The most brazen attack was here in Liquica on April 6, when militiamen stormed a Catholic church sheltering hundreds of refugees. Tear gas forced the refugees into the open, where they were shot and hacked with axes and machetes; human rights groups recorded 57 deaths.
On the weekend of April 17, militias rampaged through Dili, driving out most of the independence supporters after a rally at the offices of Timor's Jakarta-appointed governor. The militia members burned down homes and shops in Dili's Becora market area, injuring scores of people.
"The militia is the military; they didn't do this on their own," said a man named Mateus, whose house was spared but who saw his neighbors' houses reduced to smoldering rubble. "We saw their cars, and behind them was the military."
The Western military analyst agreed that the armed forces control the militias, and are using them as surrogates. "There's a big disconnect between what the leadership in Jakarta is saying and what's going on on the ground," he said. "If [Defense Minister Wiranto] was unhappy with what's going on in East Timor, he would have fired some people."
There are now at least 13 militia groups in East Timor, one for each of the territory's 13 districts, with names like Red and White Iron and Aitarak. The Western military analyst said the number now could be as high as 20. The Dili police commander, Col. Timbul, said each militia has about 5,000 members.
One tactic of the militia groups is intimidation of independence supporters. Militia posts have been set up just yards from the homes of human rights activists and other independence sympathizers.
Last Wednesday night, the Portuguese consul general in Jakarta, Ana Gomes, telephoned journalists in Dili to tell them that the Aitarak militia had surrounded the home of a prominent human rights lawyer, Aniceto Gutteres Lopes, director of the Legal Aid, Human Rights and Justice Foundation. The journalists, arriving in taxis just before midnight, found about two dozen militiamen outside Gutteres' empty home.
Gutteres and his family were discovered hiding in his back yard. He whispered to the reporters to stay and make sure he was not found, and to try to persuade the militia that he was not at home. He escaped, and has gone into hiding.
That episode was not unique; dozens of independence supporters, human rights workers and others have been threatened, have fled East Timor or have gone into hiding. Those who remain say they sleep in different houses each night.
Relief workers and foreign military analysts in Jakarta say the militias have a death list, with the names of prominent independence sympathizers to be killed between now and the vote, to guarantee the result the military brass prefers.
Matins, of Caritas relief agency, said he knows his name is on the list. "It's all the key persons they say have to be killed," he said, cowering in his office after receiving an early morning warning of an imminent attack.
"They believe if they kill them all, they can win the elections." He said four priests are on the list, including the Rev. Francisco Barreto who heads the Caritas office.