Indonesia talks of peace, but unleashes its thugs on Timor

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The Independent Online
IN THE GARDEN of a house in Dili, capital of East Timor, a hundred villagers are camping out in fear of their lives. They have fled from the district of Maubara, an hour's drive west along the coast, to escape a gang of young thugs, armed and encouraged by the Indonesian army.

Indonesia has announced it is ready to consider independence for East Timor, after 23 years of oppression and much bloodshed. But many East Timorese fear the Indonesian army is trying to stir up violence amongst them, just to prove they cannot rule themselves.

Maubara is a sleepy, rundown place, situated on a hillside above the tropical sea. A few months ago, local officials and soldiers began recruiting young men for a pro-Indonesian militia. Those who refused to join were threatened with death.

"The officer came to me on the beach and said you have to join the militia," said a 21-year-old farmer, Francisco Dos Santos. "`Don't follow demonstrations in Dili or support a referendum on independence,' he said. I said OK, but I didn't do it." Around him, dozens of other refugees from Maubara gathered in the shade of a tree, listening quietly.

Tensions rose to a peak at New Year, the refugees said. The district official handed out six M-16 rifles and 12 hand grenades to the militia. After a brawl with soldiers, many young men fled to Dili. There they are staying in the house of Manuel Carrascalao, a conservative grandee who has switched from supporting Indonesia to backing independence. "We feel safe for now," Mr Dos Santos said.

Four houses in Maubara since have been smashed up by the militia, with papers and clothes strewn across the concrete floors. It isn't clear why these particular houses were attacked, as two of the owners are civil servants. The militia may simply have acted out a grudge against affluent members of the village. Villagers are afraid to comment.

They have good reason to be afraid. Five young men came back from Dili on 14 January to pick up their possessions, according to the refugees. On the way, they were stopped at an army roadblock. Three men made a run for it and two got away. The third, Jose Sarmento, was shot in the head. His body was found later on the beach. The refugees don't know what happened to the two who were caught, Manuel Sarmento and Agiapito de Jesus. It isn't hard to guess, in a land where 250,000 people are estimated to have died since the Indonesians invaded in 1975. This is about one-third of the current population.

Now East Timor has a chance to break away. Indonesia is negotiating at the UN in New York with Portugal, the former colonial power. Jakarta's new line is that East Timor is entitled to autonomy within Indonesia, but that if that is rejected by the population, Indonesia will wash its hands of the territory. That could happen in as little as a year.

Many East Timorese suspect the army is backing the militias to justify its own brutal role in controlling the territory. "Indonesia has said for a long time that if they leave, there will be a civil war. This is manipulation," said Mr Carrascalao

Rapid independence would certainly please most ordinary people who simply want the hated Indonesian soldiers to leave. But most East Timorese leaders do not wish to move so fast. They think the territory needs several years in transition to build up the economy and democratic institutions and remedy the shortage of trained professionals. After that, most want independence.

The pro-Indonesian minority is now in a weak position. A few have joined the militias. Others have gone to Jakarta to plead against independence. Many are prudently lining up behind Jose Alexander "Xanana" Gusmao, the pro-independence leader still in jail in Jakarta, and his Fretilin movement.

"I regularly talk to Fretilin leaders and we all agree that we need to have a dialogue," says Gil Alves, a pro-Indonesia politician who owns a bottling plant. He fought against the left-wing Fretilin in a brief civil war in 1975. When Fretilin won, its right-wing enemies, including Mr Alves, joined forces with the Indonesian army.

"There was a big mass of killing," said Mr Alves, sitting on the veranda of his elegant house at sunset. "But while we were with the Indonesian troops I didn't see any killings [of civilians]. Maybe some of them could have done some mistakes." He still thinks East Timor should settle for autonomy within Indonesia, but agrees with Fretilin to put off the debate for now.

But some Timorese still want to take up arms for Jakarta. Militias are springing up to defend the status quo, and they are thought to have several thousand members. Many are backed by the army. They have extravagant names like "Live and Die for Integration" (with Indonesia) and parade openly with their rifles - at least they did until foreign journalists started to show up in large numbers last week.

The army says they are needed to "preserve security", but all they have done so far is spread fear. HAK, a human rights group, thinks 21 people have been killed and 7,608 made into refugees in the last two months alone.

East Timorese leaders want the militias disarmed, preferably under United Nations supervision. They know that whatever the outcome of the New York talks, they have a hard slog ahead. "If we think the UN or Portugal will deliver everything, that's wrong," says Fr Domingo Suarez, a priest and political activist. "If we talk all day and night there will be nothing to eat, and we'll kill each other."

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