Tropical idyll that masks cruel reality of a war zone

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The Independent Online
IMAGINE A small provincial town transplanted from Portugal in the Fifties to the tropics north of Australia and you have something of the atmosphere of the East Timor, one of the sleepiest and most beautiful war zones in the world.

The sky and the sea are deepest blue, the sandy beaches are white, and every evening the sun sinks lingeringly behind the green islands across the water.

On weekday afternoons, the island closes for a three-hour siesta. At such times it is impossible to associate East Timor with war and genocide, and the 23-year-old struggle between the occupying Indonesians and the independence movement. But then, just as you are about to nod off, you are jolted awake by the presence of a darker component of life in the territory - the Indonesia Armed Forces or Abri.

The patrol boats and landing craft lie alongside the wharf of the capital, Dili, opposite the Portuguese colonial churches. At night,trucks rumble through the town carrying members of Brimob, the special riot police. Driving out towards the second largest town, Baucau, recently, I passed a convoy of soldiers in balaclavas and jeans, without regimental markings on their uniforms. In every village and every few miles along the road, are the aerials and watchtowers of the military posts.

When Indonesia declared in July and early August that it was withdrawing combat troops from Dili, many people in East Timor refused to believe it. A fortnight ago, their Catholic Bishop, the winner of the Nobel Peace prize, Carlos Belo, said that instead of a troop reduction, there was "new activity" by the military. "We can never trust the Indonesians," said a member of Falintil, the East Timorese guerrilla resistance. "They are liars." Confidential military documents, obtained this week by The Independent, nail the lie.

They are a remarkable source of information about Abri and provide the fullest and most detailed picture so far of the military regime which still dominates life in East Timor, 23 years after the Indonesian invasion and five months after the resignation of the man who ordered it, the former president, Suharto.

Instead of the net reduction of 1,000 troops in August, a claim made by the Foreign minister, Ali Alatas, levels remained the same at 17,834. When paramilitary militias are included, the total comes to more than 21,500 - nearly 9,000 more than the figure claimed by Abri at the time of the supposed withdrawals.

In Indonesia, there are500,000 members of the armed forces out of population over 200 million. That is approximately one soldier to every 400 people. East Timor has a population of about 800,000 with roughly 20,000 troops, a ratio of one to 40.

Mr Alatas's contention, that the army's job is mostly to "help people in agriculture, road and bridge development" provokes bitter laughter. According to the East Timorese guerrilla movement, there have been several battles in the last two months between resistance fighters and advancing Indonesian soldiers.

The influence of the military on East Timorese life does not end with the men in uniform. One of the files in the leaked documents lists "Indonesian military who are assigned to the executive branch of the government's non-military functions" - 140 officers ranging from the vice-governor of East Timor to local district officers.

Files also show the importance of paramilitary units which are carefully tracked by the military personnel department, despite the official position that they are independent units of local volunteers, dedicated to tasks such as civil defence.