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East Timor: can it stand alone?

A year on from East Timor's vote for independence from Indonesia, its viability as a nation still seems a long way off. Bertil Lintner examines the guerrilla threats and suggests some options for its future defence.

A YEAR after a UN-sponsored referendum on the future of East Timor, a semblance of normality has returned to the devastated territory. On 30 August 1999 78.5% of the East Timorese opted for secession from Indonesia, which prompted local prointegration militias to go on the rampage. The capital, Dili, and virtually every other town and major village in the territory was destroyed. Hundreds of thousands of people were forcibly evacuated to Indonesian West Timor or deported to other Indonesian islands. At least 1,000 people are believed to have been killed by the militias, who, at the time, were openly aided by the Indonesian Army (Tentara Nasional Indonesia - TNI).

The carnage ended only when the Australian-led International Force in East Timor (INTERFET) intervened on 20 September last year. The militias fled to West Timor and order was restored. On 25 October the UN Security Council established the United Nations Transitional Administration in East Timor (UNTAET), comprising governance and public administration, humanitarian assistance and emergency rehabilitation, and an international peacekeeping force. The reconstruction of East Timor has begun, and the territory is expected to become a fully fledged independent nation following next year's general election.

A year on, it is evident that the TNI, or at least some hard-line elements within it, has yet to accept defeat. Many veterans, who fought in the former Portuguese colony after it was invaded in December 1975, are bitter about having to give up their 25-year struggle to keep East Timor within the Indonesian nation. Such sentiments remain strong in Indonesia, and are not confined to military circles. Last year's bedraggled militias, who were armed mainly with pipe-guns and machetes, are now equipped with automatic rifles and hand grenades. UN spokesmen in Dili and along the West-East Timorese border also assert that it is obvious they have received at least some rudimentary training in guerrilla tactics.

Since May this year as many as 150 militiamen in eight to 10 groups, each of five to 30 men, have crossed the 170km border from West Timor, which, since the UN intervention last year, has become one of the most heavily defended frontiers in Southeast Asia. Today, East Timor is confronted with another crisis, one that could become more apocalyptic than last year's. It appears to be based more on longterm guerrilla warfare rather than a simple desire to 'punish' those who opted for secession from Indonesia.

The first attack on UN peacekeepers came on 21 June when a group of militiamen hurled six hand grenades at an Australian Army position at Aidabasalala, 15km from the border. Later, a command post at Nunura bridge, between Balibo and Maliana, was attacked. Then, on 24 July, the peacekeeping force sustained its first casualty: a 24-year-old New Zealand soldier was shot dead near the border with West Timor. On 10 August a Nepalese peacekeeper was killed in the same area, prompting the UN to take stronger action against the militias. Several sensitive border areas are now patrolled regularly. The aim is to isolate the militias in their mountain hide-outs to prevent them reaching the local people.

This strategy seems to be working, but UN spokesmen concede that there can be no peace in East Timor as long as the militias have sanctuaries in West Timor. Despite efforts to repatriate the refugees, at least 100,000 remain in ramshackle camps in West Timor. In recent months, the militias have drafted new recruits from those camps. The attack on the office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in the West Timorese town of Atambua on 6 September, in which six UN workers, including three foreigners, were killed, also shows that the Indonesian authorities are doing little, if anything, to restrain their activities. The local army and police did nothing to stop the militias from killing the UN officers and burning down their buildings.

It is almost impossible to ascertain to what extent support for the militias is a local initiative, or if it is sanctioned by the central authorities in Jakarta. UN spokesmen in Dili are careful not to implicate the Indonesian military as a whole, but even so, Eurico Guterres, the most notorious of the militia leaders, was a few months ago appointed chief of the Banteng Pemuda, the paramilitary youth wing of the Indonesian Democratic Party-Struggle (PDI-P), which is led by vice president Megawati Sukarnoputri. Despite the fact that the Indonesian authorities, following immense pressure from the international community, were forced to arrest Guterres on 5 October, little is expected to change, according to Western military analysts. The move appeared aimed at appeasing the UN and Western powers, which have criticised Indonesia for its support for the militias. Guterres remains well connected, and, it is assumed, well-protected by powerful interests in Indonesia.

A year ago Guterres commanded one of East Timor's most vicious militia forces, the Aitarak ('Thorn'). He is widely thought to be behind an attack on the Dili home of proindependence leader Manuel Carrascalao on 17 April 1999 (Carrascalao's adopted son and at least 16 other people were killed in the attack). On 26 August, four days before the referendum, Guterres addressed a crowd of 15,000 people in Dili and stated that East Timor would "become a sea of fire" if independence was declared.

True to his word, he and his men burned the capital when the outcome of the referendum was declared on 4 September. According to eyewitnesses, TNI and police personnel actively assisted the Aitarak in the destruction of Dili. Another, equally brutal, militia gang, the Besi Merah Putih ('Red and White Steel', named after the colours of the Indonesian flag), burnt down towns in western East Timor. On 6 September yet another gang, the Laksaur, massacred over 100 people in Suai.

The INTERFET intervention and the loss of East Timor forced the militias, and their backers within Indonesia's armed forces, to change tactics. By 20 September 1999, the day that the first 1,190 INTERFET troops arrived in Dili, a new 'umbrella coalition' of militia groups had been formed in Balibo, close to the border with West Timor. The head of the coalition, Domingos Soares, declared that this 'coalition' rejected the results of the referendum because they were "manipulated by the UN". Soares vowed to fight on for Indonesia's national interests.

The militias remain united under the banner of a new organisation called UNTAS, which is the acronym in Tetum (the most widely spoken local dialect in East and West Timor) for 'the United Timorese Knights'. Despite his arrest, Guterres remains one of its main leaders, and the commander of the military region which includes West Timor is Maj Gen Kiki Syahnakri, who was in charge of East Timor throughout last year's carnage. Chief of staff at his headquarters in Deripasar, Bali, is Brig Gen Mahidin Simbolon, who has been identified by Western intelligence sources as the main link between the Indonesian Army and the East Timorese militias. Maj Gen Kiki is also a military academy classmate of Maj Gen Zacky Anwar Makarim, a former military intelligence chief, who Indonesia's own human rights commission has implicated in the violence in September last year.

The actual strength of UNTAS is not known, and it is also impossible to determine how many of its members are dedicated combatants or young men who have been forced to join its ranks. However, the fact that the militias, although few in numbers, are back in East Timor is enough to make local farmers scared of cultivating their fields in remote mountain areas. Consequently, there is a shortage of food in many parts of East Timor, and the process of reconstruction has been delayed.

Perhaps more importantly, the suspicion that the militias - and their Indonesian backers - may be trying to establish a more permanent presence inside East Timor, and then wait for the UN's mandate to expire next year before they launch an all-out guerrilla war against the new state, raises serious doubts about the viability of an independent East Timor. The only way that East Timor could survive, military experts say, is if the UN's mandate is extended, or if it reaches bilateral defence agreements with countries such as Australia and New Zealand. Neither solution has been discussed so far.

A key problem is that the force that was destined to become East Timor's own army, the armed forces for the liberation of East Timor (Forcas Armadas de Libertacao Nacional de Timor Leste - FALINTIL), is in total disarray. It was part of the mandate of the INTERFET last year to disarm 'all local factions', the militias and the FALINTIL. However, the FALINTIL's leaders objected, arguing that they had not been involved in any human rights abuses, but had complied with the UN's directives.

A compromise was reached and FALINTIL was permitted to retain its army and its arms, but only inside a cantonment in the town of Aileu, south of Dili. Initially, 1,500 FALINTIL soldiers were based there, but a year of inactivity has eroded the discipline that the FALINTIL espoused last year. The FALINTIL feels marginalised. A group known as the Sagrada Familia ('The Sacred Family') has broken away and established a presence in the Baucau area, east of Dili. Some of the security and intelligence groups associated with the former resistance have become involved in smuggling, theft and extortion rackets.

Today, the plan of transforming the FALINTIL into the nucleus of an armed force for an independent East Timor seems remote, and the constraints of the UN mandate have further exacerbated the difficulties. FALINTIL commander-in-chief Taur Matan Ruak is a 'liaison officer' attached to the peacekeeping headquarters in Dili, and there are three former resistance commanders seconded to each of the three military regions into which the UN has divided East Timor: East, Central and West. However, it is not within the UN's mandate to turn the FALINTIL into a more professional force.

Consequently, the FALINTIL cannot take part in combat, a major problem for the UN peacekeepers, who are unfamiliar with the rugged terrain of East Timor's interior where the militias now operate. Plans are underway to deploy FALINTIL officers at company level within the peacekeeping force, but many foreign delegates are opposed to posting them in the border areas where they would be most needed because of 'Indonesian sensitivity'. Another practical problem is that, in the field, where fighting could erupt at any moment, the FALINTIL could be mistaken for militias as they look the same and wear similar uniforms.

The UN's fragmented structure also adds to the confusion. 'Sector West', in the UN's terminology, comprises 1,634 Australian troops, 665 from New Zealand, 158 from Nepal, 191 from Fiji and 40 from Ireland. This is the most important line of defence against the militias in West Timor and their Indonesian backers. Vigilance in the sector is high, with radar and heat detectors scanning the border.

Despite these surveillance measures, once a militia gang has managed to cross the border and has marched at night into 'Sector Central', they are safe. The Portuguese troops there do little patrolling, and have been criticised for their lax attitude to East Timor's increasing security problems. A group of 30 militiamen has reached the middle of 'Sector Central': nothing has been done to dislodge them apart from dropping leaflets urging them to surrender.

If the Indonesian strategy is to wait for a UN withdrawal and then attempt to launch an all-out guerrilla war, then an independent East Timor needs a formidable defence. According to a recent study by the Centre for Defence Studies at London's King's College, there are three possible options.

The first is the closest to the FALINTIL's own vision of national defence: a force of 3,000 - 5,000 troops based on the core of the former resistance, the balance being made up of conscripts. The second option features a professional regular core of 1,500 men, supported by an equal number of conscripts doing a year of national service. The third possibility is a force of 3,000 regulars, about half being former FALINTIL soldiers, and 1,500 volunteer reservists. According to the King's College report, the last option "appears to represent the best value for money to meet the defence needs of East Timor at an affordable and sustainable cost".

However, none of those options would be sufficient to deal with the militia threat and the support that individuals such as Guterres are receiving from the highest level of Indonesia's military and civilian establishment. The situation calls for more outside involvement. In the future, Australia, because of its proximity to East Timor and the central role it has played since the first multinational force arrived in East Timor on 20 September last year, may have to shoulder the burden of East Timor's defence. This would require Australian support for an indigenous East Timorese defence force or, more likely, Australian willingness to move its northern line of defence from Darwin on its northern shore, to Maliana on the border with West Timor. Of equal importance is Indonesia's willingness, or lack thereof, to accept that East Timor is no longer its 27th province.

This article first appeared in Jane's Intelligence Review, November 2000

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