Following the ouster of Indonesia’s President Suharto last year, the new government agreed to give the people of East Timor–which was illegally seized by Indonesia a quarter-century ago–the chance to vote for independence. But as veteran journalist Allan Nairn reports, the powerful Indonesian military and its militias in Timor are engaged in a ruthless effort to intimidate the Timorese population.
According to the number-two commander of East Timor’s notorious newly formed militias, the Indonesian armed forces (TNI-ABRI) have made a secret “accord” with the militias, authorizing them to assassinate members of local independence groups.
Herminio da Costa, chief of staff of the thirteen Timorese militias, says the accord has been in effect since late January. He says it authorizes his men to “attack homes, interrogate and kill members of the CNRT [the National Council of Timorese Resistance, the nonpartisan, pro-independence umbrella group] and Fretilin [a left-leaning pro-independence party],” as long as the militias refrain from common crimes like “car theft and stealing food.” Speaking in a series of phone interviews from militia headquarters in occupied Dili, da Costa described how his men had executed unarmed “enemies of the people” but said that these killings had been carried out with prior clearance from TNI-ABRI.
Da Costa said he was disclosing the existence of the accord for the first time publicly in order to illustrate his claim that the militias are, in fact, independent. Reacting testily to questions about Jakarta’s role in launching the militias, da Costa denied that he and his men were operating with impunity. “We can be arrested at any time like any ordinary Timorese,” he said. When asked exactly what he meant by that, da Costa said that the Timor police and army command, with formal approval from Jakarta, had worked out with his men a series of ground rules for mayhem in occupied Timor that, in effect, grant the militias an official–but conditional–license to kill.
Da Costa spoke warmly of the Indonesian army now occupying East Timor, an army that has caused the deaths of one-third of the original population. The army guarantees his local business holdings (he claims the militias are self-financing), and he has long served it openly as an informant and collaborator. He praised General Wiranto–now the TNI-ABRI national commander and Indonesia’s Defense Minister, who once served in Timor–as a “very good friend”; he said the same of Gen. Zacky Makarim, who now oversees Timor policy. But he complained that since the independence vote for Timor was announced in January (the vote is now set for August 8, under a UN agreement), the army has been under pressure to provide protection for its longtime enemies. Da Costa says the accord was in part a solution to this political problem and in part a means of addressing the fact that “unauthorized violence” by the militias was at times causing headaches for the army and its subunit, the police.
Da Costa portrays the militias as an autonomous player in this deal. He says, contrary to much evidence, that the army gives them only “moral support.” Even if that were true, it would not change the nature of the accord: In January the army and the militias worked out a division of labor. “Now the ABRI was ‘protecting’ the Fretilin,” da Costa explained, “and we were the ones who were assaulting Fretilin and CNRT homes.” He argued strenuously that this license came at a price. The law was laid down to them, da Costa said: no stealing, no mugging, no rackets. In the event of such actions, “we can be arrested and disarmed.” He added, “But if we kill CNRT or Fretilin members, no, there is no problem.” Consistent with da Costa’s claims, none of the militiamen have been arrested for political murders (one foreign diplomat estimates a toll of 100 victims in the past month)–though it is also the case that they have openly continued their common-crime spree. Da Costa says that the accord was worked out in Dili with the police chief, Col. Timbul Silaen, and the army command staff and that Timor’s army chief, Col. Tono Suratman, “gave permission to do assaults on houses but not without his authorization and knowledge.” The same applies to interrogations of independence supporters. Col. Suratman did not respond to messages left at his home asking for comment. Col. Silaen could not be reached.