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.
Shortly before the first high-profile militia massacre, in Liquisa on April 6, da Costa was sworn in as militia chief of staff in a public ceremony by Gen. Adam Damiri, the TNI-ABRI commander for the region that includes East Timor. Following Liquisa, on April 17, after open threats to “invade” Dili and “wipe out” and “clean up” all vestiges of independence support, the militias staged a public ceremony, overseen by the occupation governor and attended by General Makarim and at least three other senior officers, in front of the Dili government palace. There followed an open militia rampage through the deserted streets of Dili–with police and army standing aside, cheering and giving high-fives–that left the houses of key independence leaders sacked and burned, an estimated twenty dead and several dozen missing.
When I asked da Costa about Liquisa, Dili and militia executions generally, he said that all these killings fell under the terms of the January accord. “We don’t have authorization to kill every day,” he explained, “only when we are assaulted”–though the assaults apparently need not be physical. He claimed that the Liquisa killings arose from physical attacks on militia members by pro-independence youth instigated by the CNRT and Fretilin. (The militias do not attempt to engage the armed Falintil guerrillas, the resistance force that has fought in the mountains ever since Indonesia invaded in 1975 and that has, according to US officials, been in a “stand down” posture in recent months.) But da Costa does not dispute the fact that his forces assaulted the Liquisa church and rectory, a horrific attack that left blood and pieces of scalp on the walls, and dozens hacked to death.
Da Costa’s point is that the Liquisa victims had it coming politically. Yayasan Hak, the Timorese human rights and legal group, says the victims were refugees. It has published the names of fifty-seven dead, many of them women and children; some survivors say many more died. Da Costa claims that local “people asked us to kill them [the victims]. For us it wasn’t a disaster. For the people of Liquisa it was a liberation.” He adds that in Liquisa the militias asked the TNI-ABRI for backup–and got it from the BRIMOB, a unit specializing in crowd control. As BRIMOB lobbed in tear gas and fired gunshots, the militia machete-men waded in.
Da Costa says, “We assaulted the church and the rectory as Fretilin command posts. Those who died were not simple people. They were activists, CNRT members…. If we kill them, they say they died as people. But no, they died as Fretilin.”
Manuelito Carrascalao, the 16-year-old son of Manuel Carrascalao, a CNRT political leader, died in the Dili rampage when militias attacked his father’s house, murdering him and more than a dozen of the refugees sheltering there. Survivors were taken away and have reportedly been put in a concentration camp. For da Costa, Manuelito’s death was consistent with the militias’ mission. Manuel Carrascalao, he said, is “an enemy of the people.” When the militias arrived, they found that Manuel was not home (he had left moments before to seek help from Colonel Suratman, who had brushed him off). The execution of Manuelito was “punishment for his father’s activism,” according to da Costa. “If he hadn’t been the son of Manuel, he wouldn’t have died.”
As this was written, reports came in of another Dili rampage, with at least three reported deaths. No arrests have been made.
On May 5 Indonesia signed a UN deal in which the government pledged to stay neutral in the Timor vote and to enforce the law impartially. But speaking on May 11, da Costa said that as far as the militias knew, their accord with TNI-ABRI “remains in force.” The license to kill still holds.