Inside the Circle of Intimidation

Matthew Easton

In August 1999, a
quarter century after Indonesia invaded the former Portuguese colony of East
Timor, an unprecedented referendum on independence took place. Although
Indonesia had promised to ensure the security of the vote, the Indonesian
military (TNI) instead organized, trained, armed, and coordinated militias in
every district, mirroring the army’s territorial structure. Militias had been
part of Indonesia’s strategy for years, but these new militias were bigger and
much more brutal. They were made up of East Timorese who supported integration
with Indonesia for political or economic reasons, West Timorese from across
the border, and local young men strong-armed into joining. Even some
independence activists tied on the red-and white bandanas symbolizing loyalty
to Indonesia, took the required blood oaths, and then voted for independence
and took to the hills.

When the
results were announced to be overwhelmingly in favor of independence, the
militias and their army sponsors began a scorched earth campaign so thorough
it plundered every last door off the schools. An estimated 1,000 Timorese were
killed, schools, clinics, and homes were torched or looted, many women were
raped, and more than 250,000 people were forced across the border into West
Timor, the western half of the island that has been an Indonesian province
since the country’s independence in 1949. It was supposed to look like a
spontaneous refugee migration that would call the referendum into question,
ensure a bargaining chip for the militias, and most likely send a message to
restive provinces at either end of the archipelago. But it quickly became
clear that the migration—and the violence—was anything but spontaneous.
Cameras caught a supposedly long-haired militia member taking a cigarette
break from the pillaging and removing his wig to reveal a military buzz cut.
At an airstrip in the eastern district of Baucau, in an apparent slip the
military commander told UN officials evacuating local staff, “I have orders
that all internally displaced people are to go to Atambua or Kupang” in West
Timor. Documents found in the debris of torched offices and first-hand
accounts of militia members seemed to confirm a comprehensive plan for a
massive forced migration. An inquiry carried out by the office of the UN High
Commissioner for Human Rights found that “a pre–planned evacuation of people
to West Timor was undertaken by sea and by road. The International Commission
received documents that indicated systematic planning by TNI for forced
deportation and displacement of people.”

In the two
years since that forced exodus, some 180,000 people have returned.
Approximately 100,000 remain, most of them in large camps with inadequate food
and appalling health conditions. Some stay by choice, worried that their
support for integration with Indonesia might mark them for retribution if they
return. Others would like to go home eventually but have been fed
misinformation by the militias and the Indonesian press about the security
situation there and are waiting to see how the political process there
unfolds. Others—some estimates are as high as 70 percent—are prevented from
returning through threats and intimidation.

What’s more,
since the killing of three UN refugee workers in September 2000, the
international presence has radically decreased and camp conditions are
deteriorating. In this context local organizations play a crucial role in
delivering aid, as well as acting as witnesses and advocates.

Winston Rondo
is the General Secretary of the Center for Internally Displaced People’s
Services (CIS) in Kupang, West Timor, Indonesia. CIS has worked in the camps
since September 1999 providing humanitarian aid, counseling for rape victims
and other victims of violence, and informal education. The organization also
investigates human rights abuses and disseminates accurate information on
repatriation. An Indonesian citizen from West Timor, Winston Rondo was an
accredited observer in East Timor during the 1999 referendum.

West Timorese how did you get involved in these activities?

institutions were involved in the formation of CIS: the Indonesian Christian
Students Movement and Indonesian Christian Youth Movement. As Timorese and as
Christians we feel a duty to help people in crisis who have come with no
clothes or food, and who have lost their families. We can’t sit quietly or
sleep easily if there is something that needs to be done. So our love for
people who are suffering became the inspiration for our service.

When you
first went in were your activities just humanitarian or did you go right to
work on human rights and women’s rights?

The first
month, September 1999, was humanitarian. We asked congregations for clothing,
floor mats, rice, to give to the camps. But you can give food every day, every
week, every month. The refugees are also dealing with trauma, human rights
abuses, and violence against women, so we moved into those areas. We still
provided health care and supplementary feeding for the malnourished and
education for the kids in “tent schools.” Recently we had to abandon these
because of worsening security and declining support from international
agencies for the East Timor problem. This is very worrying.

What are
conditions like in the camps?

Since the UNHCR
killings in Atambua, aid has fallen and its distribution channels have
changed. The UN and other international agencies ended direct operations. The
local government still provides rice, but it’s less than 200 grams per person
per day. Even that is distributed unevenly and corruptly. There are signs of
malnutrition in some camps, and residents of the camp of Naen are eating a
kind of wild vegetable that has to be cooked 15 times before it can be eaten.
Camp residents have to rely on rainwater, share water with livestock, or draw
it from dirty sources that cause dysentery and rashes. Health services have
dwindled to almost nothing, and in some camps remaining medicines are being
distributed by untrained people with no instructions. In Noelbaki a resident
with the flu was given seven kinds of medicine—and no instructions. On average
three to five people are dying each day, mostly from malaria, diarrhea,
respiratory infection, and malnutrition.

relationship with local communities is also a real time bomb—conflicts over
limited resources such as land and water are common, as well as distribution
of humanitarian assistance and continued militia violence.

How are
people coping in these conditions?

Last January
there was an accident in the camp of Tuapukan near Kupang, at the time home to
15,000 displaced persons. A small girl was hit by a car and killed. Such an
incident can turn violent, and the driver, crying from fear, got down on his
knees in front of the girl’s mother to ask for mercy. The woman said, “It’s no
use crying like a child, because everyone dies sooner or later. I’ll be brief:
just give me Rp. 200,000 (US$20) so I can have a small ceremony and bury my
daughter.” This was said without any trace of emotion on the woman’s face. The
driver paid and the whole thing was over in five minutes: a cheap and brief
transaction for a human life. This was not the only time—other volunteers in
the camps saw this again and again. I later found out this woman had lost two
children in the camps to sickness and that her husband had been killed in the
post-referendum violence in East Timor. Suffering in the traumatic conditions
of the camp, with limited food, water, and medicine, and a cycle of violence
and intimidation without end has left people completely without hope for the

Are some of
the displaced at particular risk?

Women and
children are the most vulnerable groups in the camp. Women endured family
members disappeared or killed, and those who were kidnapped by military,
police, or militias were often victims of rape. Sexual violence and harassment
didn’t end with their arrival in the camps, either. Women are often put in
barracks with men in camps that are based in old factories or other large
buildings. Women are usually responsible for providing for the family, but
economic opportunities are very limited. Some set up small stalls or work as
maids or laundresses; others turn to begging or prostitution in some areas
such as Belu and Kupang. Many become victims of domestic violence as men turn
violent under the pressure of being homeless, unemployed, and in some cases on
the losing side of the referendum.

Children are
going without school and are forced to become laborers, beggars, and even
thieves. Begging is not part of Timorese culture. Normally, neighbors and
relatives will help a family in need.

What keeps
people from leaving the camps?

There are
several answers. The first is the systematic separation of families in the
mass deportation. More important is the systematic control of the camps. Many
camps are designed with a “circle of intimidation”: civilians in the center,
surrounded by militia members and their families, and then by military and
their families. There is only one way in and out for people, aid, and
information. Militia and military are free to continue to intimidate
civilians, while also spreading misinformation about the conditions in East
Timor. It can take aid workers a long time to get through to the center to
help a sick person.

What do the
militias and military have to gain by keeping them there?

There are three
reasons. First, the East Timorese are a bargaining chip in a political game.
They are put forth as evidence that the 1999 referendum was not valid, despite
the overwhelming results and certification by the Indonesian parliament.
Second, the camps are a kind of military project. For 24 years East Timor was
a source of unlimited arms expenditures, promotions, and business
opportunities for the military. Now 20,000 soldiers and police are out of a
job. Meanwhile the government in Jakarta has little control over military and
bureaucrats in the provinces. For the bureaucrats, military, and militias the
official aid projects are opportunities for corruption and economic gain. It’s
a simple equation: more refugees, more money; fewer refugees, less money. Of
course, there is money in resettlement, too. Finally, some militia members
harbor a dream of returning East Timor to Indonesian control. As long as the
displaced neither resettle nor repatriate, the militias retain some of their
power base.

Can you
describe the risks you and others face?

volunteers have been beaten. We have been intimidated with pistols and chased
with machetes after being wrongly suspected of something. But so far we have
been able to resolve the problems by working with camp officials or security

This is not
a problem unique to Timor. After the Rwandan genocide there were Hut militias
controlling refugee camps. Do you have to work with the militias?

If you want to
work in the camps you have to deal with the militias. The camps are completely
dominated by militia and army. We have worked hard to gain the access we have.
Now we can just say hello and walk to the middle of the circle of
intimidation. Sometimes we use absurd measures, like bringing some candy for
the kids. Then when we come the next time they call out, “Hey, Brother, come
over to my house.” It’s a good entry point. Other times we bring medical help
for the camp officials wives and children. Also, in the camps they know we are
from the Protestant church and people respect the church. If we bring foreign
guests we make sure we are all identified as being from the church.

What do
other West Timorese think of your activities?

society is very divided in opinion. Some think that the loss of East Timor is
a big mistake for the Indonesian nation. They are not realistic about the
crimes against humanity committed by the army and the militias in East Timor
for the last 25 years. This is the biggest group. The second group knows the
truth about the chaos in East Timor. They are organized in NGOs or churches,
and they are increasingly critical of the role of Indonesia and the crimes
against humanity in East Timor. The third group is the floating mass, they
move with whatever rumor may come their way. There are others who are tired of
the whole thing.

What is the
role of the Indonesian media in shaping public opinion?

The winds of
reform in Indonesia have not yet significantly influenced the media. The media
acts as a megaphone for the government. They manipulate information and cheat
on the facts.

If you clip
articles from West Timorese newspapers in the last year or two, you will see
that they have become extremely one sided. The biggest militia leader, Eurico
Gutteres, has become like a superstar, or a movie star. He is so popular that
every day he is in the news. But what did he do? He killed lots of people.

months ago there was a report that there were over a million people displaced
from their homes throughout Indonesia. What is happening in Indonesia that is
causing so many displaced persons?

In December
2000 I joined a national meeting of humanitarian workers from throughout the
country, especially from five conflict areas: West Timor, Central Sulawesi,
Kalimantan, Aceh, West Papua, and Maluku. It was organized by the National
Commission on Violence against Women. We estimate there are about one million
internally displaced persons from both kinds of disasters: natural and
human-made. Of course there are many more people going hungry in Indonesia who
aren’t displaced.

This is a
political question. Although President Suharto fell from power in 1998, we
still do not have democratic institutions in law or the economy. The
extraordinary political change may have increased the fragility of parliament
or government agencies. Legislative and executive control of the military is
very weak. Because of this extraordinary change and lack of control, the army
is free to act to advance its agenda. Look at what happened in Maluku, in Aceh
with its extraordinary military repression, or West Papua. Because control of
the armed forces is weak, there are many human rights violations and the
conflict will never end.

The other cause
is natural disasters, which can happen anywhere. But there needs to be much
stronger agencies and task forces for responding to both kinds of emergencies.
After the violence in Kalimantan—I’ve heard 2,000 people were killed, but this
isn’t official—the army only arrived after two weeks. Using a Hercules
transport plane you can get from Jakarta to Central Kalimantan in two hours.
Why does it have to take two weeks? What’s behind this? The military want to
come back to power, like under Suharto. This is the critical question for
Indonesia’s stability.

What is the
role of justice in the problem of displaced Timorese?

Justice is the
basis of the life of everyone who is suffering as a displaced person. Where is
justice if we are hungry, and have no clothes, when we are raped and
intimidated, or lose a child? And this is not just for the refugees from East
Timor, but for much of the population in Indonesia. Indonesia as a nation must
work hard for justice. Justice must be present in the economy. People must
have enough to eat and a decent job. Justice must also be present in law.
Crimes against humanity must be dealt with through the enforcement of the law.
Justice must be present in education so all people are guaranteed education,
literacy. It must be present in politics, so no one party has control at the
expense of the well being of many people.

I remember on
April 6, 2000 about seven volunteers were running a tent school in the camp of
Tuapukan. There were about 30 to 40 kids in school there. As long as we had
been there we hadn’t been bothered. Both displaced and local kids were coming
to the school: we didn’t want to create conflicts. After an hour or so, we
were singing when a conflict broke out between two camp residents. They were
from militias from different parts of East Timor. At the time there was a lot
of polarization in the camp. They would throw stones and sometimes use
weapons. At the time the tent school was right on the middle of the camp and
we couldn’t get out. Rocks were raining down and even bullets were flying
past; the women and children were crying and screaming. Some of the kids were
taken away by their parents but there were still about 20 there with us,
crying from fear. We told them to lie down. This went on for almost two hours.
Finally the army came. It’s just one story but the point is that doing
humanitarian work carries no small risk.


Post Script

There are two critical
lessons to be taken from Rondo’s account of working in the camps in West
Timor. First, the international community must maintain pressure on Indonesia
to ensure the return of those in West Timor and accountability for those
guilty of the most serious crimes. Second, support for military reform and
accountability is not just a matter of justice for East Timor, but a way to
support the process of democratization in Indonesia itself. The rancorous
change in government on July 23, in which Vice-President Megawati Sukarnoputri
replaced ousted President Abdurrachman Wahid just two years into his term,
will be a difficult test for the new democracy. Unfortunately, the new
president is neither politically savvy nor free of military influence.

The Bush
administration recently reviewed military assistance policies toward
Indonesia, but had not yet released the results as of late July. Last January,
Indonesian Foreign Minister Alwi Shihab told reporters, “I am optimistic that
the military sanctions will be lifted because the Bush government is more
pragmatic and realistic.” Shihab’s hopes for the Bush administration may not
have been misplaced: the Administration’s budget request for fiscal year 2002
included $400,000 for military training. However, he may have underestimated
the influence of Congress, which put the conditions in place and continues to
influence policy through the appropriations process.

In July the
International Crisis Group issued a “report card” on progress towards the U.S.
Congressional conditions. The ICG found that conditions set by the U.S.
Congress in resuming military ties have not been met. The ICG concluded that
despite modest progress in border issues and refugee returns “it is difficult
to see how Presidential certification on these matters could be sent to
Congress in good faith.”

To be sure,
there have been a few modest steps towards accountability, such as the arrest
in early July of Laksaur head Izidio Manek, one of the few militia leaders on
an official Indonesian list of suspects for crimes in East Timor. But those
with the greatest responsibility for the mayhem are still free, and in some
cases have been promoted within the armed forces.

As for the
return of those in West Timor, it is clear that the government is not serious
about a just resolution to the problem. On June 6, the Indonesian government
required East Timorese to choose between repatriation and resettlement. Rondo
had expressed his concern that the process would be grossly unfair,
explaining: “The registration teams are working exclusively with the militias
and other pro-Indonesia groups such as UNTAS in carrying out the registration.
There is no guarantee they will be free from intimidation and allowed to
choose freely. The militias will see this as a chance to further undermine the
referendum results, and will defend their economic interests by keeping the
East Timorese from choosing repatriation.”

These fears
were borne out. As in the referendum, there was no effort to disarm or disband
the militias. The Indonesian government reported that of 113,794 East Timorese
in Indonesia, just 1.1 percent or 1,250 people, chose repatriation. Nobel
Prize winning foreign minister in the transitional cabinet of East Timor Jose
Ramos-Horta called the vote “an absolute farce,” and there were reports of
West Timorese registering, misinformation, and threats. The handful of
international observers did not witness direct intimidation, but they had very
limited access and much of the threats would have been covert. Even the few
who chose to repatriate had not returned by mid-July, raising fears of

While making
the case for maintaining restrictions on military assistance, the ICG report
raised a second critical point. Military assistance is not just a “moral”
concern, because “without fundamental military and political reform,
Indonesia’s long-term strategic stability will remain fundamentally at risk.”
Harold Crouch, ICG’s Indonesia Project Director and expert on the Indonesian
military, warned further, “Dropping tough conditions in the near future would
send exactly the wrong message to Indonesia on military reform, the role of
the armed forces in society and its conduct in conditions of turmoil.”

In this
context, and in view of the long U.S. support of the Indonesian military
throughout the occupation of East Timor, the international community must
maintain pressure on the government of Indonesia and on TNI to cease all
support for the militias. We must also support an international tribunal for
crimes against humanity and war crimes carried out in East Timor. Fostering
accountability and genuine reform is the best way to support the democratic
process not just in East Timor but in Indonesia as well.

Matthew Easton writes and consults on human rights and development issues. He
was an observer in East Timor prior to the 1999 referendum and has been back
several times in 2001.