May 1 1999

East Timor on the Wires

AP, Reuters transmit Indonesia's official version

When the Indonesian government announced in January that it would consider cutting East Timor loose if people there refused its autonomy proposal, reports started surfacing that tensions between pro-Indonesia and pro-independence East Timorese had reached a critical point. Reuters wrote (3/10/99): “President B.J. Habibie…startled the world by suggesting independence as a ‘second option’ if autonomy were rejected, touching off fighting between pro- and anti-independence Timorese factions.” The Associated Press reported soon after Habibie’s announcement (2/16/99) that “pro-Indonesian activists have warned of the possibility of civil war among rival East Timorese factions if Indonesia withdraws troops from the territory.”

The wire services’ reporters do not seem to question the idea that, after a brutal occupation that has claimed the lives of some 200,000 people in a nation with a population of 690,000, a substantial portion of the surviving populace would still support the occupiers who carried out this massive slaughter. Indeed, wire service correspondents seem to have no trouble finding East Timorese who are loyal to Jakarta. Reuters, in a sensationalistic and one-sided piece (2/5/99), quoted a pro-Indonesia villager: “Those kids in Dili who are pro-referendum and organize anti-Indonesia protests just don’t know what they are talking about. They didn’t experience the civil war caused by Portugal’s withdrawal.”

The AP (3/13/99) also brought up the matter of what preceded Indonesia’s invasion of East Timor, asking, “Is East Timor ready to be a country?… The last time East Timor was on its own, briefly in the 1970s, it lurched into civil war.” Although the AP piece recalls East Timor’s “unhappy history” prior to the Indonesian occupation, it overlooks Indonesia’s role in the civil war. In 1975, Indonesia’s military intelligence service sponsored a minority faction that advocated integration with Indonesia, then fed false reports to another conservative party to encourage it to launch a coup. FRETILIN, the party that enjoyed the most popularity and sought independence for East Timor under a new leftist government, put down the coup in a “civil war” that lasted a little over a month.

This did not suit the Indonesian government, which wanted the appearance of a protracted war to justify an invasion. A CIA cable from September 1975 said that Jakarta sent guerrillas into East Timor “to provoke incidents that provide an excuse to invade” (John Pilger, Death of a Nation). Amnesty International, moreover, has said there is “considerable evidence that in the months leading up to the invasion in December, Indonesian troops, supported by East Timorese ‘partisans’…, made repeated incursions into East Timor” (cited in Indigenous Peoples of Asia, Nicholas and Singh, eds.).

Discredited claims

As in 1975, the Indonesian government and military in 1999 are putting out the message that civil war appears imminent in East Timor. Many East Timorese and independent observers, however, say that the violence is being fomented by the Indonesian military, which organizes and arms paramilitary groups. Since last December, the paramilitaries, known as “teams,” have become increasingly active, killing dozens and driving more than 7,000 villagers from their homes (East Timor Action Network/U.S.; London Independent, 1/28/99).

The Diocesan Justice and Peace Commission, based in the East Timorese capital of Dili, said in a report released last December that pro-Indonesian paramilitary groups “established and armed by the military” were guilty of numerous human rights violations.

Last October, Indonesian army documents leaked to a human rights group in Australia revealed that the paramilitaries are under the direct control of army commanders. According to an analysis of the documents by the group that obtained them: “The para-military teams…work closely with the intelligence units of the elite forces, Kopassus, known as the SGI, whose brutal methods of interrogation and torture are widely feared in East Timor. It is an integral part of the Indonesian army’s doctrine to recruit members of the community to serve the interests of the armed forces.” (See the East Timor Action Network website at Reuters itself reported (10/30/98) that the army documents “showed that 13 civilian militia groups in East Timor…were apparently under the control of the Indonesian military (ABRI).”

In February, however, despite evidence linking ABRI with the paramilitaries, and despite its own earlier reporting, Reuters (2/4/99) continued to treat seriously the official line that the Indonesian army had nothing to do with arming paramilitaries. “Some human rights groups have accused the Indonesian army of distributing weapons to its supporters but the military has denied this,” the wire service reported. The next day, the wire service informed readers that “local military commanders deny giving weapons to loyalists.”

While Reuters declined to look beyond the Indonesian army’s discredited claims, the BBC managed to track down the leader of one of the most notorious paramilitaries, who told the British news service that his forces had used guns given to them by Indonesian troops to carry out an attack on civilians that had left six people dead, including a pregnant woman and a schoolboy. The BBC (2/5/99) noted “an alarming degree of cooperation between the unofficial militias and the Indonesian army at a time when diplomats are trying to find a peaceful solution to the conflict in East Timor.”

A few days later, when the military was forced to admit it was handing out weapons to paramilitaries, the AP (2/7/99) quoted Maj. Gen. Adam Damiri as saying that the arming of civilians “was necessary to help maintain peace and order.” No one was given a chance to respond to this claim in the article.

Even when the wires choose to write about pro-Indonesia militias, it is not clear how much light is actually being shed on the paramilitary phenomenon. In February, Reuters (2/5/99) lead readers to believe that East Timorese were joining militias entirely of their own volition: “People in [the village of] Vatuboro said their loyalty was not forced by pressure from the Indonesian Army.” An army lieutenant posted near the village added, “Their desire to defend themselves is genuine…. It is not true that they want to be part of Indonesia because of our intimidation.”

Although Reuters offered readers no way of knowing whether to believe these claims, other print media have uncovered stories that suggest coercion is often used to induct paramilitary members. A correspondent for the British daily the Independent (2/7/99) found a hundred villagers who had been displaced by pro-Indonesia paramilitaries. According to the refugees’ testimonies, “local officials and soldiers began recruiting young men for a pro-Indonesian militia. Those who refused to join were threatened with death.”

Unofficial views

Some journalists do provide information and views that call into question Indonesia’s official representation of the situation in East Timor. A man sheltering refugees in Dili told the Independent (2/14/99), “Indonesia has said for a long time that if they leave, there will be a civil war. This is manipulation.”

In an interview with independent U.S. journalists Amy Goodman and Allan Nairn (Democracy Now, 3/3/99), FRETILIN head Xanana Gusmao said that Indonesian military intelligence is organizing and arming the paramilitaries “to create an appearance in East Timor that the situation is uncontrollable.”

Marcos Da Cruz, chair of the National Resistance of East Timor Students, agrees that the Indonesian military is behind the violence: “Horizontal conflicts [between civilians] are the Habibie government’s aim,” he told Australia’s Green Left Weekly (3/3/99). “That kind of conflict allows it to keep its authority in East Timor.”

This illegitimate authority continues to receive validation from the wires. Reuters (3/6/99) refers to East Timor as Indonesia’s “youngest and most rebellious province”–a curious way to describe a territory whose invasion and occupation by Indonesia has been condemned by the United Nations General Assembly on eight separate occasions. The U.N. does not recognize East Timor as part of Indonesia; neither does any government in the world–except Australia, which acknowledged Indonesia’s claim to East Timor so it could cut a deal to divide up the oil-rich Timor Gap.

The AP, nevertheless, misrepresents East Timor’s legal status by referring to “zealous separatists” (3/13/99), “separatist guerrillas” (2/9/99) and “separatist” protesters in Dili (3/13/99). By calling the resistance in East Timor “separatists,” the AP confers legitimacy on a brutal occupation devoid of any legal, historical or cultural justification. Would the APdescribe as “separatists” Kuwaitis fighting against Saddam Hussein–or the French resistance against Nazi occupation?