Sep
15
1999

Is East Timor Really 'Out of Control'?

A front-page New York Times article about the precarious situation in East Timor (9/12/99) began by reporting that Indonesian "Gen. Wiranto, conceded Saturday that he had lost control of elements of his military" that were operating on the island. The article's headline, "Jakarta Concedes a Loss of Control," echoed this view.

The assertion that Wiranto--Indonesia's top commander--was unable to control the violence in East Timor went unquestioned in the first two-thirds of the article. Then, in the article's 29th paragraph, an unnamed official traveling with the visiting U.N. delegation in East Timor flatly contested this account:

I don't see any reason to think they are having difficulties controlling the situation. Look at today and look at election day when everything was brought under control with the snap of a finger. This is such a coordinated and planned campaign--evacuating towns, assassinating moderate leaders, moving huge numbers of people into forced exile-that it could only have come from the top.

This approach is typical of the mainstream media's recent coverage of the East Timor crisis. NBC News introduced its September 14 coverage of East Timor with a large logo reading "Out of Control"--even as anchor Tom Brokaw told viewers that "government-backed militias are reportedly carrying out systematic assassinations of those who support independence for that province."

A September 14 article in the Washington Post reported that an American general recently told Wiranto that the "United States expected Indonesian forces to reestablish control in East Timor." The Post presented without challenging the view that the Indonesian command was unable to stop the violence.

But who has ultimate control in East Timor is very much a contested question. The Indonesian military--and its supporters in Washington--claim the violence is being directed by armed militias working together with rogue elements of the Indonesian military over whom the top commanders have no control.

Critics, however, suggest that the violence in East Timor is not the result of "chaos" or the occupied nation being "out of control," but rather the intended consequence of a plan from Jakarta to punish the East Timorese for asserting their independence. Nobel laureate Bishop Carlos Belo, a Timorese leader, has said he believes the killings are being "orchestrated by the Indonesian top general in Jakarta in order to stop this historical event" (Agence France Presse, 9/10/99).

An investigation by the London Observer (9/12/99) reported that the campaign in East Timor was planned months in advance, citing "satellite telephone conversations between senior officers in Dili and Jakarta" intercepted by Australian intelligence agencies in March. In these conversations,Indonesian military officials planned a "scorched earth policy" if East Timor were to vote for independence.

An Australian opposition spokesperson has said that Australian authorities "had an intelligence assessment that showed that ABRI [i.e. the Indonesian army] could easily control and apprehend that process but was not doing so" (AFP, 9/15/99). Australian intelligence sources told the Melbourne Age (9/11/99) that "the lack of any vigorous action by the commander of the Indonesian armed forces, General Wiranto, to rein in his forces implied he was at least turning a blind eye."

Journalist Allan Nairn, who was recently arrested in East Timor by Indonesian military authorities, has written not only that "the militias area wing of the TNI/ABRI, the Indonesian armed forces," but that last April a high-ranking U.S. military official gave Gen. Wiranto, the Indonesian commander, what Indonesian officers interpreted as a "green light to proceed with the militia operation" (Nation, 9/27/99).

During the Kosovo conflict, reporters did not take at face value Yugoslav government assertions that atrocities were being committed only by "out-of-control" paramilitary forces. Likewise, reporters need to remember that U.S. and Indonesian officials have their own interests in shaping how the East Timorese crisis is portrayed, and that their views should not be relayed without questioning. The facts uncovered by investigative reporters need to be incorporated into the ongoing coverage of the crisis.