The US-Indonesia Alliance Against East Timor

The first American to visit a guerrilla leader's camp finds a sophisticated organization, hard conditions, no sign of giving up

"Welcome. I'm Mr. David Alex." The appearance of this small, wiry man with a big smile who shook my hand and embraced me as I arrived at his mountain camp in East Timor seemed to contradict his status as one of East Timor's most wanted men.

David Alex is a 21-year veteran of East Timor's war against the Indonesian forces of occupation and a leader of FALINTIL, the guerrilla army of the East Timorese resistance. He seemed very happy to see me, the first American ever to meet with FALINTIL. "Thank you for coming," he said. "We are especially honored that someone from the United States has come to visit us."

The relative ease with which the resistance smuggled me in and out of the area where our meeting took place provided a counterweight to official Indonesian assertions that the resistance is marginalized and isolated within East Timor. And my experience seemed to substantiate what I had often heard from activists in the East Timorese underground: The resistance is everyone and everywhere. Most important, it demonstrated the utter bankruptcy of the policies toward East Timor of Indonesia and its Western patrons, notably the United States, Indonesia's principal partner in crime in East Timor over the past 21 years.

I had no intention of meeting with the guerrilla leadership during my recent visit to East Timor, a country where more than 200,000 people have lost their lives as a result of Indonesia's brutal 1975 invasion and ongoing occupation. But the insistence of activists from the Timorese underground opened my mind to the possibility. And my exposure to their security apparatus as they led me to clandestine meetings in Dili, the capital of the former Portuguese colony, convinced me of the sophistication of their organization.

Safe on the floor of the car

My journey had started several hours earlier in Dili, a city crawling with Indonesian intelligence agents, when I met my escorts near the downtown area. They quickly ushered me into a vehicle and had me lie down on the floor until we were safely outside the city. After a drive of about three hours and a brief hike we arrived at a safe house on the rural outskirts of a town in the eastern part of the Indonesian-occupied territory.

After eating a meal of noodles and rice with the family of the house, I rested for a few hours as we waited for the segurana, the security person from the camp, to come and let us know that we could safely pass.

An estafeta, a messenger between the town and the guerrillas, served as our guide as we climbed toward the camp. Exposed against the clear, moonlit sky, we moved quickly along gently terraced farms and across almost completely denuded ridges, a result of Indonesia's ecocide aimed at denying cover for the resistance. We reached the camp after an arduous one-hour hike.

The camp, carved out of thick brush, was well hidden but very functional. A number of tarp shelters, a temporary latrine, a rainwater catchment system, and a small cooking area provided the living quarters for Mr. Alex and 10 fellow guerrilla fighters.

The guerrilla leader, along with a number of others within his close-knit contingent, has been living in the mountains with the armed resistance since Indonesia's invasion. He last saw his wife in July 1979 when she was six months pregnant with a son he has never seen. At that time FALINTIL encouraged the civilian population under its protection to surrender because it was close to decimation, owing to the onslaught of an Indonesian military campaign largely facilitated by the sale of US and British counterinsurgency aircraft.

FALINTIL was able to reorganize and rebuild under the leadership of Xanana Gusmo, the resistance leader now serving a 20-year sentence in an Indonesian prison after his 1992 capture. And since the mid-1980s the war has been largely stalemated with several hundred East Timorese guerrilla fighters facing anywhere from 15,000 to 30,000 Indonesian troops.

The guerrillas exist in small groups and employ a defensive strategy, occasionally ambushing Indonesian troops. Until 1991 they were largely concentrated in the east but have since spread throughout the territory so that guerrilla activity is now of relatively equal intensity in all regions of the country.

According to Alex, FALINTIL now numbers around 600 full-time fighters plus reserves who could quickly be deployed if they had sufficient weapons. He is in charge of one of FALINTIL's four regions and commands about 150 fighters, including five women.

"Yes, our numbers are small," he admitted. "But we cannot base a struggle simply on the quantity of force. The quality and righteousness of the struggle are more important. And FALINTIL does not struggle alone, but along with all the East Timorese people." Indeed, how else could they survive given the vastly superior numbers and resources of the Indonesian military?

During my 24-hour stay at the camp, numerous estafetas delivered supplies and messages from other FALINTIL groups and underground activists in the towns. A number of seguranas also passed by to brief Alex on the nearest Indonesian military, reportedly five kilometers away, and local Indonesian intelligence assets. My transport in and out of the region relied on the cooperation of people from many walks of life, including some ostensibly working for the Indonesian security apparatus.

But the conditions of the guerrilla fighters are clearly difficult. They are almost constantly on the move, rarely spending more than a week or two at one site. The rainy season is especially strenuous for them as Indonesia steps up its military activities and the rain inhibits mobility and contact with guerrilla groups in other parts of the country.

Over the last year, 11 of Alex's troops have died (while inflicting 43 deaths and 11 injuries on the Indonesian military). Despite Indonesia's claims of a vastly reduced military presence in the territory, the resistance reports that about 40 battalions, upwards of 30,000 Indonesian soldiers, are in East Timor. The sight of Indonesian troops throughout the country, supplied with advanced military equipment from Britain, the US, and a number of other Western countries, would seem to substantiate the resistance claims.

Nobel Peace Prize helps

The guerrillas have no intention of unilaterally ending their struggle. They see FALINTIL as an integral and indispensable part of an overall popular resistance to Indonesia's illegal rule of their tiny country. In their eyes, the recent awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to Jos Ramos Horta, the head of the diplomatic front of the resistance, and Bishop Carlos Belo of East Timor has served to legitimize their efforts internationally.

"We will struggle forever to defend the rights of the people and to keep their hopes alive," asserts Alex. "Only this way can we force Indonesia and the countries that provide the Suharto regime with arms and money, especially the United States, to follow international law and respect our human right to self-determination."

The Clinton administration should reverse course and actively support the Nobel committee's call for "a diplomatic solution to the conflict based on the [East Timorese] people's right to self-determination" by ceasing all military and economic assistance to Indonesia. If the US added strong diplomatic efforts through the United Nations, the Indonesian government would probably quickly agree to sit down with the resistance and negotiate a cease-fire. And Alex and his fellow guerrillas could finally come down from the mountains.

* Matthew Jardine, a researcher and writer on human rights and international affairs, is co-author with Constncio Pinto of "East Timor's Unfinished Struggle: Inside the Timorese Resistance" (South End Press).

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