Who are Timorese militias?

Independence for East Timor came nearer following the Aug. 30 referendum. Ninety-eight percent of the citizens cast votes and, by 78.5 percent, chose independence over autonomy within Indonesia. The people's ordeal, however, is far from over. Militia gangs continue to rampage, creating fear and panic. An estimated 50,000 out of a population of 800,000 have fled to safer areas.

Who are these militias? Whom do they represent? What are their objectives?

In 1975, Portugal, after 333 years of occupation, withdrew from the colony. Indonesia, following unsuccessful attempts to negotiate with Lisbon, occupied the province and incorporated it.

East Timorese calls for independence went unheeded and a guerilla resistance force, FRETELIN, was suppressed. Javanese imperial power replaced the Portuguese. As empire builders do, the Indonesians have exploited the province in the intervening 24 years, and have created interests they, and East Timorese associated with them, wish to preserve.

Although the Indonesians established a civilian administration with East Timorese in key positions, the Indonesian Army was clearly in charge. It strongly supported integration into Indonesia, fearing that a weak independent state could fall under influences - particularly from Beijing - inimical to Indonesia's interests.

As the possibility of independence increased, many in the Army made clear their opposition. They argued that relinquishing East Timor would set a precedent that might lead to the break up of the nation. They stressed that they were still fighting elements seeking greater autonomy in Irian Jaya (West New Guinea) and Aceh in north Sumatra. They recalled defeating separatist movements in the past in the Moluccas and Sulawesi. More recently the Army, after having suffered casualties in the war against FRETELIN, has been reluctant to give up territory for which many comrades have died.

There can be little doubt that the Army, or elements of the Army, have assisted in the organization and supplying of the militias. A BBC report on Sept. 1, "The Shadowy Militias of East Timor," estimated that 13 different militia groups were operating. Some have been in existence since Indonesia occupied the territory in 1975. Formed by the Army at that time to fight FRETELIN, they now form the primary resistance to independence.

But efforts to block independence undoubtedly come from other sources as well.

As with imperial patterns elsewhere, East Timor had its own "settlers," migrants who came from crowded Java and Sulawesi to live and work in East Timor. Since the occupation, such migrants - largely Muslims in a Roman Catholic province - have come to dominate the public and business sectors. They fear for their future in an independent state, and those East Timorese who have worked in the Indonesian administration share those fears.

A second source of support for resistance to independence may come from individuals closely related to the former Suharto regime and retired Army officers who, over the years, have gained control of a major portion of East Timor's trade and resources. An article in The Age of Australia on May 5 described what it called, "The economic interests of the Jakarta oligarchy," which might be threatened by independence. These include Suharto family land holdings, including possible oil producing areas, and control of sandalwood forests, hotels, construction firms, and cement supplies.

Unless the Indonesian Army brings the militias under control or a UN intervention force can restore order, the militias will continue their efforts either to gain control of the province or bring about a division that will give the richer areas to Indonesia. Either result would be a tragic reversal of the will of the East Timorese and a further blot on the image of Indonesia.

Efforts by peoples in Asia and Africa to detach themselves from the Portuguese empire have, in almost every case, been marked by violence. The East Timorese are particularly unfortunate; they have had to detach themselves from not one, but two empires.

*David D. Newsom was US ambassador to Indonesia from 1974 to 1977.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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