Subject: FEER: Pro-Jakarta Militias Wait Out UN In East Timor

Far Eastern Economic Review issue dated September 21, 2000

FEER: Pro-Jakarta Militias Wait Out UN In East Timor


MALIANA, East Timor -- An Australian soldier holds his finger tightly on the trigger of his automatic rifle, watching with his unit for movement in the brush across the stream that separates East and West Timor. The threat is real. Two UN soldiers, a New Zealander and a Nepalese, have been killed since late July by pro-Indonesian East Timorese militiamen who have managed to sneak across what has become one of the most heavily defended borders in Southeast Asia.

Lt.-Col. Brynjar Nymo, the Norwegian spokesman for the U.N. peacekeeping force in Dili, says that as many as 150 militiamen in eight to 10 groups, each of five to 30 men, have managed to cross the 170-kilometre border from West Timor over the past few months.

Maj. David Thomae of the 6 Royal Australian Regiment in Maliana - a town that was almost completely destroyed in violence last year - calls these groups "a completely new type of militia. Last year, they were armed with pipe guns and machetes. Now they carry automatic rifles and hand grenades."

Few people in the border areas doubt the militias are receiving support from the Indonesian military and powerful politicians in Jakarta. Most militia members appear to have had some training in basic guerrilla warfare.

Local villagers are scared. Maria Soares, a young woman in the hilltop border town of Bobonaro, says people "don't dare to go to their fields in the hills, so we are short of food."

Nymo says the numerous refugee camps in West Timor are "the power base of the militias," and their claim to legitimacy is based on the population they control there.

Since last week's murders forced the pullout of U.N. aid workers from the refugee camps, border security has been tightened, with more Indonesian troops in West Timor, but the remote hills of East Timor's western region are no less tense.

East Timor has been divided into three sectors for peacekeeping purposes: West, with 2,200 men from Australia and New Zealand, with smaller contingents from Fiji, Nepal and Ireland; Central, with 1,026 men from Portugal and a company of Kenyan troops; and East, with 1,636 men from Thailand, the Philippines and South Korea.

The most important sector is, of course, Sector West, nearest the border: Some peacekeepers complain that because the Portuguese in Sector Central do very little patrolling, militias are safe once they have managed to cross Sector West. One 30-man militia group, the largest known, managed to reach Same in Sector Central.

Maj. Thomae says militia activity near the border has increased markedly over the past few months. "We patrol the area constantly," he says, "and our aim is to isolate the militias in their mountain hide-outs, to restrict their movements."

The U.N. wants to prevent the militias from reaching the local population. It seems to be working. On a recent U.N. mission on September 1, Australian troops had surrounded rebels hiding out on a mountaintop above Maliana. In order to avoid a raid and possible casualties, troops dropped leaflets by helicopter, urging the group to surrender.

The aim of the militias, U.N. spokesmen say, appears to be to "wait out the U.N.," which is supposed to pull out after next year's elections. The people of East Timor see that as an invitation to disaster. As Efren de Guzman, a Filipino Jesuit priest in Maliana, says: "The U.N. should not leave. When the peacekeepers leave, how can the local people defend themselves?"

East Timor does have its own defence force: the remaining elements of Falintil, the armed wing of pro-independence group Fretilin. And Falintil's commanders may have a unique insight into the tactics of the militiamen. By using the East Timor mountains as a base for ambushes, the militias are copying Falintil's guerrilla tactics during its struggle against the Indonesians.

Domingos Pacheco, a farmer in Bobonaro, says that "we have no security, and the U.N.'s peacekeeping force doesn't know the terrain here. They need help from the Falintil to find the militias' hide-outs."

But under the U.N.'s present mandate, interaction with Falantil is limited. Falintil keeps one liaison officer at the U.N. peacekeeping-force headquarters in Dili, and three in each of the three sectors. Local commanders in the field also seem to be in favor of more active Falintil participation in tracking down the militias.

Falintil participation is a very delicate issue, especially if Falintil fighters and U.N. forces start to work together in the border area. Indonesia would consider that a provocation, and could step up support for the militias. Force spokesman Nymo says the first step might be to assign Falintil liaison officers at the company level, not just the sector level.

In fact, the U.N. presence may have weakened Falantil. When the first international peacekeeping force, Interfet, arrived in September last year, it was under instructions to disarm "all armed factions," including Falintil. After Falintil refused, a compromise was reached, and the force's remaining 1,500 men were put in a cantonment in the small town of Aileu in the hills south of Dili. There they are allowed to retain their guns, but must leave them in the camp when they travel.

Many Falintil troops have been reposted to their local areas or given leave to return to their families, according to a recent study prepared by the Centre for Defence Studies at King's College, London.

A year of cantonment has demoralized the group. "Falintil finds itself marginalized," the King's College report says. The remarkable discipline the fighters showed last year is gone, and members of the group have resorted to smuggling, theft and extortion, according to the report.

It is also difficult today to determine who is Falintil and who is not. Several influential Falantil commanders have left Aileu, guns in hand, and taken up residence in the Baucau area in a group that calls itself the Sagrada Familia, or Sacred Family.

Falantil will need support to establish itself as a proper defense force when the U.N. departs. But the U.N. cannot provide any training to Falintil, says Nymo. For Falintil to become a proper force, either the mandate will have to change, or Falintil will have to reach bilateral agreements with the defence forces of individual countries.

Even if the U.N.'s mandate isn't extended, East Timor would need bilateral defence agreements with countries such as Australia. Defence analysts in Canberra say Australia has to be prepared for a long stay in East Timor.

On September 1, the situation remained tense. U.N. armoured personnel carriers moved closer to the mountain above Maliana where the militiamen were ensconced, and Black Hawk helicopters ferried supplies. And nervous residents, watching the operation, begged the peacekeepers not to leave East Timor.

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