Subject: RT: Timor's neighbourhood watch - heroes or villains?
Date: Sat, 10 Jul 1999 16:48:33 -0400
From: "John M. Miller" <>

Timor's neighbourhood watch - heroes or villains? 05:12 a.m. Jul 06, 1999 Eastern

By Tim Johnston

DILI, East Timor, July 6 (Reuters) - To some, East Timor's pro-Jakarta militiamen are heroes protecting defenceless villagers.

To others, they are military-backed thugs who slaughter unarmed men, women and children, and are endangering what is perhaps the bloodied territory's only chance to choose its fate.

Dili-based human rights groups say the militias, with the help of Indonesian soldiers and police, have killed at least dozens of villagers in recent months in a bloody campaign that threatens to derail a U.N.-run ballot on independence for the territory due on August 21 or 22.

One church official in the mainly Catholic province says most militiamen are just poor farmers and workers forced to join.

``Without the military funds and encouragement, the militias would disappear overnight,'' he told Reuters.

``They are told that if they do not join they must be enemies. They join to protect themselves,'' he said, adding the militias were also a rich hunting ground for the corrupt, the power-hungry and those with scores to settle.

The militias are loose, poorly-trained groups of men.

They wear mainly civilian clothes, or a mix of camouflage and civilian, and are armed with a mish-mash of weapons: military guns, homemade guns, spears, machetes, and bows and arrows.

Militia leaders say they command tens of thousands of ``warriors.'' Human rights groups say there are less than 10,000.

Most are ethnic Timorese, although some were born to Indonesian immigrants who arrived after Jakarta's 1975 invasion.

Locals say the ethnic Timorese head of the fearsome Aitarak (Thorn) militia, Eurico Guterres, was raised by Indonesian special forces soldiers after his family was killed by pro-independence guerrillas in the late 1970s.

Few of the leaders were prominent before they formed their militias last year to counter the growing, and increasingly open, independence movement.

Many leaders of the militias and other loyalist groups have benefitted from their support of Indonesian rule, but it has made them unpopular with many East Timorese.

``Without the Indonesians...these people have no future in East Timor,'' the church official said.

Diplomats and defence analysts say rogue elements in the armed forces (ABRI) who oppose the government's policy to allow independence may be waging a proxy war, fearing a loss of power and the encouragement to other separatist movements a breakaway East Timor would give.

``They don't want to let East Timor go,'' said a Jakarta-based Western diplomat. ``Some senior officers are very angry. They see these (militias) as useful tools.''

But pro-Jakarta leaders say they need the militias to protect ordinary Timorese against pro-independence groups, including the guerrillas still operating in the hills.

Basilio Araujo, an official with a loyalist umbrella group whose rule the militias come under, said the militias were formed because the 15,000 Indonesian soldiers and police in the eastern half of Timor island were not protecting Timorese.

``These groups are voluntary groups who woke up last year without being picked up by the Indonesian army,'' he told Reuters.

Araujo and militia leaders deny any links to the military. But witnesses say police and soldiers have joined some attacks and stood by and watched others.

Reporters and United Nations officials in the territory have seen ABRI personnel training militiamen. The United Nations says its personnel saw soldiers directing militias as they burned homes and beat an old man in a village two weeks ago.

Some militia cars carry government licence plates and Aitarak is headquartered in a former hotel locals say is owned by ABRI.

There has been a move over the past two months to give the militias legitimacy by bringing them into the government fold, something that has been harshly criticised by the United Nations.

Some of the most notorious militias, notably Aitarak in Dili and Besi Merah Putih (Red and White Iron), have been given semi-offical status to run civil security in their areas as members of an official organisation called Pam Swakarsa.

``The government is trying to channel them into legal ways,'' says Araujo. ``What is known in Indonesia as Pam Swakarsa is known in other societies as Neighbourhood Watch.''

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