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Inside the Circle of Intimidation
An interview with Winston Rondo
In August 1999, a quarter century after Indonesia invaded the former Portuguese colony of East Timor, an unprecedented referendum on independence took place. Although Indonesia had promised to ensure the security of the vote, the Indonesian military (TNI) instead organized, trained, armed, and coordinated militias in every district, mirroring the army's territorial structure. Militias had been part of Indonesia's strategy for years, but these new militias were bigger and much more brutal. They were made up of East Timorese who supported integration with Indonesia for political or economic reasons, West Timorese from across the border, and local young men strong-armed into joining. Even some independence activists tied on the red-and white bandanas symbolizing loyalty to Indonesia, took the required blood oaths, and then voted for independence and took to the hills.
When the results were announced to be overwhelmingly in favor of independence, the militias and their army sponsors began a scorched earth campaign so thorough it plundered every last door off the schools. An estimated 1,000 Timorese were killed, schools, clinics, and homes were torched or looted, many women were raped, and more than 250,000 people were forced across the border into West Timor, the western half of the island that has been an Indonesian province since the country's independence in 1949. It was supposed to look like a spontaneous refugee migration that would call the referendum into question, ensure a bargaining chip for the militias, and most likely send a message to restive provinces at either end of the archipelago. But it quickly became clear that the migration—and the violence—was anything but spontaneous. Cameras caught a supposedly long-haired militia member taking a cigarette break from the pillaging and removing his wig to reveal a military buzz cut. At an airstrip in the eastern district of Baucau, in an apparent slip the military commander told UN officials evacuating local staff, “I have orders that all internally displaced people are to go to Atambua or Kupang” in West Timor. Documents found in the debris of torched offices and first-hand accounts of militia members seemed to confirm a comprehensive plan for a massive forced migration. An inquiry carried out by the office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights found that “a pre–planned evacuation of people to West Timor was undertaken by sea and by road. The International Commission received documents that indicated systematic planning by TNI for forced deportation and displacement of people.”
In the two years since that forced exodus, some 180,000 people have returned. Approximately 100,000 remain, most of them in large camps with inadequate food and appalling health conditions. Some stay by choice, worried that their support for integration with Indonesia might mark them for retribution if they return. Others would like to go home eventually but have been fed misinformation by the militias and the Indonesian press about the security situation there and are waiting to see how the political process there unfolds. Others—some estimates are as high as 70 percent—are prevented from returning through threats and intimidation.
What's more, since the killing of three UN refugee workers in September 2000, the international presence has radically decreased and camp conditions are deteriorating. In this context local organizations play a crucial role in delivering aid, as well as acting as witnesses and advocates.
Winston Rondo is the General Secretary of the Center for Internally Displaced People's Services (CIS) in Kupang, West Timor, Indonesia. CIS has worked in the camps since September 1999 providing humanitarian aid, counseling for rape victims and other victims of violence, and informal education. The organization also investigates human rights abuses and disseminates accurate information on repatriation. An Indonesian citizen from West Timor, Winston Rondo was an accredited observer in East Timor during the 1999 referendum.
EASTON: As a West Timorese how did you get involved in these activities?
RONDO: Two institutions were involved in the formation of CIS: the Indonesian Christian Students Movement and Indonesian Christian Youth Movement. As Timorese and as Christians we feel a duty to help people in crisis who have come with no clothes or food, and who have lost their families. We can't sit quietly or sleep easily if there is something that needs to be done. So our love for people who are suffering became the inspiration for our service.
When you first went in were your activities just humanitarian or did you go right to work on human rights and women's rights?
The first month, September 1999, was humanitarian. We asked congregations for clothing, floor mats, rice, to give to the camps. But you can give food every day, every week, every month. The refugees are also dealing with trauma, human rights abuses, and violence against women, so we moved into those areas. We still provided health care and supplementary feeding for the malnourished and education for the kids in “tent schools.” Recently we had to abandon these because of worsening security and declining support from international agencies for the East Timor problem. This is very worrying.
What are conditions like in the camps?
Since the UNHCR killings in Atambua, aid has fallen and its distribution channels have changed. The UN and other international agencies ended direct operations. The local government still provides rice, but it's less than 200 grams per person per day. Even that is distributed unevenly and corruptly. There are signs of malnutrition in some camps, and residents of the camp of Naen are eating a kind of wild vegetable that has to be cooked 15 times before it can be eaten. Camp residents have to rely on rainwater, share water with livestock, or draw it from dirty sources that cause dysentery and rashes. Health services have dwindled to almost nothing, and in some camps remaining medicines are being distributed by untrained people with no instructions. In Noelbaki a resident with the flu was given seven kinds of medicine—and no instructions. On average three to five people are dying each day, mostly from malaria, diarrhea, respiratory infection, and malnutrition.
The relationship with local communities is also a real time bomb—conflicts over limited resources such as land and water are common, as well as distribution of humanitarian assistance and continued militia violence.
How are people coping in these conditions?
Last January there was an accident in the camp of Tuapukan near Kupang, at the time home to 15,000 displaced persons. A small girl was hit by a car and killed. Such an incident can turn violent, and the driver, crying from fear, got down on his knees in front of the girl's mother to ask for mercy. The woman said, “It's no use crying like a child, because everyone dies sooner or later. I'll be brief: just give me Rp. 200,000 (US$20) so I can have a small ceremony and bury my daughter.” This was said without any trace of emotion on the woman's face. The driver paid and the whole thing was over in five minutes: a cheap and brief transaction for a human life. This was not the only time—other volunteers in the camps saw this again and again. I later found out this woman had lost two children in the camps to sickness and that her husband had been killed in the post-referendum violence in East Timor. Suffering in the traumatic conditions of the camp, with limited food, water, and medicine, and a cycle of violence and intimidation without end has left people completely without hope for the future.
Are some of the displaced at particular risk?
Women and children are the most vulnerable groups in the camp. Women endured family members disappeared or killed, and those who were kidnapped by military, police, or militias were often victims of rape. Sexual violence and harassment didn't end with their arrival in the camps, either. Women are often put in barracks with men in camps that are based in old factories or other large buildings. Women are usually responsible for providing for the family, but economic opportunities are very limited. Some set up small stalls or work as maids or laundresses; others turn to begging or prostitution in some areas such as Belu and Kupang. Many become victims of domestic violence as men turn violent under the pressure of being homeless, unemployed, and in some cases on the losing side of the referendum.
Children are going without school and are forced to become laborers, beggars, and even thieves. Begging is not part of Timorese culture. Normally, neighbors and relatives will help a family in need.
What keeps people from leaving the camps?
There are several answers. The first is the systematic separation of families in the mass deportation. More important is the systematic control of the camps. Many camps are designed with a “circle of intimidation”: civilians in the center, surrounded by militia members and their families, and then by military and their families. There is only one way in and out for people, aid, and information. Militia and military are free to continue to intimidate civilians, while also spreading misinformation about the conditions in East Timor. It can take aid workers a long time to get through to the center to help a sick person.
What do the militias and military have to gain by keeping them there?
There are three reasons. First, the East Timorese are a bargaining chip in a political game. They are put forth as evidence that the 1999 referendum was not valid, despite the overwhelming results and certification by the Indonesian parliament. Second, the camps are a kind of military project. For 24 years East Timor was a source of unlimited arms expenditures, promotions, and business opportunities for the military. Now 20,000 soldiers and police are out of a job. Meanwhile the government in Jakarta has little control over military and bureaucrats in the provinces. For the bureaucrats, military, and militias the official aid projects are opportunities for corruption and economic gain. It's a simple equation: more refugees, more money; fewer refugees, less money. Of course, there is money in resettlement, too. Finally, some militia members harbor a dream of returning East Timor to Indonesian control. As long as the displaced neither resettle nor repatriate, the militias retain some of their power base.
Can you describe the risks you and others face?
Several volunteers have been beaten. We have been intimidated with pistols and chased with machetes after being wrongly suspected of something. But so far we have been able to resolve the problems by working with camp officials or security forces.
This is not a problem unique to Timor. After the Rwandan genocide there were Hut militias controlling refugee camps. Do you have to work with the militias?
If you want to work in the camps you have to deal with the militias. The camps are completely dominated by militia and army. We have worked hard to gain the access we have. Now we can just say hello and walk to the middle of the circle of intimidation. Sometimes we use absurd measures, like bringing some candy for the kids. Then when we come the next time they call out, “Hey, Brother, come over to my house.” It's a good entry point. Other times we bring medical help for the camp officials wives and children. Also, in the camps they know we are from the Protestant church and people respect the church. If we bring foreign guests we make sure we are all identified as being from the church.
What do other West Timorese think of your activities?
Indonesian society is very divided in opinion. Some think that the loss of East Timor is a big mistake for the Indonesian nation. They are not realistic about the crimes against humanity committed by the army and the militias in East Timor for the last 25 years. This is the biggest group. The second group knows the truth about the chaos in East Timor. They are organized in NGOs or churches, and they are increasingly critical of the role of Indonesia and the crimes against humanity in East Timor. The third group is the floating mass, they move with whatever rumor may come their way. There are others who are tired of the whole thing.
What is the role of the Indonesian media in shaping public opinion?
The winds of reform in Indonesia have not yet significantly influenced the media. The media acts as a megaphone for the government. They manipulate information and cheat on the facts.
If you clip articles from West Timorese newspapers in the last year or two, you will see that they have become extremely one sided. The biggest militia leader, Eurico Gutteres, has become like a superstar, or a movie star. He is so popular that every day he is in the news. But what did he do? He killed lots of people.
Several months ago there was a report that there were over a million people displaced from their homes throughout Indonesia. What is happening in Indonesia that is causing so many displaced persons?
In December 2000 I joined a national meeting of humanitarian workers from throughout the country, especially from five conflict areas: West Timor, Central Sulawesi, Kalimantan, Aceh, West Papua, and Maluku. It was organized by the National Commission on Violence against Women. We estimate there are about one million internally displaced persons from both kinds of disasters: natural and human-made. Of course there are many more people going hungry in Indonesia who aren't displaced.
This is a political question. Although President Suharto fell from power in 1998, we still do not have democratic institutions in law or the economy. The extraordinary political change may have increased the fragility of parliament or government agencies. Legislative and executive control of the military is very weak. Because of this extraordinary change and lack of control, the army is free to act to advance its agenda. Look at what happened in Maluku, in Aceh with its extraordinary military repression, or West Papua. Because control of the armed forces is weak, there are many human rights violations and the conflict will never end.
The other cause is natural disasters, which can happen anywhere. But there needs to be much stronger agencies and task forces for responding to both kinds of emergencies. After the violence in Kalimantan—I've heard 2,000 people were killed, but this isn't official—the army only arrived after two weeks. Using a Hercules transport plane you can get from Jakarta to Central Kalimantan in two hours. Why does it have to take two weeks? What's behind this? The military want to come back to power, like under Suharto. This is the critical question for Indonesia's stability.
What is the role of justice in the problem of displaced Timorese?
Justice is the basis of the life of everyone who is suffering as a displaced person. Where is justice if we are hungry, and have no clothes, when we are raped and intimidated, or lose a child? And this is not just for the refugees from East Timor, but for much of the population in Indonesia. Indonesia as a nation must work hard for justice. Justice must be present in the economy. People must have enough to eat and a decent job. Justice must also be present in law. Crimes against humanity must be dealt with through the enforcement of the law. Justice must be present in education so all people are guaranteed education, literacy. It must be present in politics, so no one party has control at the expense of the well being of many people.
I remember on April 6, 2000 about seven volunteers were running a tent school in the camp of Tuapukan. There were about 30 to 40 kids in school there. As long as we had been there we hadn't been bothered. Both displaced and local kids were coming to the school: we didn't want to create conflicts. After an hour or so, we were singing when a conflict broke out between two camp residents. They were from militias from different parts of East Timor. At the time there was a lot of polarization in the camp. They would throw stones and sometimes use weapons. At the time the tent school was right on the middle of the camp and we couldn't get out. Rocks were raining down and even bullets were flying past; the women and children were crying and screaming. Some of the kids were taken away by their parents but there were still about 20 there with us, crying from fear. We told them to lie down. This went on for almost two hours. Finally the army came. It's just one story but the point is that doing humanitarian work carries no small risk.
There are two critical lessons to be taken from Rondo's account of working in the camps in West Timor. First, the international community must maintain pressure on Indonesia to ensure the return of those in West Timor and accountability for those guilty of the most serious crimes. Second, support for military reform and accountability is not just a matter of justice for East Timor, but a way to support the process of democratization in Indonesia itself. The rancorous change in government on July 23, in which Vice-President Megawati Sukarnoputri replaced ousted President Abdurrachman Wahid just two years into his term, will be a difficult test for the new democracy. Unfortunately, the new president is neither politically savvy nor free of military influence.
The Bush administration recently reviewed military assistance policies toward Indonesia, but had not yet released the results as of late July. Last January, Indonesian Foreign Minister Alwi Shihab told reporters, “I am optimistic that the military sanctions will be lifted because the Bush government is more pragmatic and realistic.” Shihab's hopes for the Bush administration may not have been misplaced: the Administration's budget request for fiscal year 2002 included $400,000 for military training. However, he may have underestimated the influence of Congress, which put the conditions in place and continues to influence policy through the appropriations process.
In July the International Crisis Group issued a “report card” on progress towards the U.S. Congressional conditions. The ICG found that conditions set by the U.S. Congress in resuming military ties have not been met. The ICG concluded that despite modest progress in border issues and refugee returns “it is difficult to see how Presidential certification on these matters could be sent to Congress in good faith.”
To be sure, there have been a few modest steps towards accountability, such as the arrest in early July of Laksaur head Izidio Manek, one of the few militia leaders on an official Indonesian list of suspects for crimes in East Timor. But those with the greatest responsibility for the mayhem are still free, and in some cases have been promoted within the armed forces.
As for the return of those in West Timor, it is clear that the government is not serious about a just resolution to the problem. On June 6, the Indonesian government required East Timorese to choose between repatriation and resettlement. Rondo had expressed his concern that the process would be grossly unfair, explaining: “The registration teams are working exclusively with the militias and other pro-Indonesia groups such as UNTAS in carrying out the registration. There is no guarantee they will be free from intimidation and allowed to choose freely. The militias will see this as a chance to further undermine the referendum results, and will defend their economic interests by keeping the East Timorese from choosing repatriation.”
These fears were borne out. As in the referendum, there was no effort to disarm or disband the militias. The Indonesian government reported that of 113,794 East Timorese in Indonesia, just 1.1 percent or 1,250 people, chose repatriation. Nobel Prize winning foreign minister in the transitional cabinet of East Timor Jose Ramos-Horta called the vote “an absolute farce,” and there were reports of West Timorese registering, misinformation, and threats. The handful of international observers did not witness direct intimidation, but they had very limited access and much of the threats would have been covert. Even the few who chose to repatriate had not returned by mid-July, raising fears of retribution.
While making the case for maintaining restrictions on military assistance, the ICG report raised a second critical point. Military assistance is not just a “moral” concern, because “without fundamental military and political reform, Indonesia's long-term strategic stability will remain fundamentally at risk.” Harold Crouch, ICG's Indonesia Project Director and expert on the Indonesian military, warned further, “Dropping tough conditions in the near future would send exactly the wrong message to Indonesia on military reform, the role of the armed forces in society and its conduct in conditions of turmoil.”
In this context, and in view of the long U.S. support of the Indonesian military throughout the occupation of East Timor, the international community must maintain pressure on the government of Indonesia and on TNI to cease all support for the militias. We must also support an international tribunal for crimes against humanity and war crimes carried out in East Timor. Fostering accountability and genuine reform is the best way to support the democratic process not just in East Timor but in Indonesia as well. Z
Matthew Easton writes and consults on human rights and development issues. He was an observer in East Timor prior to the 1999 referendum and has been back several times in 2001.