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«People’s war: militias in East Timor and Indonesia1 Geoffrey Robinson Much of what has been written about East Timor’s militias has focused on ...»

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People’s war: militias in East Timor

and Indonesia1

Geoffrey Robinson

Much of what has been written about East Timor’s militias has

focused on their relationship with the armed forces, and on the latter’s legal responsibility for the 1999 violence. This preoccupation

with culpability, while important and understandable under the

circumstances, has obscured the much deeper historical origins of

the violence and the militias, and has diverted attention from the

notable similarities between East Timor’s militias and those in Indonesia itself. Indeed, it has meant that basic questions about the historical origins of the militias, and the political conditions of their existence, have scarcely been asked. Where did the militias actually come from? Why did they act in the ways that they did? And what explains the marked similarities between the militia groups in East Timor and those in Indonesia? Existing explanations of East Timor’s militias, and of the violence of 1999, generally fall into two categories, both of which ignore or elide these crucial historical questions. The first, commonly expressed by Indonesian officials, is that the militias formed spontaneously in response to pro-independence provocation in late 1998, and that their acts of violence were an expression of ‘traditional’ cultural patterns such as ‘running amok’. The second view, more common among Western journalists and scholars, is that the militias were formed at a stroke by the Indonesian army in late 1998, and that the violence was carefully orchestrated by military commanders. The author’s view is that both characterizations are in significant respects wrong, or at least misleading. This paper explains why, and provides an alternative explanation.

At about 5 pm on 30 August 1999, João Lopes Gomes was stabbed in the back and killed while loading ballot boxes on to a United Nations For helpful comments on earlier drafts of this paper, I would like to thank Ruth McVey, John Sidel, Henk Schulte Nordholt, Greg Bankoff, Patricia Henry, Dwight King, Andrea Molnar, Ian Martin, Nancy Lee Peluso, Basil Robinson and Lovisa Stannow.

South East Asia Research, 9, 3, pp. 271–318 272 South East Asia Research vehicle in the village of Atsabe. Mr Gomes was a local staff member of the UN Mission in East Timor (UNAMET), the body that oversaw the referendum in which the populatio n voted overwhelm ingly for independence after 24 years of contested Indonesian rule. His assailants were local men, sporting red and white bandanas, and armed with swords, home-made guns, and knives. At the time of the attack they were accom panied by armed Indonesian soldiers, including the subdistrict military commander.

The murder of João Lopes Gomes was not an isolated occurrence.

He was one of more than 1,000 people killed before and immediately after the 30 August ballot, 2 and his assailants belonged to one of the many so-called ‘militia’ groups responsible for killings and other acts of violence that reached a terrible clim ax in September.3 Nor were the militias of 1999 historically unique. Similar groups had existed in East Timor throughout the Indonesian occupation, and during the long period of Portuguese colonial rule that preceded it. Militia groups also have a very long history in Indonesia itself. Indeed, the militias of East Timor bore remarkable similarities to paramilitary groups that emerged in the final decade of President Suharto’s New Order, especially in politically troubled areas like Aceh and West Papua.

Much of what has been written about East Timor’s militias has focused on their relationship with the armed forces, and on the latter ’s legal responsibility for the 1999 violence. This preoccupation with culpability, while important and understandable under the circumstances, has obscured the much deeper historical origins of the violence and the militias, and has diverted attention from the notable similarities between East Timor’s militias and those in Indonesia itself. Indeed, it has meant that basic questions about the historical origins of the militias, and the politica l conditions of their existence, have scarcely been asked. Where did the militias actually come from? Why did they act in the ways that they did? And what explains the marked similarities between the militia groups in East Timor and those in Indonesia?

As of November 1999, UNTAET (UN Transitional Authority in East Timor) and Interfet

(International Force for East Timor) estimated that 1,093 people had been killed, while local non-governmental organizations put the figure closer to 1,500. See United Nations, ‘Situation of human rights in East Timor’, A/54/660, 10 December 1999, p. 8.

By the time an international military force arrived in East Timor in late September, some 70 per cent of all the buildings in the territory had been burned or destroyed, and an estimated 400,000 people had been forced to flee their homes. Two years later the remnants of those groups continued to threaten trouble from the Indonesian side of the border.

People’s war: militias in East Timor and Indonesia Existing explanations of East Timor’s militias, and of the violence of 1999, generally fall into two categories, both of which ignore or elide these crucial historical questions. The first, commonly expressed by Indonesian officials, is that the militias formed spontaneously in response to pro-independence provocation in late 1998, and that their acts of violence were an expression of ‘traditional’ cultural patterns such as ‘running amok’. The second view, more common among Western journalists and scholars, is that the militias were formed at a stroke by the Indonesian arm y in late 1998, and that the violence was carefu lly orchestrated by military commanders.





My own view is that both characterizations are in significan t respects wrong, or at least misleading. This paper explains why I think so, and provides what I believe is a more satisfactory explanation. The focus here is less on the immediate process through which militia groups were mobilized in 1999, a subject dealt with in some detail by others, and more on the historical and political context that facilitate d their emergence and shaped their behaviour. 4 It is a political history of East Timor’s militias told against the background of similar groups in Indonesia. My hope is that, by constructing a rough genealogy of militias that links East Timor’s experience with Indonesia’s, it will be possible to discern significant historical continuities, and to identify the most influential origins of the contem porary form. I also hope that the evidence from East Timor and Indonesia might suggest some more general propositions about the historical and politica l conditions under which militias are likely to emerge, and to take the forms that they do.

Before turning to these questions, however, it may be helpful to offer a brief glimpse of the militias as they appeared in 1999. The description that follows pays special attention to certain defining characteristics of the militias – their relationship with state authorities, their weapons and ‘repertoires of violence,’ the composition of their membership, and certain variations in their behaviour – because I believe these provide a useful basis for tracing their historical origins.

On the process of militia mobilization in 1999, see Peter Bartu, ‘The militia, the military, and the people of Bobonaro’, and Helene van Klinken, ‘Taking the risk, paying the price: East Timorese vote in Ermera’, in Richard Tanter, Mark Selden, and Stephen Shalom, (ed.), Bitter Flowers, Sweet Flowers: East Timor, Indonesia, and the World Community. New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2001, pp. 73–90 and 91–108. Also see Mark Harris, ‘Heroes of Integration’, MA dissertation, SOAS, 2001.

274 South East Asia Research East Timor’s militias in 1999 The summer months of 1998 were extraordinary ones in East Timor. In Dili and in other towns, thousands of people took to the streets to demonstrate in favour of independence, and against the proposal for ‘special autonomy’ under Indonesian rule that was then being discussed in the context of UN-sponsored negotiations in New York. President Suharto’s surprise resignation in May 1998, and the demand for reform that swept through Indonesia in the following months, had given supporters of independence for East Timor renewed hope and the courage to express their views openly for the first time in years.

In October 1998, as details of the ‘special autonomy’ proposal were being finalized, reports began to trickle out about the mobilization of militia groups dedicate d to maintainin g the tie with Indonesia. When President Habibie announced, in late January 1999, that the East Tim orese would be given a chance to vote for or against ‘special autonomy,’ the trickle becam e a flood. More than a dozen militia groups – including Aitarak (Thorn), Besi Merah Putih (Red and White Iron), Mahidi (Live or Die for Integration) and many others – appeared in a matter of months. 5 Though inflected with local meaning, the names of most groups alluded to continued ‘integration’ with Indonesia or to the red and white colours of the Indonesian flag.

It was soon evident that these groups were involved in a major campaign of terror and intim idation against supporters of independence. In February and March 1999, dozens of people were reported killed, some in a very gruesome way, and tens of thousands were forced to flee, after which their homes were burned to the ground. Many of those who fled their homes sought refuge in nearby churches or in the residences of prominent citizens. It was against these people, and in these places of refuge, that some of the most egregious acts of militia violence were committed in April 1999. 6 And although the violence slowed somewhat with the arrival of UNAMET and other observers in May, it continued in some form throughout the summer.7 For an outline of the growth of the militias, and their activities, in late 1998 and early 1999, see Amnesty International, ‘Paramilitary attacks jeopardize East Timor’s future’, London, 16 April 1999; and East Timor International Support Center (ETISC), Indonesia’s Death Squads: Getting Away With Murder. Darwin, Occasional paper 2, May 1999.

These included mass killings at the church in Liquica, and at the home of Manuel Carrascalão in Dili, both in April. For more detailed accounts of these incidents, and an excellent overview of the political and human rights situation at the start of the People’s war: militias in East Timor and Indonesia Indonesian authorities claim ed at the time, and still do, that the militias had formed spontaneously in response to provocation by pro-independence activists, that the conflict was among East Timorese, and that the Indonesian security forces were doing their utmost to contain it. 8 They also argued that the violence was the regrettable result of timeless cultural patterns common among Indonesian peoples. In early 2000, for example, the former security adviser to the Indonesian Task Force in East Timor, 9 Major General Zacky Anwar Makarim, told journalists that the violence had been part of an Indonesian cultural pattern of ‘running amok’.10 By contrast, most outside observers concluded that the militias were created and controlled by the Indonesian army, and that the violence they committed was part of a well-orchestrated plan. As I have argued in detail elsewhere, this latter characte rization is much closer to the truth. 11 Indeed, virtually all of the evidence demonstrates that the militias were mobilize d, trained, supplied, and backed by Indonesian authorities – not just military, but also police and civilian – and that the militia violence was coordinated, or at least condoned, at a very high level.

The militias, it seems likely, received such support because they provided a perfect cover for official efforts to disrupt, or affect the outcome of, the vote while simultaneously perpetuating the illusion that the fighting was among East Timorese. In the context of the unprecedented levels of internation al scrutiny that characterized the referendum process, these were invaluable political advantages.

referendum process, see Amnesty International, ‘East Timor: seize the moment’, London, 21 June 1999.

From June to 14 September 1999, I served as a Political Affairs Officer at UNAM ET headquarters in Dili. I returned to Dili in November 1999 to assist UNTAET in briefing international and domestic human rights investigations. This paper is based in part on information gathered in the course of that work.

This case has been forcefully expressed by the military commander for East Timor until mid-August 1999, Brig. Gen. Tono Suratman, Merah Putih: Pengabdian & Tanggung Jawab di Timor Timur. Jakarta: Lembaga Pengkajian Kebudayaan Nusantara, 2000.

The full name of the Task Force was the ‘Indonesian Task Force for the Implementation of the Popular Consultation in East Timor’.

Shortly after testifying to the Indonesian Human Rights Commission, General Zacky told journalists: ‘What happened there was part of the culture of people who ran amok, so that was an emotional outburst’. The Jakarta Post, 5 January 2000. General Zacky was also quoted as saying: ‘There were murders and arson by militias and soldiers as individuals. It’s part of the amok culture of Indonesian society. But it was not something done systematically’. South China Morning Post, 5 January 2000.

See Geoffrey Robinson, ‘The fruitless search for a smoking gun: tracing the origins of violence in East Timor’, in Freek Colombijn and Thomas Lindblad, (ed.), Roots of Violence in Indonesia. Leiden: KITLV Press, forthcoming.



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