Indonesia: September 19, 1999

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One man was killed when a group of thirteen attacked an army post in Ambon, the site of Moslem-Christian violence for the past three months. 

 

September 19; East Timor: More of a Mess Than You Thought. East Timor is a much more complicated place than most people realize. When the area was under Portuguese control, there developed four factions, complete with armed militias, fighting for quite different goals after World War II. One faction wanted to remain a part of Portugal, in a commonwealth relationship. Another wanted to join with Indonesia. There were two independence groups, one was Maoist, the other more moderate. Before the Portuguese suddenly left in 1974 (because of radical political changes back home), the colonial troops were able to keep the four factions under control. Pretty much the old divide and conquer routine. But within a few days the Portuguese were gone, and the four factions went at it with vigor. The faction desiring unification with Indonesia was in touch with the Indonesian military, and rabidly nationalistic officers were eager to take advantage of the situation. Everyone was caught by surprise, for the new Portuguese government said it was granting independence to all its overseas colonies. What no one expected next was for all Portuguese colonial administrators and troops to be ordered home immediately. 

East Timor was not unusual in having factions that desired to stay with the old country, but it was unique in sharing an island with a large nation that was in the midst of trying to absorb nearby former colonies. The Indonesians did eventually come in, although the commanders of the invasion force admitted that they were given only a few hours notice being on their way across the border. Through the 1970s and early 1980s. the Indonesians struggled with East Timorese guerilla fighters. In 1983, they switched tactics and went into the areas with the most guerilla activity and forced the locals into camps. The guerillas fought on, more people went into the camps, more people died in, and out of, the camps. The camp policy went on throughout the 1980s and into the early 90s. No one knows how many East Timorese died, although the toll was heavy. Estimates range from 100,000 to 300,000 out of a population of perhaps 800,000 (there has not been an accurate census for many years). Most of the guerilla leaders fled the island, to fight on via media and diplomacy from foreign cities. But for the Indonesians, the tactic worked. For most of the 1990s, the guerillas have been reduced to a few hundred men in the hills, where they largely stayed. In the wake of the anti-guerilla campaign, there were the militias. During their campaign against the guerillas, the Indonesians armed and supported "self-defense" groups. These were often the same men who supported unification with Indonesia, or links with Portugal. Joining the militias had economic benefits, for the Indonesians entrusted such men with economic responsibilities, and opportunities. The Indonesian loyalists were never more than a quarter of the population. Most of the East Timorese were Christian and felt quite different culturally from the Indonesians, But in the quarter century the Indonesians were in East Timor they brought in thousands of Indonesians and dominated the economic life of the area. By 1999, East Timor was a mixed society, with about a fifth of the population pro-Indonesian and heavily armed to keep it that way. But the majority of the East Timorese remain eager for Independence, and the UN supervised vote verified that. The pro-Indonesian have incentives to keep the area Indonesian, for if independence comes, so too will revenge and a loss of economic benefits. Mainly jobs with the government and local army units. While many of the pro-Indonesians East Timorese would prefer to just leave, and many are apparently doing that, thousands will stay and resist. The idea of Western troops coming into Indonesian territory is anathema. The brutal legacy of Dutch colonialism (the Portuguese were much more easy going) is a hot issue. That heat may turn into a lot of violent resistance. 

Australia's relationship with East Timor is also a complicating factor. It goes back to World War II. When the Japanese moved south to take Indonesia from the Dutch in early 1942, there were 400 Australian troops on East Timor. The Japanese fleet cut the Australians off, and rather than surrender, they took to the hills and led a guerilla war against the Japanese until the Allies returned in 1945. The Timorese supported the Australians, and only 40 were killed during the long guerilla campaign. Thousands of Japanese died at the hands of Australian and Timorese guerillas. But over 30,000 Timorese were killed by the Japanese in savage reprisals. When the Indonesians moved into East Timor in 1975, Australian troops were already sparring with Indonesians during the 1970s as Indonesia tried to absorb still more adjacent territories (unsuccessfully). The Australian media, and some politicians, have not hesitated to comment on the corruption within the Indonesian government. While these claims were generally true, and most Indonesians knew it, getting criticized by Australians came across as patronizing. But put rather more simply, the East Timorese like the Australians, about as much as most Indonesians dislike them. This could create a volatile situation for Australian peacekeepers. While most of the rabidly anti-independence Indonesian troops and militia are being sent to West Timor. This also provides Indonesian opponents with bases from which to launch guerilla raids into East Timor. It's unlikely the UN would authorize an invasion of West Timor. The two brigades of Indonesian troops remaining in East Timor, composed of more reliable troops who are not native to East Timor, are unlikely to fight the peacekeepers, But they are not likely to be useful against armed Indonesians either.

Indonesia does not have a history of impressive military performance, but they have shown themselves to be determined and resourceful guerilla fighters. The peacekeeping troops have already been told to expect a fight. And they may get it.

September 19; Some 2,000 Australian, British and New Zealand are to land in East Timor on Monday, the 20th. Some 3,200 troops will be deployed within a week, with the eventual number between 7,000 and 8,000.In addition, there will be thousands of medical and relief workers (both military and civilian.)  The troops will come by sea and air. The first soldiers to land will probably be British Gurkhas. This is no accident, as the Indonesians very agitated about Western troops entering what is still Indonesian territory. The Gurkhas are Asian, and have a formidable reputation for toughness. This minimizes the chances of a violent encounter early on. If any Indonesians do attack the Gurkhas, they will get a stiff fight, for the peacekeepers have been told to respond aggressively to any attacks on them. Meanwhile, the pro-Indonesian militias remaining in East Timor have vowed to resist. Reports from East Timor indicate that violence continues, with over a hundred people a day being killed and many more injured. Most of the East Timorese population is said to be refugees.

 

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