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Backgrounder: The Indonesian Army and Civilian Militias in East Timor
April 1999

The violence in East Timor on April 17 was sparked by a rally of an estimated 3,000 pro-Indonesia militia members on the grounds of the East Timor governor's office in the capital, Dili. The rally was attended by the governor, Abilio Soares, senior military officers, and the district heads of East Timor's thirteen districts. Eleven of these districts have their own civilian militia ostensibly established to defend communities against guerrilla attacks but in fact to fight individuals and organizations supportive of independence. Some are of long standing, dating back to the 1970s, while others were only formed after the Habibie government's January 27, 1999 announcement that if the East Timorese people rejected the government's offer of autonomy, the government would consider the "second option" of independence.

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The most notorious of the new militias are Besi Merah Putih (Iron Rod for the Red-and-White), the militia responsible for the carnage in Liquica, East Timor, on April 5 and 6 in which dozens of people, many of them displaced people fleeing from violence, were killed in a church compound; Mahidi (an acronym for Live or Die for Integration with Indonesia), a militia formed in late 1998, which operates around Ainaro and Suai; and Aitarak, which operates in Dili.

The older militias include Halilintar (Thunderbolt), operating in Bobonaro district, and Saka, a paramilitary group operating in the Baucau area since 1983. Halilintar is the oldest of the pro-government militias, dating back at least to 1977. It was dissolved in the 1980s, only to be resurrected in 1995 by a man named Joao Tavares, whose men have frequently joined Indonesian troops in counterinsurgency operations in the area around Atabai, Maliana, Cailaco, and Balibo.

Eurico Gutteres and his militia, Aitarak
The man who reportedly organized the rally and who has repeatedly issued threats against organizations perceived as supporting independence was Eurico Gutteres. Gutteres has been a leading figure in Gardapaksi (Youth Guard for Upholding Integration), an organization formed in July 1995, supposedly for training unemployed East Timorese youth in occupations such as furniture-making and automobile repair but in fact to counter pro-independence youth groups. Gardapaksi members were reported to receive military training and non-lethal equipment from the Indonesian army special forces, Kopassus, and included youths who had been arrested for pro-independence activities who were subsequently released on the condition that they become informers.

Gutteres now heads the Dili-based militia called Aitarak, formed after the Habibie government's announcement of the "second option." Two days after that announcement, on January 29, Gutteres was involved in an incident in Dili in which he and other pro-Indonesia forces meeting inside the Hotel Mahkota fired on pro-independence youths who had reportedly tossed a grenade at the hotel. Gutteres then proceeded to drive a van full of weapons to the house of Manuel Carrascalao, the target of last Saturday's attack, and threaten independence supporters who had sought refuge at his house. No action was taken at the time to disarm him or even to discourage him from making threats.

On February 20, Gutteres and Tavares were leading speakers at a rally in Balibo, East Timor, where they vowed to fight a civil war if East Timor moved toward independence. A reporter from The Age, in Melbourne, Australia, reported that some of the youths attending the rally reported being paid by local military and civilian officials.

On February 25, Gutteres was one of two militia leaders who sent a threatening letter to Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer, warning that pro-integration paramilitary groups would willingingly "sacrifice" Australian journalists and diplomats to "save" East Timor. The letter, and Downer's reaction, were widely covered in the Indonesian and international press. An Agence France Presse release noted that the letter was faxed from a hotel in Jakarta where Gutteres and the other militia leader were meeting with President Habibie.(1)

Throughout March and April, the threats by Gutteres and other militia leaders increased against pro-independence groups as well as Dili-based human rights organizations and journalists associated with the Dili newspaper, Voice of East Timor. (The newspaper's office were sacked by militia members after the rally on April 17, with much of its equipment destroyed.)

Militia activity increased after Xanana Gusmao, the guerrilla leader and likely president of an independent East Timor who is under house arrest in Jakarta, issued a statement on April 5 calling on Falintil, the East Timorese guerrilla army, to take all steps necessary to defend the people of East Timor against "the unprovoked and murderous attacks of armed civilians and ABRI [the Indonesian military]." The statement was widely interpreted as an order to the rebels to resume the guerrilla war against the Indonesian army and only increased the bellicosity of the militia groups.

As noted, the Besi Merah Putih militia attacked a church in Liquica the next day, on April 6, killing dozens, although the Indonesian military has only acknowledged a death toll of five. A clash between Falintil and Indonesian security forces reportedly took place in Ermera on April 5, followed by further clashes there on April 10 in which a pro-independence member of the district council was shot and killed.

On April 13, four days before the militia rally in Dili that ended in armed attacks on pro-independence groups, Eurico Gutteres, citing Xanana's "declaration of war," issued an appeal to "ordinary people" to join the defenders of integration in order to "wipe out the disturbers of integration right down to their roots." The appeal called for the resignation of all civil servants who were less than fully supportive of the pro-integration government they worked for. Gutteres signed himself "War Commander of the Pro-Integration Forces, Sector B Commander."

The Ainaro militia, Mahidi
Also seen written as Mahidin, this militia has the support of Indonesian ambassador-at-large Francisco Lopes da Cruz and has terrorized the civilian population around Ainaro district.(2) In late 1998, according to Yayasan HAK, a local human rights organization, pro-government youths were summoned by the district military command in Ainaro and requested to form the basis of an unarmed civilian militia that would help provide security in the run-up to the June 1999 parliamentary elections, in line with a national directive. Because local arrangements for this national militia were not yet finalized, however, the youths in question joined together in Ainaro town to form Mahidi, ostensibly to defend the district from guerrilla attacks. They were led by Cancio Lopes de Carvalho, the man who co-signed the letter threatening Australian diplomats and journalists. According to Yayasan HAK, they set out to recruit youths and other people from every village in Ainaro district, with a security post to be established in each village. Tension with local independence supporters increased as a result, and on January 3, Mahidi members shot two students in the village of Manutasi, Ainaro, after a peacemaking effort the students had initiated went badly awry. In the latter part of January, the militia was reported to be working with the subdistrict military command in operations in Zumalai, Covalima district. By April 1998, press reports estimated that Mahidi had 2,000 active members and 500 firearms; a local human rights organization estimated membership at 1,000 and thirty-seven firearms.(3) It held a pro-integration rally in Zumalai on April 11 attended by top military and civilian officials of the district. Eurico Gutteres and Joao Tavares, militia leaders from Dili and Ainaro respectively, were also present. One delegation of about 500 people were reportedly fired on with arrows and bullets as they set out to attend the rally, apparently by Falintil.

The Liquica militia, Besi Merah Putih
The Besi Merah Putih militia appears to have been organized in late 1998 as a self-defense force against possible Falintil attacks. Initially armed with only arrows and spears, it claimed by early February to have a membership of 2,890 people and was going on joint patrols with the Battalion 143 of the Indonesian army.(4) One of its founders, Joaquim dos Santos, denied receiving any aid or equipment from the army but did acknowledge regular "consultation" with Battalion 143.(5) Besi Merah Putih has been responsible for dozens of incidents in the Liquica area, culminating in the attacks on April 5 and 6 that left dozens dead and the April 11 attack on the convoy of Nobel Peace Prize winner Bishop Carlos Ximenes Belo. Eyewitness accounts from both attacks indicate that troops from the Liquica district and Maubara subdistrict military commands were present at the time of the militia attacks and far from trying to prevent violence, provided active support to their operations. Besi Merah Putih was one of the militias involved in the attack on Manuel Carrascalao's house on April 17.

Other militias
Other militias are also linked directly to civilian and military authority structures. The militia in Lautem district in eastern East Timor is called Tim Alfa and is led directly by the district head, Edmundo da Conceicao. Almost all of its 300 members are armed. The Saka militia in Baucau is led by Sgt. Joanico da Costa of the army special forces, Kopassus, and most of its members worked as guides or logistical support for the army; da Costa was reportedly involved in the capture of Xanana Gusmao in 1992.(6) Other militias include Makikit, in Viqueque; ABLAI (an acronym for "I Will Fight to Preserve the Mandate for Integration") in Manufahi; AHI (an acronym for "I Will Uphold Integration") in Ailiu; Naga Merah in Ermera, and Laksaur in Covalima. All of the groups are coordinated under a central front organization called Forum Persatuan Demokrasi dan Keadilan, or the Forum for the Association of Democracy and Justice, led by the district head of Dili, Domingos Soares.

A credible local newspaper, the Jawa Pos, reports membership in the militias as follows (Human Rights Watch has not independently verified these numbers):(7)

Militia Membership Arms
Saka 970 250
Tim Alfa 300 300
Makikit 200 100
ABLAI 100 70
Halilintar 800 400
Aitarak 1,000 100+
Mahidi 2,000 500
Laksaur 500 100
Naga Merah N.A. N.A.
Besi Merah Putih 2,000 N.A.


1. "Pro-Indonesian E Timorese militia threat to kill Australians," Agence France Presse, February 25, 1999.

2. "Dikhawatirkan Terjadi Perang Saudara di Timtim," Republika, (Jakarta) January 29, 1999.

3. "Ada M-16 hingga Mouser di Prointegrasi," Jawa Pos, (Surabaya) April 12, 1999, and Yayasan HAK, "Teror, Lekerasan dan Intimidasi,"" Laporan situasi Hak Azsi Manusia di Timor Timor Periode Januari-Maret 1999," April 1999.

4. "Kami siap mati di bawah merah putih," Suara Timor Timur (Dili), February 6, 1999.

5. Ibid.

6. "Ada M-16 hingga Mouser di Prointegrasi," Jawa Pos, April 12, 1999.

7. Ibid.