Human Rights Watch said today that fresh attacks on United Nations personnel by pro-Indonesia militias in East Timor demonstrate that governments supporting the UN mission there need to get much tougher with the Indonesian armed forces.
"Are we going to have to wait for the death of a UN officer for the international community to take action?" asked Sidney Jones, Asia director of Human Rights Watch. She noted that Australia and the United States had both issued strong statements and conveyed their concerns to the Indonesian government, but said the pressure had to increase. "We need heads of state, like President Clinton and Prime Minister Obuchi calling Habibie to tell him that his failure to address militia violence is unacceptable. We need suspensions of disbursements of major loans until we see some arrests and prosecutions for these attacks. The Indonesian army is deliberately wrecking the only chance East Timor has for peace, and it's time for tougher tactics."
Jones noted that representatives of non-governmental organizations have also been the victims of attacks. On Sunday, July 4, members of the Besi Merah Putih militia attacked an NGO convoy that was accompanied by one aid officer of the United Nations Assistance Mission in East Timor (UNAMET), just outside the town of Liquica in East Timor. The name Besi Merah Putih means "Iron Rod for the Red-and-White," a reference to the Indonesian flag.
In the July 4 attack, Laurentino Soares, a driver for ETADEP, an environmental NGO, was shot in the stomach and remains hospitalized. The UNAMET officer, Patrick Burgess, was directly threatened, and militia members tried to put a gun in his vehicle, apparently to make it look like the UN was carrying arms. The gun was turned over to police. Following the attack, UNAMET decided to evacuate personnel from its Liquica office, and militia members attacked again as the evacuation was taking place.
Six NGO representatives reported missing after the July 4 attack on the NGO convoy were all accounted for by the morning of July 5.
Indonesian officials at both the national and local level have accused the UN of favoring the pro-independence side and have done nothing to curb militia violence. Despite official expressions of "regret" over Sunday's attack and earlier incidents, Indonesian security forces have stood by, or, in some cases, actively participated, as attacks on UN offices have taken place.
The head of the East Timor police, Col. Timbul Silaen, was quoted in the Indonesian newspaper, Waspada, as saying there was a violent clash between NGOs and the Besi Merah Putih militia, as if the NGOs were equally to blame; that the militia members were taking revenge for the death of a BMP member the day before in a shoot-out in Liquica, apparently with pro-independence guerrillas; and that the UN police had no authority to provide protection for NGOs because their role was only to implement the "popular consultation" on East Timor's political status, now scheduled for August. In response to that assertion, Ian Martin, UNAMET head, noted in a press briefing following the incident that it was entirely appropriate for a UN aid officer to be with the NGOs who were bringing relief aid to thousands displaced by the violence. "It is our responsibility to assess the security situation, and the large numbers of internally displaced people are an important indication of how serious the security situation has been and remains."
The deputy police commander for East Timor, Colonel Muafi Sahudji, told reporters on July 6 that UNAMET would have to "prove" its neutrality to the people of Maliana, Liquica, and other areas known as militia strongholds.
Indonesian officials have also failed to investigate threats against human rights defenders. In the most recent such incident, members of a militia based in Maliana threatened the family of East Timor's leading human rights lawyer, Aniceto Gutteres, director of the Hak Foundation, a legal aid bureau based in Dili. Aniceto told Human Rights Watch that on Sunday night, following the attack on the convoy, militia members told his uncle that unless Aniceto was turned over to them by July 10, the house of every member of the extended family would be burned to the ground. Aniceto and his family have been threatened repeatedly since violence escalated in East Timor in April.
Chronology of the July 4 Attack
Given growing attention to the plight of internal refugees displaced by the violence in East Timor, more than a dozen Dili-based NGOs decided to deliver food, medicine, and other supplies to a group of refugees in the towns of Sare and Sailara in Hatolia subdistrict, Ermera in the central part of East Timor. The NGOs in question included ETADEP, the Hak Foundation, the Dili offices of Care International, Oxfam Australia, and Caritas, and several local aid groups. A UNAMET humanitarian aid officer named Patrick Burgess also took part.
According to one of the NGOs present, the group had asked police headquarters in Dili on Friday, July 2, for police protection as far as Sare, fearing that their convoy might be the target of militia attacks. The police refused. The NGOs said they understood that UNAMET could not provide protection for the group because it was outside its mandate.
A convoy of fifteen trucks therefore left at about 11:00 a.m. on Friday without any guards. It reached Sare safely about twelve hours later, and the NGOs representatives planned on distributing supplies the next day. They decided to send the trucks and their drivers back to Dili first, however, as the trucks were rented and the drivers wanted to get home. Accordingly, while the NGOs stayed in Sare, thirteen of the trucks set out for the return journey on Saturday morning. Near the village of Sungai Loes, in Liquica district, the trucks were stopped by troops from the mobile police brigade (Brimob). The drivers were taken to the Liquica police command and questioned about what they were doing, what the purpose of their mission was, and who was in charge. Since they were only hired drivers, they could not answer, so the police ordered them back to Dili to find the persons responsible for the aid mission and have them report to the Liquica command immediately.
Two of the thirteen trucks were commandeered by police to be used to transport army and militia members to the site of an attack earlier that day, apparently by about twenty Falintil guerrillas, in Loidaka village, Liquica. One man named Paulo do Costa, aged forty, described by local officials as an integration supporter and a militia member, was killed, and two other men were seriously wounded.
When the drivers reached Dili, they reported all of this to the Hak Foundation, the premier human rights organization in Dili, and Hak Foundation officials called UNAMET, worried that the team members left behind in Sare might be at risk. According to the NGOs, a UNAMET political officer told them that he would explain the aid mission to the police, although in theory, the NGOs should not be obliged to report their activities.
At about 9:00 p.m. Saturday night, NGO representatives in Dili managed to contact their colleagues in Sare by satellite phone. The Sare group were all safe and had successfully distributed supplies to some 3,600 displaced there. They were planning to return on Sunday and had received a promise of police protection for the return journey. But at about noon on Sunday, part of the NGO team that had gone to Sailara, about twenty minutes away from Sare, reported that the refugees there had received threats from the local militia that they would be attacked on July 6 if they took any aid from the team.
The NGO group, accompanied by Burgess in a UN vehicle, managed to return to Liquica without incident and stopped to report to the district military command. But at an intersection just beyond Liquica, they were suddenly surrounded by BMP members armed with rocks, knives, and rifles. In the attack, the NGO driver was shot, several others in the group were injured, and the UN vehicle was badly damaged.
As Ian Martin, head of UNAMET, told the BBC, "There were very clear warnings given that militia activity had been building up for some time in Liquica: specific threats to our personnel, which preceded the attack on the humanitarian convoy; requests that there be police protection for the humanitarian convoy itself. And yet it was attacked, not out in the countryside even, but in one of the main towns of East Timor only a short distance from its police station." The Besi Merah Putih militia was responsible for what has come to be known as the Liquica massacre last April in which dozens of people were killed. District-level civilian militias, backed by the Indonesian army, suddenly appeared all over East Timor in late 1998 and early 1999 as it seemed that an Indonesian policy shift on East Timor was underway. Since Indonesia's annexation of East Timor in 1976, the Soeharto government had maintained that the territory was an integral part of Indonesia. President Habibie, Soeharto's successor, offered "wide-ranging autonomy" under Indonesian sovereignty in August 1998. On January 27, 1999, he suddenly announced that if the East Timorese rejected that offer, they could consider the "second option" of leaving Indonesian altogether. In an agreement in May 1999, the United Nations was given the role of supervising and conducting a "popular consultation" in which the people of East Timor would decide whether they wanted autonomy under Indonesian rule or separation from Indonesia. That ballot, initially scheduled to be held on August 8, has now been delayed until August 22, 1999.