(New York) - Human Rights Watch warned that tens of thousands of East Timorese pushed out to West Timor by Indonesian army-backed militias could be "transmigrated" to other parts of Indonesia within weeks, making it nearly impossible for them to return home.

"Moving the displaced to other parts of Indonesia is not the answer," said Sidney Jones, Asia director of Human Rights Watch. "The answer is allowing international agencies to get them food, water and medical supplies and arresting the militia leaders who are terrorizing them." She said the displaced will undoubtedly be asked to choose between staying in appallingly overcrowded camps controlled by militias or being moved to another island. "That's no choice," she said. "It's just a way of trying to ensure these people never go back to East Timor."

Human Rights Watch called on the Indonesian government to end any involvement of the Transmigration Ministry in relief efforts in West Timor, to end all restrictions on access to the displaced by international humanitarian agencies, to arrest militia members responsible for intimidation of the displaced, and to work with the multinational force in East Timor to establish a safe corridor from West to East Timor, so that the displaced can safely return when conditions permit.

The Indonesian government is arguing that inadequate facilities in West Timor for some 150,000 East Timorese who have arrived there since August 30 makes resettlement to Irian Jaya, the Moluccas, and other islands in Indonesia the only realistic option. In a statement on Sunday, the Minister of Transmigration, Maj.Gen. Hendropriyono, announced that all East Timorese in West Timor would be moved to permanent resettlement sites within two months.

There is no question that facilities housing the displaced in West Timor are severely overcrowded, with inadequate food, medical supplies, and sanitation facilities. Some 98,000 East Timorese are packed into schools and churches in the districts of Belu and North Central Timor alone, with most of the rest in camps in and around the city of Kupang.

"The thousands of East Timorese in West Timor are in danger from the militias, from lack of food and medicine, and from the Ministry of Transmigration," said Sidney Jones, Asia director of Human Rights Watch. "The arrival of Interfet forces in Dili must not divert attention from a deteriorating security situation in West Timor and the possibility of further forced displacement." Interfet is the acronym for the International Force for East Timor.

According to Human Rights Watch sources, some 15,000 of the displaced now in camps in a district along the north coast of West Timor are from the tiny enclave of Ambeno, formerly Oecusse, a part of East Timor that is wholly surrounded by West Timor.Virtually all the rest of the displaced are from Dili and areas extending to the border with West Timor. Pro-Indonesia forces have stated they intend to retain control of these districts, and forced expulsions appear to have been a means toward that end.

Indonesia's highly controversial transmigration program, started under Indonesia's first president Sukarno and intensified under Soeharto, was initially conceived as a way of easing overcrowding on the densely populated islands of Java and Bali. The official rationale for the program changed in the 1980's from easing overcrowding to developing more remote islands, but it always had a political component as well.

Transmigration Minister Hendropriyono is an army intelligence officer originally from the army special forces, Kopassus, who sees transmigration as a way of preserving the unity and security of Indonesia by encouraging intermixing of ethnic groups. His plans for the transmigration of displaced East Timorese are almost certainly motivated by factors other than humanitarian need.

In late September 1998, Minister Hendropriyono announced a new transmigration pilot program in Aceh and Irian Jaya, two provinces with armed insurgencies and strong popular support for independence. He said the aim of the projects was to move non-indigenous groups into these areas so that there would be a mixing of religions and ethnicities, thereby strengthening a sense of Indonesian unity. He was quoted in a leading Jakarta daily at the same time that he was creating a new security system for transmigration sites through the formation of "militant" civilian militias called perlawanan rakyat or Wanra, people's resistance. (See "Irja dan DI Aceh Pilot Proyek," Suara Pembaruan, September 23, 1998).

When the Indonesian army was accused of arming civilian militias in East Timor in February 1999, the army commander for the region that includes Dili said that the only groups receiving arms were members of Wanra and that these auxiliaries had existed in East Timor since 1978.

Minister Hendropriyono was also associated with an effort in February 1999, after President Habibie's announcement that he would give East Timorese the option of independence, to move more transmigrants from other islands into East Timor. At the time, he said, "Those who wish to see East Timor become independent are only a very few." He also said that it was clear that over twenty-three years, transmigrants from Java and Bali had been integrated very well into East Timor. In the same interview (see "Timtim Masih Terbuka Tempung Transmigrant Baru," Surabaya Post, February 15, 1999), he noted that there were 9,250 transmigrant families in East Timor at the time, meaning about 45,000 people. That figure would not have included non-Timorese civil servants or migrants who moved to East Timor on their own and not through the government program.

The transmigration minister is now saying that prior to the exodus in early September, his ministry prepared resettlement areas for 100,000 people, and that with the vastly greater numbers of people, the transmigration program must be speeded up (see "102 Orang Keluarga Gubernur Timtim Mengungsi," Republika, September 18, 1999). He announced the government would be building a 200-kilometer road from Kupang to Amfoang Selatan, near the border with East Timor "because it was packed with refugees." In fact, a new road could also facilitate troop movements from West to East Timor.

Hendropriyono also announced that the government had prepared resettlement locations in Maluku and Irian Jaya as well as in East Nusa Tenggara province, the province that includes West Timor. Every family would have the right to at least one hectare of land for living and agricultural pursuits, and within two months, all refugees would be sent to these different sites.

The preparation of these sites may be a way of trying to move East Timorese against their will to new locations where the militias now patrolling the makeshift camps could be given a more formal role as Wanra in ensuring they do not return to East Timor.

There have been some non-Timorese families, now in camps in West Timor, who genuinely want to leave East Timor. In July 1998, for example, after a series of large pro-independence demonstrations, some 15,000 people, mostly Javanese, Balinese, and Buginese (from the island of Sulawesi) fled East Timor. In February 1999, Hendropriyono announced that his ministry was constructing a resettlement site on the island of Wetar, to the north of Timor, in preparation for some 20,000 people, apparently pro-Indonesia settlers, that the government expected to leave. On August 19, in the middle of the process to register voters for the referendum, over one hundred Balinese transmigrant families from East Timor arrived in Atambua, just over the border in West Timor.

But after the forced expulsion beginning September 5 of tens of thousands of East Timorese by pro-Indonesia militias, the involvement of the transmigration ministry has taken on a much more sinister aspect.

Hendropriyono's own involvement adds to the concern. Born in Java in 1945, he started his military career with Kopassus, then called RPKAD, the Indonesian special forces that have been implicated in organizing militias in East Timor, in 1968 and worked his way up through various counterinsurgency and intelligence assignments until 1987, when he was appointed commander of the regional military command in Lampung, Sumatra. It was under his command that army forces stormed a Muslim school in Lampung in 1989 where two army officers had been taken hostage; some one hundred civilians were believed killed in the process, although no investigation ever took place. He served in key positions in the military intelligence agency BAIS from 1991 to 1993, when he was appointed Jakarta commander. His star seemed to fall after failing to prevent anti-Soeharto demonstrations in 1994, but his friendship with one of the Soeharto sons seems to have led to his political resurrection.

Relief workers in Kupang told Human Rights Watch that many, perhaps most, of the displaced in West Timor have been forcibly expelled by militias since September 5, 1999, apparently as a way of depopulating the western districts of East Timor. Refugees have told church workers that with so many pro-independence supporters forced out, pro-autonomy forces may be preparing to either demand that the August 30 referendum organized by the United Nations be held again, this time with votes counted by district, or to insist that the western districts of East Timor be incorporated into Indonesia, thereby effectively partitioning the territory.

Human Rights Watch has also received credible reports that the Indonesian authorities are confiscating the identity papers from many of those displaced into West Timor. Such actions may be further evidence of a deliberate strategy by the Indonesian authorities to prevent the return of pro-independence supporters to East Timor.

Human Rights Watch has called on international humanitarian agencies, including UNHCR, to supervise the registration of displaced persons in West Timor, and to ensure that no one is forced out of West Timor against his or her will.