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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story

OCTOBER 8, 1999 VOL. 25 NO. 40

Back in the Thick of It
Falintil's fighters prepare to be the army
By ANTHONY DAVIS Darwin

    ALSO IN ASIAWEEK
Indonesia: Walking on a Tightrope
Unrest against the military revives the debate over civil and military power in Indonesia. But a bigger question is: Will disillusionment and division jeopardize the presidential poll?
• When Enemies Become Allies
• A Battle Being Fought
• Back in the Thick of It

China: Right Down the Middle
On the economy, Jiang Zemin wants it fast and slow
• Party Time - for Some

Taiwan: Shocks and Aftershocks
The political effects of the eartquake will be more enduring

Malaysia's Electoral Pivot
Barisan and the opposition court the Chinese

Korea: A Borderline Decision
Behind North Korea's move to push its sea frontier south

Myanmar: In Exile and Powerless
Still, Myanmar's dissidents keep up the fight

  RELATED STORIES
The View from Australia
Outrage - and some second-guessing - over Australia's involvement in East Timor (10/01/99)

Keeping the Peace
A measure of calm returns to East Timor with the arrival of international troops. But the real challenge is not bringing peace but keeping it (10/01/99)

On the Firing Line
Habibie gives in to international pressure over foreign intervention - but his problems are far from over (09/24/99)

TIME
Step Forward, With Caution
Peacekeepers meet little resistance in Timor, but plenty of territory remains beyond their control

CNN
Breaking news from Southeast Asia

As Indonesian forces withdrew from East Timor, unarmed cadres from Falintil, the military wing of the territory's National Council for Timorese Resistance (CNRT), were quietly moving back into the capital Dili. They emerged from the hills entirely without fanfare, less a triumphant liberation army than a battered tribute to East Timorese capacity to simply resist and survive against overwhelming odds. But in the days ahead, this ragged guerrilla force is likely to play a crucial role both politically and militarily in the troubled birth of Asia's newest nation.

That would be quite a comeback. During the late 1970s and early 1980s, Falintil guerrillas were pushed back by the Indonesian military into the hills. Army operations, forced relocation of population and starvation took a brutal toll, reducing a force of several thousand to a few hundred. "At its lowest point, Falintil was down to a couple of hundred men, its commands completely cut off from each other," notes Sonny Imbaraj, a Darwin-based author who has written extensively on the East Timor conflict.

But the 1990s saw Falintil develop, under a new military leadership, as a more sophisticated and internationally active independence movement. A meeting in Portugal last year produced the umbrella CNRT, fusing the leftist Fretilin with its onetime 1975 civil-war foe, the rightist Timorese Democratic Union (UDT). Also, the technological revolution of recent years has served to tie Falintil closely into the wider East Timorese diaspora of support and permit a far easier movement of funds from offshore bases such as Portugal, Macau and Australia. "Over the past two years commanders have been learning to use satellite phones," says Imbaraj. "Some young Falintil fighters now have cellphones that can send e-mail messages." True enough: last week this reporter could sit with a Falintil political officer in a Darwin caf as he chatted with a guerrilla leader in the hills above Dili.

Today, according to Falintil sources, forces number around 1,000 armed troops, divided between four regional commands. (Falintil's overall field commander, Taur Matan Ruak, a former teacher who later rose to chief of staff, reports to CNRT president Xanana Gusmao, himself once Falintil's chief.) They are generally ill-equipped, though many automatic weapons have been bought recently from Indonesian security forces, often unpaid since the financial crash of 1997. Falintil's biggest problem today is the sheer numbers of refugees who have flocked for protection to their camps, swamping their capacity to feed them, let alone conduct military operations. About three months ago, in the Third Region Command in East Timor's southern Suai area, refugees began seeking protection around Falintil camps, confronting commander Falur Rate Laek with a serious dilemma. "He's finding it very difficult to be commander and to provide for refugees," says a source. "The refugees are competing with Falintil regulars for food."

How Falintil develops beyond the immediate humanitarian crisis is as yet unclear. There are reports that CNRT leaders, who will need to form a government, are not fully united, though few question the supremacy of Gusmao (currently in New York and Washington to meet with U.N., U.S., IMF and World Bank officials). But whatever happens, Falintil, CNRT's fighting force, is likely to have a part in any future admninistration. Says Imbaraj: "Young people grew up under Indonesian occupation not knowing either UDT or Fretilin but knowing Falintil, and in their minds that's the most important thing." Falintil will also almost certainly find itself with a continued, even expanded military role. Both Gusmao and Jos Ramos-Horta, the CNRT's No. 2 and de facto foreign minister, have reportedly proposed that Falintil troops could be integrated with the U.N.'s Interfet force and used along the border with West Timor.

In the tense border zone where integrationist militias appear to be girding for a campaign of cross-border destabilization and terror, overstretched Interfet forces will almost certainly need to rely on Falintil as their local eyes and ears. "These fighters have played cat and mouse with the Indonesian military for 25 years," notes prominent Australian East Timor activist Andrew McNaughtan. "They know the territory better than anyone." Some military analysts have raised the possibility of Falintil being given specialised training by Interfet instructors. Significantly, elite troops of Australia's Special Air Service Regiment, understood to have infiltrated into East Timor in advance of Interfet's arrival in Dili Sept. 20, have already linked up with Falintil's Ruak in his mountain base. Falintil guerrillas may now find themselves playing a more aggressive military role after the withdrawal of Indonesia's military than they did during the years of Jakarta's occupation.

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