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SEPTEMBER 13, 1999 VOL. 154 NO. 10

Birth of a Nation
East Timorese vote overwhelmingly to secede from Indonesia, but ongoing militia violence ensures a bloody transition to independence

Charles Dharapak/AP
ROUGH START: A week that began with brave Timorese voting to secede ended with refugees fleeing the violence-wracked territory as pitched battles raged even outside the U.N. compound in Dili.


On the streets of Dili, set to become Asia's newest capital city, the days can unfold with a terrifying regularity. Mornings will dawn with a sense of foreboding. In the heat of midday, rumors begin to pick up steam as gangs of black-shirted thugs gather, form roadblocks and seek out those who support independence for the bloodied half-island of East Timor. By late afternoon the first shots have usually been fired; with dusk the city is wound tight as a drum. By the time night falls, the streets have emptied and most citizens stay close to home.

Indonesia: No Pain, No Gain
As East Timorese decide on their future, continuing violence threatens to muddy the outcome of the historic vote

Xanana Gusmão looks to independence

Megawati and the army still don't get it

Timorese Rebel Leader Gusmao Walks Free
Jakarta declares martial law to quell violence

Flashback to the Past
The historic referendum takes place despite the violence, but East Timor's ordeal is not yet over

Anxieties of Separation
After 23 years, much bitterness--and regret

Indonesia and East Timor

Was it inevitable that East Timor would descend into violence after the vote on independence?

No, the killings and attacks by pro-Jakarta militias come as a complete surprise
Yes, violence had to come and the United Nations has been caught unprepared
View Results
CNN interviewed East Timorese Nobel Peace laureate Jose Ramos-Horta Monday. (Part 1)
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CNN interviewed East Timorese Nobel peace laureate Jose Ramos-Horta Monday. (Part 2)
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CNN's Maria Ressa shows the continuing violence. (September 6)
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That ritual fear has become the only certainty in East Timor since the United Nations' announcement Saturday that an overwhelming majority of voters had turned down an offer of autonomy from Jakarta--thus setting the territory on the road to independence. Even as votes were being counted, wild pro-Indonesia gangs, sensing defeat, spread a blanket of terror across the region. By the end of the week they had killed at least four East Timorese who had worked for the U.N., and as many as a dozen others may have died in clashes with independence supporters. Militia roadblocks encircled Dili and cut off access to the camps of pro-independence Falantil guerrillas in the hills that surround the capital. Near the border with West Timor, the marauding irregulars had seized effective control of several towns. Their desperate leaders talked of partitioning the country--and of civil war. The East Timorese who braved threats and intimidation to vote may have earned themselves a nation. The question now is how--and if--they can claim that long-sought prize.

After more than two decades linked unwillingly to Indonesia, the territory may have to wait a fraught two months before officially seceding. The vote count leaves little doubt as to the will of the East Timorese: nearly 99% of the more than 450,000 eligible voters cast ballots in the Aug. 30 referendum, and 78.5% of those rejected Jakarta's autonomy offer. Both Indonesian President B.J. Habibie and, importantly, military chief General Wiranto have pledged to respect the outcome. On Saturday they beefed up the security presence around the compound where independence leader Xanana Gusmão, who has received numerous death threats, is to remain under house arrest until Sept. 8. Still, only the newly elected Indonesian legislature, which won't begin meeting until October, can ratify the decision to let East Timor go. Between now and then, the Indonesian military, police and lame-duck civil administration stationed in the territory have little incentive to challenge militia forces.

That obvious reluctance has led many East Timorese to demand help from outside the archipelago. "If Indonesia does not allow in international peacekeeping troops, many more East Timorese will die," says Leandro Isaac, spokesman for the pro-independence National Council of Timorese Resistance (CNRT). The U.N. insists it has no plans to deploy an armed force--which would take weeks to raise--before East Timor has become fully independent. Some observers have suggested that an interim force could be drawn up more quickly, possibly from Australian troops already on alert in Darwin and from those of other neighboring countries. But the response time of even those soldiers could be too slow given how quickly events have spiraled out of control. "The situation on the ground requires an immediate response," says U.N. East Timor spokesman David Wimhurst, "and only the Indonesians have the wherewithal to deal with it." For now, Western governments can only hope that stinging public rebukes will shame Jakarta into fulfilling its responsibilities.

Authorities continue to mumble the right noises. Both Habibie and Wiranto insist they have the situation in hand, and various officials have hinted that the government will not ultimately object to an international peacekeeping force. On the night before results were announced, Wiranto ordered an additional 1,500 army troops to the territory to join the 15,000 military and police already there. But thus far the forces have shown little stomach for confronting the lightly armed militias, who have been allowed to roam unchecked when not hitching rides on police trucks.

Until now, the pressures on Habibie to crack down have not outweighed those that argue for passivity. The diminutive President is painfully aware of the 38 seats that will be held by the military in the new 700-member People's Consultative Assembly--a crucial swing vote in his effort to retain the presidency against frontrunner Megawati Sukarnoputri. At the same time Wiranto reportedly entertains political ambitions of his own, and needs above all to maintain unity among his troops. Giving the order to rein in the militias--many of whom allegedly owe their existence to Indonesian special forces operatives--could breed resentment among officers who have fought and lost men in the territory. "I don't think it would be difficult for the police to disarm the militias, but their hearts aren't in it," says a Western military official familiar with the region. "These guys were brought in by the military, and there are emotional attachments preventing the police from taking action."

That implicit support has transformed the militias into a formidable force. Similar vigilante groups have been raised and wielded by Jakarta throughout the history of modern Indonesia--in the 1950s against radical Muslims, in the 1960s against communists and, last year, without success, against the student-led demonstrators who toppled the Suharto regime. In East Timor the number of pro-government forces rose suspiciously at the beginning of this year, after Habibie announced that he would allow East Timorese to decide for themselves whether they would remain part of Indonesia. By some estimates, the militias' ranks have swelled from an estimated 1,200 members to more than 19,000--some of them unemployed youth from the neighboring province of West Timor, others locally hired guns.

When months of intimidation failed to derail the Aug. 30 referendum, the groups--bearing names like Besi Merah Putih (Red and White Iron) and Aitarak (Thorn)--began to lash out at the U.N. and those thought to support independence. Militia members boldly checked passengers at the Dili airport to ensure that no independence leaders fled the territory. (In some neighborhoods frightened officials have taken to disguising themselves in the black or blue T shirts favored by the thugs.) On Wednesday, cellular phones and gunfire rang out simultaneously as gang members chased journalists into the U.N. compound in Dili, which quickly filled with terrified civilians. By the end of the week the U.N. had evacuated staff from towns controlled by the militias, who stepped up their attacks outside the capital, wounding an unarmed American civilian policeman. Their purpose remains confused--perhaps even to themselves. They may hope to draw the dwindling number of Falantil guerrillas into a civil war that could justify the continued presence of Indonesian troops. They may intend to carve out a zone of control near the border of West Timor. They may simply be drunk on the power that the tolerance of the Indonesian military has allowed them.

Defeated at the ballot box, the militias could yet sabotage the birth of the world's youngest nation. Already their actions have displaced at least 30,000 people in Dili, and possibly as many as 100,000--an eighth of the population--across the territory. Jakarta has drawn up plans to evacuate up to 200,000 refugees if need be; that number could well include most of the territory's civil servants, many of whom hail from Java and other Indonesian islands. The combined loss of skilled personnel, plus the heavy load of thousands of homeless and terrified citizens, could doom any fledgling East Timorese administration.

At the same time, the heedless brutality of the militias is carving a divide that will not heal easily. East Timorese talk bravely of reconciliation, insisting the thugs are far less dedicated to a cause than to the money they allegedly receive from the Indonesian military. (Jakarta denies funding or supporting the militias.) Even the staunchest independence supporters say all will return to normal if only the Indonesian military and police would withdraw. "I don't blame either party for the violence," says Lucas da Costa, a member of the CNRT task force on the economic future of East Timor. "I think there will be an end to the violence when the opportunists are gone." Given the number of grudges that have been created in the past week, however, East Timor's fresh start looks certain to be as bloody as its past.

Reported by Lisa Rose Weaver/Dili and Jason Tedjasukmmana/Jakarta

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