A. Walter Dorn

Originally published in Peace Magazine, Vol. 15, No. 5 (Fall 1999), pp.16-18.


On August 30, 1999, the long-suffering people of East Timor had their first opportunity after almost 500 years of colonialism to choose their own future: to exist within Indonesia or become independent. Ninety-eight per cent of registered voters in the U.N.-sponsored referendum showed how eager the East Timorese were to seize the day. The 78.5 per cent vote for independence showed that the mind of East Timorese was 'made up': East Timor would become independent. Within hours of this decision, tragedy struck. Brutal repression and violence were once again systematically unleashed on the innocent people after they voted according to their conscience with the assistance and reassurance of the international community.

It had long been clear that the greatest threat to the movement towards a peaceful independence arose from the notorious pro-Indonesia militias and their military taskmasters. These militia groups, armed, equipped, and funded by elements in the Indonesian armed forces, had already done much damage to the electoral process prior to the referendum through their acts of killing, injury and intimidation against the Timorese population and even against the staff of the United Nations Mission in East Timor (UNAMET). What was surprising was the extent of the escalating violence and the degree of complicity of the Indonesian government.

While serving with UNAMET for two months leading up to the referendum, my colleagues and I witnessed and personally verified many cases of intimidation by these militias in our region of Suai, in the southwest area of East Timor. The militias murdered and intimidated with impunity (as well as seeming immunity) many of their political opponents, i.e., those who oppose integration with Indonesia. The 'signs were on the wall' and caused many of us to call for greater U.N. action and preventive measures, which remain ever necessary. Here is an account of a few experiences that caused us much alarm prior to the referendum.

The militias sought to prevent certain people from voting by threatening them with death if they registered. As an example, 'J' came to a UNAMET registration centre in the Suai region with great fear and trepidation. He said that he and his people were risking their lives by registering. As a former member of the Portuguese army and a supporter of the pro-independence forces, he had reason to be worried. His dead body was found by UNAMET staff only a few days later in his house. Similarly, the militias told the priest in nearby Zumalai that if he continued to conduct services in the area, he would be killed. The priest fled his parish and took refuge in the main church in Suai.

Entire villages known to be pro-independence were uprooted at night when militias came shooting and killing. For instance, I registered many of the 500 people of Laegatar in Zumalai who were displaced on July 17. They reported leaving in desperation with only what they could carry and now they feared to return home. Some of them made it to the church in Suai, where they could register at the school next door; others remained in the forest.

Intimidation was even directed against U.N. staff. After I insisted registration/polling sites be established in a Catholic School in Zumalai and in a village farther north in the mountains, I was accused of being a spy (for whom they did not say) and told that my security and that of my team 'could not be guaranteed.' Only when the U.N. relented two days later and accepted the site requested by militia, which was next to their base, were the threats against me withdrawn. Still, most of the local staff continued to receive death threats for working with UNAMET, and many have quit under such pressure.

After one of my local staff identified West Timorese who were registering with false names and birthplaces, a group of armed militia members came to his house. By that time, fortunately, he had been tipped off and fled, like the priest in Zumalai, to the over-crowded church grounds in Suai. The militias continue to patrol outside the church compound and have threatened several times to attack it.

Before joining UNAMET, one of our interpreters, 'S,' had been the subject of three attempted assassinations in Dili, the East Timorese capital where he was teaching. When I visited his home village with him, many people wept at seeing him alive. They said the last militia team had returned from Dili boasting they had accomplished their objective. Now the villagers saw the resurrection of 'S.' It was pleasant to see him, as a UNAMET interpreter, face the man who had ordered his assassination. But I still fear for his future. S said he was not afraid to die working for his cause.

Before being employed by UNAMET as a driver, 'C' had been abducted by the militias. When he refused to join he was beaten and left for dead. Later, he stopped near his home village with his UNAMET team. As with 'S,' some local people wept at the sight of him. He explained that once someone was taken by the militias, he either joined or turned up dead. 'C' was a fortunate exception.

The militias also tried to use traditional rituals to influence villagers. They sponsored blood-drinking ceremonies at various locations. Such rituals are sometimes used by the residents of East Timor when a grave decision is facing them and a village is bonded by a common oath, which is secured by drinking the blood of a goat. In Ogues, the ceremony was to be held in the yard in front of the UNAMET centre the very night before registration was to begin. But the attempt at coercion failed; the majority of the villagers fled to the forest for the night in order to avoid making a false pledge of allegiance. They turned up the next morning for an introductory briefing by UNAMET at the registration centre.

Many militia members come from West Timor, the Indonesian half of the Island, and some of them attempted to register as citizens of East Timor. One individual, after failing three times to give a correct name or birthplace, claimed eligibility by virtue of his marriage to an East Timorese woman in a traditional ceremony. However, the woman admitted privately to UNAMET that her real husband was dead. When the militia member was refused registration, he threatened to break the windows at the registration centre, to kill local staff and to divorce his alleged wife.

Other means of intimidation and population control included militia checkpoints at several villages. In some cases, a system of passes has been set up. Some militia carry weapons, even automatic rifles, in blatant violation of the law and UNAMET guidelines. They drill openly, usually with sticks, in playing fields and march through the streets shouting slogans. They are identifiable by their black T-shirts bearing their insignia.

Many of the militia leaders are former or current policemen, soldiers or government officials. Some use their official positions to intimidate the population. Opening private mail has been verified in at least one area. During registration, village chiefs (Kepala Desas) with close ties to the militia signed and stamped documents with false information, stating for instance that militia members were born in East Timor, though they admitted under questioning that they were born in West Timor. In some cases, the village chiefs witnessed and even forged signatures themselves for priests and church officials in order to register a voter.

The militia's plans to influence the voting process and the voters on consultation day became clear during our the first few days in Zumalai; they wanted to control access and intimidate persons at the polling site. During the registration period, many people avoided militia and military bases, sometimes walking for hours to go around the sites. The militia tried to cordon off the area around the polling centre with their members and use checkpoints on critical roads to stop those people known to support independence. One man hiding in the bushes with an automatic weapon can do a lot to dissuade people from traveling along a road. But the U.N. did what they could to prevent this by sponsoring patrols along the main roads.

The militia leaders in Zumalai also wanted to build new structures for voting stations. They told us these structures were to be in the traditional East Timorese style, open on all sides. This would make it easy for militia to intimidate voters as they are about to mark their ballots. Small signals, like a cold stare from the local militia leader, can be very persuasive in a society where fear is ever-present. And they have sent a shudder down the backs of many a Timorese and even some UNAMET staff. Fortunately, the U.N. held firm on this proposal and voting took place indoors behind specially made polling booths. Thus, intimidation at the actual moment of voting was made more difficult.

The warning signs of the current tragedy were. Many of us recognized that the greatest danger would be after the referendum result was announced. We predicted that if the result was rejection of Indonesian integration, then the militias would thwart moves towards independence. Even before the referendum, the militia leaders claimed UNAMET was not neutral, nor the ballots fair. Some militia leaders said if they could not win their cause peacefully at the ballot box, then they were ready to win through force. The militia in the Xumulai/Ainaro area is called MAHIDI, which is an abbreviation for 'Integration, Dead or Alive.'

UNAMET naively believed the Indonesian military, whose presence grew stronger by the day, was in East Timor to protect UNAMET and the East Timorese in the referendum process. In fact, the military did the opposite. The 23-year-old campaign of military intimidation, made more subtle using the cover of the militias, was now designed to influence the outcome of the vote and, failing that, to defeat any pro-independence moves afterwards. My colleagues and I often felt the irony of the situation, being 'protected' by the same people who had created the threat against us. But somehow, we accepted it. The UNAMET leadership clung to the notion that Indonesia would provide security, in accordance with its 'responsibilities.' The Special Envoy of the Secretary-General made rosy statements, even after hearing the horror stories, to reassure us and the East Timorese. Thus,UNAMET provided a false sense of security to the locals. (Only two days before the vote, the U.N. released a statement from the Secretary-General's message to the people of Easet Timorese: 'UNAMET is committed to securing the peace today and in the future. It will remain in East Timor after the ballot to carry out its responsibility in ensuring the result of the vote is properly implemented. Of that you can be assured.')

One of the peacekeeping lessons learned from the UNAMET experience is to hope for the best but plan for the worst. In retrospect, it is clear UNAMET and the international community should have insisted on bringing in armed U.N. peacekeepers before the vote. The Indonesian army had already proven ineffective in controlling militia violence, and in many cases, was found to be actively abetting it. U.N. soldiers would have caused the Indonesian army commanders to think twice about unleashing a systematic genocide through brutal slaughters, the raising of villages and mass deportations at gun point. At the least, the peacekeepers could have saved many lives.

The U.N. should have also developed a better information gathering and analysis capability. We now know that macabre militia-military plots were being developed in Dili for the post-ballot period. Information is coming to light about key meetings and conversations (gained in part though interception of mobile phone conversations by NGOs and intelligence officials) between militia leaders and senior militiary officers. UNAMET failed to investigate deeply enough into the militia-army connections. Once these had been discovered, UNAMET should have insisted that key links be severed and that the supply of weaponry and funds be halted. The new multinational peacekeeping force in East Timor will be wiser because of UNAMET's mistakes. It will also be better equipped.

The international community now has an added obligation to rebuild destroyed villages, sabotaged bridges and burnt homes, and to provide for clean water, sanitation and sustainable means for food production. In so doing, the international community might redeem itself from its past mistakes.

The people of East Timor can indeed have a brighter future after centuries of suffering and decades of war. There remain dark clouds overhead to be sure. These can be dispelled by a strong U.N. presence and an outpouring of international aid as the rebuilding continues. But the international community must act quickly and generously.


Walter Dorn is a Senior Research Fellow with the Institute for African Development at Cornell University and a faculty member of the Pearson Peacekeeping Centre in Nova Scotia. He served with the United Nations Mission in East Timor in the summer of 1999. [His experiences are illustrated on this webpage.]