The future of a soon-to-be-independent East Timor is looking brighter, with yesterday’s signing of an agreement to share off-shore gas revenues with Australia.
The deal is a significant achievement for East Timor’s leaders and the United Nations.
But progress in the pursuit of economic justice has not been matched by progress in the search for political justice.
No senior figures have been brought to account for the campaign of orchestrated terror and destruction that accompanied the UN referendum on independence in 1999.
Australian journalist John Martinkus first went to East Timor in 1994, and has written the first comprehensive eyewitness account of events before and after the ballot.
He says that it was immediately obvious that the so-called militia in East Timor were in fact a creation of the Indonesian military - the TNI - but it was difficult to make this clear in news reports, because the TNI also had a sophisticated media strategy:
MARTINKUS: In a way, it was very savvy public relations work on behalf of the militia leaders themselves and their backers, the Indonesia military, by presenting the leaders such as Basilio and Eurico and Cancio, and all those, presenting them as these independent East Timorese who were ready with their quick sound bites for electronic media. Who were available for television interviews and those kinds of things. And they were getting across this message that they were East Timorese who would fight to stay as part of Indonesia.
Whereas on the other side you had the CNRT leaders who were at the same time were often in hiding, sometimes under protective custody by the police, the media couldn’t get in touch with them. And you had the guerilla leaders themselves who were up in the mountains and far too worried about their own security to just allow journalists to come and go.
Also a lot of the evidence, I mean the Indonesians of course, I mean they weren’t going to make it obvious that the TNI was arming the militias or supporting them, although to us on the ground it was incredibly blatant and in your face.
Like one of the first militia rallies down in Kasa, the TNI flew us down there in a TNI helicopter, and then when we got there we found East Timorese being transported at gunpoint to the rally by TNI soldiers.
MARES: Did journalists in a way become complicit with this whole strategy in East Timor, in the sense that you were obligated to report the comments of militia leaders, you were obligated to report the assurances of Indonesian military officers that the militia would be disbanded, that they would exert control. Yet all the time it was apparent to you that these were lies?
MARTINKUS: Yeah well that’s a very difficult question because yeah it was apparent to us on the ground that these people were lying, turning the truth on its head. But yes, we had to report those because you have to give voice to both sides. I mean it was very obvious from early on in ‘99 from the moment the militias formed, you know the very next day we had militias coming around and giving us press releases at the hotels and inviting us to their press conferences and functions. And they were very, very aware of the power of the press.
MARES: So the militia strategy wasn’t just a military strategy if you like, a strategy of violence and intimidation, it was also quite a sophisticated media campaign?
MARTINKUS: Yeah totally, I mean it was a very in some ways a very slick PR operation. Quite often they succeeded in getting their whole idea across, and I think some of the coverage from the violence in September reflected that.
MARES: In what way?
MARTINKUS: By simply focusing on saying that it was the militia who were destroying Dili, or the militia who were responsible for the majority of the destruction, which was simply not the case, it was very methodical carried out by TNI soldiers and you could see that. The militia simply wouldn’t have had the infrastructure trucks, planes, ships to carry out such a large-scale deportation of you know, a third of the population basically.
MARES: At the time when you were getting these assurances from the militia that they would be peaceful, and from the Indonesian military that they would control the situation, did you also want to believe them? Did you want to, was there a tendency to want to believe that things wouldn’t actually get so bad, that it wouldn’t really end up the way it did?
MARTINKUS: I think very much on the part of the UN leadership and from the Australian government too, yes, the Indonesian military were telling them what they wanted to hear, and they were willing to accept that because to not believe that would have meant well they would have had to make decisions like sending in peacekeepers earlier.
There was just a ridiculous sort of groundhog day feel to some of these press conferences where there’d be an attack on the UN, say in Maliana, there’d been an attack on the UN in Viqueque, there’d been an attack on the UN in Liquica.
Ian Martin, the head of the UNAMET mission would get up the next morning at the press conference and say I have received assurances from the highest authority that this violence will cease and that the TNI will act to control the militias in these areas.
Even right to the last when Ian Martin was surrounded in his compound by TNI soldiers shooting in the air, so much that we could barely hear him in the press conference, he was still saying “I’ve received assurances from the Indonesians that the situation will be brought under control.” It was just farcical, but also then what else could he say because he didn’t have any armed force on the ground to deal with it.
MARES: Since your reporting of East Timor you’ve been reporting in other places such as Aceh for example in Indonesia, and it does seem that we’re seeing very similar tactics, creation of militias, in both Aceh and Irian Jaya?
MARTINKUS: The TNI seem to have learnt very well that the introduction of local militias to a conflict, a separatist conflict like what’s happening in Aceh, introduces a high level of deniability on their part to anything like arbitrary killing of independent supporters, or killing of human rights workers, that kind of thing. It’s a shield to operate behind.
MARES: Because it can passed off as a conflict between two opposing groups, rather than a war being fought with the military?
MARTINKUS: Yeah, it can be repainted as a civil war which they did very successfully for a while there in East Timor, especially in the early part of ‘99 and the late part of ‘98, they were able to present the conflict in terms of East Timorese fighting each other, which although strictly speaking was true, if you had gangs of East Timorese going out on the street with guns and shooting other Timorese.
But the fact was that gang was paid for, you know they’re paid a wage by the Indonesian military, they’re given their weapons, they seek the protection of the Indonesian military, it’s a pretty cynical manoeuvre, and yeah it works.
John Martinkus is the author of “A Dirty Little War - an eyewitness account of East Timor’s descent into hell” published by Random House Australia
Book launch of A Dirty
by John Martinkus with foreward by Xanana Gusmão
coupled with the opening of Photo Exhibition: Through the Eye of the Lens
Sydney: 12 noon Friday 6 July 2001
Parliament House, Macquarie Street, Sydney
Photo exhibition ends Wednesday 11 July
Canberra: 6.30pm Friday 13 July
Canberra Services Club, Canberra Ave, Manuka
Photo exhibition ends Wednesday 18 July
Melbourne: 6.30pm Friday 20 July
Trades Hall, 54 Victoria Street, Carlton
Photo exhibition ends Wednesday 25 July
The photos will then be transported to Dili for permanent exhibition
About the book...
A Dirty Little War. Published by
Random House Australia due out 1 July.
By John Martinkus
This book is an eyewitness account of the conflict in East Timor from 1997 until the present. It covers the guerrila war fought by the East Timorese since the Indonesian invasion in 1975; the widespread demonstrations and calls for independence following the fall of Soeharto in 1998; the escalating violence by the Indonesian military that culminated with the destruction of East Timor and the forced deportation of a third of the population following the announcement of the Independence result in the August 30 UN sponsored ballot in 1999.
The author was the only journalist who covered the conflict from Dili throughout this entire period. He was also present when the first Peacekeepers moved into Dili, and the rest of the country, uncovering evidence of the Indonesian atrocities that are still not fully acknowledged by the governments of Indonesia, Australia and the international community.
It is the first book that gives a detailed eyewitness account of the destruction of Dili and forced evacuation of the population that was accompanied by an orchestrated campaign of widespread killing, rape and destruction of property by the departing Indonesian military.
Hosted by—Sydney: Amnesty International NSW Parliamentary Group; Canberra: Canberra Services Club; Melbourne: Victorian Trades Hall Council
Sponsored by - getonboard.com.au; AFP; Labor Council NSW; CFMEU; IEU;
John Martinkus: 0419 621 139
HT Lee: 0419 411 240 firstname.lastname@example.org
Margherita Tracanelli: 0407 911 429
13 HT Lee: Speech at Canberra launch of "A Dirty Little War"
Speech added July 17
"Foreign Minister Alexander Downer has welcomed Milosevic’s detention but when it comes to our dealings with Jakarta, the Jakarta lobby of the Department of Foreign Affairs, DFAT is still calling the shots and pulling the strings. It is therefore time for the Australian Government of whatever political persuasions to cut those strings and take a tougher stand with Jakarta by calling for and making sure the International War Crimes Tribunal for East Timor is established. It is only than that the ghosts of Balibo, Maliana, Suai, Liquica, Lospalos, Viqueque, Atsabe, Alas, Same, Dili and all the killing fields of East Timor, can finally be laid to rest." HT Lee, Australian press photographer in East Timor Sep 1999
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