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Conflict intensifies in East Timor

Human Rights Watch/Asia - September 29, 1997

In a new report, "Deteriorating Human Rights in East Timor," Human Rights Watch/Asia says the conflict in the disputed territory has intensified since a series of guerrilla attacks around the Indonesian parliamentary elections last May. While both sides have violated a cardinal principle of international humanitarian law_protecting civilians and non-combatants from hostilities_the Indonesian army has been responsible for widespread arbitrary arrest and detention, often accompanied by torture, in its response to the attacks. The report links the recent violence to a build-up of Indonesian paramilitary and counterinsurgency forces in East Timor. Human Rights Watch calls on the international community to request full transparency from the Indonesian armed forces on the number of personnel stationed in East Timor, including rotating battalions, special forces, locally-formed counterinsurgency units, paramilitary groups, police, and intelligence units, and to engage the Indonesian government in discussions on how to reduce that number.

The report places particular emphasis on the problem of torture and calls on the Indonesian government to make an announcement, to be published in the newspaper Suara Timor Timur (Voice of East Timor) and other public places, that members of the security forces, including police, army, and various paramilitary groups, are explicitly banned from using any form of torture, including electric shocks, beatings, and submersion in water, at all times. The government should cooperate with local human rights organizations like the Commission on Justice and Peace to set up a mechanism by which torture victims could report to the commission with confidence that their accounts would be fully investigated, that they themselves would suffer no reprisals, and that the torturers would be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. Virtually all branches of the Indonesian army have been responsible for torture, but allegations center most frequently on Kopassus, the army special forces, and on the joint military intelligence unit known in East Timor as SGI.

The report notes that the Indonesian government has learned that torture can be politically costly in case of internationally-known activists or those likely to be the subject of diplomatic inquiries, but there is almost no cost associated with torturing villagers who are only briefly in detention.

Human Rights Watch also calls on members of the armed opposition to cease the practice of executing unarmed civilians suspected of being collaborators and informers. Such executions are in violation of international humanitarian law.

The report notes that the violence followed a period of growing social and political tension in East Timor. Some of this was caused by the proliferation of Indonesian paramilitary groups and counterinsurgency forces beginning in mid-1995, many of them composed largely of East Timorese who were given rudimentary training before being equipped with firearms. A pro-integration youth militia, known by the Indonesian acronym of Gardapaksi, had also become a major problem. Created in 1995, ostensibly to provide vocational training for East Timorese youth, Gardapaksi members quickly became partners of the Indonesian army special forces in military operations.

Tension has also increased with the influx of Indonesians to East Timor, both through official transmigration programs as well as "spontaneous" migration. (The Indonesian transmigration minister made a point of campaigning for the ruling party, GOLKAR, in transmigration sites in East Timor.)

Yet another source of tension is related to the economic development plans for East Timor. These plans include a huge project for cultivating sugarcane, taking up 25,000 hectares of the most fertile land along the southern coast of the territory, which is about to get underway. The main investor is President Soeharto's son, Tommy Soeharto.

The political implications of tensions caused by a heavy military presence combined with extensive in-migration were highlighted as early as 1990, the report notes, but the problems remain unaddressed by the Indonesian government.

[The full text of the report is available from ASIET's WWW page:../ under the section "miscellaneous reports and articles" - James Balowski]