APSN Banner

A spy on every corner

Sydney Morning Herald - August 1, 1998

Jenny Grant, Dili – East Timorese are either watching or being watched. Residents say the "Mauhu", the network of spies linked to the military, are monitoring every office, home and church in the troubled territory. At night markets, they swarm to overhear private conversations, keep tabs on locals and offer foreigners free motorbike rides in exchange for scraps of information.

East Timor's military commander, Colonel Tono Suratman, says there are only 60 intelligence agents working for the military in East Timor. "We need them to collect information to keep the peace," he said at Dili Harbour this week as he farewelled 400 departing troops. But human rights groups put the number of spies in Dili alone at about 5,000.

"They run a big surveillance operation in Dili," said Mr Aniceto Guterres Lopez, director of the Rights Foundation. "There are people everywhere who carry guns and act like military but do not wear uniforms."

Groups such as Alfa, Gada Paksi, Hali Lintar, Saka and Sera operate security networks, which locals claim are sponsored by the military, in all districts. Human rights groups say they have been involved in illegal detentions, harassment of pro-independence activists and even extra-judicial killings. "They are not Indonesian military but they are organised to carry out military-style actions very quickly," said Mr Lopez, whose group is the only legal aid organisation in East Timor. Most spies are looking for money, security and status in a wild-west territory where there are few jobs and even fewer security guarantees. "Their hearts are not really in integration," said Mr Lopez. "They are doing it for the money."

The pro-independence movement has its own powerful clandestine network. John, the deputy head of the clandestine civil resistance in the Liquica district west of Dili, says 23 years of occupation has not dampened their spirits. "They've tried but they cannot break our clandestine operation," said John, who claims supporters in every village supply food, medicine and safe houses for the guerillas in the mountains.

The military says there are only 200 Falintil guerillas left in the forests, but the clandestine network claims there are three times that number. "They would die without us because we meet them every day with supplies," said John, who claims he has been arrested himself and tortured with electric shocks.

He said to prevent the network from being infiltrated, supporters used code ranging from eye contact to sounds. The network has four levels, with Portuguese names, to parallel the structure of the Indonesian administration. Those at the lowest level, known as Celcom, report to the Nurif or village command every month. Reports from East Timor's 13 districts are then handed to the head of the clandestine network in Dili every two months. Despite troop reductions in East Timor, the spy game will go on. Residents whisper to foreign journalists, and want to talk only in safe areas out of earshot.

"No-one is safe to speak," said one student at the University of East Timor, whose chances of finding a job as an agriculturalist are slim. "There are spies everywhere. It's our only growth industry."