Ninjas Aren’t the Problem: Restlessness in East Timor

Members of the East Timorese security force parade at the presidential palace in Dill on May 20. Image taken from The Irrawaddy Magazine.

Chiang Mai, THAILAND

As paramilitary forces and police presence escalate in the Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste, many locals feel increasingly wary, and tensions linger high in a society that only gained official independence in 2002. 2006 saw the outbreak of violence in the capital, Dili, leaving at least 37 dead and 150,000 displaced, incited by a split in the armed forces over promotions, many say.¹  Former freedom fighters, relying on experience from uprisings against Indonesia in the recent past, as well as trained soldiers and police officers, were all involved.

Much of the international media talks about tensions between “martial arts groups,” and police commander Longuinhos Monteiro justified a military crackdown earlier this year with specious reports of roving bands of ninja terrorists (ibid). Other local humanitarian groups and human rights watch organizations insist that we are misplacing our attention; the real problem may be due to deeper fault lines within society. The number of unemployed youth is both an impediment to development and a statistic with far-reaching consequences for community identity and politics in the future.

Perhaps a quick synopsis of East Timor is in order: the nation remained under Portuguese colonial rule from the 16th century until 1975, when they declared their (first) short-lived independence. Later that same year, Indonesia invaded and continued to occupy the country until 1999, when a rare joint-agreement was reached by a UN-sponsored meeting of Indonesia, Portugal, and the United States, that decided to hold a popular referendum which led to a 78.5% vote in favor of full independence. However, the Indonesian military and some pro-Indonesia activists instigated violent clashes, which were only quelled by an international peacekeeping force. As a result, a UN Transitional Administrator was required to take the reins for nearly three more years. During this time, the militias and most hostile, Indonesian forces withdrew, and the administration laid the grounds for East Timor’s future government.

However, peace was tenuous, and riots broke out in 2006, as mentioned above. Factions within the military and police rivalry were responsible for the violence. Then Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri resigned, and the next year presidential elections were held, leading to increased violence. An assassination attempt critically wounded President José Ramos-Horta in 2008. In the meantime, trials are still being drawn out against activist Ozorio Leque, who is accused of inciting the 2006 riots in Dili with his public denouncement of the government. East Timor’s troubles are hardly behind them and will not soon be forgotten.

What complicates matters is Indonesia’s role in the unrest and their lack of accountability. The Indonesian special forces unit Kopassus (Komando Pasukan Khusus) has been widely accused of an array of human rights abuses in the critical years preceding East Timor’s independence, and military tribunals have not brought those responsible for those atrocities to face justice. Human Rights Watch reports:

Kopassus members have been implicated in serious human rights abuses, including abducting and “disappearing” student activists in 1997-98, launching a scorched-earth campaign and forming deadly militia forces in East Timor in 1999…In none of these cases did the Indonesian military take sufficient steps to ensure that perpetrators were held accountable. A series of ad hoc trials of soldiers implicated in crimes against humanity in East Timor in 1999 ultimately failed to convict a single defendant.²

In fact, a number of those guilty have seen promotions in the military, such as Colonel Nugroho Widyo Utomo, former deputy commander of Kopassus, who orchestrated the killing of 1,400 pro-independence East Timorese in 1998-99 (ibid).

In a glaring inconsistency with the United States’ purported dedication to human rights and international justice (and yet in perfect consistency with actual US foreign policy, specifically in light of the Obama administration’s renewed engagement in the Asian Pacific region), US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates announced a new policy of military cooperation with Kopassus. The US had severed ties to the Indonesian military in 1999, after allegations of gross violations of human rights had surfaced (despite our firm support of Suharto’s regime until his fall from grace in 1998 forced him to resign!).

And yet the recent US re-engagement and Indonesia’s lack of accountability are not the driving factors behind today’s continuing urban unrest in East Timor. As mentioned above, East Timorese police commander Monteiro has used unfounded ninja scares, referring to the threat of independent “martial arts groups,” in an attempt to legitimate his creation of the Public Order Battalion, amid increases in security forces and heavily armed police (PNTL). However, some warn that the media and government bodies have focused too much attention on the violence and crime, ignoring an improved security sector. Perhaps the real problems are demographic ones: a disillusioned and frustrated youth without sufficient employment opportunities makes for social conflict in any society.

As Ozorio Leque, 29, awaits trial on charges of fomenting violence in Dili in 2006, he spoke with reporters:

This country is composed mostly of youths, but the major challenge that they are facing at the moment is the lack of skills and job opportunities. This is one of the issues that could lead to another social clash. We were coached to use violence against the Indonesian government…to demonstrate to international societies that we were refusing the Indonesian presence in our country…Creating job opportunities and facilitating youths is one of the priorities in this post-conflict situation.³

The spokesperson for a local human rights NGO commented: “The martial arts situation is not something which is dangerous for the security of Timor-Leste. It is about social jealousy. It is about social frustration” (ibid). So forget the ninjas: we must now invest in East Timor’s human capital in order to effect real reform. Otherwise, this young country will regress into a military state.

¹ Crook, Matt. “Tense Times in Timor-Leste,” in The Irrawaddy, 18 (7), July 2010: 32.

² Human Rights Watch, “Indonesia: US Resumes Military Assistance to Abusive Force,” July 22, 2010. <>.

³ Crook, 32-33.

This entry was posted in Foreign Policy, Human Rights, Southeast Asia. Bookmark the permalink.

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