Tue, 26 Sep 2000

A good token start

The highly publicized handover of weapons by pro-Indonesia East Timor militias to the police in the border town of Atambua, East Nusa Tenggara, may come across as a public relations gimmick on the part of the government, but it is still a gesture of goodwill to resolve the problem of the militias. The ceremony, witnessed by Vice President Megawati Sukarnoputri and top members of the Cabinet and the Indonesian Military (TNI), was widely covered by national and international media. The presence of high-ranking delegates from Jakarta is an indication of the government's serious commitment to finally do something about the militias.

The pro-Indonesia East Timor militias have been a menace not only to their own compatriots living in Indonesian refugee camps, but also to the United Nations workers who have been helping the refugees with their repatriation to their newly independent country. Sunday's ceremony came in the wake of the killing of three UN aid workers by an East Timorese mob in Atambua this month and the subsequent United Nations Security Council resolution ordering Indonesia to disarm and disband the militias.

That resolution, and the international condemnation preceding it, should have told Indonesia that these pro-Indonesia militias have now become a major liability to the entire nation. Obviously, we have not learned our lessons well. These are the same militias that brought massive worldwide condemnation of Indonesia just a year ago when the gun-toting thugs terrorized almost the entire East Timorese population after the majority of them voted to separate from Indonesia.

Whatever objectives or dreams these militias still have today, one year after losing the ballot, they are increasingly coming at the expense of the entire nation. Whatever purpose these Indonesian Army-created militias once served, they are surely dispensable by now. Given all the problems and international embarrassment they have caused the nation, they must be disarmed and disbanded, not only because Indonesia has been so ordered by the UN Security Council, but also because it is in Indonesia's best interest to do so.

On top of that, in the name of justice, Indonesia must see to it that the perpetrators of the Atambua killings are brought to trial. This is in addition to bringing to court the militias and their sponsors in the Indonesian Military hierarchy who were responsible, directly or indirectly, for the massive campaign of terror and violence that forced almost the entire population of East Timor to flee and razed the whole territory to the ground.

The fact that none of this has happened means that the political will, for one reason or another, has been missing.

Sunday's widely publicized ceremony in Atambua could still end up as merely another public relations stunt to appease the international community, unless the government quickly follows this through to the end until the militias are fully disarmed and disbanded, and their leaders brought to justice.

If there are still doubts and misgivings about the real intention of Sunday's ceremony, that is because we have seen this gesture before. Prior to the Aug. 31, 1999 ballot, the Indonesian Military also held a widely publicized ceremony showing the pro- Indonesia East Timor militias surrendering their weapons as a gesture of goodwill to peace in the territory. But we know that these weapons were immediately returned to them no sooner than the TV cameras and reporters had left. A similar scene was witnessed in Atambua on Sunday. No sooner had Megawati left the area than some of the militias took back their weapons from the police. Later claims that the weapons had been surrendered once more to the police cannot be independently verified since all the reporters had left town.

Officials organizing the ceremony in Atambua also failed to explain why Eurico Guterres, probably the most notorious among the East Timor militia leaders, was excluded from the ceremony and from personally handing over his gun to the Vice President. Security protocol may have dictated that this was not possible, but if that was the case, then the whole ceremony in Atambua on Sunday was a poorly executed public relations exercise.

Whatever impressions the ceremony in Atambua left, it is really up to the government to prove to the doubters and cynics that it was not a mere PR gimmick by ensuring that further disarmament and disbandment of the militias as well as the legal process are carried out. The government must do it quickly for time, unfortunately, is not on its side.