A week after the East Timorese voted overwhelmingly for independence and hundreds of journalists and observers fled, one thing was obvious. The violence engulfing this half-island wasn’t just the work of a ragtag group of pro-Indonesian militia, but rather reflected a highly organized campaign. Although obvious to Western reporters, that fact nevertheless escaped the notice of most of Indonesia’s press.
On the surface, the story centered on two warring political groups. But this was mainly a convenient fiction, designed to perpetuate the idea that factions had been warring in East Timor since 1975. Conclusion: without the Indonesian army, the place would descend into civil war.
Unfortunately, Indonesia’s press largely reported events from this perspective, despite the fact that pro-integration militias overwhelmingly committed the violence against unarmed civilians – in short, any accused or known independence supporters. Once the pro-independence guerrilla army Falantil signed a peace agreement in July, it wasn’t involved in these clashes. Evidence of the Indonesian military’s involvement was easy to find during the week of the vote. Yet, the Indonesian press largely presented the violence as a conflict between two factions.
When the Indonesian police announced, two days before the vote, that it would stop the attacks and arrest anyone carrying weapons, the mainstream press dutifully covered this. But the fact that armed, pro-Jakarta militias were still rampaging around Dili the next day – without being stopped – wasn’t. Nor did the press dwell on the fact that the police didn’t stop attacks on unarmed people, or disarm and arrest any of those responsible.
For the Western press, presenting both sides of the story became almost impossible. As Karen Polglaze, correspondent for Australia’s AAP wire service, explained, "When it becomes obvious that one side is patently lying, do you put it in the story because you’re obliged to provide balance?"
In the week following the vote, the militia stepped up attacks on pro-independence supporters and foreigners, making travel dangerous for both journalists and their Timorese drivers and translators. Terrorizing Timorese who helped foreigners became an effective way to limit the movement of journalists, particularly in the western districts where militia violence was increasing.
Within a week, the campaign had achieved its aims. Only a handful of journalists remained in Dili, basically confined to the UN Assisted Mission in East Timor (UNAMET) compound.
Mary Robinson, the UN’s High Commissioner for Human Rights, has concluded that all evidence points to the army’s involvement in "directing attacks which moved from the western regions of Timor to Dili in order to move out the international observers and then indulge in more violent killing."
The violence wasn’t random, committed by rogue elements in the Indonesian army, Robinson added, but "appears to have been systematic according to reports by UN police, UNAMET staff, and local staff. Their evidence suggests that TNI [the Indonesian army] was fully involved."
In the aftermath, most Indonesian papers mentioned nothing about such UN conclusions – or the true extent of the devastation. If they covered it, there was very little to suggest that that violence was largely orchestrated, and conducted, by Indonesian troops.
The media essentially believes the military can get away with anything, explained Taufik Darusman, editor of the English language Indonesian Observer. Darusman is one of the few Indonesian editors who thinks East Timor is still worth covering, since senior military officers may be called before a war crimes tribunal. Most others aren’t following this, he notes, because "they don’t understand the seriousness of the issue."
In fact, if the actual number of militia members was really as low as locals say – perhaps a tenth of the 50,000 supporters that pro-integrationists claim to have – it becomes less likely that this was mainly the work of the militias. Certainly, without military direction, they wouldn’t have destroyed as much as they did. Evidence from eyewitnesses also suggests that soldiers new to Timor – about 6000 men brought in just before the vote results were announced – did much of the damage.
The Indonesian press did meticulously cover every perceived or potential violation by UN troops who were sent to East Timor because the army hadn’t stopped the killing, burning, and looting. Newspapers and TV news were filled with images of "aggressive" UN troops pointing guns at East Timorese, along with reports of human rights abuses toward Timorese civilians.
The Indonesian press had apparently forgotten that until two weeks into the operation, UN troops didn’t fire a single bullet or kill anyone in East Timor, said August Parengkuan, editor of Kompass. Thus, most papers believed the national news agency Antara’s report that UN troops had burnt two militia members alive, even though no bodies were found. A senior journalist with Pos Kupang said Antara’s story didn’t hold up to cross checking, so they didn’t feel obliged to run it. Nevertheless, it was reported in most papers, as well on the state-run TV station. The result was a wave of anti-Australian demonstrations, and threats to burn Australians.
The papers also trumpeted comments by pro-Jakarta militia spokesmen that independence leaders Xanana Gusmao and Bishop Belo should be held responsible for the social chaos in West Timor resulting from an influx of thousands of refugees. But they neglected to mention how many people were killed and what towns were destroyed by pro-integrationists.
According to Parengkuan, although Indonesia’s press is relatively free, many papers still "don’t dare report the real situation because they don’t want to risk a reaction from the military."
The difference between how the Western and Indonesian journalists viewed the same story is encapsulated by their different takes on the referendum itself. Pointing to a general ambivalence about East Timor, Darusman notes that most Indonesians didn’t expect such a large portion of the population to support independence. "We took it for granted that the Timorese would think Indonesian society was a better one than the Portuguese." Predictably, most Western observers weren’t at all surprised by the outcome of the vote.
Marianne Kearney, a freelance journalist who spent two months in Timor, writes for papers in Singapore and Australia.