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The TNI's 'Dirty War' in East Timor

7 June, 1999
The decision by President Habibie on 27 January 1999 to allow the people of East Timor to choose between autonomy within Indonesia and independence prompted a reaction within the Indonesian armed forces, the TNI, the Indonesian National Army (formerly known as ABRI) to defy their supreme commander, a weak civilian president, and mount an operation to render the decision unworkable. In order to reverse the Habibie decision, a new military intelligence operation was launched.

Within weeks of the Habibie decision, a Crisis Team on East Timor to wage a 'dirty war' was set up under Major-General Zacky Anwar Makarim, a shadowy intelligence operator who has spent years as an intelligence officer in East Timor and was head of army intelligence at the time of the Santa Cruz Massacre in November 1991. Shortly before the Crisis Team was set up, Zacky Anwar stood down as head of ABRI's intelligence agency, BIA. [The term 'dirty war' was originally used with reference to the intelligence operations carried out by MI6 in Northern Ireland.]

The formation of the Crisis Team led to the creation of new militia gangs who instigated a wave of killings in the western part of East Timor, especially in Ermera, Maubara, Liquisa and Dili, culminating in the massacres in Liquisa on 6 April and Dili on 17 April. The operation code-named Operasi Sapu Jagad (Global Clean-Sweep) has led to the murders of CNRT (Timorese National Resistance Council) leaders and the enforced dissolution of local CNRT offices. The objectives of Operasi Sapu Jagad are:

  • To obliterate the CNRT.

  • To destroy the peace process and render a UN-conducted consultation impossible.

    To render the population defenceless and demoralised by eliminating the organised resistance.

Operasi Sapu Jagad is being conducted under the supervision of Udayana IX Military Command based in Denpasar (which covers East Timor) whose commander and chief-of-staff have been involved in organising and training the militia death squads. In February, Udayana commander Major-General Adam Damiri held a meeting of militia leaders and promised logistical support, including weapons for 2,000 men. His chief-of-staff, Brigadier-General Mahidin Simbolon, a former military commander in East Timor, has a reputation for using Timorese to terrorise Timorese. As long as these men, both committed to destroying the resistance, remain in their present posts, peace will not return to East Timor.

The intelligence operation was made easier because of the euphoria which followed Suharto's downfall in May 1998, when CNRT branches appeared everywhere, students waged a campaign to popularise the idea of independence and many East Timorese working for the administration felt emboldened to express their true feelings in public. The operations leading up to the killings in Liquisa on 6 April, and the killings in Dili on 17 April were targeted on these people and on Timorese who in the past few years have switched allegiances, and now support independence.

Following Habibie's 27 January decision, the CNRT leadership, in an effort to avoid provocation and prevent bloodshed, called a halt to military operations in the bush and to demonstrations in the cities. But this did not deter the militia death squads and their ABRI backers from persisting in their wave of terror. Since late January, several hundred Timorese have been killed and more than 40,000 people have fled their villages and are now living as refugees or 'internally displaced persons' under the control of the militia with the connivance of the local military. This does not include the death toll in places like Suai, now sealed off to outside observers, where up to two hundred people are thought to have been killed since April.


Following Suharto's downfall, Habibie became ABRI (now TNI) supreme commander, but being a civilian, he exerts no authority over the armed forces. Wiranto as commander-in-chief of TNI expressed support for Habibie's January initiative but it soon became apparent that his was a minority view. Unlike most top officers the vast majority of whom have served in East Timor and come from the elite corps Kopassus, Wiranto's career trajectory owes little to the annexation nor is he from Kopassus.

A number of influential retired officers like Benny Murdani and Prabowo, Suharto's son-in-law have joined forces with senior officers still on active service to defy Habibie, contributing large amounts of money to finance the terror campaign in East Timor. In March, there were reports that US$2 million (around 17 billion rupiah) had been supplied to finance the operations and more recently, there are accounts of counterfeit money circulating in East Timor and being used to pay the militias..

As the TNI's counter-move got underway, it became clear that Wiranto had effectively lost control of operations in East Timor although he is unlikely to have been instrumental in arming the militias. His failure to stop Operasi Sapu Jagad, which is a blatant act of insubordination, can only be explained by his lack of authority within the TNI and his inability to resolve the many conflicts in its ranks and rein in the hardliners, if indeed he is minded to do so. Wiranto is currently pre-occupied with securing the TNI's future role in Indonesian political affairs and is leaving the cataclysmic developments in East Timor (as well as in Aceh) to the hardliners. Whatever the reasons, he is accountable as commander-in-chief for what is happening; he must take responsibility for the failure to dismiss officers in East Timor who have supported and taken part in atrocities and stands condemned for his attempt, in light of all the evidence to the contrary, to absolve the TNI from responsibility for arming and training the militias.

While Wiranto and the TNI commander in East Timor, Colonel Tono Suratman, have adopted a pose of 'neutrality', local army units have stood by while the militia did their dirty work. In many places, they have conducted their brutal operations with overt support from the troops and local police squads:

  • The massacre in Liquisa on 17 April which has been well documented by human rights activists was the culmination of an operation which forced thousands of villagers to flee their homes, take refuge in Liquisa church and then be slaughtered by the militia, with the involvement of the local troops. Even so, the commanding officer of the local Kodim, Lt Colonel Asep Kuswanto remains in his post.

  • In Maliana, the commanding officer Lt Colonel Burhanuddin Siagian, publicly ordered the execution of five villagers in Bobonaro on 13 April and has been quoted as totally rejected Habibie's policy, arguing that he will not continue as president for much longer anyway. He too remains in his post.

The only senior officer to have been removed is deputy East Timor commander Colonel Mudjiono, a hardliner, who has been given a new post in Lampung. The reason for his removal is not clear.


Military intelligence

The newly-formed militias who are spearheading Operasi Sapu Jagad under Major-General Zacky Anwar are operating with the support and guidance of hundreds of army intelligence officers. Although SGI (Satuan Tugas Inteligen), the force through which Kopassus operated in East Timor for many years, has been formally dissolved, soldiers recognised locally as SGI operators are still functioning throughout the territory. On 10 November 1998, 400 Kopassus Group 4 troops arrived in Kupang, West Timor. Group 4 is especially trained to track down and eliminate opponents and was responsible for the abduction and disappearance of dozens of pro-democracy activists in Indonesia last year. Press reports in Australia in early June referred to a 'top-secret memo from Indonesian military intelligence, BIA, to the militia saying that all supporters of independence should be eliminated after the vote'. [Guardian Weekly, 6 June 1999] In a statement on 31 May, Bishop Belo said that one thousand intelligence officers are now operating in East Timor. Spread out across the country, this is equivalent to more than two intel officers per village, although they are likely to be concentrated in some places more than in others.

The army

Wiranto recently announced the withdrawal of two army battalions and their replacement by police units, Bishop Belo has contradicted this assertion, saying that two new infantry companies recently arrived in the territory. In the absence of independent monitoring, claims about the withdrawal of army battalions must be treated with circumspection.

The police

Under the 5 May UN Accords for the Consultation in East Timor, security is entrusted to the Indonesian police, Polri, while the army is required to 'redeploy'. Although Polri was recently separated from the TNI, nothing has happened to change the militaristic outlook and mode of operations of the force. Moreover, most police units now operating or being brought in are the notorious elite police force, Brimob, well known for their brutality. In a moment of frankness, militia leader Herminio da Costa recently admitted that they had an agreement with chief-of-police Colonel Timbul Silaen, to attack CNRT leaders, destroy their homes, arrest them and eliminate them. No one for a moment believes that Polri will function as a neutral security force, as required by the 5 May Accords. It is highly possible too that members of the army will simply change uniforms and become members of Polri. It remains to be seen whether 250 UN 'police advisers' will be able to control their operations.

The militia

Prior to Operasi Sapu Jagad, at least a dozen militia groups already existed in East Timor, attached to local garrisons. Some function as auxiliaries while others have long had a reputation for brutality. Halilintar, led by Joao Tavares (who is now known as the war commander of the militia), Makikit and Gada Paksi (a creation of Prabowo) have liaised closed with SGI. Other older militia groups have been given front-line roles in operations against Falintil, the armed wing of the resistance. The new militia death squads have brought the level of violence, terror and intimidation to a level unparalleled since the early years of the invasion. There have been skirmishes and clashes between the older and the newer militias and in one case, even a clash involving Kopassus operators, suggesting a degree of hostility among militia gangs, possibly provoked by colliding interests and jealousies.

Former collaborators and new allegiances

In the early years of integration, East Timorese political forces such as the UDT and Apodeti sided with the Indonesian occupiers and against the Fretilin resistance, but the persistent brutalities by the forces of occupation alienated many of these former collaborators, prompting some to join forces with the CNRT which is now widely accepted as the umbrella of the resistance enjoying wide support throughout East Timor. This explains why Operasi Sapu Jagad has as one of its primary aims the destruction of the CNRT.

Vested interests

In the early years of the occupation, military officers secured monopolies and made profits from companies controlling natural resources and other sectors of the economy. In the closing years of the Suharto era, the Suharto family and their cronies took over, turning East Timor into their special business project. Their interests include a huge sugar plantation, a harbour project, tourism projects and other ventures. Recently published figures reveal that 564,667 hectares of land is in their hands, roughly 40 per cent of the total. Their cronies include Governor Abilio Osorio Soares and other senior officials who stand to lose financially and in the privileges they now enjoy when East Timor becomes independent. All these have joined forces with the army's East Timor veterans and serving officers to thwart the Habibie initiative and sabotage the UN consultation.

Response to international scrutiny

Before the Santa Cruz massacre in 1991, the forces of occupation defied world opinion, behaving with impunity. World outrage after Santa Cruz forced the regime to act by setting up a military honour council, removing some senior officers and prosecuting a few lower ranking officers who were sentenced to derisory terms of imprisonment. Now that the stakes in East Timor are so high, those backing the current reign of terror have reverted to their old ways. The visits to East Timor in April by two EU ministers, Ireland's David Andrews and the UK's Derek Fatchett, did not succeed in forcing the militia and their backers to rein in their brutalities. The arrival of the UNAMET (UN Assistance Mission in East Timor) advanced party does not appear to have changed them either, though things could change as the mission increases in size and gets into full swing.


The pro-integration collaborators are far from united, reflecting their links with different factions and interests in the Jakarta military and civilian elite. In an attempt to mirror the strategy of the resistance with its umbrella, the CNRT, uniting the armed wing and political forces in the community, two pro-integrasi umbrellas have come into existence. Forum Persatuan, Demokrasi dan Keadilan, FPDK (Forum for Unity, Democracy and Justice) is headed by Dominggos Soares, Dili district head, whose armed wing is called Milisia Pro-Otonomy. MPO (Pro-Autonomy Militia), with Joao Tavaras as 'war commander' and Eurico Guterres as 'deputy war commander'. These two men head two of the most vicious militias. FPDK openly advocates violence. Despite their widely reported acts of killing and terror stretching over many months, no one has been taken into custody, let alone prosecuted.

The second umbrella was set up much later, on 30 April, in an apparent attempt to dissociate the pro-integration movement from violence and terror. Headed by East Timor's most senior collaborator, Francisco Lopes da Cruz, who Suharto appointed as his special ambassador for East Timor affairs, it is called Barisan Rakyat Timor Timur, BRTT (East Timor People's Front). This initiative reportedly enjoys financial backing from General Wiranto and Foreign Minister Ali Alatas. Extensive international coverage of the shocking atrocities that reached a climax in April compelled the two men to try to give pro-integration a better image. On its inception, it announced plans to set up branches down to the villages but the militias are contemptuous of it and little has since been heard of this apparently stillborn creation.


A major thrust in the strategy of the TNI's dirty war is to warn of dire consequences should the consultation result in a vote in favour of independence. Documents are circulating in East Timor warning that a bloodbath will happen in the immediate aftermath of such a vote. The aim is clear - to terrify the population into believing that by voting for independence, they will be condemning East Timor to yet more horrors. One document claims that death-lists have been drawn up, that death squads will go from village to village eliminating pro-independence activists, and that vast sums of money and thousands of weapons have been made available for the terror campaign. It is more than likely that military intelligence have drawn up death lists and that they are already being put to use.

Such threats cannot be taken lightly. Nor should the possibility be overlooked of a pro-autonomy vote also leading to a reign of terror against pro-independence activists. In any event, it is clear that an international presence in East Timor to safeguard security will be just as important after the vote as it is before.


For 32 years, the Suharto regime refined its methods to secure the voting patterns it needed in seven general elections, employing bribery, empty promises by its party, GOLKAR supported to the hilt by ABRI, heavy-handed pressure on local government officials, and the prohibition of all political activity but nothing has matched the operation currently underway in East Timor. Twenty-three years of brutal occupation have convinced the East Timorese that their future does not lie within the Republic and they are fiercely and almost unanimously pro-independence. This is why the TNI intelligence operation has had to resort to such a level of brutality in its dirty war. Five districts in the western part of East Timor are virtually under militia control making if difficult to see how UNAMET will be able to conduct the consultation there in free and fair conditions. Elsewhere, killings continue and black propaganda is being spread about dire consequences for the East Timorese should they reject autonomy. The aim is clear, to terrify the demoralised and traumatised population into voting against their consciences or not dare to travel to the registration centres and later to the polling booths to cast their votes.

Present conditions in East Timor are clearly not conducive to the conduct of a free and fair vote. They include:

  • Unbridled terror by militia deaths squads, backed to the hilt by the TNI.

  • Reliance on the Indonesian police force, Polri, to ensure security as a supposedly neutral force, as specified in the 5 May Accords.

  • No moves to disarm the militia, to remove local commanders involved in atrocities and to arrest and charge all those guilty of killing, torture and intimidation.

  • Tens of thousands of East Timorese are now refugees, at the mercy of the militia.

  • Parts of East Timor have been sealed off to prevent observers from investigating atrocities.

  • Resistance leaders and activists have been killed, forced into hiding or have fled the country, making it impossible for them to protect the population and explain the two options available in the vote.

  • Human rights activists have been hounded and their communications network across the territory have been paralysed, making it impossible for them to investigate abuses.


  1. There must be pressure by the international community on the TNI to end its dirty war or face total isolation - an end to arms deliveries, a halt in training facilities, the withdrawal of defence attaches.

  2. The militia must be disarmed without delay, those guilty of atrocities must be arrested and charged, and army and police officers who have taken part in atrocities must be removed from their posts and formally indicted.

  3. A revision in the parameters of the UNAMET operation should be revised as follows:

    a. if the present intolerable security situation persists, armed blue-helmets should be dispatched to take over security arrangements in the territory,

    b. a substantial increase in the size of the UN electoral, political and volunteers contingent to ensure that UN officials are present in the required numbers down to the village level during the registration of voters and on polling day.