EAST TIMOR, Indonesia -- More than a week after the fall of President Suharto, his picture still hangs in the El Turismo Hotel here -- a reminder of the long, brutal shadow the former Indonesian strongman continues to cast on this wind-swept, tropical island.
As Indonesia's new administration releases political prisoners to change its authoritarian image, many here still live in fear of a military occupying force that rules through kidnappings, torture and executions, according to human rights groups and church workers.
"If it is not very important, don't go out of the house after 8 o'clock," warns a student separatist leader, referring to the military's practice of detaining and interrogating people after dark. "We're scared. That feeling has been in our hearts for years."
In recent months, violence between the military and popular forces supporting independence for East Timor has increased. In April, soldiers killed a mother and her 8-year-old son while searching for separatists they thought were meeting in the woman's home, according to church workers.
In the past two months, paramilitary forces have kidnapped 10 youths suspected of aiding the resistance around the city of Baucau on the north coast. And in January, four civilians from the village of Hatas near the border with West Timor were forced to squat in a river with their hands behind their heads and executed, according to a human rights activist.
The resignation on May 21 of Suharto, who ordered the invasion of East Timor in 1975, has raised hopes that the government may now be more willing to negotiate an end to a bloody conflict that has ground on for two decades in this isolated corner of Southeast Asia.
Last week, Indonesian Justice Minister Muladi said Indonesia must change its attitude toward East Timor and consider giving the territory of 900,000 some degree of autonomy. In a remarkable move, the new administration allowed foreign journalists to freely interview East Timorese guerrilla leader Xanana Gusmao last week at an East Jakarta prison where he is being held.
Roman Catholic Archbishop Carlos Felipe Ximenes Belo, who shared in the 1996 Nobel Peace Prize and routinely helps free prisoners, thinks the fall of Suharto may help reduce the level of terror.
"What happened in Jakarta could have an influence here, little by little," said Belo, sitting by a garden Friday at his rectory in East Timor's capital of Dili.
Indonesia's new president, B. J. Habibie, has said he plans eventually to release all political prisoners, but it may be some time before Gusmao walks free. The government considers the rebel leader a criminal. Hupudio Supardi, head of the press and ** information division of the Indonesian Embassy in Washington, said that Gusmao could be granted amnesty, though.
East of Jakarta
East Timor, half of a poor, rugged island known for its coffee and sandalwood, lies more than 1,400 miles east of Jakarta, Indonesia's capital. For hundreds of years, it was a neglected, Portuguese colony.
When a leftist government took hold in Lisbon in 1974, Portugal began pulling out. Citing concerns over an independence movement that at the time had Communist leanings, Suharto launched an invasion in 1975 and annexed East Timor the next year -- a sovereignty claim the United Nations has refused to recognize.
Human rights groups estimate that the war caused the death of up to 200,000 people from bloodshed and starvation, although that number may be high. In 1991, soldiers clashed with a group of 2,500 pro-independence demonstrators in Dili, killing more than 50.
Indonesia's government claims the invasion was a humanitarian response to a request by the majority of people in East Timor in 1975 to end a civil war that erupted after Portugal allowed political parties to form.
"Indonesia has never had territorial ambitions," Supardi said.
A different world
Arriving in East Timor, visitors immediately sense that it is unlike most of the rest of Indonesia. Although all flights in and out are domestic, an immigration officer examines the passports of foreigners and questions them about their occupation and purpose of their visit. Journalists are only allowed in under government permission.
Visitors often stay at the El Turismo, where the rooms are bugged, according to Western diplomats. One Western official reported finding a listening device in a napkin holder at the hotel restaurant.
The signs of military occupation are everywhere: A rusting, troop transport ship lies moored in the harbor, trucks filled with camouflage-clad soldiers traverse the coastal roads, and thatched, lookout posts sit atop grassy hills dotted with eucalyptus trees.
People in East Timor do not seem to smile as much as people in the rest of Indonesia's eastern islands, where the culture is warm and engaging. After attending her first church service here, one foreign worker recalled, she was struck by how quiet and well-behaved the children were. A local woman later explained that it was a function of the repressive climate, not family discipline.
"When you live in the forest," she recalled the woman saying, "you learn not to cry or laugh out loud."
Human rights observers say the army has heightened the fear in East Timor by developing a vast network of informants. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, one military commander formed a youth spy group in which he gave out T-shirts and watches in exchange for information, according to the foreign worker.
Special army units
The army has also organized civilian units of 20 to 50 members who collect information and abduct people suspected of raising money for separatists or staging independence demonstrations, according to a human rights activist. Common methods of torture include beating, electrical shock and tying people up and dragging them from the backs of cars.
"Some of these kids are given cigarette money and alcohol," the activist said. "Others are actually convinced the Indonesians are right."
It is impossible to know what percentage of East Timorese would like independence -- there has never been a referendum. When residents stage separatist demonstrations, authorities respond with tear gas and arrests.
The Indonesian government claims that the opposition is tiny, but others here say the vast majority support independence, which might help explain the staying power of a small band of guerrillas against an occupying force that numbers in the thousands.
Out of sight of the military, people say they want Indonesia out of East Timor.
"We want to be separate," said a man who fought with the resistance in the mid-1970s and lost one of his front teeth after being severely beaten by soldiers and burned with cigarettes.
Walking along a road amid the terraced rice fields near the village of Venilale, a teen-ager wearing a school uniform of white pants and a white shirt spots a foreigner and yells "Merdeka!" the Indonesian word for freedom.
Few natural resources
For all the pain military occupation has brought to East Timor, the Indonesian government has also done a great deal to try to improve the economy of an island that, so far, has proved to have few natural resources.
The central government in Jakarta has poured in money to build schools, roads and bridges and is performing survey work for a new power plant. Although a majority Muslim country, Indonesia constructed a statue of Christ as a gesture toward the largely Catholic East Timorese whose Christian faith is rooted in their long colonial history.
The 27-meter statue, though, carries an unmistakable message: East Timor is Indonesia's 27th province.
And though human rights groups mostly blame the military for abuses, they also note that separatist forces execute people they suspect of collaborating with the government.
Solving the conflict in East Timor is difficult for many reasons, not the least of which is the potential ramifications for the rest of Indonesia, a sprawling archipelago of some 17,000 islands and the world's fourth most-populous country.
Some government officials fear that freedom for East Timor would encourage other separatist movements on the island of Sumatra and the province of Irian Jaya.
With the military in firm control and the opposition showing no signs of surrender, any resolution will probably have to come around the negotiating table.
"In the first place, they must realize they have to have a serious, sincere talk with the people of East Timor," said Belo, the archbishop. "The status quo is not a good solution. Not for Indonesia. Not for East Timor."
Pub Date: 5/31/98