The Life and Death of David Alex and the Ongoing Struggle for East Timor

The Indonesian military quickly buried David Alex in a cemetery in Dill, the capital of Indonesian-occupied East Timor, after he died on June 25, 1997. The authorities did not allow his family to see the body.

Indonesian soldiers had captured David Alex the previous day in the outskirts of Baucau, the second largest town in East Timor. The Indonesian military (ABRI) had been hunting him for many years. As the number three person in the East Timorese armed resistance (FALINTIL), he was known as a fierce fighter and one of the most clever and effective guerrilla leaders in East Timor. Guerrillas under his command had recently launched a number of ambushes as part of a general FALINTIL offensive close to the May 29 "elections" for Indonesia's rubber stamp parliament. Heavy casualties were inflicted among Indonesian soldiers and police. ABRI responded by introducing thousands of additional soldiers into the territory, resulting in a vast increase in human rights abuses against the civilian population and intense pressure on the guerrillas. It was in this context that Indonesian soldiers arrested David Alex and four of his men.

David Alex was shot in the leg and an arm during the battle that led to the capture. Indonesian soldiers then took him to the headquarters of the elite Kopassus commandos in Baucau, a reputed torture center. Troops later transported him via helicopter to Dill where he was interrogated at military intelligence headquarters. Indonesian authorities claim that he later died from excessive loss of blood in a military hospital despite their efforts to save him. Resistance sources report that Indonesian soldiers brutally tortured David Alex, eventually killing him. Whatever the truth, the Indonesian government's refusal to accede to demands (including that of Amnesty International) for an independent autopsy of the body has only fueled the speculation that David Alex died as a result of torture or poisoning.

The capture of David Alex represented a victory for the Indonesian military; for over 21 years he had avoided their pursuit in the mountains of East Timor. While David Alex's death undeniably represents a blow to the resistance, his life demonstrates the profound will of the East Timorese people to defeat Indonesian colonial projectand Jakarta's immense difficulties in pacifying the territory.

East Timor's Killing Fields

East Timor is a half-island the size of El Salvador and the product of competition between the Portuguese and the Dutch for control of the island's lucrative sandalwood trade. Despite centuries of Portuguese presence, most East Timorese lived in relative isolation of the colonial system. Until Indonesia's December 7, 1975 invasion, over 80% of the population lived in small, rural hamlets largely controlled by traditional rulers. The pre-invasion indigenous population numbered approximately 700,000. East Timor's small size, political and economic isolation, and poor infrastructure led Indonesia's military leaders to think that the conquest of East Timor would be a quick affair. One Indonesian general brazenly predicted that his troops would have breakfast in Dili, lunch in Baucau, and dinner in Lospalos (the territory's third largest town).

Indonesia's full-scale invasion of Dili displayed a brutality that was intent on achieving a quick victory-Indonesian troops killed 2,000 people in Dili during the first two days. A few days after the initial assault, ABRI greatly increased the number of troops and attacked other major towns, eventually pushing inland. By mid-February, a little over two months after the invasion began, 60,000 East Timorese were dead. A report from the Australian Parliament released in the late 1970s described the situation in East Timor as "indiscriminate killing on a scale unprecedented in post-World War II history." By the early 1980s, over 200,000 East Timorese-about one-third of the pre-invasion population-had died as a result of Indonesia's war and ensuing famine.

Today, the Indonesian authorities effectively control the territory and its population in many ways. Between 20,000 and 30,000 Indonesian troops and police help maintain order. As Indonesian settlers fill the territory and Jakarta expands its administrative and social infrastructure, the increasing "Indo-nesianization" of East Timor seems to be making its "integration" into Indonesia irreversible. Despite this, now, more than at any time since the 1970s, Indonesia's control of East Timor is precarious. While the armed resistance does not present a serious challenge to Indonesian domination, the resistance has evolved into a multifaceted, effective, and sophisticated organization that presents formidable challenges to Indonesian control. Combined with a strong international solidarity movement and intense pro-East Timor activity within numerous national and international parliamentary bodies, Indonesia's occupation of East Timor is far from being irreversible.

The Rise and Fall of the East Timorese Resistance

East Timor was a backwater of the Portuguese colonial empire until the overthrow of Lisbon's military dictatorship in April 1974. In the immediate aftermath, two pro independence political parties sprung up in East Timor. Indonesian military intelligence, however, had already decided that it could not allow an East Timor to exist because they were fearful that an independent country on its borders could incite secessionist movements elsewhere in the ethnically diverse archipelago or serve as a platform for leftist subversion.

Indonesian intelligence agents began covertly interfering in East Timor's decolonization, helping to provoke a brief civil war between the two pro-independence parties. Amid the chaos, Portugal abandoned its rule of the island. Soon after, Indonesian troops attacked from West Timor (Indonesia has governed the island's western half since its own independence in 1949), culminating in a full-scale invasion on December 7,1975. Indonesia's troops met fierce resistance from the beginning of their invasion. Australian intelligence analysts estimated more than 450 Indonesian military casualties within a few weeks after the invasion of Dili. In the first four months of 1976 alone, as many as 2,000 Indonesian troops lost their lives in East Timor.

For months, the East Timorese had prepared for the invasion by setting up FALINTIL bases in the interior of the country that groups retreated to on or before December 7. With about 20,000 former soldiers, reservists, and trainees from the Portuguese colonial army (one of whom was David Alex), as well as many others who had received military training from FALINTIL following the civil war, the resistance's military wing was quite formidable. FALINTIL also had large supplies of weapons left by the Portuguese and detailed knowledge of East Timor's topography which enabled them to retain effective control of significant areas. By August 1976, Indonesia only controlled the major towns, a handful of regional centers and villages in the interior, and several corridors that connected the areas. Most of the rural areas, where the vast majority of the people lived, were still under the control of the resistance. As of March 1977, the U.S. State Department estimated that two-thirds of the East Timorese population were still in areas free from Indonesian domination. The situation, however, took a turn for the worse beginning in September 1977.

Emboldened by their acquisition of advanced military technology provided by the administration of U.S. President Jimmy Carter, ABRI began an 18-month campaign characterized by Catholic sources within East Timor as one of "encirclement" and "annihilation." Using tens of thousands of ground troops and aerial bombardment, ABRI forces penetrated the interior from the border and the coasts. Their objective was to push the resistance into the center of the country where they could be killed or captured and to force the population living in the interior to move to the coastal lowlands where they could be more easily controlled.

The campaign had devastating effects on the resistance and the civilian population, killing many thousands and resulting in the destruction of hundreds of villages and the forced flight of tens of thousands of people from the mountains. When the campaign ended in March 1979, many top resistance leaders were either dead, captured, or had surrendered. FALINTIL lost 80% of its troops, more than 90% of its weapons, and its internal and international lines of communication were completely severed.

Xanana Gusmao and the Resurrection of the Resistance

Documents smuggled out of East Timor in 1980 showed that the resistance movement was still alive, despite the onslaught. Under the leadership of Xanana Gusmao, a local guerrilla commander in the east, FALINTIL reorganized its forces into small and relatively autonomous units throughout the country. The documents described how Xanana Gusmao and "50 fugitives of the east" had rebuilt the organization. Among them was David Alex, who became increasingly important in the struggle, An Indonesian military handbook confiscated in 1982 analyzed the resistance structure and described David Alex as one of the resistance's most capable leaders and as someone who enjoyed widespread popular support.

The resistance was able to build a support network within the Indonesian-controlled strategic villages and regain influence over significant areas of the country. Small and relatively autonomous FALINTIL units began to engage in clashes with the Indonesian troops. In response to the FALINTIL resurgence, ABRI launched a number of major operations aimed at capturing Xanana Gusmao and destroying the remaining resistance fighters. Since the mid-1980s, the war has been largely stalemated with ABRI unable to fully eliminate the armed resistance.

FALINTIL now numbers around 600 full-time fighters with an innumerable reserve which could quickly be deployed if they had sufficient weapons. In terms of the non-military clandestine resistance, the underground network is extensive and sophisticated. The clandestine front has successfully infiltrated all levels of the Indonesian administration, operates in all major towns, and is able to communicate effectively with national resistance leaders, the diplomatic front abroad, and the international community. Many Indonesian military commanders have acknowledged that the real threat to Indonesian control comes from the underground.

The International Response

The resiliency and the sophistication of the East Timorese resistance has been by far the most important factor in keeping the issue of East Timor on the international agenda. Despite the level of atrocities and the complicity of Western capitalist countries facilitating Indonesia's crimes, the coverage by the corporate-owned media has been paltry at best. Until this years Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to Bishop Carlos Belo, head of the Catholic Church in East Timor, and José Ramos-Horta, head of the resistance's diplomatic front, the Los Angeles Times had carried only one editorial in more than 20 years of conflict. Two sons of East Timor winning the prize finally occasioned a second editorial, but the editors did not mention the role of the United States in facilitating the genocide and ongoing occupation. That said, media interest in East Timor has grown significantly over the last few years. Video footage and eyewitness accounts by Western journalists of a massacre by Indonesian soldiers of well over 250 East Timorese pro-independence demonstrators gathered at Dili's Santa Cruz Cemetery on November 12, 1991 helped to direct attention on what, until then, seemed a forgotten war.

Since that time, international solidarity for East Timor has grown significantly. East Timor has become an issue of contentious debate in the legislative bodies of many countries, most importantly the United States and Britain, where before 1991, the conflict barely received comment. And numerous publications ranging from The New York Times to The Economist have called upon Indonesia to withdraw and respect East Timor's right to self-determination, called for by numerous United Nations resolutions. The announcement of the Norwegian Nobel Committee of this year's joint awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to two East Timorese was, in many ways, the culmination of this increased attention and activism.

News of the award sent shockwaves through Jakarta's ruling circles and has served to intensify the international spotlight on Indonesia's occupation of East Timor. As a result, relations with Jakarta are increasingly contested in countries as diverse as Chile, South Africa, and Japan. Nevertheless, the essence of the partnership-in-crime between the world's most powerful countries and Indonesia continues.

As the world's fourth most populous country, a major center of multinational corporate activity, and a long-time ally of the West, resource-rich Indonesia has long been of great concern to the Western elite. Indonesia, which President Richard Nixon once referred to as "by far the greatest prize in the Southeast Asian area," is today one of the Clinton administration's "big emerging markets." During his visit to the White House in October 1995, a senior Clinton administration official effused about Suharto, lndonesia's autocratic ruler since the mid-1960s, "He's our kind of guy."

Grassroots and Congressional pressure has, to a certain extent, forced the Administration hand. In early 1994, public pressure compelled the State Department to ban the sale of small arms to Indonesia. Over the last two years, the State Department has expanded the ban to include helicopter-mounted weaponry and armored personnel carriers. Never-theless, the Clinton Administration has provided Jakarta with almost US$400 million in economic aid and has sold tens of millions of dollars worth of weaponry to Indonesia's military rulers over the last four years. And, as recently reported by the Far Eastern Economic Review, U.S. Green Berets have been providing specialized training to Indonesia elite special forces regiment, Kopassus, which is responsible for many of the ongoing atrocities in East Timor.

Current Trends and Prospects for the Future

Open protests within East Timor have been sporadic, but common occurrences since November 1994, when 28 East Timorese students and workers occupied the U.S. Embassy in Jakarta during President Clinton's visit to Indo-nesia for the Asia-Pacific Economic Conference (APEC) summit. Demonstrations and riots erupted in Dili and other towns, where protesters sometimes targeted Indonesian settlers and businesses. Although arrests, torture, and extrajudicial executions of people suspected of pro-independence activities are still common, such anti-occupation protests are no longer exceptional and are merely manifestations of larger trends. But such incidences are merely manifestations of larger, contradictory trends that can only lead to increasing violence in the occupied territory accompanied by open opposition to the occupation, strengthening of Indonesian rule, and growing economic marginalization of the indigenous population.

There are at least 150,000 Indonesian migrants now living in East Timor (out of a total population of 800,000-900,000). Combined with an influx of Indonesian capital and administrative corruption, the migrants have economically marginalized the indigenous population. Indonesian settlers now own much of the country's most fertile agricultural lands and commercial outlets, while the Indonesian military controls most of the key sectors of the economy Unemployment and underemployment among East Timorese in the towns, especially young people, are very high.

It is a mixture of growing resistance to Jakarta's rule and increasing "Indonesianization" of East Timor that make for a potentially explosive chemistry. It is Jakarta's hope that by overwhelming East Timor with Indonesian settlers and socio-political institutions, so-called "integration" will soon become a fait accompli. In this regard, developments in Indonesia and the international community are of utmost importance in determining East Timor's future.

Support for East Timorese self-determination is growing within Indonesia proper, especially among those critical of Suharto's 30-year dictatorship. Many major pro-democracy figures, including labor leader Muchtar Pakpahan and Abdurrahman Wahid, head of Indonesia's largest Muslim organization, have called for Jakarta to allow for an internationally-supervised referendum in East Timor. It is doubtful, however, that such developments can bear the fruit of peace as long as Suharto remains in power.

Internationally, the United Nations under Secretary General Kofi Annan, has taken a very proactive role invigorating what had been stagnant negotiations between Indonesia and Portugal (under international law, Portugal remains the administering power of the territory). Nelson Mandela has recently been involved in diplomatic efforts and consultations between all parties, including the East Timorese resistance. The new Labor government in Britain has promised to review its military ties and to cut off arms sales to governments that engage in external aggression; Indonesia is high on their list of countries under review. Where such efforts will lead to is an open question, but more pressure on Indonesia is certainly needed.

Meanwhile, the situation within East Timor remains atrocious. The Nobel Peace Prize has only further emboldened the indigenous population to resist the occupation, leading to greater levels of Indonesian repression. As Bishop Belt recently reported to a gathering of U.S. Catholic Bishops, the suffering "of our people has only increased" since the peace prize was awarded. The most recent Indonesian crackdown which took David Alex's life has also resulted in the arrest of dozens of underground activists, but as the past has shown, new leaders and activists will surely fill the void.

I spent 24 hours with David Alex and 10 of the 150 guerrillas under his command in late-November 1996 when underground activists smuggled me from Dili up into the mountains of East Timor. "We will struggle forever to defend the rights of the people and to keep their hopes alive," David Alex told me. "Only this way can we force Indonesia and the countries that support the Suharto regime, especially the United States, to follow international law and respect our human right to self-determination."

David Alex may be dead, but his memory, his example, and the conditions that compelled him to resist are very much alive. As long as this remains the case, David Alex's struggle will continue.

Recommended Readings

Dunn, James. 1996. Timor: A People Betrayed. Sydney (Australia): ABC Books.

Jardine, Matthew. 1995. East Timor: Genocide in Paradise. Tucson: Odonian Press.

Pinto, Constâncio and Matthew Jardine. 1997. East Timor's Unfinished Struggle: Inside the Timorese Resistance. Boston: South End Press.

Ramos-Horta, José. 1987. Funu-The Unfinished Saga of East Timor. Trenton: The Red Sea Press.

Scharfe, Sharon. 1996. Complicity: Human Rights and Canadian Foreign Policy: The Case of East Timor. Montreal: Black Rose Books.

Taylor, John G. 1991. Indonesia's Forgotten War-The Hidden History of East Timor. London: Zed Books Ltd.

Turner, Michele. 1992. Telling: East Timor, Personal Testimonies 1942-1992. New South Wales (Australia): New South Wales University Press Ltd.

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