Monday, September 27, 1999

Journalist's Death Shows Who Controls East Timor

By Andreas Harsono 
American Reporter

BOSTON -- He sent an e-mail message to more than three dozen correspondents earlier this month, asking them whether they would like to jointly charter a plane to fly them from the Indonesian of capital Jakarta to the riot-torn Dili in East Timor. 

"You only get on the list if you put down $476. If there are 78 or 100 seats the price goes down to possibly $420," wrote reporter Sander Thoenes. 

That was typical of Thoenes' style. The 30-year-old reporter, who died in Dili on Tuesday, never hesitated to take on such extra work to help others do their reporting. His chartered plane full of journalists landed in Dili early that day. 

Like most of his colleagues, he had a room at the Turismo, the hotel which has been commandeered as a media center by the Australian Army. He dropped off his baggage, located a motorcycle driver, and immediately went to work. 

His body was found mutilated on Wednesday morning in Becora, a suburb just outside of Dili. Most of the foreign soldiers do not speak the local language or even know what kind of strange land they are working in now. 

"A sad day for everyone," said Jakarta correspondent Jeremy Wagstaff of the Asian Wall Street Journal.

Thoenes was the Jakarta correspondent of the London-based Financial Times daily. He also wrote regularly for the Amsterdam-based Vrij Nederland, the Dutch political magazine. He spoke fluent Russian and Indonesian and was virtually bilingual in English and Dutch. 

The Financial Times editorialized, "Thoenes was an excellent correspondent. He had a fierce determination to get to the heart of a story, and to report with accuracy and authority. His death is a terrible blow." 

But the circumstances of his death are still unclear, although it is confirmed that he was riding on a motorbike with a local driver towards Becora on Tuesday afternoon. 

Driver Florindo da Conceicao Araujo said he and Thoenes tried to flee when they spotted a checkpoint manned by at least six armed men wearing dark green Indonesian army uniforms. They were members of the notorious pro-Indonesia militias. 

"I told the journalist to hang on tight and I tried to turn around and they started shooting, pa-pa-pa-pa, 10 or 20 times," Araujo told the New York Times. A tire was hit and the two men fell. 

The driver ran, pursued by some of the armed men. "I saw the journalist looking like he was asleep on the ground," the driver said back in Dili. 

More than 12 hours later United Nations-sanctioned peacekeepers found Thoenes' body behind a burned-out house on Wednesday. It had apparently been dragged. An ear was slashed. A notebook and a pen lay beside it. 

Indonesian officers in East Timor confirmed the death, saying that an autopsy had revealed that Thoenes died from blows by sharp instruments in his chest and said no gunshot wounds were found on his body. 

"There is a stab wound on his left chest," said Maj. Gen. Kiki Syahnakri, an Indonesian officer in charge of withdrawing Indonesian soldiers from East Timor. 

In a different place, the militias also ambushed Jon Swain of the London-based Sunday Times and American photographer Chip Hires. They escaped into the bush and were rescued in the early hours of Wednesday morning by Australian troops backed by helicopter support. 

Both Indonesian and UN forces promised to investigate the violence. But it is hard to believe that the Indonesian military -- which had six times broken its earlier promises to bring order to East Timor -- has the political will to arrest and sacrifice its own men in the interest of justice for a dead foreign correspondent. 

The UN forces have also just arrived in the area. Most of the foreign soldiers do not speak the local language or even know what kind of strange land they are working in now. 

It is a public knowledge that the Indonesian military has trained and organized the militia since the 1970's to help Indonesian officers control this internationally-disputed territory. They intensified the effort in January when Indonesian President B.J. Habibie agreed to conduct an UN-sponsored referendum in East Timor, hoping that the militias could do something to discourage voters from exercising their rights. 

But that plan turned sour. Around 78 percent of the voters voted for independence. Resentment has since been building against foreigners and journalists like Thoenes on the part of the pro-Indonesian militias. 

"We East Timorese are thirsty for the blood of white people," said militia leader Eurico Guterres last week. 

Guterres, the leader of the Dili-based Aitarak group, really did mean it, saying that it is better to divide East Timor into two areas: the independent one and the Indonesian one. His statement and the killing obviously showed that the militias continue to operate under central direction from their masters in the Indonesian army. 

It also takes the militia tactics against foreign citizens to a new level. Thoenes, indeed, knew very well about all those risks and threats. 

Yet he was the first to try to organize his many friends to jointly charter a plane to go to Dili when no commercial flights were able to take them there. He knows the devastated city very well and just two hours after putting away his baggage, he got into a motorcycle to take a look around town. 

Now all depend on the international community to put pressure on Jakarta to arrest the murderers of Sander Thoenes. 

As a practical matter, it is not difficult to locate a group of armed men who were assigned on a certain night to guard an official roadblock in Becora. 

Officers like Syahnakri, a veteran of the East Timor war, could easily order the arrest of the suspects. The journalist might be dead, but it is wrong to assume that the Indonesian military and their militias have succeded in discouraging journalists, both Indonesian and foreign reporters, from covering the violence in Dili. If Thoenes had a second chance, he would very likely send another e-mail and ask other journalists to go to Dili with him. 

Andreas Harsono is an Indonesian journalist on a Nieman Fellowship at Harvard University