Tools of oppression

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Tools of oppression

By Rick Mercier

A recent wave of killings in East Timor, coinciding with a propaganda offensive proclaiming the imminence of civil war, indicates that the Indonesian military has discovered the usefulness of paramilitaries in suppressing dissent while still presenting a humane face to the world.

The Indonesian army has admitted that it provided arms to paramilitary groups that killed civilians in East Timor in January. "We control [the militias] and we only lend guns to them", army spokesperson General Sudjarat said in an interview with the BBC. He emphasised, however, that the paramilitaries "are not supposed to be killing civilians".

The general said he had no knowledge of the paramilitaries using army-supplied weapons to kill civilians, but the leader of one of the most powerful paramilitary groups in East Timor told the BBC that his forces used guns given to them by the Indonesian army in an attack that left six dead, including a pregnant woman and 15-year-old schoolboy.

Kansio Lopez, head of the paramilitary group known as Mahidi, said he led the attack using M-16 and Chinese-made SKS assault rifles that he had received from the army. Two days earlier, Lopez's group had killed another four civilians suspected of sympathising with the East Timorese resistance, which is fighting against an illegal occupation of its homeland by Indonesia that has resulted in 200,000 deaths, according to independent human rights observers.

The BBC says: "Lopez's account reveals an alarming degree of cooperation between the unofficial militias and the Indonesian army at a time when diplomats are trying to find a peaceful solution to the conflict in East Timor".

East Timorese rebel leader Xanana Gusmao has told reporters that he believes the military has armed about 20,000 civilians and is paying each of them about US$30 a month — a considerable sum of money in a place where the annual per capita income is $340 and where the unemployment rate is particularly high among young men.

Pro-government paramilitaries invariably receive the same mission wherever they appear: to do state security forces' dirty work so that the government can plausibly deny responsibility for politically related violence.

Armed civilian groups are not a new phenomenon. They have operated for years in Colombia, where they have killed tens of thousands of civilians. During the '80s, the Guatemalan army formed "civil defence patrols" in Mayan Indian communities to help it put down an insurgency. And El Salvador's infamous "death squads" of the '70s and '80s must also be considered to be among the progenitors of today's paramilitaries.

In the '90s, paramilitaries have emerged as preferred instruments of repression in regions where governments are waging low-intensity war against civilian populations. In Chiapas, Mexico, where government-sponsored paramilitaries have actually made the term "low-intensity war" a misnomer, an army general who was an adviser to state police revealed in early February that the arms used by a paramilitary group to massacre 45 pro-rebel villagers in December 1997 were purchased by state police officers in Guatemala and sold to paramilitary groups operating in the northern part of Chiapas.

General Julio Cesar Santiago Diaz said the primary suppliers of weapons to paramilitary groups that are suspected of killing hundreds and displacing tens of thousands since 1995 are state police officers and retired military personnel. He also said that soldiers are hired to train indigenous paramilitary recruits.

Mexican and Indonesian military strategists have realised that the trick to a successful paramilitary campaign is drawing paramilitary members from the same segment of the population that the opposition movement counts on for its support.

This is vital for propaganda purposes, and is made possible by the poverty and powerlessness experienced by subjugated groups. There has never been a lack of oppressed people willing to collaborate with the oppressor, and now, as always, the lure of easy money — not to mention the power that comes with wielding an assault rifle — is too much for some to resist.

And if these temptations fail, security forces can always rely on coercion to scrounge up paramilitary members.

Once their ranks have been filled with local civilians, paramilitaries can carry out acts of terror against other civilians, and security forces can portray themselves as extraneous to it all. Meanwhile, on the propaganda front, government and military officials frame the violence in a phoney context of long-simmering civil tensions — which security forces, naturally, have played no part in stirring up.

This disinformation ploy works all the better if the communities targeted by the paramilitaries should decide to arm and defend themselves. Then, the government and army can cast the internecine violence as a sure sign of the all-out civil war that would follow a withdrawal of troops from the troubled area.

We have seen this scenario unfold in Chiapas, and now in East Timor. It is time for us to see through and denounce this vicious deception.

No-one doubts that the roads to liberty, justice, democracy and peace in East Timor and Chiapas will be bumpy. The long-suffering peoples of these battered corners of the world, however, do not need government armed forces that are doing their utmost to increase the amount of death and mayhem that will be encountered on these roads.

[Rick Mercier is co-founder and co-director of the Sanin-Mexico Peace Network, a citizens' group in western Japan that assists indigenous people displaced by the conflict in Chiapas.]