Friday, April 21, 2006

Inside Indonesia's secret terror campaign

Death in the shadow of Indonesia: A skull lies in the East Timor jungle at Passabe in this photo by Sasha Uzunov - to its left is a black military-styled belt worn by militia equipped by Indonesia's TNI.

Melbourne journalist Sasha Uzunov is a rare beast; a foreign correspondent with real life military experience - a military and strategic analyst worth listening to. Today, he gives The Hugog an insight on the power play between Australia and Indonesia over West Papua:

The Australian government made the right call in granting political asylum this month to the 42 Papua refugees who fled their Indonesian occupied homeland. Passions are running high in Jakarta; but we should not give in to pressure. We stood firm over East Timor in 1999 and we should do this again.

But the government is wrong in not supporting the right for West Papua's bid for full independence. It would actually be in Australia's long-term strategic interest for smaller friendly states to act as a buffer against the Indonesian military - which has been waging a vendetta against Australia since 1999 because of Timor.

Only now the TNI's tactics have changed. The Indonesian military is giving support to the terrorist group Jemaah Islamiah.

Just how many Indonesians agree with their government, or for that matter accept their military's brutal behaviour? If we want a real relationship with Indonesia it should not be based on fear but mutual understanding.

But first, some necessary background: an Indonesian Military Policeman warned me seven years ago that some of his military colleagues would seek revenge against Australia for our involvement in liberating East Timor.

Australia led the INTERFET mission in East Timor when that territory voted in a referendum in August 1999 to break away from Indonesia. There was widespread violence as pro-Indonesian militia when on the rampage. Britain and the US also contributed troops to the INTERFET mission.

I met Sergeant Herman, as he wanted to be called, on the East Timor-Indonesian West Timor border, at a place called Motaain on 22 November 1999. I was there with the Australian Defence Force's Media Support Unit (MSU), which was covering a conference between Interfet Commander, Australian General Peter Cosgrove, and his Indonesian counterpart, General Adam Damiri.

While the brass exchanged pleasantries, the rest of us were fraternising with the "Enemy". Sergeant Herman told me he was a Christian from one of the smaller islands of Indonesia and was upset with the Javanese, the Muslim majority who run the country.

Captured Militia weapon: a Soviet designed, Chinese made SKS rifle supplied by the Indonesian forces to the militia. We nicknamed this weapon "lucky" - it has a bullet hole embedded in it.

"When war over in Timor Timur (East Timor), Jakarta will fight secret war using dirty tricks," he said. "There will be bombs, killings, explosion. Tourists will be killed. Buildings, hotels, embassies and churches blown up. No one safe!"

Standing five metres away was SBS TV's correspondent, Heather Paterson. I wanted to tell her about the sensational conversation I had but because I was a serving member in unform I was forbidden to reveal anything to the media. How I regret it. InsteaD, we discussed sleazy Indonesian Generals making sexual advances to female western reporters.

I reported my conversation with Indonesian Army Sergeant to my superior - but we both ended up laughing as we thought the Indonesian MP was trying to soften me up and gain some information out of me.

Comrades in arms: then Australian soldier Sasha Uzunov (left) with Indonesian Sergeant "Herman"...

In hindsight, Sergeant Herman's words are chilling: the bombings in Bali, the Marriott Hotel, and the Australian embassy in 2004 and Bali a second time.

In early October 1999, Townsville-based infantry battalion, 2RAR, was involved in the biggest shootout since Vietnam when they reached the border village of Motaain, near Batugade. Three members of the Indonesian security forces were killed in the contact. It was later revealed the Indonesians had opened fire first.

I arrived in Dili, the capital of East Timor, in late October 1999. I ended up with the MSU by pure luck. I was a journalist in civilian life and when i joined the Australian Army I was allocated to the infantry corps. Somehow I managed to be sent to the Defence Public Affairs Organisation for a few months in Canberra before East Timor erupted.

The main group of MSU was based at the Hotel Tourismo. I was with a sub-section known as CPIC (Combined Public Information Centre) as a clerk, PR assistant, driver, and provided the occasional escort to a senior British Army Officer who travelled the length and breadth of East Timor collecting humanitarian data. He would take me along as his protection because he didn't want to carry a weapon. He needed it. Once, we almost were fired upon by friendly Fretilin independence fighters at a roadblock.

One of my main tasks was to record General Cosgrove's media conferences, transcribe them and them email them back to HQ in Canberra. I aslo had to organise flights in and out of the conflict zone for brave journalists caught in the line of fire - like when Channel Nine reporter Simon Bouda came down with malaria and had to be treated at the military hospital in Dili.

In Dili, CPIC shared its compound with US Special forces troops, known as Green Berets. Every time the media arrived on our doorstep, the Green Berets would rip off their Velcro unit shoulder badges, and pose as army engineers. Only female Australian journalist Sian Powell was suspicious and savvy enough to think something was going on.

I formed a friendship with one of the Green Berets, Sergeant First Class Glen Cohen. He told me that he and his colleagues were not allowed by Washington to leave the confines of Dili because if they were caught in a battle with Indonesian Special Forces (Kopassus) it would create an international incident.

"This is supposed to be a gunfight between you Aussies and the militia, we're only here officially to help distribute humanitarian aid," he often joked.

Just after Christmas 1999, I escorted Australian freelance photographer Mathew Sleeth to the Oecussi enclave, that little part of East Timor inside West Timor. Sleeth wanted to take some photos of a mass gravesite. We jumped on a patrol with soldiers from 3RAR, the Army's Sydney-based Parachute battalion.

At the village of Passabe, which was only a few metres away from the Indonesian border, we visited the mass grave of 52 Timorese who had been slaughtered by the militia and then buried in shallow graves. When the rains had come, they had exposed bones and bits of clothing.

I remember muttering to myself that I saw a black military-styled belt next to a skull. A 3RAR officer who was close by heard me and came over and told me that it meant nothing; that I should forget what I saw. He seemed nervous at my comments

At the time I found his comment extraordinary. Why would an officer care what I saw? Later, I heard 3RAR's Intelligence Officer, Captain Andrew Plunkett, claim he had been pressured to
underestimate the number of Timorese massacred and downplay the Indonesian Army's involvement.

My first tour finished in January 2000 and I returned to my original unit, 4RAR, which was preparing for its first and my second tour in April 2001, this time as an infantry rifleman.

During pre-deployment training we were openly told that the militia had become active again in the lead up to East Timor's elections in August 2001. We were told that Kopassus troops had masqueraded as militia and had links to the terror group, Jemiaah Islamiah.

I left the Australian Army in April 2002 and returned to journalism. I came forward in August of that same year with my story but no one in the Australian media was interested.

Hugo says: Sasha Uzunov is a freelance journalist who has reported from the Balkans and Iraq for newspapers in the UK and North America and, as you've just read, is a former Australian soldier who served in East Timor. His is the kind of credible, first hand view Australia's policymakers should be heeding. Instead, sadly - and to our detriment - we listen to the myths peddled by civilian desk-soldiers like Paul "Among the Barbarians" Sheehan.

Check out Sasha's website here.


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