There has been much ado about Ninjas in Timor-Leste recently. In response to “ninja activities” there has been a robust Government response to the threat, and in turn there has been considerable national and international civil society criticism of the Government.
However, these are not the ninja of Japanese lore which are described by “military historian Hanawa Hokinoichi: They travelled in disguise to other territories to judge the situation of the enemy, they would inveigle their way into the midst of the enemy to discover gaps, and enter enemy castles to set them on fire, and carried out assassinations, arriving in secret.”
Beginning in January 2010 the Timorese National Police have conducted a series of paramilitary police operations in Cova Lima and Bobonaro border districts, adjacent to Indonesia, in an effort to put an end to so-called Ninja group activities. These murky groups have been accused of murder, extortion, and other crimes. Some suggest that the matter is being overblown and is a political game.
“Labele mai buka atu kaer hau, tamba hau la'os ninja, ne'e bosok, labele manipula fali komunidade” Karau Timor hateten iha intervista ne'e.
Don't come look to arrest me, because I am not ninja, its a lie, don't manipulate the community” explained Karau Timor in an interview.
In the 17 February 2010 CJITL – Centru Jornalista Investigativu Timor-Leste reported on its website here that the matter had reached a fever pitch in the National Parliament. This saw Opposition FRETILIN party and the Partido Democratiko (PD is key a member of the governing AMP coalition lead by Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao) aggressively challenging each other over the “Ninja Affair”. During a plenary session of the National Parliament the FRETILIN bench accused the Government of launching a paramilitary police operation in search of ninja groups for political reasons designed not to solve a murder case, but to intimidate FRETILIN's political supporters.
The next day on 18 February 2010 CJITL reported that fighting had broken out in the Parliament.
Parlamentu Nasional Tersa foin lalais ne’e manas no sai rungu-ranga hafoin deputadu bankada Fretilin Osorio Florindo atake Deputadu Partidu Demokrata (PD) Vital dos Santos iha sesaun plenaria tanba du’un malu konaba gurpu ninja iha Distritu Bobonaro no Suai. Asaun ne'e mosu tanba deputadu opozisaun ne’e lasimu deklarasaun politika PD nian ne’ebe rezeita akuzasaun bankada Fretilin kona ba involvimentu militante PD iha grupu ninja. Situasaun ne’e sai manas depois membru PN husi bankada Fretilin hotu hamriik hakilar deputadu PD Vital dos Santos, atu lalika defama partidu Fretilin nia naran.
This past Tuesday the National Parliament became heated and scuffling broke out when FRETILIN Member of Parliament Osorio Florindo attacked PD Member of Parliament Vital dos Santos in plenary session as a result of exchanging accusations about ninja groups in Bobonaro and Suai. This incident occurred as Opposition Members of Parliament did not accept the declaration of the PD bench rejecting FRETILIN accusations that PD militants are involved in ninja groups. The situation heated up when all the Members of Parliament from FRETILIN stood up and shouted at PD Member of Parliament Vital dos Santos demanding that he stop defaming FRETILIN's name.
Finding its roots in the brutal December 2009 murder of a woman in a remote village in the border regions, a crime has rapidly become a politicised national issue. Pro-government supporters suggest that the murder, and possibly other crimes, are being committed by a mixture of groups known as CPD-RDTL on the one hand, and the Bua Malus on the other. These groups have cloudy historical and political ties to FRETILIN, and other parties such as PD, and are popular in some mountain hamlets, while viewed with suspicion by others. In the parochial and fluid village politics that dominates much in Timor-Leste, the membership of these groups is often poorly defined and even overlapping. Emanating from the confused and violent history of resistance to the 24 year occupation of Timor-Leste by Indonesia these groups remain powerful political movements in the poorest regions of the country.
In the meantime hundreds of people were rousted from their homes day and night, and dozens arrested by a police operation notable for the use of hundreds of paramilitary police under the direct command of the national police commander Longuinos Monteiro.
The FALINTIL-FDTL (Timor-Leste's national defence force) was also called upon the assist. On 1 March 2010, CJITL reported that “Kaju Ninja, Ema Nain 534 Entrega A’an Ba Komando PNTL” [Tetun translation: Ninja Case, 534 people have surrendered themselves to PNTL (Timorese national police) Command].
Fundasaun Mahein posted an abridged English version of a report by respected human rights NGO HAK Association in which the Government and national police are accused of human rights violations – the full Tetun version was also posted.
HAK states that it is concerned “that the PNTL commando operation does not respect the constitution of the Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste” in addition to that “During the operation individual police have violated human rights, carried out actions contrary to the law or abused their power such as arresting people without a court order and persecuting members of an organization”.
With Cova Lima and Bobonaro being a past political battle ground between FRETILIN and PD in the 2007 national elections, there is a strong likelihood that the current jostling both in the Parliament as well as in the mountain villages is a sign of things to come. There are possibly forthcoming municipal elections but what is really at stake is the 2012 general election. Since 2007 the national budget has dramatically increased on the back of newfound oil wealth, and accusations of Government corruption have blossomed across the pages of national newspapers. With many more contracts and much more money at stake, politics is now a much more tangible “business”.
Of note is the apparent absence of the United Nations with regards to this issue. Despite the fact that UNMIT (the United Nations Integrated Mission in Timor-Leste) retains executive policing authority for Cova Lima and Bobonaro districts it would appear that it is toothless in preventing possible human right abuses. Nor has it spoken publicly in the Timorese press on the matter. With an annual budget of approximately $200 million/annum, the largest portion of which is designated towards the United Nations Police, it begs the question: is UNMIT good value for money?
Interestingly, the term ninja is powerfully evocative in Timor-Leste, and it does not stem from Japan's occupation of Timor-Leste between 1942-45. Rather it is an Indonesian import.
Former Indonesian General and recent Vice Presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto is understood to have been “in control of ‘ninja squads’, [during the Indonesian occupation] operated by the paramilitary groups in East Timor, which have been used by Kopassus and other elements of the military to terrorise and torture East Timorese suspected of supporting the pro-independence resistance.”
As such, while The Lost Boy wittily blogged about the comic aspect of the use of the term, it is not comic in the minds of many Timorese.