East Timor vs. Ninjas

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The small half-an-island nation of East Timor is known in the West for its violent struggle for independence from Indonesia and for its 2006 crisis over alleged military discrimination. Now, according to East Timorese authorities, the country is currently facing a national security threat from ... well, we'll let East Timor speak for itself. AFP reports on a recent large-scale police operation: "Police chief Longuinhos Monteiro donned full military gear to lead the operation, telling reporters that 'any ninjas who want to take us on, your final stop will be Santa Cruz cemetery.'" Ninjas? Really?

  • It's Not What You Think  Global Voices' Keta Haluha sighs, "these are not the ninja of Japanese lore."
  • Who Are These 'Ninjas'?  Foreign Policy's Joshua Keating explains, "The term was used to describe the Indonesian death squads blamed for a series of disappearances and kidnappings during East Timor's war for independence. Even that explanation might be bogus as some observers believe that the two murders are just ordinary crimes that the government is blaming on ninjas to discredit the political opposition. Indeed, 22 members of of one dissident group were arrested earlier this month on suspicion of 'ninja activities.'"
To understand the way of the East Timor ninja, one has to look at the nation itself. After becoming formally independent in 2002, East Timor remains very much a fledgling — even experimental — state with a pack of international institutions and NGOs propping up a government that has limited capabilities of its own. The police chief's ninja-fighting bravado was spurred by the mysterious murders of a teenage girl in December and an infant child in January. But, critics say, his campaign masks the misdeeds and brutality of the country's own police, who are slowly taking back control from a force of international peackeepers. Moreover, the threat of "ninjas" resonates deep in the psyche of a nation still traumatized and torn by years of occupation and civil strife. "This idea of a masked man, of a covert agent that's difficult to identify — a kind of ghost — haunts this place," says Silas Everett, country director for East Timor at the Asia Foundation.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.