August 23, 2016 5:00 pm JST

Guerrilla fighter turns top businessman in East Timor

Hamish McDonald, Contributing writer

Eduardo Belo Soares outside the new headquarters in Dili of his Baniuaga group, which is expanding from its woodworking origins to television broadcasting and satellite internet services (Photo: Hamish McDonald).

DILI -- The biggest private sector employer in East Timor has two names on his business card. One is Eduardo Belo Saores, his legal name, and the other is a more enigmatic one, Gattot.

He explains that the latter name was his nom de guerre, a sarcastic reference to the name of an Indonesian general, when Soares was a member of the Falantil resistance movement against Indonesia's occupation of his country between 1975 and 1999 after Portugal withdrew from its colony.

The resistance name still has a lot of clout in East Timor. That was evident on a recent Saturday morning when Soares persuaded the nation's President Taur Matan Ruak, a former guerrilla army resistance leader, to formally open his group's new floating fish farm, which is inside a coral reef just east of the capital.

After adroitly balancing on the wobbly planks around the netted fish enclosures, Taur came back onshore, sampled some barbecued fish, and filled a chiller box with garoupa and barramundi fish to take back to the presidential palace, publically paying $15 per kilo to avoid any appearance of impropriety.

Soares is something of a phenomenon in East Timor: an ethnic Timorese who has established a major business, the Baniuaga group. Until now, the private sector in the tiny country has been dominated by descendants of Portuguese colonial families or by ethnic Chinese traders.

His story is one of narrow escapes. Born in 1965, he was 10 years old when Indonesian marines and paratroopers stormed into Portuguese Timor's main towns. His family fled their home near Baucau, taking refuge in the mountains.

"There were thousands of people like us," he said. "We reached the south coast and could go no further. Then we were surrounded by the army in 1978 and captured, about 50 families, and brought down to Dili." Soares returned to school the next year.

Five years later, a cousin emerged from the bush and Soares fabricated a travel pass for him, but the authorities soon discovered it was a fake. Soares was identified by his cousin and was arrested, interrogated at the Indonesian district command in Baucau, and held in a cell for two months.

Political prisoner

In 1989, Soares was preparing to join demonstrations during the visit by Pope John Paul II. Then Indonesian special forces officer Prabowo Subianto, who was a presidential candidate in 2014, conducted  preemptive arrests of dissidents. His soldiers abducted Soares, hiding him from inquiring Red Cross officials in a cell dug into the ground.

Prabowo's intelligence officers saw a useful role for the smart young Timorese. "They said: If you show us where Falantil is we will send you to Jakarta, you can go by plane, you can study," Soares told the Nikkei Asian Review in his Dili office. "I pretended to agree."

While feeding his captors bogus information for propaganda videos, Soares was kept under close watch at Baucau's Flamboyan Hotel, a notorious center for Indonesian intelligence operations during the occupation.

"One Sunday I asked to go to church and talked to Father Orlando Fernandes in the confessional to discuss escape," Soares recalled. With a refuge arranged in Dili, the young man then blocked up the shower pipe in the bathroom used by him and his guard,  so they were obliged to take their bath from a tub in the hotel yard.

When his captor had soaped up his hair and face, Soares grabbed his clothes and bolted. Hiking overland, hitching rides from friendly truck drivers and walking around checkpoints, he reached Dili two days later and found a hiding place in the residence of Bishop Carlos Belo.

Thus began a clandestine life in the small capital city. Soares eventually owned a total of 13 different identity cards from different districts in East Timor, plus four from Jakarta and other parts of Indonesia, and two different Indonesian passports under the common names of Rodrigues and Pereira. "I combed my hair differently for the pictures," he said.

He made contact with Falantil's two main commanders in the mountains, Taur and David Alex near Baucau. Soares relayed information from them in conversations using code words with exiled resistance figures in Sydney and Lisbon from the public call center in Dili.

Tech talent

As the telecoms revolution took hold, his technical school education proved valuable. Soares went to Jakarta and bought a satellite phone, which he dismantled, brought back to Dili mixed up in a consignment of television parts, and then reassembled. In 1997, he went up into the mountains to work as Taur's communications officer and run a clandestine radio station.

After the Suharto regime collapsed and successor President B.J.Habibie called a United Nations-run referendum on East Timor's future in 1999, Soares was able to place calls between Falantil and outside leaders, and even to Xanana Gusmao, another prominent resistance leader. Gusmao was being held inside Jakarta's Cipinang jail, where he had been smuggled a mobile phone. One cheeky call went to the mobile phone of the Indonesian armed forces chief, General Wiranto, after the number was supplied by an Indonesian supporter.

When the guerrillas came down from the hills in 2000, Soares opted for a civilian life instead of joining the new military. "I wanted to try something different," he said. He was among the demobilized fighters who were given $100 a month for four months, plus small cash grants for seed capital.

Most bought pigs or buffaloes, or set up kiosks. But Soares used all the money to pay $500 for a wood lathe, then borrowed money to buy other tools and lumber to set up a joinery on the verandah of his family's home. The bishop of Baucau ordered a new set of pillars for his residence and paid $2,000 to Soares. It enabled him to pay off his loans and order more timber.

The reconstruction of East Timor was under way. Many buildings in Dili and other towns had been torched by Indonesian forces as they left ahead of an international peacekeeping force in 1999. Walls were still standing, but there was a need for doors and windows. A big order for school furniture came in. By 2004, Soares was able to open a large new workshop on the main road in Dili.

Then came a security crisis in 2006 when fighting erupted between undisciplined police and army personnel. "My workshop was looted and everything stolen," Soares said. "I had to start again from zero."

Expanding empire

With finance from the Portuguese bank BNU, which had returned to the  former colony, and orders from his contacts, the joinery business rose again. Meanwhile the trashing of his premises gave Soares an idea for diversifying his business. He started a security guard service, GardaMor Security, which now employs 2,000 people all over the country.

Recently, he gained a license as a television and radio broadcaster, joining three other private TV stations and one government channel. He has started radio broadcasts in Dili and conducting TV transmission trials. The aim is to take the network nationwide, providing  entertainment and educational content.

In April, Singapore-based Kacific Broadband Satellites announced a $21 million agreement with GardaMor Security to provide broadband internet services across East Timor using its satellite, which has a footprint across eastern Indonesia and the southwest Pacific. GardaMor's customers will be able to use cheap dish antennas at their homes to receive  a low-cost, reliable connection, Soares said.

Soares now employs 3,000 people. He does not want to discuss his group's financial results, but does say, "We are working for the bank." It seem his bankers are still willing to finance him. As well as the satellite internet contract and the broadcast network, Soares has just moved into a brand new three-storey head office in Dili.

He quietly contrasts his progress with the instant fortunes made by others who gained import contracts and other business benefits from relatives in the government. "I was working very hard," he said. "For the others: it was falling down from the sky. It lands big already."

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