Ten years since East Timor's vote for freedom


August 30 marks 10 years since the UN-sponsored referendum on Indonesian-occupied East Timor’s political status. On that day, despite almost 12 months of intense repression and terror conducted by the Indonesian military (TNI) and its East Timorese militia gangs, some 98% of registered voters went to the polls and nearly 80% of the votes were cast in favour of independence, after 24 years of Indonesian rule.

The TNI and pro-integration militia terror campaign had failed. While incidents were few on the day of the ballot itself, this changed markedly as the announcement date for the results drew closer. The militia gangs stepped up attacks in towns and isolated villages across East Timor, especially in the border districts adjacent to West Timor.

When the result was made public on September 4, international media reports depicted scenes of mixed and muted emotion – finally the East Timorese were to be able to chart their own destiny, free of Indonesian military rule. Celebrations quickly turned to heightened fear and preparation for the promised TNI and pro-integration militia rampage. Thousands of East Timorese had already fled from towns and villages for the hills to escape the impending TNI backlash. Secret TNI documents, which had been leaked prior to the referendum, referred to a planned “scorched earth” policy if the vote favoured independence.

Starting in the outlying centres, every United Nations Assistance Mission in East Timor (UNAMET) building or office in East Timor’s 13 districts came under attack and was destroyed by September 6, with the partial exception of UNAMET’s main compound in the capital Dili. All the hotels in Dili where international journalists and election observers were based very quickly came under attack, forcing nearly all to leave immediately.

The UNAMET compound was quickly flooded with waves of internal refugees, some scaling or throwing children over razor wire fences in an effort to escape the violence. The compound remained under siege until the arrival of the first contingent of the International Force for East Timor (Interfet) on September 20. By this time around 600,000 East Timorese had been displaced from their homes, with nearly 350,000 of them forced across the border into West Timor. At least 70% of East Timor’s physical infrastructure was either stolen or destroyed by the TNI and pro-integration militia gangs with at least 1000 East Timorese being killed in the post-ballot carnage. Many of those killed were known independence supporters or leaders.

East Timorese independence, church and community leaders, along with international solidarity activists and organisations warned that the carnage would take place as long as Indonesian police and the TNI were responsible for providing security for the ballot. So how did the UN ballot come about in the first place and why were the Indonesian security forces given this role?

Fall of Suharto

The collapse of the Suharto dictatorship in May 1998 was a key factor in the stepping-up in activity of the East Timorese national liberation struggle. With the caretaker government of president B. J. Habibie announcing it would offer some form of autonomy (along with troop reductions from June) and the TNI on the back foot in the face of the political upheaval within Indonesia, this gave added confidence and drive to the liberation movement. Outside of East Timor, the collapse of the Suharto regime led to stepped-up efforts on the diplomatic front with a push for fast-tracking tripartite talks involving the UN, Indonesia and Portugal (the former colonial power in East Timor prior to the country’s short-lived period of independence in 1975). East Timorese resistance leaders lobbied to be included in the talks as legitimate representatives.

Within East Timor, students and other youth activists had been strongly influenced by the radical wing of the Indonesian pro-democracy movement and the mass anti-Suharto dictatorship struggle. They used the period from June through August to organise “dialogue” meetings, which involved teams of student activists travelling through the districts and organising impromptu meetings about the options being offered in the referendum. Open forums and discussions like these had never been seen before under Indonesian military occupation and gave new impetus and determination for independence rather than becoming a “special autonomous region” within the Republic of Indonesia.

The situation also provided a new tactical period for the armed resistance movement Falintil which while still vastly out-numbered and under-resourced compared to the TNI was able to conduct some more successful guerrilla strikes and harrying of Indonesian forces. Falintil was also able to consolidate some of its remote bases and encampments as well as strengthen links with new youth activists involved in open and underground resistance activity. The TNI chiefs and their East Timorese political collaborators sought to turn this situation around as quickly as possible.

By October 1998, the campaigning for independence had increased markedly. In mid-October tens of thousands (reports at the time varied from 15,000-60,000) participated in two days of protest action in Dili, demonstrating against the decision of the pro-Indonesian governor, Abilio Osorio Soares, to sack civil servants who were not pro-integration. Cars and trucks and motorbikes cavalcaded repeatedly around Dili and civil-servants staged a “stay-at-home” strike.

Between June and October 1998, the Indonesian government had been claiming that it had been reducing troop numbers in East Timor. Televised departures of Indonesian troops from Dili harbour proved to be a stage-show – troop numbers actually increased and TNI forces were secretly redeployed in locations across East Timor or re-entered along the West Timor border. These forces included new contingents of the infamous Kopassus special operations forces and associated secret intelligence operatives. By the end of 1998, East Timorese resistance leaders and international solidarity groups estimated that the Indonesian troop levels exceeded 25,000 (around one soldier for every 40 East Timorese).

At the same time, throughout East Timor the TNI increased its organising and co-ordination of the pro-integration gangs. This included reactivating old civil militia networks as well as arming, funding and training new groups. Tensions and violence in the western border districts of East Timor increased dramatically towards the end of 1998 and into the new year. By January 1999 the pro-integration terror campaign was well underway with murder, rape, torture and other human-rights abuses escalating daily.

UN referendum agreement

On January 27, Indonesian foreign minister Ali Alatas announced that if the existing autonomy offer was unacceptable to the East Timorese, then the new parliament to be elected in Indonesia in June 1999 should consider how to “let Timor go”. The proposal was widely viewed as a stunt given the actual situation within East Timor and the actions of the TNI and the pro-integration militias. However, it also reflected rifts within the Indonesian political elite over how to resolve the increasing international pressure to grant East Timor a genuine act of self-determination. Part of this pressure also came from the mixed signals the Indonesian government was receiving from its closest and strongest ally, the Australian government, following the letter then Australian PM John Howard sent to Habibie at the end of 1998. This suggested a staged process of self-determination might be the way to proceed, while at the same time maintaining that Australia fully supported East Timor remaining part of Indonesia (Australia was the only country that had legally recognised Indonesia’s 1976 annexation of East Timor).

The Indonesian political elite adopted a strategy of partially conceding to the international pressure by accepting that some sort of act of self-determination should take place. This resulted in the adoption of the May 5, 1999 agreement between Indonesia and Portugal, which outlined the process for a referendum to take place (originally set for August 8). At the same time, key civilian and military figures opposed to this devoted all available resources and support to the pro-integration terror and destabilisation campaign within East Timor. Along with this, the Indonesian government stepped up its propaganda campaign that claimed East Timor was entering into a stage of civil war between pro- and anti-independence sections of the population – a distortion dutifully repeated by Australian foreign minister Alexander Downer.

While the UN-sponsored agreement between Indonesia and Portugal marked a significant political defeat for Jakarta which for 24 years had never accepted that East Timor could be independent, the biggest and most problematic weakness was Portugal’s and the UN’s acceptance that the Indonesian police and the TNI would provide security for the ballot. The TNI and pro-integration leadership within East Timor exploited this loophole to the utmost to prevent the ballot from taking place. The fact that they failed is testament to the courage and determination of the East Timorese to win their national independence.

[Jon Lamb first visited East Timor in April 1999 and is a member of the Revolutionary Socialist Party].

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East Timor