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Indonesian occupation of East Timor

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Indonesian occupation of East Timor
Part of the Cold War
Location of East Timor, with nearby countries shown
Date 7 December 1975 – 31 October 1999
Location East Timor
Result East Timor gains independence after an independence referendum votes to leave Indonesia


Supported by:
 Australia (until 1991)
 Canada (until 1991)
 Malaysia (until 1991)
 United Kingdom (until 1991, support with weapons until 1997)

 United States (until 1991)

 East Timor

Supported by:
Libya Libya
Free Aceh Movement
 Soviet Union (1975–1991)
 Russia (1991–1999)
 Australia (1999)
 Canada (1999)
 China (1999)
 Malaysia (1999)
 United Kingdom (1999)

 United States (1999)
Commanders and leaders

Prabowo Subianto
Try Sutrisno
José Abílio Osório Soares

Eurico Guterres

Taur Matan Ruak
Nino Konis Santana 
Ma'huno Bulerek Karathayano Surrendered
Xanana Gusmão Surrendered
Nicolau dos Reis Lobato 
Rogério Lobato
Nicolau dos Reis Lobato

Xanana Gusmão
Casualties and losses
Estimates range from 100,000–300,000 dead (see below)
Part of a series on the
History of East Timor
Coat of Arms of East Timor
Flag of East Timor.svg East Timor portal

The Indonesian occupation of East Timor began in December 1975 and lasted until October 1999. After centuries of Portuguese colonial rule in East Timor, a 1974 coup in Portugal led to the decolonisation of its former colonies, creating instability in East Timor and leaving its future uncertain. After a small-scale civil war, the pro-independence Fretilin declared victory in the capital city of Dili and declared an independent East Timor on 28 November 1975.

Claiming that its assistance had been requested by East Timorese leaders, Indonesian military forces invaded East Timor on 7 December 1975 and by 1979 they had all but destroyed the armed resistance to the occupation. Following a controversial "Popular Assembly" which many said was not a genuine act of self-determination, Indonesia declared the territory a province of Indonesia (Timor Timur).

Immediately after the invasion, the United Nations General Assembly and Security Council passed resolutions condemning Indonesia's actions in East Timor and calling for its immediate withdrawal from the territory. Australia and Indonesia were the only nations in the world which recognised East Timor as a province of Indonesia, and soon afterwards they began negotiations to divide resources found in the Timor Gap. Other governments, including those of the United States, Japan, Canada and Malaysia, also supported the Indonesian government. The invasion of East Timor and the suppression of its independence movement, however, caused great harm to Indonesia's reputation and international credibility.[1][2]

For twenty-four years the Indonesian government subjected the people of East Timor to routine and systematic torture, sexual slavery, extrajudicial executions, massacres, and deliberate starvation.[3] The 1991 Santa Cruz Massacre caused outrage around the world, and reports of other such killings were numerous. Resistance to Indonesian rule remained strong;[4] in 1996 the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to two men from East Timor, Carlos Filipe Ximenes Belo and José Ramos-Horta, for their ongoing efforts to peacefully end the occupation. A 1999 vote to determine East Timor's future resulted in an overwhelming majority in favour of independence, and in 2002 East Timor became an independent nation. The Commission for Reception, Truth and Reconciliation in East Timor estimated the number of deaths during the occupation from famine and violence to be between 90,800 and 202,600, including between 17,600 and 19,600 violent deaths or disappearances, out of a 1999 population of approximately 823,386. The truth commission held Indonesian forces responsible for about 70% of the violent killings.[5][6][7]

After the 1999 vote for independence, paramilitary groups working with the Indonesian military undertook a final wave of violence during which most of the country's infrastructure was destroyed. The Australian led International Force for East Timor restored order and following the departure of Indonesian forces from East Timor, the United Nations Transitional Administration in East Timor administered the territory for two years, establishing a Serious Crimes Unit to investigate and prosecute crimes committed in 1999. Its limited scope and the small number of sentences delivered by Indonesian courts have caused numerous observers to call for an international tribunal for East Timor.[8][9]

Oxford University held an academic consensus calling the occupation of East Timor a genocide and Yale University teaches it as part of its Genocide Studies program.[10][11]


Map of East Timor and its major cities

The Portuguese first arrived in Timor in the 16th century, and in 1702 East Timor came under Portuguese colonial administration.[12] Portuguese rule was tenuous until the island was divided with the Dutch Empire in 1860.[13] A significant battleground during the Pacific War, East Timor was occupied by 20,000 Japanese troops. The fighting helped prevent a Japanese occupation of Australia, but resulted in 60,000 East Timorese deaths.[14]

When Indonesia secured its independence after World War II under the leadership of Sukarno, it did not claim control of East Timor, and aside from general anti-colonial rhetoric it did not oppose Portuguese control of the territory. A 1959 revolt in East Timor against the Portuguese was not endorsed by the Indonesian government.[15] A 1962 United Nations document notes: "the government of Indonesia has declared that it maintains friendly relations with Portugal and has no claim to Portuguese Timor...".[16] These assurances continued after Suharto took power in 1965. An Indonesian official declared in December 1974: "Indonesia has no territorial ambition ... Thus there is no question of Indonesia wishing to annex Portuguese Timor."[17]

In 1974, a coup in Lisbon caused significant changes in Portugal's relationship to its colony in Timor.[18] The power shift in Europe invigorated movements for independence in colonies like Mozambique and Angola, and the new Portuguese government began a decolonisation process for East Timor. The first of these was an opening of the political process.[19]

Fretilin, UDT, and APODETI[edit]

When East Timorese political parties were first legalised in April 1974, three groupings emerged as major players in the postcolonial landscape. The União Democrática Timorense (Timorese Democratic Union, or UDT), was formed in May by a group of wealthy landowners. Initially dedicated to preserving East Timor as a protectorate of Portugal, in September UDT announced its support for independence.[20] A week later, the Frente Revolucionária de Timor-Leste Independente (Revolutionary Front for an Independent East Timor, or Fretilin) appeared. Initially organised as the ASDT (Associacão Social Democrata Timorense), the group endorsed "the universal doctrines of socialism", as well as "the right to independence".[21] As the political process grew more tense, however, the group changed its name and declared itself "the only legitimate representative of the people".[22] The end of May saw the creation of a third party, Associacão Popular Democratica Timorense (Timorese Popular Democratic Association, or APODETI). Advocating East Timor's integration with Indonesia and originally named Associacão Integraciacao de Timor Indonesia (Association for the Integration of Timor into Indonesia),[23] APODETI expressed concerns that an independent East Timor would then be economically weak and vulnerable.[24]

Fretilin took power after the civil war and declared an independent East Timor on 28 November 1975.

Indonesian nationalist and military hardliners, particularly leaders of the intelligence agency Kopkamtib and special operations unit, Opsus, saw the Portuguese coup as an opportunity for East Timor's integration with Indonesia. The central government and military feared that an East Timor governed by leftists could be used as a base for incursions by unfriendly powers into Indonesia, and also that an independent East Timor within the archipelago could inspire secessionist sentiments within Indonesian provinces. The fear of national disintegration were played upon military leaders close to Suharto and remained as one of Indonesia's strongest justifications for refusing to entertain the prospect of East Timorese independence or even autonomy until the late 1990s.[25] The military intelligence organisations initially sought a non-military annexation strategy, intending to use APODETI as its integration vehicle.[26]

In January 1975, UDT and Fretilin established a tentative coalition dedicated to achieving independence for East Timor.[27] At the same time, the Australian government reported that the Indonesian military had conducted a "pre-invasion" exercise at Lampung.[28] For months, the Indonesian Special Operations command, OPSUS, had been covertly supporting APODETI through Operasi Komodo (Operation Komodo, named after the lizard). By broadcasting accusations of communism among Fretilin leaders and sowing discord in the UDT coalition, the Indonesian government fostered instability in East Timor and, observers said, created a pretext for invading.[29] By May tensions between the two groups caused UDT to withdraw from the coalition.[30]

In an attempt to negotiate a settlement to the dispute over East Timor's future, the Portuguese Decolonization Commission convened a conference in June 1975 in Macau. Fretilin boycotted the meeting in protest of APODETI's presence; representatives of UDT and APODETI complained that this was an effort to obstruct the decolonisation process.[31] In his 1987 memoir Funu: The Unfinished Saga of East Timor, Fretilin leader José Ramos-Horta recalls his "vehement protests" against his party's refusal to attend the meeting. "This", he writes, "was one of our tactical political errors for which I could never find an intelligent explanation."[32]

Coup, civil war, and independence declaration[edit]

The tension reached a boiling point in mid-1975, when rumours began circulating of possible power seizures from both independence parties.[33] In August 1975, UDT staged a coup in the capital city Dili and a small-scale civil war broke out. Ramos-Horta describes the fighting as "bloody", and details violence committed by both UDT and Fretilin. He cites the International Committee of the Red Cross, which counted 2,000–3,000 people dead after the war.[34] The fighting forced the Portuguese government onto the nearby island of Atauro.[35] Fretilin defeated UDT's forces after two weeks, much to the surprise of Portugal and Indonesia.[36] UDT leaders fled to Indonesian-controlled West Timor. There they signed a petition on 7 September calling for East Timor's integration with Indonesia;[37] most accounts indicate that UDT's support for this position was forced by Indonesia.[38]

Map of East Timor's Bobonaro District, which lies on the border with Indonesian West Timor. Fighting continued in this region after the civil war, and several cities were captured by Indonesia prior to their full invasion.

Once they had gained control of East Timor, Fretilin faced attacks from the west, by Indonesian military forces—then known as Angkatan Bersenjata Republik Indonesia (ABRI)—and by a small group of UDT troops.[39] Indonesia captured the border city of Batugadé on 8 October 1975; nearby Balibó and Maliana were taken eight days later.[40] During the Balibó raid, members of an Australian television news crew—later dubbed the "Balibo Five"—were killed by Indonesian soldiers.[41] Indonesian military officials say the deaths were accidental, and East Timorese witnesses say the journalists were deliberately killed. The deaths, and subsequent campaigns and investigations, attracted international attention and rallied support for East Timorese independence.[42]

At the start of November, the foreign ministers from Indonesia and Portugal met in Rome to discuss a resolution of the conflict. Although no Timorese leaders were invited to the talks, Fretilin sent a message expressing their desire to work with Portugal. The meeting ended with both parties agreeing that Portugal would meet with political leaders in East Timor, but the talks never took place.[43] In mid-November, Indonesian forces began shelling the city of Atabae from the sea, and captured it by the end of the month.[44]

Frustrated by Portugal's inaction, Fretilin leaders believed they could ward off Indonesian advances more effectively if they declared an independent East Timor. National Political Commissioner Mari Alkatiri conducted a diplomatic tour of Africa, gathering support from governments there and elsewhere.

According to Fretilin, this effort yielded assurances from twenty-five countries—including the People's Republic of China, the Soviet Union, Mozambique, Sweden, and Cuba—to recognise the new nation. Cuba currently shares close relations with East Timor today. On 28 November 1975, Fretilin unilaterally declared independence for the Democratic Republic of East Timor.[45] Indonesia announced, UDT and APODETI leaders in and around Balibó would respond the next day by declaring that region independent from East Timor and officially part of Indonesia. But this Balibo Declaration was drafted by Indonesian intelligence and signed on Bali. Later this was described as the 'Balibohong Declaration', a pun on the Indonesian word for 'lie'.[46][47] Portugal rejected both declarations, and the Indonesian government approved military action to begin its annexation of East Timor.[48]


Indonesian invasion

On 7 December 1975, Indonesian forces invaded East Timor. Operasi Seroja (Operation Lotus) was the largest military operation ever carried out by that nation.[48][49] Troops from Fretilin's military organisation Falintil engaged ABRI forces in the streets of Dili, and reported 400 Indonesian paratroopers were killed as they descended into the city.[50] Angkasa Magazine reports 35 dead Indonesian troops, and 122 from the Fretilin side.[51] By the end of the year, 10,000 troops occupied Dili and another 20,000 had been deployed throughout East Timor.[50][52] Massively outnumbered, Falintil troops fled to the mountains and continued guerrilla combat operations.[53]

Indonesian Foreign Minister Adam Malik suggested that the number of East Timorese killed in the first two years of the occupation was "50,000 people or perhaps 80,000".[54]

Indonesian atrocities[edit]

From the start of the invasion onward, TNI forces engaged in the wholesale massacre of Timorese civilians.[55] At the start of the occupation, Fretilin radio sent the following broadcast: "The Indonesian forces are killing indiscriminately. Women and children are being shot in the streets. We are all going to be killed.... This is an appeal for international help. Please do something to stop this invasion."[56] One Timorese refugee told later of "rape [and] cold-blooded assassinations of women and children and Chinese shop owners".[57] Dili's bishop at the time, Martinho da Costa Lopes, said later: "The soldiers who landed started killing everyone they could find. There were many dead bodies in the streets – all we could see were the soldiers killing, killing, killing."[58] In one incident, a group of fifty men, women, and children – including Australian freelance reporter Roger East – were lined up on a cliff outside of Dili and shot, their bodies falling into the sea.[59] Many such massacres took place in Dili, where onlookers were ordered to observe and count aloud as each person was executed.[60] It is estimated that at least 2,000 Timorese were massacred in the first two days of the invasion in Dili alone. In addition to Fretilin supporters, Chinese migrants were also singled out for execution; five hundred were killed in the first day alone.[61]

The mass killings continued unabated as Indonesian forces advanced on the Fretilin-held mountain regions of East Timor. A Timorese guide for a senior Indonesian officer told former Australian consul to Portuguese Timor James Dunn that during the early months of the fighting TNI troops "killed most Timorese they encountered." [62] In February 1976 after capturing the village of Aileu - to the south of Dili - and driving out the remaining Fretilin forces, Indonesian troops machine gunned most of the town's population, allegedly shooting everyone over the age of three. The young children who were spared were taken back to Dili in trucks. At the time Aileu fell to Indonesian forces, the population was around 5,000; by the time Indonesian relief workers visited the village in September 1976 only 1,000 remained.[63] In June 1976, TNI troops badly battered by a Fretilin attack exacted retribution against a large refugee camp housing 5-6,000 Timorese at Lamaknan near the West Timor border. After setting several houses on fire, Indonesian soldiers massacred as many as 2,000 men, women and children.[64]

In March 1977 ex-Australian consul James Dunn published a report detailing charges that since December 1975 Indonesian forces had killed between 50,000 and 100,000 civilians in East Timor.[65] This is consistent with a statement made on 13 February 1976 by UDT leader Lopez da Cruz that 60,000 Timorese had been killed during the previous six months of civil war, suggesting a death toll of at least 55,000 in the first two months of the invasion. A delegation of Indonesian relief workers agreed with this statistic.[66] A late 1976 report by the Catholic Church also estimated the death toll at between 60,000 and 100,000.[67] These figures were also corroborated by those in the Indonesian government itself. In an interview on 5 April 1977 with the Sydney Morning Herald, Indonesian Foreign Minister Adam Malik said the number of dead was "50,000 people or perhaps 80,000".[54]

The Indonesian government presented its annexation of East Timor as a matter of anticolonial unity. A 1977 booklet from the Indonesian Department of Foreign Affairs, entitled Decolonization in East Timor, paid tribute to the "sacred right of self-determination"[68] and recognised APODETI as the true representatives of the East Timorese majority. It claimed that Fretilin's popularity was the result of a "policy of threats, blackmail and terror".[69] Later, Indonesian Foreign Minister Ali Alatas reiterated this position in his 2006 memoir The Pebble in the Shoe: The Diplomatic Struggle for East Timor.[70] The island's original division into east and west, Indonesia argued after the invasion, was "the result of colonial oppression" enforced by the Portuguese and Dutch imperial powers. Thus, according to the Indonesian government, its annexation of the 27th province was merely another step in the unification of the archipelago which had begun in the 1940s.[71]

UN response and international law[edit]

On the day following the invasion, a committee of the United Nations General Assembly convened to debate the situation. Nations allied with Indonesia—including India, Japan, and Malaysia—wrote a resolution blaming Portugal and the Timorese political parties for the bloodshed; it was rejected in favour of a draft prepared by Algeria, Cuba, Senegal, and Guyana, among others. This was adopted as GA Resolution 3485 (XXX) on 12 December, calling on Indonesia to "withdraw without delay".[72] Ten days later the United Nations Security Council unanimously adopted Resolution 384 (1975), which echoes the GA resolution's call for an immediate Indonesian withdrawal.[73] One year later the Security Council expressed the same sentiment in Resolution 389 (1976), and the General Assembly passed resolutions every year between 1976 and 1982 calling for self-determination in East Timor.[74] Governments of large countries like China and the United States opposed further action; smaller countries like Costa Rica, Guinea-Bissau, and Iceland were the only delegations calling for strong enforcement of the resolutions.[75] The 1982 resolution calls on the UN Secretary-General to "initiate consultations with all parties directly concerned, with a view to exploring avenues for achieving a comprehensive settlement of the problem".[76]

Legal expert Roger S. Clark notes that Indonesia's invasion and occupation violated two key elements of international law: the right to self-determination and the prohibition on aggression. Neither the petition of 7 September 1975 calling for integration, nor the later resolution of the "People's Assembly" in May 1976, qualify as "informed and democratic processes impartially conducted and based on universal adult suffrage", as required by UN General Assembly Resolution 1541 (XV), which establishes the guidelines for the norms of self-determination. Other inadequacies existed in the petitions as well.[77]

Indonesia's use of military force in East Timor is cited as a violation of Chapter I of the United Nations Charter, which states: "All Members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state...." Some observers have argued that East Timor was not a state at the time of the invasion, and is thus not protected by the UN Charter. This claim mirrors those made against Indonesia by the Dutch during the Indonesian National Revolution.[78] As legal scholar Susan Marks points out, if East Timor was considered a Portuguese colony, then although "there may be some doubt about the application of this provision [of UN Charter Chapter I] in the context of an armed conflict between a colonial power and its own colony, there can hardly be doubt that it applies to force by one sovereign state against another state's colony".[79]

Indonesian hegemony[edit]

On 17 December, Indonesia formed the Provisional Government of East Timor (PGET) which was headed by Arnaldo dos Reis Araújo of APODETI as president and Lopez da Cruz of UDT.[80] Most sources describe this institution as a creation of the Indonesian military.[81] One of PGET's first activities was the formation of a "Popular Assembly" consisting of elected representatives and leaders "from various walks of Timorese life".[82] Like the PGET itself, the Popular Assembly is usually characterised as an instrument of propaganda created by the Indonesian military; although international journalists were invited to witness the group's meeting in May 1976, their movement was tightly constrained.[83] The Assembly drafted a request for formal integration into Indonesia, which Jakarta described as "the act of self-determination" in East Timor.[84]

Indonesia kept East Timor shut off from the rest of the world, except for a few years in the late 1980s and early 1990s, claiming that the vast majority of East Timorese supported integration. This position was followed closely by the Indonesian media such that an East Timorese acceptance of their integration with Indonesia was taken for granted by, and was a non-issue for, the majority of Indonesians.[85] East Timor came to be seen as a training ground for the officer corps in tactics of suppression for Aceh and Papua, and was pivotal in ensuring military sector dominance of Indonesia.[86]

Indonesian campaigns against the resistance[edit]

The integration monument in Dili was donated by the Indonesian government to represent emancipation from colonialism

Leaders of Indonesian intelligence influential with Suharto had initially envisaged that invasion, subdual of Fretilin resistance, and integration with Indonesia would be quick and relatively painless. The ensuing Indonesian campaigns up through 1976 were devastating for the East Timorese, an enormous drain on Indonesian resources, were severely damaging to Indonesia internationally, and ultimately a failure. The wanton, wholesale killings by the TNI near the coastal regions during the opening months of the invasion had driven a large portion of the population and most of the remaining Falintil into the central regions. This proved counterproductive as it left Indonesian troops fighting against an enemy which was well equipped and had access to agricultural resources and population. The civilian population came to see the Falintil as a buffer against the excesses of the Indonesian forces, which led to heightened support for the resistance. From 1975 to 1977, the Fretilin protected at least 40% of the population who had fled the coastal regions, in inhospitable conditions, with the active support of rallied communities.[87] Schwarz suggests the fact that Indonesian military's power base remained barely dented by the mid-1970s intelligence miscalculations and ongoing failures, was a measure of the military's dominance of Indonesian affairs.[25]

By the end of 1976, a stalemate existed between the Falintil and the Indonesian army. Unable to overcome heavy resistance and drained of its resources, the TNI began rearming. Indonesian navy ordered missile-firing patrol-boats from the United States, Australia, the Netherlands, South Korea, and Taiwan, as well as submarines from West Germany.[88] In February 1977, Indonesia also received thirteen OV-10 Bronco aircraft from the Rockwell International Corporation with the aid of an official US government foreign military aid sales credit. The Bronco was ideal for the East Timor invasion, as it was specifically designed for counter-insurgency operations in difficult terrain.[89] By the beginning of February 1977, at least six of the 13 Broncos were operating in East Timor, and helped the Indonesian military pinpoint Fretilin positions.[90] The OV-10 Broncos dealt a heavy blow to the Falintil when the aircraft attacked their forces with conventional weapons and Soviet-supplied Napalm known as 'Opalm.' Along with the new weaponry, an additional 10,000 troops were sent in to begin new campaigns that would become known as the 'final solution'.[91]

TNI strategists implemented a strategy of attrition against the Falintil beginning in September 1977. This was accomplished by rendering the central regions of East Timor unable to sustain human life through napalm attacks, chemical warfare and destruction of crops. This was to be done in order to force the population to surrender into the custody of Indonesian forces and deprive the Falintil of food and population. Catholic officials in East Timor called this strategy an "encirclement and annihilation" campaign.[92] 35,000 ABRI troops surrounded areas of Fretilin support and killed of men, women, and children. Air and naval bombardments were followed by ground troops, who destroyed villages and agricultural infrastructure. Thousands of people may have been killed during this period.[93] In early 1978, the entire civilian population of Arsaibai village, near the Indonesian border, was killed for supporting Fretilin after being bombarded and starved.[94] The success of the 'encirclement and annihilation' campaign led to the 'final cleansing campaign', in which children and men would be forced to hold hands and march in front of Indonesian units searching for Fretilin members. When Fretilin members were found, the members would be forced to surrender or to fire on their own people.[95]

During this period, allegations of Indonesian use of chemical weapons arose, as villagers reported maggots appearing on crops after bombing attacks.[94] Fretilin radio claimed Indonesian planes dropped chemical agents, and several observers—including the Bishop of Dili—reported seeing napalm dropped on the countryside.[96] The UN's Commission for Reception, Truth and Reconciliation in East Timor, based on interviews with over 8,000 witnesses, as well as Indonesian military papers and intelligence from international sources, confirmed that the Indonesians used chemical weapons and napalm to poison food and water supplies in Fretilin controlled areas during the "encirclement and annihilation" campaign.[97][98]

While brutal, the Indonesian 'encirclement and annihilation' campaign of 1977–1978 was effective in that it broke the back of the main Fretilin militia. The capable Timorese President and military commander, Nicolau Lobato, was shot and killed by helicopter-borne Indonesian troops on 31 December 1978.[99]

Resettlement and enforced starvation[edit]

Monument with the National emblem of Indonesia in Viqueque (2016)

As a result of the destruction of food crops, many civilians were forced to leave the hills and surrender to the TNI. Often, when surviving villagers came down to lower-lying regions to surrender, the military would execute them. Those who were not killed outright by TNI troops were sent to receiving centers for vetting, which had been prepared in advance in the vicinity of local TNI bases. In these transit camps, the surrendered civilians were registered and interrogated. Those who were suspected of being members of the resistance were killed.[100]

These centers were often constructed of thatch huts with no toilets. Additionally, the Indonesian military barred the Red Cross from distributing humanitarian aid and no medical care was provided to the detainees. As a result, many of the Timorese - weakened by starvation and surviving on small rations given by their captors - died of malnutrition, cholera, diarrhea and tuberculosis. By late 1979, between 300,000 and 370,000 Timorese had passed through these cam