2. c. Indonesian occupation:

During the 24 years of Indonesian occupation the Indonesian language became official and young people were indoctrinated in state ideology as well as many roads and other infrastructure were established in East Timor. These ideological and material programs were strategies to quell the resistance by the East Timorese people. Freedom fighters called the FALINTIL however continued to wage a guerilla war against Indonesian occupation from their mountain jungle hide outs. According to Soares (2000:59), they employed hit and run tactics and even managed to infiltrate the Indonesian army intelligence. This way they were able to set up contacts with sections of the army for information and for weapon acquisition (ibid).  The Indonesian army continued to brutalize the population and from the early days of occupation over 200,000 East Timorese died. The local economy was controlled by Indonesians and some East Timorese loyal to them.  According to Amnesty international women were systematically raped by Indonesian, especially soldiers, until late 1980s – a form of ethnic cleansing. As McCloskey (2000:4) sums it up,


The massive human rights violations in East Timor which followed Indonesia’s invasion included random massacres, extra-judicial killings, starvation, deaths from preventable diseases, torture, forced movement of populations, coerced sterilization of women, rape and imprisonment without legal redress.


In the Atsabe subdistrict of Ermera district I heard a lot of spontaneous accounts of such brutal experiences during 2001 and 2002. A common comment often heard referred to the Indonesians, particularly Indonesian soldiers, as the “most brutal masters who would rape and point a gun to your head and shoot you dead for no reason and sometimes just out of sport.” Several women recounted their terrifying experience of being taken from their parents’ home at the age of 12-13 and after being raped being kept as a de facto wife of the soldier stationed there. Through tears some explained how their parents were beaten or threatened with a gun, or even shot dead as the young women were taken away. Even an APODETI founder’s granddaughter was not spared in this regard.

The Indonesian state’s illegal occupation of East Timor and its excessive human rights abuses were condemned in no less than ten United Nations resolutions (McCloskey 2000:4). However, the dominant member nations of the UN did not act since such action would not be consistent with their global political strategies and dealings. Good trade relations with Indonesia and during the Cold War having an ‘anti-communist’ ally in General Suharto were some of the factors in this (ibid).

The 1980 resettlement program of the Indonesian government (transmigrasi) relocated a large number of Indonesian families to East Timor as a strategy of neutralizing the independence movement (McCloskey 2000:5). This process, like the institutionalized rape of women to breed out Timorese blood (as claimed by a number of East Timorese women), aimed at the eradication of Timorese culture, religion, and language. The officially stated purpose of the resettlement of Indonesians to East Timor was the relieving of overpopulation in islands such as Java and Bali. It is estimated that about 150,000 Indonesians were resettled in East Timor (Pinto and Jardine 1997).

In 1983 a cease-fire agreement was signed by the leader of FALINTIL freedom fighters, Xanana Gusmão, and Colonel Purwanto of the Indonesian army (Soares 2000:59). However, General Murdani, in order to make a statement that the Indonesian government will not negotiate with the independence movement, broke the cease fire and a new military operation was launched in East Timor, called ‘Operation Unity’.

While the freedom fighters continued their struggle at home, the battle for independence was also fought abroad. In the international arena awareness of East Timor’s plight—the illegality of the occupation and massive human rights abuses that bordered on genocide--was mainly kept

alive by: 1. NGOs (Non-Governmental Organizations), such as ETAN (East Timor Action Network); 2. and especially by Catholic Church institutions; 3. as well as FRETILIN members living in exile. José Ramos-Horta was FRETILIN’s representative to the UN. While he and Mari Alkatiri had a lot of experience in international diplomatic work and lobbying, most other exiles lacked such experience (Taylor 1994:181).

In the 1980s some of the political parties—FRETILIN, UDT, KOTA, AND TRABALHISTA-- formed an umbrella organization called the National Pact for East Timor (Convergencia Nacional Timorense). However, factionalism continued and the resistance remained divided with some of the parties disengaging themselves from CNT (Soares 2000:60). In 1987 both Xanana Gusmão and José Ramos-Horta terminated their FRETILIN association and founded the National Council for Maubere Resistance (CNRM, Conselho Nacional da Resistencia Maubere). Again, UDT and KOTA rejected the CNRM. It has been suggested that at the core of the factionalism was the term Maubere.  As Soares (2000:60) explains,


Literally, maubere refers to a common name found among the Mambae people, the largest ethnic group in East Timor (Traube 1986). During the Portuguese colonial period, maubere was generally used to distinguish the native East Timorese from the upper class, educated Portuguese and, to a certain degree, the mestizos, the half caste group. ‘Maubere’ was often employed as a synonym for the illiterate, uneducated and, to some degree, uncivilised (see Traube 1986).


While the international media ignored issues of East Timor for much of the Indonesian occupation (O’Shaughnessy 2000), the eyes of the world turned on Timor with the 1991 Santa Cruz massacre in Dili carried out by the Indonesian army. The planned visit of the Portuguese delegation in October 1991, which was viewed by most East Timorese, and especially by the student activists and FRETILIN, as an opportunity to publicize the brutalities of the occupation (McCloskey 2000, Cristalis 2002), was cancelled at the last minute. Indonesian agents knew exactly who were involved in the planning of the protest and when the cancellation occurred they killed an East Timorese student taking refuge in the Motael Church in Dili on October 28, 1991. In response, the resistance movement planned a demonstration for 12 November. Given that the UN’s special rapporteur on torture was in town, they felt that the army would show some restraint (Cristalis 2002:45). On 12 November 1991 several hundred mourners attended the services for this student activist (Sebastião Gomes) and joined the funeral procession to his grave in Santa Cruz cemetery. Over a thousand demonstrators followed the family of mourners with banners and calls for independence. Upon reaching the cemetery, the mourners and protesters were mowed down by automatic weapons as the Indonesian military opened fire. According to Cristalis (2002:47) the names of 271 people killed have been compiled by the Timorese resistance along with 200 names of people who disappeared. It was claimed that injured survivors were taken away by the Indonesian security forces and beaten and stoned to death as well as injected with poison (ibid; Pinto and Jardine 1997).[1] What was different about this particular massacre of the Indonesian occupation was that it had been captured on film by a British journalist whose smuggled footage brought these horrors into living rooms around the world. International apathy towards or ignorance of the East Timor issue as an international issue was no longer an option. Human rights NGO activist groups increased the pressure of their campaign on the United Nations and national governments to respect the rights of the East Timorese people for self-determination and to condemn Indonesian occupation (McCloskey 2000:7).

In 1992, due to international pressure, the Indonesian military inquiry condemned local army action but gave lenient sentences to lowly soldiers. In November 1992 FALINTIL leader, Xanana Gusmão, is captured by Indonesian army and is convicted to life in prison in 1993. In October 1996 the continued diplomatic efforts to attract international attention to atrocities in East Timor are recognized by the Nobel Peace Prize which was awarded to José Ramos-Horta and Carlos Filipe Ximenes Belo. This caused the Indonesian government great embarrassment and it was yet another way of increasing international pressure. These developments also galvanize the unification of the resistance factions and in 1997, in Peniche, Portugal CNRM is transformed into CNRT (Conselho Nacional da Resistencia Timorense) or the National Council for East Timorese Resistance. Their main agenda was the preparation of a new government—a kind of ‘government in waiting’ or transitional government--should East Timor gain its independence in the near future.

That “near future” was rapidly approaching. In May 1998 major political changes occurred in Indonesia that opened the door for open negotiation for independence. President Suharto was ousted from office through cumulative events that included, among others, the financial crisis, extensive forest fires, ethnic violence and social unrest, pro-democracy movement and trade unions attacking the rampant cronyism, corruption, and archipelago wide demonstration against high prices and increased poverty levels (McCloskey 2000:9). On 12 May 1998 the killing of four Trisakti University Students by the Indonesian military precipitated in mass rioting and killings in the Chinese community. As the country became steadily destabilized the military decisively maneuvered Suharto out of office and brokered a power transfer to the Vice President, B. J. Habibie on 21 May, 1998 (ibid.).

These major political changes in Indonesia precipitated international negotiations between Portugal, the United Nations, and Indonesia to allow a plebiscite in which the East Timorese people can decide whether they want independence or remain with Indonesia under special autonomy. A tri-partite agreement was reached in August 1998 between the UN Secretary-General and the foreign ministers of Indonesia and Portugal to begin dialogue on a wide-ranging autonomy for East Timor (Martin 2001:19). Ian Martin, the UN Secretary-General’s Special Representative in East Timor during the 1999 UN Mission in East Timor describes the components of the dialogue as follows (ibid),


…for Indonesia this autonomy would be the final dispensation, Portugal was willing to consider autonomy only as an interim or transitional arrangement pending the eventual exercise by the people of East Timor of their right to self-determination.


On 20 June 1998 the Indonesian president, Habibie offered to free the leader of the East Timorese resistance, Xanana Gusmão. With the fall of Suharto and the success of the Indonesian pro-reformations movement there was a sense of growing political freedom throughout Indonesia which precipitated more open pro-independence activism in East Timor (ibid). During the June 1998 visit of European Union ambassadors, the Indonesian security opened fire on the demonstrators in Baucau city East Timor.

On 27 January 1999, the Indonesian president announced that the East Timorese people will get the chance to decide their fate. They can vote on whether to remain as part of Indonesia as an autonomous region, or they can choose independence (Kingsbury 2000:26). On 5 May 1999 agreement is signed between three parties—Indonesia, Portugal and the UN-- and planning for the United Nation’s sponsored Popular Consultation are under way. This formalized agreement did not allow for a foreign armed presence in Indonesia. The Indonesian government claimed that the Indonesian Police force would provide security for the plebiscite (ibid:27). Yet the security situation prior to the agreement deteriorated already, as the aforementioned Baucau incident clearly demonstrates.

Between October 1998 and January 1999 the Indonesian military operations reorganized the already existing paramilitary groups (militia). These Indonesian army trained and supported militias became active in discouraging pro-independence East Timorese from even considering separation form the Indonesian state through a program of terror. As Soares (2000:65-68) explains, “Tim Alfa in Los Palos and Saka and Makikit in Baucau became ‘Civil Defense Units’ (Keamanan Rakyat: KAMRA).” These militias were located in the eastern part of East Timor. The military also set up militia groups in central and western East Timor, namely, the Mahidi (Dead or Alive for Integration) and Halilintar (Lighting) in the Maliana region (ibid). This program of terror only intensified throughout 1999; before and during the arrival of the United Nations Assistance Mission to East Timor (UNAMET) (Kingsbury 2000:27). New militia groups were created by the military. The following militia groups were came into existence (Soares 2000:67): Sera (Sera Malik); Hametin in the Bobonaro district; Dadurus Merah Putih, ABLAI (struggle for Integration) in Same, Manufahi district; Laksaur (eagle) led by Olivio ‘Moruk’ Mendonça; Besi Merah Putih (Red and White Iron) led by Manuel de Sousa in Liquiça district; Darah Merah (Red Blood) led by Lafaher Saburai in the Ermera district; Naga Merah (Red Dragon) in the Ermera district; and Aitarak (Thorn) led by Erico Guterres in Dili; Rajawali; Jati Merah Putih (Real Red and While) in the Los Palos district; Mahadomi in the Manatuto district led by Aquino Caldas and vital Doutel Sarmento; Pana in the Liquiça district; and Sakunar in the Oecussi district led by Simão Lopes.

By the end of May 1999 over 30,000 refugees fled the terror to Kupang and Christian Churches of Timor were appealing to western Christians for aid with the refugees (personal communications). Many of these were students from the University of East Timor who went out to even remote villages to spread the information about the upcoming referendum and the choice for independence or autonomy. Most students were emphasizing the independence choice. The murders, abductions, burning of villages continued at the hands of militia and often covert Indonesian soldiers right up to the popular consultation ballot.

By June 1999 UNAMET is well established in East Timor and voter education begins. Prior to June UNAMET political officers as part of an advanced team travel throughout East Timor and record a number of incidences of violence (Martin 2001:43). By July 1999 a number international election observers and journalists accredited by the UN were also present in East Timor.

The militia campaign of terror was rampant in their attempt to dissuade East Timorese with pro-independence leanings from voting against Indonesian integration as an autonomous region.[2] In this environment the opening of voter registration on 22 June had to be postponed to 13 July. With the given security situation the ballot date itself was postponed twice from August 8 and 22 to August 30, 1999 (Soares 2000:72-73; Martin 2001:45-47). Details of the atrocities committed by the militias and Indonesian military personnel against the East Timorese people have been documented by a number of sources, such as Cristalis 2002, Hainsworth and McCloskey 2000, Kingsbury 2000, Martin 2001, Fox and Soares 2000, Savage 2002[3] among others. Close to the polling date the militia already spread the threat of a subsequent blood-bath, should the voters elect for independence.

The Catholic Church attempted to reconcile the two opposing parties despite of the continued violence. On 29 August, in Suai, Cova Lima district, Bishop Belo and Father Hilario Madeira, brokered a peace settlement and mass between the pro independence group, represented by the CNRT and the Mahadi militia that were representing the pro-Indonesia group (Soares 2000:75). However, other militia members were not in agreement and this peace agreement sanctioned by the Church was ignored.

In spite of the murderous rampage of terror, on Election Day 98% of the voters turned out. In Bobonaro district in all polling stations that I observed the voters were queued in long lines hours before the polls even opened. The old, the sick, the healthy and young equally clamored to get in the balloting buildings and vote. The overwhelming desire to vote can be exemplified by an old gentleman in the Bobonaro district. He was estimated to be around 85 years old and he hiked down from the mountains in spite of having had one leg long ago amputated and having to use a makeshift crutch. He balanced on the crutch precariously as he emphatically stabbed the ballot to make his choice. Indeed his action caused the card board polling station to fall down. The building where the ballots were cast was in a village that was burned down just a few days before the referendum. On 1 September ballot boxes from all districts were loaded onto the helicopters to be taken to Dili for counting. Even before the votes were counted the militia began the promised blood bath aiming at known and suspected independence sympathizers. The violence was not only aimed at the general population but also at international journalists, observers, and UNAMET staff members. UNAMET staff from the districts had to withdraw to Dili in midst of the violence and one of the first UNAMET offices to be evacuate was that from Bobonaro district. Many East Timorese (over 250,000 people), against their will, were herded by the militia on to large construction trucks and any other available vehicle and forcefully evacuated to west Timor, to the Atambua region. The Indonesian military and police also aided in such forced evacuations. In Indonesian Timor these ‘refugees’ ended up living in overpopulated, disease filled, malnourished and militia controlled refugee camps.

On September 4 the results of the voting was announced in Dili.  78.5% voted for independence: 94, 388 (21.5%) voted for special autonomy within Indonesia and 344,580 (78.5%) voted for independence (Martin 2001:138). After the announcement the militias went amok with the support of the Indonesian police and military, carrying out wide-spread rampage and destruction throughout the territory—‘scorched earth policy’ (Soares 2000:76). It is estimated that 70% of all buildings were destroyed, including the annihilation of roads, electricity, water supply, and telecommunication infrastructures were destroyed with Indonesian withdrawal from East Timor (Kingsbury 2000:185).

After prolonged and complicated negotiations, the Australian led UN peacekeepers, INTERFET (International Force for East Timor), was allowed to land in East Timor on 20 September, 1999. UNAMET also returned. On 20 September the Indonesian parliament formally acknowledges that integration of East Timor with Indonesia is no longer applicable (Martin 2001:139). On 22 October the resistance leader, Xanana Gusmão, is repatriated to East Timor after his release from Indonesia. On 25 October the United Nation’s Security Council mandates UNTAET—United Nations Transitional Administration of East Timor. By 30 October the last Indonesian representatives left East Timor (ibid.).



In their best Sunday clothing the crowd lines up anxiously and eagerly awaits entrance into the voting area in Balibo on 31 August 1999

[practically braking down the gates to the school building]

(photograph by Andrea K. Molnar)

1 September 1999—Loading of ballot boxes in Maliana onto UN helicopters to be flown to Dili the capital for central counting (photograph by Andrea K. Molnar)

Front cover of the Pro-Indonesia Pamphlets from the campaign period for the 1999 Popular consultation


[1] I have also heard similar and commonly circulated stories among the general public concerning doctors being ordered by the military to inject poison into the injured and about the piling up of the injured on the road and driving over them with military trucks or crushing them with large boulders.

[2] Threats were also levelled at western election observers and journalists. I gained nightmare engendering familiarity with the Bobonaro militia during August 1999 in my capacity as an election observer for the Carter Center’s democracy program. While the memories of violence that I witnessed are seared in my mind for ever, the trauma does not come anywhere close to what the brave East Timorese people endured not just during 1999 but for decades.

[3] David Savage was and Australian police officer who was part of the Bobonaro district CIVPOL (civilian police) unit of UNAMET. He provides a detailed and honest account of the horrific events witnessed in the Bobonaro district. This brave officer, who without guns or any other protection, performed his policing with great skills to diffuse a number of dangerous situations. I certainly was grateful for his presence a couple of times in Bobonaro.


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