4 May 2019

Text & Translation: Corinna

#East Timor – the bloody road to independence

East Timor, also called Timor Leste, is part of a small island in the Indian Ocean, surrounded by Australia and Indonesia. And if you allow yourself a short trip there by Google Maps, you first believe to have arrived in paradise with white beaches and turquoise blue water. But the small country has a terrible story to tell, because the road to independence was long and bloody.

OsttimorPhoto: yeowatzup/www.flickr.com/Creative Commons


In the middle of the 17th century the eastern part of the island of Timor was colonized by the Portuguese, the rest belonged to Dutch India. In the 2nd World War, however, the Portuguese were replaced by the Japanese. Thereupon, the East Timorese rose, and with the support of Australia they fought against the Japanese occupiers. However, when Australia withdrew, the Japanese slaughtered 60,000 of the islanders, accounting for about 13% of the total population.1 After World War II, Dutch India became Indonesia, and Portugal re-established its rule over East Timor. When in April 1974 the fascist government in Lisbon lost power through a coup and a democratic government was established in Portugal, the Portuguese withdrew almost head over heels from their colonies and left them to their fate.2

At first things looked quite good for East Timor: political parties sprang into life, elections for a constituent national assembly were to be held in 1976, followed by independence three years later. In 1975 the political party Fretilin (Frente Revolucionária do Timor-Leste Independente – Revolutionary Front for the Independence of East Timor) won the elections on a rural level. However, its opponent, the UDT (União Democrática Timorense – Timorese Democratic Union), did not want to recognize this electoral victory and attempted a coup. Several thousand people died and the UDT leadership fled to Indonesia. On November 28th 1975 Fretilin declared independence of East Timor.3


Hardly a week later, on December 7th 1975, Indonesia started an invasion by land, air and water. US President Ford and US Secretary of State Kissinger gave them the go-ahead during their simultaneous visit to Indonesia, as the country was an important political, economic and strategic partner. Indonesia is among the top five most populous states in the world and was at that time a bastion against communism in Asia.4

In the largest city of East Timor, Dili, the Indonesian military carried out a massacre in which thousands of people were executed.

‘[…] 59 men, both Chinese and Timorese, were brought on to the wharf … These men were shot one by one, with the crowd, believed amounting to 500, being ordered to count. The victims were ordered to stand on the edge of the pier facing the sea, so that when they were shot their bodies fell into the water. Indonesian soldiers stood by and fired at the bodies in the water in the event that there was any sign of life.’ 5

The party members of Fretilin fled to the mountains, where tens of thousands of civilians followed them in the following years. They preferred to live in harsh living conditions rather than under the violence and repression of Indonesia.6

Kriegsschiff OsttimorPhoto: Official U.S. Navy Page/www.flickr.com/Creative Commons

#Violence between 1975 and 1999

Indonesia, meanwhile, expanded its rule by massacring the civilian population throughout the country. People suspected of supporting Fretilin and their families were killed, sometimes entire villages – as in July 1981 in the Aitana region, where about 10,000 people died:

„[…] (They) murdered everyone, from tiny babies to the elderly, unarmed people who were not involved in the fighting but were there simply because they had stayed with Fretelin and wanted to live freely in the mountains.“7

In the 1980s, the wave of violence ebbed somewhat, but it did not subside completely. Like in August 1983 in the city of Malim Luro: Indonesian troops tied up men, women and children, a total of more than 60 people. Then they forced their victims to lie down and overrun them with a bulldozer. A few centimetres of earth were to make the crushed corpses disappear. Survivors of the crime were sent to concentration camps, where they died of disease, malnutrition and forced labor.8

Even areas not under Indonesian occupation suffered mass murder, as Indonesia pursued a ‘scorched earth policy’, dropped bombs, surrounded the areas and blocked imports of food and other commodities. Tens of thousands perished.9

#International Reaction

Between 1975 and 1999, about 180,000 people died in East Timor, which corresponds to about 25% of the population. The international community largely accepted Indonesia’s “New Order”. In a UN resolution, the UN condemned Indonesia’s attack and called on the country to withdraw, but that was about it. Protest against the genocide came only from a few Timorese in exile, human rights activists and scientists.

Only in the 1990s did the world public’s attention increasingly turn to the small country in Southeast Asia: the assassination attempt on November 12th 1991, in which 270 civilians were killed by Indonesian troops at the Santa Cruz cemetery in Dili, was followed by a first great outcry of horror. A few foreign observers were able to flee with incriminating and disturbing footage.10 Due to the new internet technology international solidarity movements were formed, demonstrations were organised, lobbying was carried out and governments were called upon to condemn Indonesia’s behaviour.

Militäreinsatz OsttimorPhoto: Irish Defence Forces/www.flickr.com/Creative Commons

#Turning Point?

In 1998 there was a final impulse in the independence process, both in a good and bad sense. Indonesia was in an economic crisis; the military dictator General Suharto abdicated and his vice-president B.J. Habibie took over. To the surprise of the international community, Habibie declared that Indonesia would withdraw from East Timor if the population voted for it’s independence. As a result, the UN, under Portuguese leadership, organised a referendum for August 30th 1999.11

However, the Indonesian military tried to sabotage the referendum and the independence process, because they did not simply want to restore the country after 25 years of rule. They instructed local militias to terrorize the civilian population so that they would vote against independence. Hundreds of East Timorese, mainly young activists, were murdered in this process by death squads or in local massacres. Nevertheless, the UN left security to the hands of the Indonesian army.12


Despite the threats, an overwhelming majority of 78.5% voted for East Timor’s independence with a turnout of almost 98%. As a result, violence escalated. International observer and UN staff hid in their offices in Dili.13

‘While I was running towards the UN compound a pro-independence supporter was being hunted down like an animal. The young man fell after being hit on the head with a machete. Then six black T-shirts descended on him. […] It took only 30 seconds to hack the man to pieces. The attack was so ferocious that bits of him were literally flying off. The sound reminded me of a butchers’ shop – the thud of cleaved meat, I’ll never forget it.’14

An unknown number of people were killed, tortured, abducted or raped. It is estimated that about 1,500 people died, but this figure is probably far too low, as many bodies were systematically disposed of in the sea or elsewhere to destroy evidence by Indonesian military and Timorese militias.15

The perpetrators burned large parts of the country as well as cities to destroy the livelihood in East Timor. Approximately 70% of the infrastructure was destroyed, houses, shops and warehouses looted. Up to 400,000 people were displaced within the country. The UN evacuated its personnel and left almost 2,000 people who had sought refuge on the UN premises to their fate.16

Timor LestePhoto:Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (Australian Government)/www.flickr.com/Creative Commons

In Europe, North America and Australia, hundreds of thousands of demonstrators took to the streets to force their governments to act. UN Secretary General Kofi Annan warned Indonesia urgently, and the US threatened to stop its military aid to the Indonesian military. Australia offered to send a unit to stabilise the situation and patrol the territory. Indonesia then abandoned East Timor, and at the end of September 1999 UN troops arrived with the authorization of the Security Council.17

In August 2001, East Timor finally gained independence, but not a happy ending. The country was materially and humanly destroyed, unemployment was enormously high, and violence on the streets escalated. In 2007, the President of East Timor described the country as very fragile.18 Indonesia’s actions destroyed the whole country, and the basic human rights to food, work, education and medical care could not be fulfilled.19


So far, the victims of violence have not been given justice. There have been a few court cases before Indonesian courts, but all the defendants have been acquitted or sentenced comparatively mildly.20 In 2001, the UN established a commission to investigate the crimes between 1975 and 1999. The 2,500-page long report was handed over to the East Timorese government in 2005, but they kept it secret. They were afraid of destabilizing the fragile relationship with the ‘big neighbour’ and former occupier Indonesia. “We must respect the courage of the Indonesians in accepting our independence and not disrupt their progress towards democratisation by demanding formal justice.”21

The UN report announced that a total of between 180,000 and 200,000 people were killed. The Indonesian military used hunger as a weapon of extermination, but napalm and other chemical weapons were also used to contaminate food and drinking water. There were extrajudicial mass executions, massacres and torture. People were publicly beheaded, kidnapped, burned alive or buried, mutilated and ears, genitals or other body parts cut off to intimidate the victim’s family.

The report accuses the US government of providing political, financial and military support to the Indonesian military. The same applies to Australia, France and Britain, for who, apparently, good relations with anti-Communist Indonesia were more important than the lives of thousands.22 



# Gendercide Watch (2000) Case Study: East Timor, 1975- 1999 by Adam Jones. Available at: http://gendercide.org/case_timor.html (Accessed 22.01.15).

# Jones, A. (2010) Genocide – A comprehensive Introduction. 2nd Edition. London and New York: Routledge.

# Kiernan, B. (2002) Cover-Up and Denial of Genocide: Australia, the USA, East Timor and the Aborigines. In Critical Asian Studies, S. 163- 192. Available at: http://www.peacepalacelibrary.nl/ebooks/files/aborigines.pdf (Accessed 19.01.15).

# Robinson, G. (2009) If You Leave Us Here We Will Die: How Genocide Was Stopped in East Timor. Princeton University Press: New Jersey.

# Saul, B. (2001) Was the conflict in East Timor ‚Genocide‘ and why does it matter? Melbourne Journal of International Law Vol. 2. Available at: http://mjil.law.unimelb.edu.au/files/dmfile/downloadc6da1.pdf (Accessed 19.01.15).

1 Jones (2010) S. 310
2 Jones (2010) S. 310
3 Jones (2010) S. 310
4 Robinson (2009) S.58 / Kiernan (2002) S. 170
5 Gendercide Watch (2000)
6 Jones (2010) S. 311
7 Jones (2010) S. 311
8 Jones (2010) S. 312
9 Jones (2010) S. 312
10 Jones (2010) S. 312
11 Jones (2010) S. 312
12 Jones (2010) S. 312
13 Jones (2010) S. 312
14 Gendercide Watch (2000)
15 Gendercide Watch (2000)
16 Robinson (2009) S. 1
17 Jones (2010) S. 313
18 Jones (2010) S. 313
19 Saul (2001) S. 9
20 Saul (2001) S. 14- 16
21 Jones (2010) S. 314
22 Jones (2010) S. 314

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