Indonesian Invasion and Occupation

Hot Spot: Asia and Oceania. Editor: Clinton Fernandes. Greenwood Press, 2008.

Indonesia invaded East Timor nine days later on December 7, 1975. FRETILIN made a fighting withdrawal to the interior, along with its military wing, the Armed Forces for the National Liberation of East Timor (FALINTIL). Indonesia occupied East Timor for the next twenty-four years.

Indonesia installed a “provisional government” days after the full-scale invasion, but this entity never gained recognition by the international community. The Indonesian military’s human rights violations shocked many East Timorese who had supported the invasion. Even Arnaldo dos Reis Araujo, who was appointed as the chairman of the provisional government, wrote confidentially to President Suharto:

We concede that the looting of private businesses, government offices and the state treasury could be due to the emotions of war, but it is difficult to understand why it continues six months after, leaving everybody in a cruel state of insecurity … Day and night, at my home and office, widows, orphans, children and cripples come begging for milk and clothing. I can do nothing but join my tears to theirs, because the Provisional Government owns nothing. (CAVR 2005: Vol. 3, p. 71)

In mid-1976, FRETILIN regrouped and held a national conference in the eastern interior. It decided to eschew conventional warfare in favor of a national resistance. Accordingly, it established a series of zonas libertadas (liberated zones), within which were located bases de apoio (resistance bases). Civilians within these bases provided logistical support and were protected by FALINTIL troops, militia companies, and civil defense units. However, the Indonesian military was able to press its attacks thanks to the use of U.S.-supplied OV-10 Broncos, A-4 Skyhawks, and F-5 Freedom Fighters. The last of the resistance bases fell in early 1979, and the Indonesian military declared that East Timor was pacified on March 26, 1979. However, the territory was shut off from the outside world, with bans on foreign media and international aid agencies and with tight controls on official delegations.

Only three FRETILIN Central Committee members survived the campaign. One of them was Xanana Gusmao, who conducted a National Reorganization Conference in March 1981 at Maubai in Lacluta. The conference resulted in a reorganization of the political and military structure of the Resistance and the formation of a Revolutionary Council of National Resistance (CRRN). The CRRN was in overall command of the resistance and was a forum for all proindependence elements, rather than just FRETILIN. The need for national unity between FRETILIN and UDT was emphasized during a secret meeting in 1982 between Xanana Gusmao and the Catholic Church’s Apostolic Administrator of East Timor, Monsignor Martinho da Costa Lopes. The meeting had the importance consequence of showing that the Church did not see the resistance as a communist organization, but as a nationalist one. The next year, FRETILIN’S Central Committee officially emphasized the need for national unity (rather than ideological purity). There was opposition from within FRETILIN’S ranks; some attempted to overturn the new stance, but “in time opposition to the new policies faded” (CAVR 2005: Vol. 3., p. 98). The Church in East Timor adopted Tetum, the most widely spoken indigenous language, as the official language of the liturgy in 1983. As a consequence, the practice of religion became a statement about political identity, with a majority of the population formally identifying themselves as Catholic. In the mid-1980s, secret communications were opened between Catholic youth and Xanana Gusmao, with the former asking questions about resistance strategy and the latter advising the youth to persist in their identity as East Timorese and to continue the struggle.

East Timorese students established several clandestine cells and then went on to form the Organizacao de Juventude Catolica de Timor-Leste (OJECTIL), or East Timorese Catholic Youth Organization. They also formed the Resistencia Nacional dos Estudantes de Timor-Leste (RENETIL), or East Timor Students’ National Resistance, which operated clandestinely, and the Ikatan Mahasiswa Pemuda dan Pelajar Timor Timur (IMPETTU), or East Timor Students and Youth Association, which was more moderate and operated in public.

Toward the end of 1988, the Resistance was once again modified with the aim of creating a unified, nationwide structure. This modification was known as the Structural Readjustment of the Resistance, whereby the Revolutionary Council of National Resistance was replaced by the Concelho Nacional da Resistencia Maubere (CNRM), or National Council for Maubere Resistance. This was a forum for all proindependence elements, with the additional change of FALINTIL as the army of CNRM, not part of FRETILIN. Accordingly, although Gusmao retained his position as commander in chief of FALINTIL, he resigned from FRETILIN and assumed the presidency of CNRM. Although this change had positive consequences for the cause of national unity during the occupation, it caused serious tensions between the FRETILIN leadership and Gusmao—tensions that remain very much alive today. The CNRM later became the Conselho Nacional da Resistencia Timorense (CNRT) or National Council of Timorese Resistance.

Pope John Paul II visited East Timor on October 12, 1989. The visit carried some risk to the Indonesian authorities, but it offered a potentially huge diplomatic payoff: a successful visit was the first step in winning international recognition without having to carry out a vote on self-determination. The Indonesian military took direct control of the organization of the pope’s visit. The East Timorese, for their part, understood what was at stake, writing to the pope to warn that the visit constituted a formal act of recognition. The East Timorese clergy insisted that the pope say Mass in Tetum, not in Bahasa Indonesia. The Vatican envoy preparing the pope’s visit, Father Tucci, suggested a compromise—Latin, with a few sentences in Tetum—and arranged for a short meeting between the pope and a group of local priests during the visit. During this time, the Vatican continued to downplay the political significance of the visit. While affirming that it did not recognize the Indonesian annexation, the Vatican said that its position of noninterference would not change as long as East Timor remained on the UN list of non self-governing. When the pope arrived at Dili’s Comoro airport, he disappointed many East Timorese by not kissing the ground. The Papal Mass was held at Taci-Tolu, a plain 17 kilometers west of Dili. The pope spoke in English and—far from condemning the brutal occupation—called on the Timorese to reconcile themselves with the Indonesians. A demonstration broke out at the front of the congregation as the Mass was coming to a close (Pinto and Jardine 1997: 110-114). The inevitable police crackdown followed. Bishop Belo sheltered forty demonstrators at his residence, but they were subsequently removed by the security forces.

In October 1991 a parliamentary delegation from Portugal was supposed to visit East Timor. This visit had been under negotiation for seven years. Finally, although the visit was scheduled to commence November 4, 1991, the Indonesian government objected to the presence of a journalist in the delegation. Portugal responded by calling the veto a violation of press freedom and canceling the visit of the entire delegation. Young members of the clandestine resistance had spent months preparing for the visit. Its cancellation resulted in a volatile atmosphere, as all of the pent-up frustration was suddenly deprived of an outlet (Pinto and Jardine 1997: 180-193). On October 28, 1991, within a day of the cancellation, soldiers attacked a crowd of twenty young East Timorese who had taken shelter in the Motael Church in Dili. A teenager named Sebastiao Gomes was killed, along with a thirty-year-old man named Afonso Hendrique; about twenty-five others were arrested.

On November 12, 1991, fourteen days after the death of Sebastiao Gomes, mourners gathered in his memory at Motael Church. After an hour-long Mass beginning at 6 a.m., the procession left the church for the Santa Cruz cemetery. The route was supposed to be 4 kilometers long, swing past the governor’s mansion and then on to the Santa Cruz cemetery and—after the burial—end at the Hotel Turismo, where Pieter Koojimans of the UN Human Rights Commission was staying. Some 1,500 people began the procession, but they were joined en route by more people, including schoolchildren on their way to classes. When the mourners arrived at the cemetery, Indonesian troops cut them off from the rear. They opened fire, killing 271 people. No other single event since the invasion did more to harm Indonesia’s diplomatic initiatives: it was known henceforth as the “Dili Massacre.”

U.S.-based supporters of human rights in East Timor reacted to news of the massacre by organizing in their communities, trying to inform the American public about what had happened, and building alliances with members of the U.S. Congress. Fifty-two senators passed a Senate resolution November 21, 1991, calling on the U.S. president to facilitate the appointment of a Special UN Rapporteur for East Timor in order to promote the right of self-determination of the East Timorese people.

The Indonesian government began a counteroffensive in the U.S. Congress in 1994, when it realized that its existing diplomatic apparatus had not been strong enough to defeat the well-organized opposition of the activists, known as the East Timor Action Network (ETAN). It therefore urged several corporations with interests in Indonesia to lobby on its behalf and, at various times, enlisted the support of the public relations firms of Burson-Marsteller, Smith McCabe, and Hill & Knowlton. It also worked with the former U.S. Ambassador to Indonesia, Edward Masters, to create the U.S.-Indonesia Society in 1994. According to the Website, the Society was set up “to increase understanding and awareness of Indonesia in the United States and to promote a better appreciation of the U.S.-Indonesia relationship.” Its real efforts, however, were designed to counter the stream of negative publicity generated by U.S. activists. The U.S.-Indonesia Society operated as “a second embassy for Indonesia in Washington since its founding” (Djahidin September 10, 2002).

Indonesian Foreign Minister Ali Alatas tried to find a compromise solution, advocating “wide-ranging autonomy with a special status.” This autonomy proposal would have allowed the East Timorese to have their own political parties, elect their own governor, and have their own police force, with Indonesia retaining power over finance, foreign policy, and defense. His proposal was rejected by President Suharto, who believed that it gave too much to the East Timorese. Within four short years, however, Indonesia would be imploring the East Timorese to take the offer.

From 1996 onward, two events combined to deal a severe blow to Indonesian rule. On January 29, 1996, three women entered the British Aerospace military base at Warton, Lancashire, armed with household hammers. They smashed the radar nose and control panel of a Hawk ground-attack aircraft, which was part of an order of twenty-four aircraft destined for Indonesia. They called their act a “Ploughshares Action,” inspired by the biblical injunction (Isaiah 2:4 and Micah 4:3) “to beat swords into ploughshares.” A British activist named Chris Cole had performed a ploughshares action on British Aerospace three years earlier. The three women—borough counselor Joanna Wilson, gardener Lotta Kronlid, and nurse Andrea Needham—were charged with illegal entry and criminal damage. The fourth member of the group was environmental campaigner Angie Zelter, who had supported the group and publicly announced her intention to carry out another ploughshares action. Zelter was arrested the next year on her way to a public meeting. The trial by jury began July 23, 1997. Solidarity activists organized blockades, sit-ins, teach-ins, and other vigils, all of which combined to generate enormous negative publicity for the Indonesian occupation. Sensationally, they were all acquitted after the jury accepted their defense: they claimed that they had acted lawfully because they were using “reasonable force” to prevent the much greater crime of genocide.

The negative publicity for Indonesia grew even more pronounced in 1996, with the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to Bishop Belo and José Ramos-Horta. Belo visited the United States after the award was announced by the Nobel Prize committee. He met many influential members of Congress and spoke to large numbers of people. The Nobel Prize meant that President Clinton could no longer avoid meeting Belo—the first Roman Catholic bishop ever to win the Nobel Peace Prize—even though he still refused to meet José Ramos-Horta.

As the Asian financial crisis began, the first cracks in President Suharto’s façade of invincibility were becoming visible. Suharto traveled to Vancouver, Canada, in November 1997 for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Economic Leaders’ Meeting (AELM). In the months leading up to the AELM, the Indonesian government had expressed concern several times about the possibility of encountering demonstrations that targeted its human rights record. These concerns were well founded: Canadian activists had been busy mobilizing public opinion as soon as they heard that Suharto would be coming. Public talks, leafleting, and other awareness-raising actions were carried out with growing intensity during the final months of 1997. In the weeks before the AELM, a team of thirteen exiled East Timorese and several Indonesians crisscrossed the country, calling on the Canadian government to “bar Suharto or put him behind bars.” Despite Suharto’s wish to prevent any “affront to his dignity,” the conference publicity was hijacked by issues that were completely unrelated to trade when a strong police response resulted in “the lasting image of the summit, seared in Canada’s collective memory … of a Canadian Broadcasting Corporation television cameraman being pepper-sprayed by an irate-looking police officer” (Milewski 2000: 150).

By this stage, Indonesia was facing a currency crisis that severely devalued the rupiah. Weeks of indecision went by as Suharto and his advisors considered the terms offered by the International Monetary Fund in exchange for assistance in arresting the plunge. Finally Suharto closed sixteen insolvent banks and announced a series of austerity measures. This only accelerated the fall of the rupiah, as financial panic ensued and demonstrations erupted across the country. Suharto’s long reign was coming to an end. As intense pressure built on Suharto at this time, the Indonesian military abducted and killed several political activists. During the first months of 1998, military crackdowns resulted in hundreds of people being injured. Protesting students at Jakarta’s Trisakti University were shot by soldiers and more than 1,100 people were killed in Jakarta alone. Chinese women and children were made the target of a systematic campaign of murder and rape.

Suharto resigned in May 1998 and was replaced as president by B. J. Habibie. The people of East Timor and their supporters overseas sensed the opportunity provided by the change in leadership. Students at the University of East Timor organized free speech forums nearly every day during the first two weeks of June 1998. They discussed the reform process and demanded the release of political prisoners. Protests in Dili were accompanied by protests in the Indonesian heartland of Java, where thousands of university students of East Timorese descent picketed the offices of the Indonesian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The military leadership, already unsettled by these mass mobilizations, was further stunned by a helicopter crash near Dili that killed most of its high-ranking officers in the military command responsible for East Timor.

In his first television interview as president, Habibie had ruled out a referendum in East Timor. The increasing unrest in East Timor, the heightened international interest in post-Suharto Indonesia, and Habibie’s own need to establish his democratic credentials led him to offer what he called “special status” a week later, as long as East Timor was recognized as an integral part of the Republic of Indonesia. This offer was immediately rejected by the newly formed East Timorese Student Solidarity Council, which demanded a UN-supervised referendum on independence.

The economic situation in Indonesia was plunging to new depths. In the second quarter of 1998, real GDP was 16.5 percent below that in the same period in 1997. The rupiah-to-dollar exchange rate was more than four times lower than in the previous year. Imported goods had become prohibitively expensive. As a consequence, total imports had fallen to almost half the precrisis level. Inflation was skyrocketing, the price of food was soaring, and the purchasing power of the rupiah was plummeting. Wage earners had lost more than a third of their real incomes. Domestic unrest was threatening to go out of control. To compound all of this, oil prices—a key source of government revenues—were stagnating at $10 to $12 per barrel. Meanwhile international activism about East Timor continued, a serious problem for President Habibie. Buffeted from all sides, he moved to take some more steam out of the issue by announcing the withdrawal of 1,000 combat troops from the territory, with more to leave soon after. Soon after, however, a Sydney-based activist named Andrew McNaughtan smuggled a large number of Indonesian army personnel records out of East Timor. The records showed that Indonesia’s claims of withdrawal and demilitarization in East Timor were lies. Shortly after this episode, the Dili massacre was commemorated by thousands of East Timorese, who gathered at the Santa Cruz cemetery and demanded self-determination. In December 1998, major demonstrations brought Dili to a halt, as proindependence youth commemorated the anniversary of Indonesia’s invasion with protests, roadblocks, and scuffles with Indonesian police.

Sensing that the independence of East Timor was once again a live issue, Australian Prime Minister John Howard moved to assist the Indonesian government. He wrote to Habibie December 19, 1998, suggesting that “the East Timorese desire for an act of self-determination” could be addressed “in a manner that avoids an early and final decision.” Howard approvingly cited the Matignon Accords, which “enabled a compromise political solution to be implemented while deferring a referendum on the final status … for many years.” (Only weeks before, Alexander Downer had celebrated the tenth anniversary of the Matignon Accords, which had been signed between the government of France and constituencies in New Caledonia. The Accords had effectively deferred a decision on New Caledonia’s final status for more than a decade.) Indonesia, too, Howard suggested, could adopt the formula of “a substantial period of autonomy” followed by “an act of self-determination by the East Timorese at some future time” (DFAT 2001). An electronic copy of his letter was transmitted by cable to Australia’s ambassador in Jakarta; the original arrived later, via diplomatic bag. The ambassador presented the cable to President Habibie, who rejected it angrily. Apparently he was annoyed by the colonial analogy with New Caledonia. However, he and his closest advisers had played no part in the decision to invade East Timor, yet they were bearing the diplomatic burden it had caused. When the original arrived via diplomatic bag, Habibie scribbled his thoughts on it and sent copies to five ministers: “if the question of East Timor becomes a burden to the struggle and image of the Indonesian people and if, after 22 years, the East Timorese people cannot feel united with the Indonesian people … it would be reasonable and wise if … East Timor can be honourably separated from the unitary nation of the Republic of Indonesia” (Greenlees and Garran 2002: 87-101).

Habibie discussed with members of his cabinet and his close advisers the idea of a rapid process of separation via a referendum. Extensive discussions occurred at the meeting of the cabinet’s Political and Security Committee on January 25 and two days later at a meeting of the full cabinet. Most cabinet members were of the view that Indonesia would win the referendum. Much later, Foreign Minister Ali Alatas recalled that most members of cabinet “were then very convinced we would win the referendum. Everything was painted with optimism” (Tempo 18-24 September 2000). Foreign Minister Ali Alatas and Information Minister Yunus Yosfiah announced on January 27, 1999, that the East Timorese would be given the choice of staying within Indonesia or obtaining independence. To ensure that the ballot delivered a result in favor of autonomy, the Indonesian military, or Tentara Nasional Indonesia (TNI) began to intensify operations under the guise of proxy forces known as “militias.”

On April 6, 1999, a number of militia went to Liquiça village, accompanied by army and police. They surrounded a church where villagers were sheltering, dragged two priests out of the church compound, and took them to the local military district headquarters. Once the priests were removed, Indonesian troops began to throw tear gas into the church. When the refugees ran out, blinded and trying to save themselves, the militia rushed toward them. Women and children were attacked with fists, sticks, rifle butts, stones, arrows, and machetes. More than fifty people died and seven were injured during this attack. Afterward, the militia forced the local people to hoist the Indonesian national flag.

Eleven days after the Liquiça massacre, militia groups in Dili attacked the houses of prominent independence supporters and the local newspaper office. At that moment, the Irish Foreign Minister David Andrews was in Dili on a scheduled visit. Andrews was accompanied by Tom Hyland of the East Timor Ireland Solidarity Campaign, which had been instrumental in building support for East Timor in the European Union. Andrews ended his visit immediately and returned to Jakarta, where he raised the alarm about the mass murders. Hyland did the same and rapidly escalated the international pressure on Indonesia.

In circumstances of military-backed terror, the United Nations sponsored talks between Portugal and Indonesia in order to discuss the modalities for the ballot. In particular, it sought to address crucial issues, including the disarmament of the militia, a reduction in the number of Indonesian military personnel, and the presence of international monitors. Indonesia refused to make precise commitments. On May 5, 1999, Portugal and Indonesia signed a formal agreement at UN headquarters in New York. The “May 5 Agreement,” as it came to be known, provided for an autonomy proposal to be put to the East Timorese people. If they accepted this proposal, the East Timor issue would be considered solved once and for all. If they rejected it, authority would be transferred to the United Nations, allowing East Timor to begin its passage to independence. Crucial to what would follow, Indonesia would have complete responsibility for maintaining security. The UN Assistance Mission in East Timor (UNAMET) began arriving in late May. Its electoral teams were supported by 300 unarmed international civilian police and, subsequently, 50 military liaison officers.

In addition, however, there was an altogether new factor—the influx of observers from international civil society and of international media contingents. Their presence was in sharp contrast to the strict controls previously placed on the territory by the Indonesian authorities. It became difficult, perhaps impossibly so, for the Indonesian authorities to convince the international community that the military was a force for peace, rather than the main source of repression and violence. The unprecedented foreign presence began steadily to uncover evidence that the Indonesian military was recruiting, arming, training, and organizing the militias. UNAMET accredited 600 journalists, nearly 2,300 observers, nearly 500 international observers, around 1,700 East Timorese and Indonesian nongovernmental observers, as well as a range of other civil society groups (CAVR 2005: Vol. 3, pp. 136-137).

On the day of the ballot (August 30, 1999), the TNI’s control over the militia was demonstrated by the near-total absence of intimidation. There was a huge turnout of voters, and the results were announced on Saturday, September 4, 1999. Despite the climate of fear and intimidation, the one-sided pre-ballot election campaign, the presence of dubious voters from West Timor, and the fact that many voters did not believe their votes were secret, 78.5 percent of registered voters opted for independence from Indonesia.

Once the ballot results were announced, the Indonesian authorities moved rapidly to reverse them by creating new demographic facts on the ground. They evacuated foreign observers to Australia and drove East Timorese across the border to West Timor. Despite the dramatic scenes of human suffering and violent imagery, the execution of the terror campaign was carefully controlled; the Indonesian military was attempting to remove all foreigners from East Timor so that it could execute its plan without the impediment of outside attention. The campaign would work in the following sequence:

  1. The militia proxies would contain and remove foreign observers.
  2. With foreigners unable to report, the militia would attack the local population and use transport and logistics assets to move them across the border.
  3. FALINTIL would be drawn into a conventional war.
  4. The TNI would announce that it was forced to intervene between the “factions,” and then, freed from restraints, it would attack and destroy FALINTIL in conventional warfare.
  5. The authorities would create new facts on the ground, ensuring that the results of the ballot were irreversibly overturned.

Step 1: Foreigners were treated very differently than native East Timorese. They were intimidated and corralled into confined areas where they could not provide eyewitness reports to the outside world, but they were largely unharmed. Ian Martin, the head of UNAMET, ordered the evacuation of UN staff, journalists, and observers from the besieged compound on September 8 (Martin 2001: 98-99). This evacuation would have resulted in the rape or murder of the 1,500 refugees sheltering there. Outraged, the international staff collectively refused to be evacuated until all of the refugees had first been taken to safety (Martinkus 2002: 24-25; Christalis 2002: 236-248). As a consequence, the refugees were airlifted to Darwin, Australia. It was only when this evacuation was guaranteed that the international staff left the compound.

Step 2: In contrast to foreign observers, East Timorese were attacked and forced out of their homes. They were rounded up and taken via land and sea transport to West Timor and elsewhere. Approximately 70 percent of the buildings in East Timor were destroyed. Vital infrastructure was crippled, leaving Dili and major towns without running water, electricity, or telephones. Approximately 250,000 people were driven across the border.

Step 3: The terror campaign tried to provoke FALINTIL into a desperate retaliation, thereby drawing it into something approaching conventional warfare, where the TNI clearly had the advantage. FALINTIL was coming under severe pressure, and its operational commander, Taur Matan Ruak, conveyed this pressure to Xanana Gusmao by satellite telephone. Gusmao implored him to stay in the cantonments, and, after further frantic messages, Taur Matan Ruak agreed (Greenlees and Garran 2002: 231).

Step 4: The TNI strategy failed at this step; it was unable to go any further, and the group was compelled to retreat from East Timor once and for all. It came under overwhelming international pressure, particularly from the United States, which advised the Indonesian military at the highest level that the time had come for it to withdraw. Admiral Dennis Blair, commander of the U.S. forces in the Pacific, informed Indonesia’s defense minister and military chief, General Wiranto, that the United States was suspending its military ties with Indonesia. U.S. Defense Secretary William Cohen warned that there would be serious economic consequences. State Department spokesman James Rubin warned Indonesia publicly that its relations with the international community, including the United States, were at risk. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Hugh Shelton applied further pressure to General Wiranto. President Clinton himself warned that “if Indonesia does not end the violence, it must invite—it must invite—the international community to assist in restoring security” (Clinton September 9, 1999a; emphasis in the original). He also accused the TNI of direct involvement: “It is clear the Indonesian military is aiding and abetting the militia violence … This is simply unacceptable” (Clinton September 9, 1999b). Finally U.S. ambassador Richard Holbrooke warned Indonesia at the UN Security Council that it faced the point of no return in international relations.

Indonesia’s resistance ended within hours. On September 12, 1999, Habibie emerged from a special cabinet meeting, stood alongside Wiranto, and announced that his government had decided to allow a UN force into East Timor. Wiranto’s presence beside Habibie sent a clear signal that the TNI had agreed to support the decision.