Nightmare in East Timor

Updated July 10, 2020 | Infoplease Staff

1999 News of the World

A Portuguese colony for 400 years until abruptly abandoned in 1975, East Timor was seized within a year by Indonesia. The Indonesian occupation led to widespread repression and the deaths of an estimated 200,000 Timorese, earning Indonesia a global reputation for human rights abuses.

In February 1999, former Indonesian president Suharto's successor, B. J. Habibie, unexpectedly announced his willingness to hold a referendum on East Timorese independence, reversing 25 years of Indonesian intransigence. As the referendum on self-rule drew closer, fighting between separatist guerrillas and pro-Indonesian paramilitary forces in East Timor intensified. The U.N.-sponsored referendum had to be rescheduled twice because of violence. On Aug. 30, 1999, 78.5% of the population voted to secede from Indonesia. In the days following the referendum, pro-Indonesian militias and Indonesian soldiers retaliated by razing towns, slaughtering civilians, and forcing a third of the population out of the province.

Despite repeated assurances that Indonesia would restore order, Habibie and the powerful head of the military, Gen. Wiranto, were either unwilling or unable to stop the bloodbath. The rampage was primarily carried out by paramilitary forces who had been trained and armed by the military and then allowed to run amok (a word that is in fact derived from Indonesian). The U.N.'s lack of foresight exacerbated the violence: after encouraging the populace to exercise their rights by participating in a free and democratic election, the U.N. failed to make provisions for protecting them from the inevitably brutal aftermath. Only after enormous international pressure did Indonesia finally allow a hastily assembled peacekeeping force into East Timor on Sept. 12.

Led by Australia, the international force followed the precedent set in Kosovo: it intervened in the plight of a backwater region for no larger motive than humanitarian and democratic ideals. Australia in particular had much to lose by going against its Indonesian neighbor. The stance of the 1999 peacekeepers was a far cry from 1976, when the U.S. and other nations stood by while East Timor was invaded by Indonesia, an important Western ally and trading partner.

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