East Timor History & Activism

East Timor is located 400 miles northwest of Australia, at the eastern end of the Indonesian archipelago. The western half of the island was a Dutch colony until 1945, when it became part of Indonesia.

The story of East Timor is a tale of violence, resistance, and hope. The information below is far from comprehensive; for a more complete overview of East Timor's recent past, we recommend Matthew Jardine's book Genocide In Paradise.

For current news and information, visit the archive of postings from the East-Timor mailing list. ETAN/US also has a comprehensive list of Timor-related websites.

Before 1975: Portuguese Colonialism

Portuguese rule of colonial Timor is usually described as a period of "neglect." Portugal exploited resources like coffee and sandalwood, but maintained a generally passive role. Major effects of the colonial period were the infusion of the Portuguese language, as well as conversion to Catholicism. Today, 90% of the population is Roman Catholic.

During World War II, East Timor was occupied by Australian and Dutch soldiers, who joined with Timorese volunteers to fight invading Japanese forces. More than 40,000 East Timorese died during the Japanese occupation.

When it seized independence from the Dutch, Indonesia stated that it did not seek control of any regions outside the former Netherlands East Indies. Indonesian diplomats explicitly named East Timor as one region it would not try to control.

1975-1999: Indonesian Occupation

When its fascist regime fell in 1974, the new Portuguese government encouraged East Timor to begin the process of decolonization, and political parties began to emerge for a planned constituent assembly. The most popular of these was Fretilin, the Revolutionary Front of Independent East Timor. Many observers in Australia and Indonesia accused Fretilin of being Marxist, but its leaders rejected the label.

Some fighting erupted when a coup was attempted in August of 1975, and Indonesia revealed itself to be actively supporting Apodeti, a party in favor of integration with Indonesia. Since Apodeti had little grassroots support, Indonesia began to prepare other contingencies if and when Fretilin declared independence. In October of 1975, an Australian television reporter named Greg Shackleton and his four-man crew were reporting on the conflict in East Timor; they were killed by Indonesian troops.

In late November, Fretilin declared East Timor's independence.

7 December 1975: The Invasion

On 6 December 1975, US President Gerald Ford and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger travelled to Jakarta, Indonesia, where they met with that country's murderous dictator General Suharto (who came to power by massacring over 500,000 suspected communists). During the meeting, Ford and Kissinger promised Indonesia that the US would not stand in the way of an invasion of East Timor. There was concern that Indonesia would be using weapons from the US, but the main thing was that it begin after Ford and Kissinger left.

The next day, 7 December, Indonesia invaded. Thousands of people were killed in the first weeks of the invasion, as the Indonesian military (TNI) began carrying out massive killing operations across the region. Rape was used as a method of torture and psychological terror. TNI soldiers spread out across the area, killing anyone suspected of belonging to Fretilin or other resistance organizations. 60,000 Timorese were killed in the first three months.

The UN Response and US Involvement

The United Nations did what it always does when one nation invades another: the general assembly passed a resolution condemning the invasion and demanding that Indonesia withdraw immediately. However, the US ambassador to the UN at the time, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, worked to keep the UN from making this happen. He wrote later in his memoirs:

[T]he United States wished things to turn out as they did, and worked to bring this about. The Department of State desired that the United Nations prove utterly ineffective in whatever measures it undertook [with regard to the invasion of East Timor]. This task was given to me, and I carried it forward with not inconsiderable success.

In addition to blocking effective action at the UN, the United States provided 90% of the weapons used during the invasion. As the killings continued, TNI troops were trained by US forces, and US diplomats urged the world to ignore the bloodshed taking place in the name of anti-communism.

Occupation and Resistance

Indonesian generals expected to conquer East Timor in a single day. The expression used by soldiers was: "Breakfast in Dili, lunch in Baucau, dinner in Lospalos." (This map may help explain the mindset of the comment.) What the Indonesians did not count on was the incredible determination and will to freedom of the East Timorese people.

For the next 24 years, the Indonesian military carried out a hideously brutal occupation, exhibiting all the worst possibilities of military oppression. Torture of suspected resistance members was widespread. Those who escaped the island told of massacres and bloodshed on an unthinkable scale. Disappearances and mutilations were common. A small-scale guerrilla force fought in the mountains, but in the cities the resistance was forced underground.

The TNI carried out enforced starvation programs, denying food as a means to erode support for independence. Sterilization campaigns were carried out, injecting women -- usually unknown to them -- with depo-provera. And migrants from parts of Indonesia were encouraged to move to East Timor, that they might dilute the native population.

Activism in Madison around the issue began to take shape as news filtered into the US about atrocities in East Timor. In 1980, the Madison group Human rights for Asia, along with the University of Wisconsin's Center for Southeast Asia Studies, brought the head of the East Timor Human Rights Committee from Syracuse New York to speak in Madison.

By the late 1980s, Amnesty International reported that 200,000 East Timorese men, women, and children had been killed -- roughly a third of the pre-invasion population. News of the bloodshed was trickling out of East Timor, but the global community failed to take any concrete steps toward ending it.

12 November 1991: The Santa Cruz Massacre

In October of 1991, a East Timorese student named Sebastião Gomes was killed by Indonesian troops at the Motael Church in Dili. At this time, Portgual was preparing to send a parliamentary delegation to East Timor, in order to assess the situation there. The delegation was banned by Indonesia, but a number of foreign journalists -- including Amy Goodman and Allan Nairn from the US -- had come to East Timor to document the trip.

Sebastião's funeral took place on 7 December 1991. Seeing the presence of foreign journalists as a chance to get their message out to the world, members of the funeral procession began to wave flags and unfurl banners supporting independence. At the Santa Cruz Cemetery, the people held occupied Timor's first-ever public protest against the Indonesian occupation.

Unfortunately, the TNI responded as it so often did: with violence. Indonesian troops approached the unarmed protesters with M16s drawn and opened fire. Over 200 people were killed in the cemetery that day, and another 200 were reportedly murdered in hospitals and other locations after being detained.

When Allan Nairn and Amy Goodman saw the soldiers approaching, they attempted to stand in the way, holding aloft their US passports as a warning. The soldiers attacked them, fracturing Nairn's skull and badly wounding Goodman. Meanwhile, British cameraman Max Stahl videotaped the massacre, hiding the tape inside a grave and smuggling it out later under the cover of night.

News of the massacre -- especially the first-hand accounts from Nairn and Goodman, supplemented by Stahl's footage -- shocked the world and proved the hideous reality of life in occupied East Timor. Within months, the first chapters of the East Timor Action Network/US began to form around the country.

In 1992, the Madison chapter of ETAN was founded, and actively lobbied Senator Russ Feingold, who became a vocal opponent of the Indonesian occupation. In the 13 February 2000 issue of the Wisconsin State Journal, Senator Feingold said members Members of ETAN-Madison "have been extremely helpful to me and my staff in first educating me about the issue when I was still a candidate in 1992 and ever since."

The 1990s: Resistance Is Fertile

Throughout the 90s, ETAN worked with the courageous people of East Timor to force Indonesia to end its bloody occupation. ETAN's primary goal was ending US support for this gruesome atrocity. Members lobbied Congress; a newsletter helped to share news and information; and new chapters sprang up all over the country.

This activity was overwhelmingly successful: Congress put an end to training programs, arms sales were stopped, and a proposed sale of F-16 planes to Indonesia was the focus of such criticism that Indonesia eventually withdrew its offer. ETAN continued to call for a referendum for East Timor, and pressured Congress to pass resolutions calling for the same.

In 1996, the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to Bishop Carlos Belo and José Ramos-Horta, two activists from East Timor, for their unwavering efforts toward a peaceful resolution to the bloodshed. This award renewed world attention to the plight of East Timor, and many activists in both Timor and the US felt a renewed sense of hope.

In 1997, Madison resident and Southeast Asia scholar John Roosa visited East Timor and spoke with jailed resistance leader Xanana Gusmão. Meanwhile, the Madison organization Medical Aid for East Timor, founded in the 1996, worked to provide medical supplies and assistance to the people of East Timor. (In four years, MAET raised $20,000 for medicine and supplies.)

1999: The Vote

After General Suharto was forced out of office by massive popular protests in Indonesia, his successor BJ Habibie, announced that the "pebble in our shoe," East Timor, would be allowed to vote in a UN-sponsored referendum in August 1999 to decide the future of the region. This was seen as a great victory for the people of East Timor.

Unfortunately, Indonesia also insisted on being in charge of security for the vote. Some international observers approved of the idea, suggesting that the changing government of Indonesia needed to be given a chance to prove its honorable intentions. But the TNI had been reactivating armed militia groups around East Timor, who began to terrorize the population and instill fear of retribution should the vote result in approval for independence. Militia leaders promised to destroy the country; one boasted that "the streets will run red with blood."

In the shadow of these threats, the International Federation for East Timor established an Observer Project, whose mission was to monitor and report on the conditions in East Timor, universally acknowledged to be far from free and/or fair. (Madison ETAN activist Diane Farsetta was one such observer.) In April, 200 people were killed at a church in Liquiça by an anti-independence militia group. Harrassment, threats, and other acts of violence were reported all over the country.

Still, the people knew they would probably never get another chance to have their voice heard; so the vote went ahead on 30 August 1999. The response was overwhelming: 95% of the registered population went to the polls, and 78.5% voted for independence.

Immediately after the results were announced, the TNI made good on its threats; a new shockwave of violence tore through East Timor. International journalists fled, and the UN threatened to pull its staff out. (A few courageous workers insisted on staying in the Dili compound, a site of refuge for hundreds of terrified Timorese.) IFET was forced out, and fear rippled across the region. Thousands were killed.

At this time, the US refused to pressure Indonesia to call off its dogs of war. President Clinton's National Security Adviser, Sandy Berger, was asked by a reporter if we had an obligation to act on behalf of East Timor, given our recent action in Kosovo. He said in response: "[My daughter] has a very messy apartment up in college. Maybe I shouldn't intervene to have that cleaned up."

When the smoke cleared, thousands of East Timorese had been killed, and the country had been devastated. 70% of the buildings in Dili had been burned to the ground. Once the TNI had destroyed everything it could reach, it allowed in a multinational peacekeeping force, and Indonesian soldiers finally left East Timor.

1999-Today: Reconstruction

In the wake of "Black September" (as the Timorese call it), East Timor has faced a nationwide case of post-traumatic stress disorder. The United Nations carried out a series of interim-government missions, designed to create a viable infrastructure and organize governments. (Many of the UN's efforts have been slipshod at best; the Timor-based NGO La'o Hamutuk has closely monitored the UN's activities and reported in detail on its operations.)

On 20 May 2002, East Timor declared its independence for a second time. While many problems remain in the country -- unemployment is remarkably high, and many communities still bear the scars of the occupation -- the people remain hopeful for the future. They succeeded in shaking off the shackles of oppression, and the spirit of resistance lingers in the countryside.

Sadly, the taste of justice is conspicuously absent. Despite the clear source of the violence throughout the occupation, there has never been a tribunal of any significance for the perpetrators of the bloodshed. ETAN/US joins with activists in East Timor in calling for an international tribunal, which shall call to account all of those responsible for 24 years of violence in East Timor.

Today, the Madison solidarity community is as committed as ever to the people of East Timor. We take seriously the responsibility of living in a democracy, especially a powerful one which has misused its influence in world affairs. We seek to support the people of Timor Loro Sae through our sister city alliance and medical aid project. We hope you'll join us as we continue to strive for peace, justice, and democracy in this remarkable country.

Thank you for your interest; please contact us with your questions or comments.