What Happened in East Timor?

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  • by Anup Shah
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On this page:

  1. Votes for Independence met with Violence
  2. Were the Paramilitaries Out of Control?
  3. UN and Many Journalists Forced Out
  4. Large Number of Displaced and Refugees
  5. Peacekeeping Began as World Powers Slowly Started to React
  6. Rebuilding
  7. Other areas of Indonesia also Facing Abuses

Votes for Independence met with Violence

The amount of destruction here dwarfs anything I have seen in other countries. ... It is appalling to look around Dili and see that ninety percent of the homes and buildings have been burnt or wrecked. The devastation is the most extensive I have seen in a complex humanitarian emergency.

Bob Macpherson, CARE International's security officer in Dili, Care International

August 1999 saw a vote on self determination in East Timor. Leading up to this and after the vote where there was an overwhelming majority who voted for independence, Indonesian military-backed militia went on a terror campaign. Much of East Timor was destroyed and at some points there were estimates from 200,000 to 300,000 refugees created.

The Indonesian legislature finally ratified the East Timorese vote, 20 October, 1999, allowing East Timor to officially be an independent nation. However, as the East Timor Action Network were quick to point out at that time, that was just half the step. There was at that time (and still is) a long way to go; the return of refugees, end to militia activity and prosecution of rights violators are all high priorities.

Even before the August 1999 vote on self determination in East Timor, which saw a huge voter turn out, there had been many threats and actual increased violence by paramilitaries, to discourage voting.

This violence had led to a delay in the elections. And even months before the elections, there had been many killings by pro-integration paramilitaries.

Of the almost 99 percent voter turn out (which is very courageous in itself, given the looming threats from militia groups), over 75 percent voted for independence. This resulted in Jakarta declaring martial law in East Timor where more violence, killings, massacres, rape, burning, looting are taking place by the Indonesian-backed militias. The ironic thing is that ever since the 1975 invasion, East Timor had been occupied and controlled by the Indonesian military and so martial law doesn't seem to mean anything.

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Were the Paramilitaries Out of Control?

Some journalists had even commented that this crisis had entered a total state of chaos and that the paramilitaries in East Timor were out of control. However, the Indonesian-backed paramilitaries were not out of control because they were controlled and supported by the Indonesian military. And, according to the Observer, the crisis had been well-planned for almost a year. The Indonesian military could easily tell the paramilitaries to stop and the international community, especially those who supported and backed the Indonesian regime were easily able to exert pressure on Jakarta to stop this violence, yet they were slow to do so.

In fact, journalist Alan Nairn who was recently arrested in East Timor had witnessed the paramilitaries operating from Indonesian military bases and receiving orders etc. (For more about how much Alan Nairn has reported on, see the media part of this East Timor section.)

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UN and Many Journalists Forced Out

The UN Assistance Mission to East Timor (UNAMET) and journalists were essentially been told to get out of Timor. It looked very grave indeed for the UN having to withdraw. At first it was considered that they would be leaving some two thousand or so people in their compound to the "mercy" of the Indonesian troops. Fortunately, they airlifted them to safety.

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Large Number of Displaced and Refugees

As refugees poured into West Timor, so did the militia trying to hunt down East Timorese, such that even West Timor was not safe. As well as fleeing from East Timor to West Timor, many escaped into the hills and are still facing lack of clean water and food. Estimates indicate that as many as 600,000 people were displaced, but humanitarian aid was not reaching them. Worse still, it is feared that as many as 100,000 refugees are unaccounted for and remain missing. (In October 1999, there were 300,000 and the previous link provides some details on what it was like then).

It has been pointed out that the ethnic cleansing in East Timor was a tactical move to lure people into West Timor, which, unlike East Timor, is part of Indonesia. Consequently, East Timorese in West Timor still face oppression and human rights abuses as journalists and the UN peacekeeping forces have been only in East Timor. As well as West Timor, there have been fears of mass deportations to other parts of Indonesia to make it harder for them to return to East Timor. Many have feared returning home. As late as December 1999, and UN aid officials were still prevented from entering refugee camps in West Timor. In fact, in September 2000, militia murdered three UN workers and set to destroy the UN building there in West Timor. Other aid workers (non UN, such as from Oxfam, etc) have also had to pull out for now, until the situation becomes more stable. Other workers from the UN and other organizations have continually faced violence in West Timor. Some have been fatal.

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Peacekeeping Began as World Powers Slowly Started to React

Australian-led UN peacekeeping forces finally landed in Dili, East Timor, after much delay. This was possible because the US, UK and others stopped various forms of aid to Indonesia, such as the all-important military aid, IMF aid etc.

Just two weeks since the landing, as John Pilger had pointed out, only Dili had been secured. He goes on to say that was it not for western business interests in Indonesia, more decisive action could have been seen and more lives could have been saved.

When the US and British announced military aid freezes, the Indonesian military allowed peacekeepers in, revealing how much influence Washington and London have on Jakarta -- if they want to exercise it. (And here they were able to exert their influence thanks in part to public pressure. Sadly, however, it was after many people have been killed and displaced.)

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The paramilitaries had decimated the area and when they left virtually the whole of East Timor's infrastructure had been destroyed and all institutions of government and administration had ceased to function.

There has been talk of the IMF and World Bank offering help in the building and rebuilding of the nation of East Timor. However, criticism of this notes that this will result in loans and possible structural adjustment-like economic policies and these are the same policies that have led to poverty around the world.

A year since the violence, there are still 100,000 refugees in Indonesian camps facing violence from militia. Building a nations infrastructure has been slow going, even with UN assistance. Various institutions still need to be set up or strengthened. As Amnesty International point out for example, because the judicial system has not been fully set up, there is violence in East Timor by vigilante groups wishing to seek revenge and taking it out on those they suspect to have supported Indonesia in 1999.

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Other areas of Indonesia also Facing Abuses

With East Timorese having gone through so much to gain independence from Indonesia, some regions within Indonesia have been somewhat ignored in comparison. In some areas, brutal repression has been going on for years. For more information, visit this web site's look at human rights and the subsection of Indonesia.

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  • by Anup Shah
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