The 30th of August marks the anniversary of East Timor’s 1999 vote for independence from Indonesia, bringing 24 years of occupation to an end. We spoke to UNSW Canberra Professor Clinton Fernandes, the author of ‘Indonesia’s war against East Timor: how it ended’, about this historical event.

Why did Indonesia invade East Timor in 1975?

Indonesia was ruled by a military dictatorship at the time. It wanted to prevent a grassroots, village-level political awakening in the archipelago. East Timor’s main political group was committed to land reform and inspiring village-level political changes. If East Timor succeeded, it would have been an example of a democratic alternative in the heart of the Indonesian archipelago, and an example for other Indonesians to emulate. Indonesia also wanted to benefit from East Timor’s oil wealth.

How did this affect the people of Timor?

The war and 24-year occupation of East Timor resulted in the largest loss of life relative to population since the Holocaust: 31 per cent of East Timor’s population died.

In your paper, you discuss three pillars of Indonesian control, could you please briefly describe each of these?

  1. Military superiority was the first pillar on which Indonesia’s control rested. It had 423,000 personnel in its military, equipped with counter-insurgency aircraft, naval vessels, armoured assets and foreign-supplied ammunition that allowed it to dominate the battlespace. By comparison, the East Timorese resistance had a maximum of 15,000 people who had had any exposure to military training. It had no air power, no armoured assets, and the only artillery of note were four 75mm artillery pieces. Indonesia enjoyed military superiority over East Timor until the very end.
  2. International support was the second pillar. Indonesia was one of the most important developing countries at the time: it had vast natural resources, a large population and a strategic location along the main sea and air lanes between the Indian and Pacific Oceans. It was a founding member of the Non-Aligned Movement. It also had the largest Muslim population in the world, and was therefore very influential in the Organization of Islamic Conference. International solidarity from an international coalition of activists chipped away at international support, reaching its greatest success in the latter half of the 1990s.
  3. Indonesia’s determination to hang on to East Timor was the third pillar. It retained its will until it realised that the international community, especially the United States, would no longer support the occupation. International support finally collapsed in September 1999, and the occupation came to an end that same month. Says a lot about how much sooner the tragedy could have been terminated.

How were each of these pillars overcome? 

The resolute defiance of the East Timorese resistance was a crucial factor in ending the occupation. Their defiance was part of a continuum of resistance that included the armed fighters in the mountains, the clandestine resistance in the towns, the students on scholarships in Indonesia, the East Timorese diaspora abroad, and international activists. This continuum of resistance was the most decisive factor in East Timor’s war of independence. It ensured that the war was fought along multiple dimensions: in the mountains, towns and villages of East Timor, in the cities of Indonesia, at the United Nations, in a number of countries around the world, and in the international media. The weapons used by the combatants were not just bullets but newspaper articles, public talks, films, texts and protests in order to weaken international support for Indonesia’s occupation. The resistance enjoyed dynamism and flexibility as a result of the war’s multiple dimensions. Although outnumbered in many ways, a setback in one theatre did not mean the end of the struggle.

How did these events come to a head in 1999?

Over the course of 1998 and 1999, the Asian Financial Crisis combined with the fall of the Indonesian dictator, Suharto, to weaken the Indonesian commitment to retaining East Timor. The fact that two prominent East Timorese had previously received the Nobel Peace Prize for their campaign gave the resistance greater legitimacy. A ballot on self-determination in August 1999 resulted in an overwhelming victory for the independence cause. United States pressure ultimately proved decisive, and Indonesia agreed to withdraw soon afterwards.