In 1974 a revolution in Portugal leads to promise to free colonies, encouraging parties to prepare for new future. In August 1975, Portuguese administration withdraws to offshore island of Atauro. In November 1975, after a brief civil war, Fretilin (Revolutionary Front for an Independent East Timor) declares East Timor independent. [Source: BBC]

As a Portuguese colony East Timor played no part in the Indonesian war of independence against the Dutch. According to the Indonesian government there were only 12.5 miles of paved roads and 47 elementary schools in East Timor and 80 percent of the population was illiterate when the Portuguese left.

Andrea K. Molnar of Northern Illinois University wrote: “During the 20th century despite of Portuguese attempts to take control of the East Timorese political system, East Timorese society was resilient. Taylor (1994:15) aptly observes, All the basic elements ensuring the reproduction of indigenous society were still firmly in place—kinship systems, ideologies legitimizing traditional rule, a self-regulating political system a self-sustaining subsistence economy and a culture based on notions of hierarchy and exchange. [Source: Andrea K. Molnar, Northern Illinois University, Department of Anthropology and Center for Southeast Asian Studies, May 2005 , ]

“One of the Portuguese attempts to take control of Timorese society, however, was highly successful with significant consequences. Kin of the liurai and chiefly (suco) families were incorporated into the Portuguese civil service as administrators, teachers, and military troops. Furthermore, children of the post war era, mostly from the liurai families, received their education from the Jesuit Catholic School and some had the opportunity for University education in Lisbon, Portugal. These scions of local ruling families were to become the leaders with solid values that emphasized education, nationalism, and also equality. They met in secret to discuss their ideas on education to agriculture to traditional marriage. The Catholic newspapers, such as SEARA, were also an outlet for their ideas. Politically there were rather inexperienced however. Taylor (1994:26) points out how naively these ambitious young men approached the Indonesian government in 1973 to help in their struggle against the Portuguese. These East Timorese were to become the founders of the first political parties as the possibility of independence emerged with the military coup in Portugal in April 1974. The Armed Forces Movement that came to power following the coup restored democracy and promised the decolonization of all Portuguese overseas territory.

“The three political parties formed around three choices facing East Timor with decolonization: 1. integration with Indonesia (APODETI); 2. independence (ASDT); 3. federation with Portugal (UDT). It is important to look at these early parties and take a note of their founders since when one looks at the current political structure of the 21st century’s youngest nation, we shall meet these parties and individuals again, albeit not as naïve as they might have been in the 1970s—well-meaning and filled with enthusiasm, 27-37 years old young educated East Timorese elite (See Jolliffe 2001, Taylor 1994, Pilger 1994, McCloskey 2000). On 11 May 1974 the Timorese Democratic Union (UDT) was founded. Their goal was to work towards independence while continuing to associate with Portugal in the long transition period. The founders included Mário, Manueal and João Carrascalão (brothers), Domingos de Oliveira, Fancisco Xavier Lopes da Cruz and César Augusto Mousinho. Manuel was a forestry engineer and coffee plantation owner. Domingos and Francisco were customs officials, while César was the mayor of Dili. Their program focused on democratization, human rights, self-determination, and income redistribution, and a “rejection of the integration of Timor into any potential foreign country” (Taylor 1994:26). Their main support was drawn from their own kinship network of liurai, traditional kings and chiefs of East Timor.”

Founding of Fretilin

Andrea K. Molnar of Northern Illinois University wrote: “On 20 May 1974 the Timorese Social Democratic Association (ASDT) was founded. The leaders of this group consisted of Francisco Xavier do Amaral, José Ramos Horta, Justino Mota, Nicolau Lobato and Mari Alkatiri. Several of them were sons of liurais and were in the government service (teachers and administrators). They had an ambitious program with a focus on the rural areas that focused on health, education, economic and rural development, fullest participation of East Timorese in the political structure and the reassertion of Timorese culture. They were founded on the idea of full independence. [Source: Andrea K. Molnar, Northern Illinois University, Department of Anthropology and Center for Southeast Asian Studies, May 2005 , ]

“By September they changed their group’s name to the Revolutionary Front for an Independent East Timor (Fretilin). Given the extensiveness of their program and their thorough links and branches at the local rural levels with a hands-on-approach, they did not only draw the support of a number of prominent liurai but also from all level of village social organization. On 25 May the Timorese Popular Democratic Association (APODETI) was founded and this group heavily favored autonomous integration with Indonesia and Indonesian language education. Its founders included a number of prominent figures who since the 1960s were dealing in secret with agents from Indonesia in return for favors and payments, utilizing their position in society as traders, customs officials and powerful traditional leaders.

“Arnaldo dos Reis Araujo was a cattle rancher. Osario Soares was both an administrator and a school teacher. The most powerful and strongest supporter however was a liurai of the former Atsabe kingdom from Atsabe, Ermera. Dom Guilherme Gonçalves was not only the leader of the Atsabe Kemak group but had extensive marriage alliance ties with groups within the former kingdom of Atsabe and with groups allied with the former kingdom – thus his ties extended to the Northern Tetun and Bunaq ethnic groups on both sides of the border, as well as with other Kemak groups in Ainaro and Bobonaro districts, and also with southern Tetun groups on both sides of the border. He was vehemently anti-Portuguese and had access to a huge traditional army of his former kingdom. As members of his kin-group explained in 2002, he came from a line of kings that constantly rebelled against the Portuguese; however, given the kinship ties and land holdings transmitted through such ties, Guilherme had both land and marriage allies on both sides of the border. Various agnates and affines, thus justify Guilherme’s integrationist stance as simply “not wanting to separate the families any longer by the border drawn on a map by the Portuguese he hated so much and the Dutch colonial masters…he wanted a unified Timor and not to be cut off from the spiritual center in Wehali….”

“Three other small parties also arose but these had little consequence with no programs and they tried to form coalitions with the major parties above. These were: KOTA-“Sons of the Mountain Warriors” who wanted to return to a traditional form of political organization that focused on the liurais, but with an elitist bend, to only those liurais that could trace their descent from the Topasses (mixed indigene and Portuguese ancestry); the 8 family member Labor Party, PARTIDO TRABALHISTA; ADLITA-Democratic Association for the Integration of East Timor with Australia. This latter party simply collected money form people for this unrealistic dream (Taylor 1994).”

One the founding of Fretilin, Nobel-Peace-Prize winner Jose Ramos-Horta said: "My ideological influence at the time was Swedish social democracy, Willy Brandt and so on. But as the days and weeks evolved there was tremendous pressure from the Timorese university students in Portugal, who were all Maoist.. By September 1974 we changed into Fretilin-Revolutionary Front for an Independent East Timor . . . And idiots like myself were totally pushed aside by the hard-liners. [If Indonesia hadn't invaded] I would not have lasted long . . . I was accused of being an agent of Australian imperialism (those were the actual words), an agent of the CIA ...But I had retained a lot of support from within Fretilin, from the military side. People knew me, and they liked me; they knew my work. It was only that that saved me [from expulsion]." [Source: Conan Elphicke, ATC 80,, May-June 1999]

Portuguese Pull Out of East Timor in 1974

In 1974, Portugal abruptly pulled out of East Timor as well as Mozambique and Angola after a right wing dictator was toppled in a military coup in Portugal. The dictator Antónia Salazar had ruled Portugal for 36 years from 1932 to 1968. His successor Marcello Caetano was brought down six years later in a bloodless military coup on April 24, 1974. Despite the large numbers of demonstrations and general chaos, only five people were killed during the period of the coup, two of them accidently. [Source: William Graves, National Geographic, December 1980]

East Timor and the small enclave of Oecusse on the north coast of the island of Timor were poor and neglected corners of Portugal's overseas empire when officers of Portugal's Armed Forces Movement, led by General António de Spínola, seized power in Lisbon in April 1974. Convinced that his country's continued occupation of overseas territories, especially in Africa, was excessively costly and ultimately futile, Spínola initiated a hasty "decolonization" process. In Portuguese Timor, local political groups responded: the Timor Democratic Union (UDT) favored a continued association with Lisbon, the Revolutionary Front for an Independent East Timor (Fretilin), demanded full independence, and the Popular Democratic Association of Timor (Apodeti) favored integration with Indonesia. [Source: Library of Congress *]

Response to the Portuguese Pull Out of East Timor

Although Indonesia's minister of foreign affairs, Adam Malik, assured Portugal's foreign minister on his visit to Jakarta that Indonesia would adhere to the principle of self-determination for all peoples, attitudes had apparently changed by the summer of 1974. Fretilin's leftist rhetoric was disquieting, and Jakarta began actively supporting Fretilin's opponent, Apodeti. Fears grew that an independent East Timor under Fretilin could become a beachhead for communist subversion. At a meeting between Suharto and Australian prime minister Gough Whitlam in September 1974, the latter acknowledged that it might be best for East Timor to join Indonesia but that the Australian public would not stand for the use of force. This acknowledgment seemed to open the way for a more forward policy. External factors relating to the communist subversion theme were the conquest of South Vietnam by communist North Vietnam in May 1975 and the possibility of a Chinese takeover of the Portuguese colony of Macao. [Source: Library of Congress]

Andrea K. Molnar of Northern Illinois University wrote: “In November 1974 the new government in Lisbon Portugal sent Lemos Pires to take up his post in Dili. He was a well meaning administrator who without much support from Lisbon wanted to implement a decolonization program in East Timor. As part of this program, the political parties were legalized and other reforms were also implemented. By early 1975 Fretilin had major support throughout East Timor. In March 1975, as part of the decolonization program, elections were held in Lautem district for local administrative leadership to replace the traditional village heads run system. This was not an election for parties or party candidates and was a pilot project in conducting local elections. People voted with pebbles placed in a basket representing candidates (Taylor 1994, Jolliffe 2001). Candidates who had Fretilin associations came out as winner. Pires encouraged the three main parties to form a coalition. While APODETI refused to attend such meetings, Fretilin and UDT entertained the idea, particularly since Fretilin has offered this before but UDT refused. In mid-January 1975 the coalition was born and in mid-March proposal for full independence and a transitional government was agreed to by UDT, Fretilin and the Portuguese government. Taylor (1994:39) sums up the main points of this proposal: it called for a government with equal representation from UDT, Fretilin and the Portuguese government; it called for a transitional government for three years; after three years general elections to be held for a Constituent Assembly. Other points called for the rejection of integration and various social programs policies that were mainly in Fretilin programs to which UDT agreed to. In rural areas the coalition had a lot of support and it appeared that the road to independence was beginning to be laid. [Source: Andrea K. Molnar, Northern Illinois University, Department of Anthropology and Center for Southeast Asian Studies, May 2005 , ]

“However, we must remember that Indonesia had sites on annexing East Timor and found acquiescence from both Australia and the United States and to some degree from Lisbon. By the middle of 1974 the Indonesian military intelligence, BAKIN, has finalized plans in Operation Komodo. Komodo operatives were working with East Timorese favoring pro-integration (APODETI) and have also instilled fears in certain members of the UDT by mid-March 1975 over some ‘communist’ elements in the Fretilin party. Given that several leaders of UDT were not so pleased with the coalition with Fretilin in the first place, this provided them the excuse to leave the coalition. The ‘communist threat’ must also be viewed from the Cold War ideology present at the time, not to mention the Vietnam War on mainland Southeast Asia. Thus, the earlier mentioned silent agreement by western countries needs to be placed in this context. In a somewhat over generalized view of more complex and dynamic global political processes, East Timor nothing more than a cog in the global strategy of the United States and in the regional political strategy of Indonesia and Australia. “

Elections and Brief Civil War in East Timor in 1975

In 1975, after the Portuguese left, various political parties were formed and a brief civil war broke out between pro- and anti-Marxist groups with a Marxists holding the upper hand. The Marxist group Fretilin won and took over Dili. Portugal’s plan for an orderly decolonization was dropped. In August, the Portuguese governor fled. In November, Fretilin declared East Timor an independent state.

Fretilin had become the dominant political force inside East Timor by mid-1975, and its troops seized the bulk of the colonial armory as the Portuguese hastened to disengage themselves from the territory. An abortive coup d'état by UDT supporters on August 10, 1975, led to a civil war between Fretilin and an anticommunist coalition of UDT and Apodeti. Fretilin occupied most of the territory by September, causing Jakarta to give the UDT and Apodeti clandestine military support. [Source: Library of Congress]

Conan Elphicke of ATC 80 wrote: Following a coup that toppled its fascist dictatorship, Portugal decided to hastily abandon its costly empire and as part of a token gesture at decolonizing East Timor held elections there in March 1975. The three parties involved were Fretilin, which favored complete independence; the UDT, which advocated continued ties with Portugal; and the Jakarta-backed Apodeti, which sought integration with Indonesia. Fretilin embarked on a nationwide health and literacy campaign that endeared it to the people of the interior and brought it 55 percent of the vote on election day. The UDT won 35 percent, Apodeti only 15 percent. In August, however, Fretilin's claim to power was challenged by the outbreak of civil war, most likely initiated by Apodeti. After three weeks of fighting in which an estimated 1500 people died, Fretilin again emerged the victor. [Source: Conan Elphicke, ATC 80,, May-June 1999]

“As the Portuguese withdrew, Indonesia was making no secret of its intention to invade its increasingly defenseless neighbor. Jakarta had made this decision mainly because it was fearful of having a leftist state on its doorstep, but also because it saw an opportunity to set an example to separatist elements within the republic as well as to lay claim to the oil recently discovered within Timor's territorial waters. Fretilin was well aware of the danger and begged Portugal to remain but Lisbon was set on immediate decolonization and refused to listen. In desperation, East Timor declared independence on 28 November 1975, in the hope that Indonesia would be less inclined to invade a sovereign state than merely a former colony. Of course, it made no difference at all.” [Ibid]

Andrea K. Molnar of Northern Illinois University wrote: “On May 27 1975 UDT withdrew from the coalition. On August 10 UDT undertook a coup and as Fretilin rapidly responded a civil war ensued. At the end of the bloody war by 27 August, Fretilin took total control of Dili and what remained of the Portuguese government was overthrown. East Timorese who were troops in the Portuguese army supported Fretilin and they were instrumental in the foundation of the Armed Forces for the National Liberation of East Timor (FALINTIL) (McCloskey 2000:3). The UDT troops crossed into Indonesian Timor as they were fleeing Fretilin troops. There they were forced to sign a prepared petition written by the KOMODO operatives, which called for integration with Indonesia. This was presented as a call for help from the East Timorese people, even though there were only 2500 refugees and 500 soldiers involved (Taylor 1994:51). [Source: Andrea K. Molnar, Northern Illinois University, Department of Anthropology and Center for Southeast Asian Studies, May 2005 , ]

“Fretilin quickly restored order and unity as well as garnered widespread popular support of the people, including some former UDT supporters (Dunn 1976). However, on 8 October the Indonesian army attacked and captured the border town of Batugade from FALINTIL troops and established their headquarters for the next part of the KOMODO Operation (Jolliffe 2001). They accomplished this in a clandestine manner, pretending to be UDT troops still continuing the civil war. By 16 October 1975 the two border districts of Bobonaro and Cova Lima have been captured by the Indonesians. The fatalities also included two British and three Australian journalists in Balibo (McCloskey 2000:4, Jolliffe 2001). As the steady advance continued, Fretilin made a plea to the United Nations Security Council for the withdrawal of Indonesian troops (Taylor 1994:63). Fretilin hoped that as an independent nation its pleas might have a better chance of response. On 28 November 1975 Fretilin made its independence declaration as the Democratic Republic of East Timor. The nation received recognition of its status from 12 nation-states, not including Portugal or the other Indonesian annexation acquiescent nations of Australia and the United States (McCloskey2000:3). Indonesian military response to the declaration of independence was quick. The full scale invasion of East Timor began on 7 December 1975 (Soares 2000:59). Six months later, in 1976 Indonesia incorporated East Timor as their 27th province. Indonesian sovereignty was not recognized by the East Timorese or by the United Nations. Fretilin troops withdrew into the mountains and commenced a 24 year long guerilla war against the invaders.

Indonesian Invasion of East Timor in 1975

On November 25, 1975, Fretilin proclaimed the Democratic Republic of East Timor. Jakarta responded immediately. On December 7, Indonesian "volunteer" forces landed at Dili, the capital, and Baukau. By April 1976, there were an estimated 30,000 to 35,000 Indonesian troops in the territory. On July 15, 1976, East Timor was made Indonesia's twenty-seventh province: Timor Timur. *

On December, 7, 1975, Indonesia invaded East Timor under the pretense of restoring order and keeping a Communist movement from developing on its border at West Timor. Some 20,000 Indonesian troops entered East Timor by the end of December and an additional 20,000 came later. A provisional government was established by Indonesia and Fretelin fighters withdrew into the jungle and clashed occasionally with Indonesian forces. reported: “The invasion, in the early hours of 7 December 1975, came in the form of a naval bombardment on Dili, followed by landings of paratroopers from the air and of marines on the beaches. Indonesian soldiers killed civilians indiscriminately in the streets of Dili, and after an incident when Indonesian soldiers fired on each other, indulged themselves in a rampage of rape, looting of Chinese shops and public executions on the wharf. On December 10, a second invasion resulted in the capture of the second biggest town, Baucau, and on Christmas Day another 10,000 -15,000 troops landed at Liquisa and Maubara, where further mass killings of civilians took place. By April 1976 Indonesia had some 35,000 soldiers in East Timor, with another 10,000 standing by in Indonesian West Timor. A large proportion of these troops were from Indonesia's elite commands. The Fretilin army, called Falintil, consisted of 2,500 regular troops, 7,000 who had some Portuguese military training, and 10,000 who had attended short military instruction courses — a total of 20,000.” []

Nobel Peace Prize winner José Ramos Horta wrote in the International Herald Tribune: "A handful of East Timorese students returning from Portugal...introduced Marxist terminology to the territory. This worried Jakarta. It feared that independent East Timor under a radical Fretilin could become a beachhead of leftist subversion in the Indonesian archipelago. The invasion followed the Communists takeover of South Vietnam in mid-1975.

In July 1976, Indonesia annexed East Timor and made it the country's 27th province. The Indonesian government claims that they were invaded by the East Timorese but East Timorese pro-independence supporters say this is not true. East Timor was going through a period of decolonization when Indonesia invaded. The invasion turned into a prolonged war and occupation.

The United Nations and most countries did not recognize Indonesia's territorial claim to East Timor. Portugal broke off diplomatic relations with Indonesia over the dispute in East Timor. Ten separate United Nations resolutions denounced Indonesia’s occupation. On December 1975, the United Nations Security Council unanimously demanded that Indonesian troops pull out of East Timor. In 1979, the United Nations Commission on Human Rights adopted a resolution affirming East Timor's right to independence and self-determination.

United States and the Invasion of East Timor

The United States gave Indonesia tacit approval to invade East Timor because it wanted to keep Indonesia as a Cold War ally. Indonesia invaded, ironically on the same day U.S. President Gerald Ford and Henry Kissinger visited the country. Indonesian forces, according to a U.S. State Department official, "were armed roughly 90 percent with our equipment" including planes and napalm. Military aid continued to flow in after the invasion started. Australia also backed the invasion of East Timor, fearing that otherwise Timor, one of its closest Asian neighbours, could be taken over by communists.

According to an authoritative biography of Henry Kissinger by Walter Isaacson, "Kissinger and Ford knew from U.S. intelligence of Indonesia's planned action [in East Timor], which violated the laws governing the purchase of American arms. But...the administration did nothing to stop the invasion" which turned out be “shockingly brutal."

In a meeting in Jakarta with Suharto, Ford went to great lengths to assure the Indonesian leader that the United States would not interfere. “We want your understanding if we deem it necessary to take rapid or drastic action,” Suharto told Ford and Kissinger during their visit.” “We understand and will not press you on the issue,” Ford replied. Kissinger added, “It is important that whatever you do succeeds quickly.” Kissinger lied about his involvement. He said in a 1995 interview that he wasn’t informed of the plan until he was at the airport, ready to leave.

Indonesian Troops 'Deliberately Killed' Reporters in 1975

On October 16, 1975, five foreign journalists were assassinated in East Timor during the so-called Balibo massacre. Britons Brian Raymond Peters, 29, and Malcolm Rennie, 28, Australians Gregory Shackleton, 29, and Anthony Stewart, 21, and New Zealander Gary Cunningham, 27, were killed in or near a house near the town of Balibo. Both the Indonesian and Australian governments have said that the journalists were killed accidentally in crossfire between Indonesian troops and East Timorese defenders in the town of Balibo.

According to an Australian coroner, Indonesian troops deliberately killed five Australian journalists in East Timor in October 1975, Mark Tran wrote in The Guardian, “The New South Wales state deputy coroner, Dorelle Pinch, who heard evidence from witnesses and looked at secret intelligence documents, rejected Indonesia's insistence for decades that the newsmen died accidentally in fighting between Indonesian troops and East Timorese fighters. "The journalists were not incidental casualties in the fighting: they were captured then deliberately killed despite protesting their status," Pinch said. [Source: Mark Tran,, November 16, 2007 ^]

“Technically, Pinch investigated only the death of Brian Raymond Peters, a British-born cameraman who went to Balibo to cover the anticipated Indonesian invasion of East Timor as the island descended toward civil war after the end of Portuguese colonial rule. But she said it was impossible to investigate the death of one of the journalists without investigating that of the others, and that her findings applied equally to all of them. She found that Peters was "shot and/or stabbed deliberately, and not in the heat of battle, by members of the Indonesian special forces ... to prevent him from revealing that Indonesian special forces had participated in the attack on Balibo." ^

“Pinch said the journalists, known as the Balibo five, were killed on the orders of Yunus Yosfiah, an Indonesian military captain who later became a government minister. He has denied it. There is "strong circumstantial evidence" that Yosfiah's orders to kill the journalists came down the chain of command from the then head of the Indonesian special forces, Major General Benny Murdani, Pinch said. She named three former senior officers of Indonesia's special military forces as likely to have ordered the killings, and suggested they should face possible war crimes charges. ^

“The Indonesian foreign ministry spokesman Kristiarto Legowo rejected Pinch's findings. "The verdict will not change our assertion on what happened in Balibo at the time, namely that those five journalists were killed in crossfire," Legowo said in Jakarta. "It is a closed case." The bodies of Peters, Rennie, Shackleton, Stewart and Cunningham, were killed in or near a house near the town, Pinch found. Their bodies were then burned by Indonesian special forces in an attempt to portray them as combatants, she said. ^

In 2009, Peter Walker wrote in The Guardian: “A retired Indonesian army officer who took part in the invasion of East Timor in 1975 has said that troops deliberately murdered five Australian-based journalists, an account which contradicts an official version of events agreed between the countries. Gatot Purwanto, at the time a special forces lieutenant, told the magazine Tempo that he was among a vanguard of troops who crossed from West Timor, an Indonesian province, into the eastern part of the island, several weeks before the full invasion of the former Portuguese colony, which had just declared independence. [Source: Peter Walker,, December 7, 2009 ==]

“Human rights activists have long claimed that the men were tortured and executed to avoid news of the troops' incursion reaching the outside world. This account is backed by East Timor's post-independence president, José Ramos-Horta, who was a rebel commander at the time. Asked by the magazine if the Indonesian troops had deliberately killed the journalists, Purwanto replied: "Yes." He added: "If they had been left alive, they would say it was an Indonesian invasion." The men's bodies were burned to hide the evidence, he said. ==

The incident has received further publicity from the release this year of an Australian film, Balibo, which depicts Indonesian troops stabbing and shooting the unarmed journalists. At the film's premiere, Ramos-Horta said the actual incident was considerably more gruesome. Balibo, which was shot in East Timor, has been banned in Indonesia.

Fighting After the Invasion of East Timor in 1975 reported: “At first Fretilin controlled most (80 percent) of East Timor and, at the same time as organizing schooling, medicines and food distribution, managed to keep the powerful invading forces at bay. However, when the Indonesians started to use American OV 10 Bronco jets, supplied by the Carter administration, to bomb Fretilin forces in the mountains and lay waste the fields of corn and vegetables, resistance became difficult. Finally the Indonesian encirclement and annihilation campaign of 1977-1978 broke the back of the main Timorese military forces and the capable Timorese President and military commander, Nicolau Lobato, was shot and killed by helicopter-borne Indonesian troops on 31 December 1978. From then on war was less widespread and continued only in those mountain areas still controlled by the Timorese forces.[Source: ]

“On 14 February 1976 the pro-Indonesian East Timorese spokesperson, Lopes da Cruz, claimed that 60,000 East Timorese had been killed since the Indonesian invasion, which equals about 1,000 deaths a day, almost all of whom were civilians. By 19 November 1976, it was estimated by Indonesian relief workers that 100,000 had been killed in the year (or less) since the invasion. It is now generally agreed that at least 200,000 were killed in the early years of the occupation. Remembering that the Timorese forces, at their most, numbered only 20,000, it is obvious that the majority of the deaths were civilians, and that this was a deliberate policy designed to bring East Timor to its knees, a policy that was genocidal in intent. The total population in 1975 had been 680,000. The means of this wholesale human destruction was massive conventional and napalm bombing directed at huge numbers of isolated villages, which were wiped off the face of the earth-humans, animals, houses and crops. Napalm bombs, first reported in The Times (London) on 25 December 1979, were used over a wide area. The loss of homes, crops and fields forced many families to leave the mountains and give themselves up to the Indonesian military. Many were murdered shortly after surrender. However the International Red Cross relief programme was not allowed into East Timor till 19 October 1979 (then halted again in July 1983). Adam Malik, the Indonesian Foreign Minister, later told reporters: "50,000, or perhaps even 80,000 people may have been killed during the war in East Timor. So what? It was a war... Why all the fuss?" (Sydney Morning Herald, 5/4/77).

Massacres After the Invasion of East Timor in 1975

According to Gendercidal massacres of males, and in at least one case of females, were prominent in the period immediately following the Indonesian invasion of December 1975. "One of the most bizarre and gruesome ... atrocities" of the Indonesian invasion itself "occurred within 24 hours of the invasion and involved the killing of about 150 people. This shocking spectacle began with the execution of more than 20 women who, from various accounts, were selected at random ... The women were led out to the edge of the jetty and shot one at a time, with the crowd of shocked onlookers being forced at gun-point to count [out] loud as each execution took place." (Carmel Budiardjo and Liem Soei Liong, The War Against East Timor [Zed Books, 1984], pp. 128-29.) [Source: ]

“Immediately thereafter, however, a typical gendercidal massacre of males took place, according to a source quoted by John Taylor in East Timor: The Price of Freedom (p. 68): At 2 p.m., 59 men, both Chinese and Timorese, were brought on to the wharf ... These men were shot one by one, with the crowd, believed amounting to 500, being ordered to count. The victims were ordered to stand on the edge of the pier facing the sea, so that when they were shot their bodies fell into the water. Indonesian soldiers stood by and fired at the bodies in the water in the event that there was any sign of life.

“In the wider slaughter in Dili, males appear to have been targeted overwhelmingly. According to John Taylor (East Timor: The Price of Freedom, pp. 68-69), one of the main killing sites "was the area surrounding the Portuguese police barracks in the south of the capital," where one survivor claimed that “ At about 12 noon, the green berets began to land. ... They advanced to where I was. They ordered us all out of our homes, to gather in the street. We were taken to an open space, women, children, old people and men, including me. ... There were about fifty of us then, all men, just picked up at random. All able-bodied men. ... Then the soldiers, there were three of them, started spraying us with bullets. Many died on the spot, some managed to run off, falling as they fled because they had been hit. As far as I know, only 3 or 4 out of the 50 men are still alive. (Taylor, pp. 68-69.)

Jill Jolliffe writes in her book East Timor: Nationalism and Colonialism (University of Queensland Press, 1978) that "in late 1976, letters smuggled via [the West Timorese town of] Kupang reached relatives in Darwin [Australia], listing whole families killed during the invasion. ... [One letter] said that many of the inhabitants of Dili had fled to the mountains before the invasion but that of those remaining 80 percent of the men were killed by Indonesian troops" (p. 279). According to Taylor (p. 68), the death-toll in Dili reached "2000 men." In May 1976, a further "67 boys were shot in Suai" (Taylor, p. 71).

The trend continued into the 1980s. In July 1984, a priest described military actions against the Kota Boot tribe "from March 1984, [when] many men and youths were imprisoned and killed ... almost all men and youths disappeared. They were taken by Indonesian soldiers, killed and thrown on a fallow piece of land. There are eye-witnesses to what happened." (Quoted in Taylor, pp. 102-03.)

A particularly massive roundup of Timorese males was conducted as part of Operasi Keamanan ("Operation Security") in March-April 1981, when "virtually the entire male population from the ages of 15 to 50 was pressed into service. In some places, boys as young as 9 and men as old as 60 were ordered to join." (Budiardjo and Liem, p. 41.) "Those recruited for Operasi Keamanan were given no advanced warning," writes Taylor. "The army marched into villages, ordered together all men and boys and took them to the region from which the [so-called] fence of legs was to begin. Once assembled, they were organized into small groups and forced to walk in front of units of soldiers, searching the countryside for Fretilin cadres. ... Since they were forced to leave without any notice, they were unable to take with them supplies of food or clothing. Provided with the most meagre food rations, many died of starvation." (East Timor: The Price of Freedom, p. 117.) Many thousands of Timorese, also overwhelmingly "able-bodied" males, were rounded up for brutal torture and incarceration — although many younger women also suffered this fate, being exposed especially to sexual torture and rape.

In many cases, whole village populations were targeted for savage atrocities — most massively, in the region of Aitana in July 1981, where "a ghastly massacre occurred ... They murdered everyone, from tiny babies to the elderly, unarmed people who were not involved in the fighting but were there simply because they had stayed with Fretilin and wanted to live freely in the mountains." Perhaps 10,000 people died. (Source cited in Taylor, p. 118). At Lacluta near Dili in September of the same year, "at least 400 people were killed, mostly women and children." (Taylor, p. 101.) And at Malim Luro in August 1983, "after plundering the population of all their belongings, [Indonesian troops] firmly tied up men, women and children, numbering more than sixty people. They made them lie on the ground and then drove a bulldozer over them, and then used it to place a few centimetres of earth on top of the totally crushed corpses." (Source cited in Taylor, p. 103.)

Tens of Thousands Dead Following the Invasion of East Timor

An estimated 100,000 to 200,000 out of 600,000 East Timorese died following the Indonesian invasion in 1975. The Indonesian army killed thousands in bombing raids, and thousands more by destroying crops and inducing famine as a deliberate military tactic. Another 300,000 were forcibly removed to West Timor. The population of East Timor was reduced by a third. One survivor told AP, he and his family fled to the jungle, traveled at night and subsisted on leaves. They were eventually caught and placed in a prison camp where he watched people around him die of starvation and disease.

Maree Curtis wrote in the Sunday Telegraph Magazine: “Maria, an East Timorese woman on her way home from Australia, told me of her sister-in-law who had her pregnant belly slashed, and the baby removed and killed in front of her. The stricken mother was left to bleed to death. Maria also lost her first husband. He remains one of the "disappeared" taken by the Indonesian militia but whose bodies are yet to be found. There are many such stories. Locals say Indonesian soldiers were paid $20 for every scalp. Fear was a part of life.” [Source: Maree Curtis, Sunday Telegraph Magazine(Sydney)August 18, 2002 /]

In 1977 and 1978, hundreds of thousands of villagers sympathetic to the guerillas were chased and cornered around Matebian Mountain in the central part of East Timor. A siege lasted for nine months and included massacres, bad harvests, hunger and disease and climaxed with an annihilation campaign that left thousands dead.

A Catholic priest on East Timor wrote: "a barbarous genocide of innocent people goes on. The Timorese did not attack Indonesia.. But now Timor is being wiped out by invasion, a brutal conquest that produces heaps of dead, maimed and orphaned."

Mass Resettlement and Starvation in East Timor

A massive ground attack in 1978 forced many Maubere into "settlement camps," where, according to Amnesty International, thousands were tortured with cigarette burns to their faces and electric shocks to their genitals and thousands more were killed and "re-educated" as Cambodians were in the Khmer Rouge "Killing Fields" camps.

Reports of concentration camps being set up in East Timor were received on 12 July 1976, six months after the invasion. These camps were established to separate people from the Timorese resistance, discipline them and provide indoctrination. By 13 May 1980 according to Associated Press there were no less than 150 such camps in East Timor. Minimum rations were supplied, and with only the most trustworthy being allowed to grow crops very close to the camps, huge numbers of people died from starvation and malnutrition-induced disease, such as tuberculosis. Those that survived were later resettled in areas far from their homelands, and often without an allocation of land from which to make a living. Poverty increased, and malnutrition and food shortages were widely reported as existing from 1978 onwards. [Source:]

According to “The most destructive strategy of all was the starvation and heavy bombing inflicted on populations remaining in the "liberated zones" outside the Indonesians' control, or in concentration camps set up, in classic counterinsurgency fashion, to separate the Fretilin guerrillas from their "base of support." Many tens of thousands of Timorese died as a result of this "'generalized warfare' of encirclements, bombing, uprooting of the population, malnutrition and generalized brutalities" (Taylor, p. 151), constituting the bulk of the estimated 200,000 victims of Indonesia's genocidal occupation policies between 1975 and 1999. [Zed Books, 1984], pp. 128-29.) [Source:]

East Timor Truth Commissions

In January 2002, the independent Commission for Reception, Truth and Reconciliation (CAVR) was set up in East Timor as part of an agreement between East Timor and Indonesia to investigate human rights violation in the previous 25 years and try and heal wounds of past. People who had committed serious crimes were directed into the justice system. Those who committed less serious crimes had to perform “an act of reconciliation” such as a period of community service or a public apology.

The CAVR was formally established in East Timor with seven national commissioners and a mandate recognized in the Constitution of the Democratic Republic of Timor Leste in Article 162. The seven commissioners of CAVR comprised of Aniceto Guterres Lopes, Father Jovito Araujo, Olandina Caeiro, Jacinto Alves, José Estêvâo Soares, Isabel Guterres, and Reverend Agustinho de Vasconselos.

On March 9, 2005, the Commission of Truth and Friendship (CTF) was formally established between Indonesia and the government of East Timor. It came about in response to the acquittals of serious crime offenders by the Indonesian human rights court in 2004. There was some discussion about establishing an international and an independent UN tribunal (of the Cambodian type) for serious human rights abuses and genocide. International NGOs, such as ETAN, closely supported local NGOs on this issue but not much came of this.

The commission was independent from the national government and was set up to investigate and gather information on human rights violations that occurred in East Timor between 25 April, 1974 and 25 October 1999. It had a mandate of a “Community-based Reconciliation Process”. It was scheduled to close in early 2005. By the end of March 2004 it had collected information through hearings in all the districts and sub-districts, facilitated reconciliation and compiled some 7500 statements. The commission also undertook the compilation of statistics documenting East Timorese deaths between 1974 and 1999. The reconciliation aspect of the commission’s work focused on the rebuilding of community relations that have been disrupted, including the reintegration of former militia who committed less serious crimes. [Source: Andrea K. Molnar, Northern Illinois University, Department of Anthropology and Center for Southeast Asian Studies, May 2005 ,]

Many survivors and family members of abuses and atrocities in 1999 and under the Indonesian occupation criticized the truth commission for not bringing to justice Indonesian security forces who committed abuses. An estimated 150,000 to 175,000 Timorese — up to one-fourth of the population — were killed during Indonesia's occupation of East Timor. Aniceto Guterres, a truth commission member and human rights lawyer who was an early proponent of an international tribunal, told the Washington Post he had deep misgivings about the panel's lack of a prosecution option. But "if I had to choose between truth and justice," he said, "I would opt for truth." \=/

U.N. Commission for Reception, Truth and Reconciliation Report

In 2006, Sian Powell wrote in The Australian, “The Indonesian military used starvation as a weapon to exterminate the East Timorese, according to a UN report documenting the deaths of as many as 180,000 civilians at the hands of the occupying forces. Napalm and chemical weapons, which poisoned the food and water supply, were used by Indonesian soldiers against the East Timorese in the brutal invasion and annexation of the half-island to Australia's north, according to the 2,500-page Commission for Reception, Truth and Reconciliation report. The violence culminated in the 1999 reprisals for the independence vote. [Source: Sian Powell, The Australian, January 19, 2006 ||||]

“The report blames the Indonesian government and the security forces for the deaths of as many as 183,000 civilians, more than 90per cent of whom died from hunger and illness. It claims Indonesian police or soldiers were to blame for 70 per cent of the 18,600 unlawful killings or disappearances between 1975 and 1999. Based on interviews with almost 8000 witnesses from East Timor's 13 districts and 65 sub-districts, as well as statements from refugees over the border in West Timor, the report also relies on Indonesian military papers and intelligence from international sources.

“It documents a litany of massacres, thousands of summary executions of civilians and the torture of 8500 East Timorese — with horrific details of public beheadings, the mutilation of genitalia, the burying and burning alive of victims, use of cigarettes to burn victims, and ears and genitals being lopped off to display to families. Thousands of East Timorese women were raped and sexually assaulted during the occupation and the report concludes that rape was also used by the Indonesian military as a weapon of war. "Rape, sexual slavery and sexual violence were tools used as part of the campaign designed to inflict a deep experience of terror, powerlessness and hopelessness upon pro-independence supporters," the commission found.

The deaths amounted to almost a third of East Timor's pre-invasion population. The report found that after taking into account a peacetime baseline mortality rate, the number of East Timorese whose deaths could be directly attributed to Indonesia's deliberate starvation policy was between 84,200 and 183,000 people from 1975 until 1999. The Indonesian security forces "consciously decided to use starvation of East Timorese civilians as a weapon of war", the report says. "The intentional imposition of conditions of life which could not sustain tens of thousands of East Timorese civilians amounted to extermination as a crime against humanity committed against the East Timorese population."

A culture of impunity prevailed in the occupied territory and "widespread and systematic executions, arbitrary detention, torture, rape and sexual slavery was officially accepted by Indonesia", the commission found. "The violations were committed in execution of a systematic plan approved, conducted and controlled by Indonesian military commanders at the highest level." The report also criticises Australia for its long-term de jure recognition of the Indonesian occupation and its failure to try to prevent the use of force in East Timor. It recommends reparations from Indonesia and the members of the UN Security Council, including Britain and the US, who gave military backing to Indonesia between 1974 and 1999, as well as those nations that provided military assistance to Jakarta during the occupation, including Australia.

The commission carefully notes that many of the Indonesian military officers who played key roles in the occupation have since been promoted and details their ascension in the military. Titled Chega!, which means "Enough!" in Portuguese, the report is one of the most detailed and comprehensive of its kind ever compiled. Sponsored by international donors, including Australia, it was 3½ years in the making.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Northern Illinois University, Department of Anthropology and Center for Southeast Asian Studies, May 2005 Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated June 2015

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