After the 1999 referendum, East Timor was governed by the United Nations Transitional Administration for East Timor (UNTAET). The United Nations still recognized Portugal as the territory's administrative authority. The United Nations operation was under the control of U.N. envoy Sergio Vieira de Mello, a Brazilian who was later killed in the bombing of the United Nations headquarters in Iraq. The United Nations operated under a clear mandate and a strict timetable. It formally ruled East Timor for three years until it formally became independent and maintained a presence after that. It was the first time the United Nations ran a country.

October 1999, Gusmao was released from house arrest and UNTAET was established. In December 1999, international donors at a Tokyo conference agreed to provide US $520 million in aid to help rebuild East Timor.

Andrea K. Molnar of Northern Illinois University wrote: “From late October 1999 UNTAET was responsible for the security of the East Timorese people. Humanitarian aid and reconstruction and recovery were the main focus in this ravaged territory. In July 2000 a new governing structure was established which designed policies and undertook plans for the transition to full independence. This new governing structure was called the East Timor Transitional Administration (ETTA). The ETTA cabined had nine ministries. UNTAET officials headed the ministries of Internal Security, Justice, Political, Constituent and Electoral Affairs and Finance. The East Timorese were responsible for the ministries of Internal Administration, Infrastructure, Economic Affairs, Foreign Affairs, and Social Affairs). [Source: Andrea K. Molnar, Northern Illinois University, Department of Anthropology and Center for Southeast Asian Studies, May 2005 , seasite.niu.edu/EastTimor ]

“In October 2000 UNTAET appointed a 36-member National Council (NC). NC was comprised of East Timorese representatives of the 13 districts, the CNRT, other political groups and variety of NGOs, youth and religious groups (ibid). CNRT continued to benefit from a close relationship with UNTAET. However by late 2000 disagreement within CNRT surfaced and the historical factionalism re-emerged. The leaders of the Fretilin and UDT parties broke away from CNRT and refused participation in the National Congress.

“In December 2000 a proposed timeline for the process leading to the election of a constituent assembly, the drafting of a constitution and independence was presented to the National Congress by CNRT president, Xanana Gusmão. Thus plans were put in place for training the East Timorese people in the political process.

“During 2000-2001 a large number of refugees from Indonesian (West) Timor have been repatriated by the UNHCR (United Nations High Commission for Refugees) and IOM (International Organization for Migration). It was estimated that 190,000 of the 250,000 forcefully evacuated ‘refugees’ returned (ibid). The repatriation of former militia members was part of this overall reintegration of refugees. This period also was plagued with a number of militia incursions from West Timor, however, the UN Peace Keeping Forces kept things under control. Furthermore, there were reported cases of mistreatment of returning former militia members in East Timor. Such situations arose sometimes, since local UNTAET officials permitted the CNRT security groups to screen returnees with regards to former association with militia. In 2000 UNTAET also set up a Serious Crimes Investigation Unit (SCIU) to address the human rights abuses during 1999.

Rebuilding East Timor from Scratch

The United Nations spent more that $2 billion to rebuild and provide peacekeepers. Much of the money was allocated by the United Nations and the World Bank. East Timor had to be built from the ground up and the day the process began is often referred to as ground zero. Most houses were brunt down and those that were left standing needed roofs. Refugees needed to be settled and families reunited. People given some descent food.

The first order of the day for many people was locating a plastic tarpaulin to serve as a roof. Much of the day was often spent waiting in line for for handouts. About 80 percent of the people had no jobs. Many of those that worked earned money created by the presence of so many development projects. Rather than relying on government jobs, East Timorese were encouraged to start their own businesses.

Describing East Timor in April 2000, Seth Mydans wrote in the New York Times: “People here have gotten used to the scene: a mob of unemployed young men shoving, shouting and weeping in anger outside the headquarters of the United Nations, held back by an impassive multinational police contingent. "Nothing has changed!" they shouted the other day, and their complaint has become a theme for critics — both foreign and Timorese — as the United Nations passes the six-month mark in its first experiment in building a new nation. As monsoon rains bring added misery, whole towns and villages still stand burned, roofless and silent, devastated by the rampage of destruction that followed East Timor's vote last August to end 24 years of Indonesian occupation. As many as 80 percent of the territory's 700,000 people still have no jobs. Another 100,000 or more remain in camps across the border in Indonesian West Timor, still afraid to return. ... Aid workers and diplomats say they fear that this discontent could lead to lawlessness and political disarray and could open the door to trouble from the Indonesian-backed militias that crossed the border to Indonesian West Timor after laying waste to the territory” in September, 1999. [Source: Seth Mydans, New York Times, April 22, 2000]

By August 2000, renewed militia violence was reported in the regions along the West Timorese border, and there were fears it was rapidly spreading east towards Dili. There were indications that the militias were seeking to destabilize East Timor ahead of the country's formal attainment of independence in 2001.

United Nations Peacekeepers

Some 8,000 Peacekeepers, 1,650 international police officers and 200 military observers under the command of an Australian general were sent to East Timor at a cost of around about $1 billion a year. The first Peacekeepers—Australian troops and 250 Gurkas—arrived East Timor in September 1999 after the rampaging militias had quieted down. The soldiers were from South Korea, Jordan, Pakistan, Ireland, Bangladesh, Kenya and other countries. For many East Timorese it was the first time they ever saw blacks or Europeans. About 100,000 East Timorese refugees in West Timor returned home.

Andrea K. Molnar of Northern Illinois University wrote: “After prolonged and complicated negotiations, the Australian led UN peacekeepers, INTERFET (International Force for East Timor), was allowed to land in East Timor on 20 September, 1999. UNAMET also returned. On 20 September the Indonesian parliament formally acknowledges that integration of East Timor with Indonesia is no longer applicable (Martin 2001:139). On 22 October the resistance leader, Xanana Gusmão, is repatriated to East Timor after his release from Indonesia. On 25 October the United Nation’s Security Council mandates UNTAET—United Nations Transitional Administration of East Timor. By 30 October the last Indonesian representatives left East Timor (ibid.). [Source: Andrea K. Molnar, Northern Illinois University, Department of Anthropology and Center for Southeast Asian Studies, May 2005 , seasite.niu.edu/EastTimor ]

Gendercide.org reported: Massive public demonstrations in Australia, North America, and Western Europe against the atrocities in East Timor, along with the recent precedent of intervention in Kosovo, finally pushed the West to intervene. Pressure, especially from the United States, forced the Habibie government to accept an international force, InterFET, composed mainly of Australian and Nepalese Gurkha troops. The forces began deploying in Dili on September 20, 1999, and a week later Indonesian forces finally ceded control to the international contingent, though troops would remain in the territory until the end of October. On September 28, the United Nations voted to establish an international inquiry into the atrocities in the territory, though it was still unclear at the time of writing whether this would be followed by an international criminal tribunal along the lines of Bosnia and Rwanda. [Source: gendercide.org]

In his book on U.N. Peacekeepers, “Deliver Us From Evil”, William Shawcross described how humanitarian assistance and food donations often prolonged conflicts and peacekeeping efforts kept wars from being fought to conclusion that allowed the combatants to move on. The determinants in the decisions, Shawcross said, to decide which countries receive peacekeeping forces and which ones don't often has more to do with politics, money and practical considerations than moral outrage or a sense of helping victims.

Militia Members and Separatists After the Peacekeepers Arrive

After the violence ended in September and October militia members returned to their home towns and villages. Many militiamen and their victims lived in the same home towns. Members that were wanted for crimes remained in West Timor where, for the mos part, they were relatively unmolested by the Indonesian government.

Some Fretilin members came down out of the mountains for the first time in decades. After walking around Dili a few weeks after the independence vote, one Falintil member told the New York Times, "No more revenge. We must work for national unity. We must end our hatreds. We must unite in our thoughts and deeds to rebuild the country."

Some Falintil members launched vigilant operations against the pro-Indonesia militias, capturing militia members and taking them back to their camps for “re-education.” One commander told the New York Times, “We don’t kill them. We just take the bad out of them and put back in the good.”

One unresolved issue was disarmament. Many people argued that both the pro-Indonesia militias and Fretilin should lay down their weapons. Neither side wanted to. The Indonesian government refused to act decisively to crack down on the militias and close down their camps.

Attacks on the Peacekeepers and United Nations Workers in 2000

The pro-Indonesia militias made bold attacks on U.N. peacekeepers after the 1999 referendum. Much of the violence was instigated by militiamen who sought refuge in West Timor and crossed the border at night for quick strikes. The people who suffered the most were villagers living near the border who were harassed and intimidated.

In September 2000, three United Nations workers—a Croatian, an Ethiopian and Puerto Rican American—were killed by militia men in Atambua, a border town in West Timor near East Timor. The workers were stabbed, stoned and hacked to death and their bodies were dragged out into the street and set on fire. Before he was killed one of the workers sent an E-mail that said, “We sit here like bait, unarmed, waiting for a wave to hit. These guys act without thinking and can kill a human as easily painlessly as I kill mosquitos in my room.”

Afterwards, the United Nations evacuated its staff from West Timor. Tens of thousands of refugees in West Timor were left without assistance. In May 2001, a Indonesia court found six Timorese guilty in the mod killing of United Nations ad workers in 202 but their sentence were only 10 to 20 months.

Elections in East Timor 2001

In August 2001, an election for a constituent assembly were held. It was East Timor’s first democratic election. There were 1,138 candidates from 18 parties vying for seats. Fretilin dominated, winning 55 of 88 seats and 57 percent of the popular vote. Turnout was 93 percent.

Andrea K. Molnar of Northern Illinois University wrote: “During 2001 leading up to the 30 August elections of a Constituent Assembly, the Transitional Administration undertook extensive voter education activities along with the help of several local NGOs. Therefore, whether illiterate or educated, all people had access to information. Even the most remote villages received training on different forms of government and the choices of government for the constituent assembly elections. Aside from UN and NGO voter educators, there were several civic education pamphlets given out and posters displayed, as well as civic education being broadcast on radio and television. Albeit radio reception was very poor in high mountainous regions and ownership of television, let alone access to electricity outside of Dili, the capital, was problematic. The population was also consulted on what they want to see in the constitution that the 88 member Constituent Assembly will have to draft in just a few months. [Source: Andrea K. Molnar, Northern Illinois University, Department of Anthropology and Center for Southeast Asian Studies, May 2005 , seasite.niu.edu/EastTimor ]

East Timor Becomes an Independent Nation

East Timor formally became independent on May 20, 2002. Just after midnight on that day the United Nations flag was lowered and the East Timor flag was raised as a tens of thousands of people cheered. Images of the struggle for independence were show on a wide screen. A long float with a crocodile and a little boy was wheeled around to celebrate East Timor’s creation legend. Among those who attended the ceremony were former U.S. President Bill Clinton, who raised the flag at the new United States embassy in Dili, and Indonesian President Megawati Sukarnoputri. United Nations General Secretary Kofi Anan and East Timorese president Gusmao gave speeches.

Mark Lee wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “In a ceremony attended by former President Clinton, East Timor declared itself fully independent, something it has not been for more than 400 years, except for a few chaotic days in 1975 when it declared itself a country after the end of Portuguese colonial rule. Now that things have settled down and East Timor will finally become fully independent, there is widespread cause for rejoicing as close-knit communities rebuild. But there is also bitter resentment — particularly toward the East Timorese militia members who now are attempting to re-integrate into those communities. During the final decade of Indonesian rule, the militia burned down countless homes and killed, tortured or raped people suspected of supporting the Fretilin guerrillas. Many of the destroyed homes still stand, their soot-covered walls and twisted metal roofs serving as a constant reminder of the past. Traveling through the countryside recently, I quickly discovered how everyone remembers who burned down another person's home five years ago. [Source: Mark Lee, Los Angeles Times, May 19, 2002 +/]

Also on May 20, 2002 the United Nations Security Council set up the UN Mission of Support in East Timor (Unmiset) to help East Timorese authorities. In September 2002, East Timor became the 191st member of th UN.

Andrea K. Molnar of Northern Illinois University wrote: “On May 20, 2002 East Timor became officially independent. The same year it also became a 191st member in the United Nations. UNMISET — United Nations Mission of Support in East Timor — was established by the Security Council to provide assistance to East Timor over a period of two years until all operational responsibilities are fully devolved to the East Timor authorities . UN personnel remained to advise, their presence is in a much reduced capacity. In May 2005 the UN Security Council extended UN presence in East Timor through mandating the UNOTIL, the United Nations Office in Timor Leste which is anticipated in operating until May 2006. The goal of UNITOL is to continue to provide assistance to East Timor, as the country progresses towards self-reliance. On 20 May, 2005 the United Nations ended its peace keeping activities in East Timor. [Source: Andrea K. Molnar, Northern Illinois University, Department of Anthropology and Center for Southeast Asian Studies, May 2005 , seasite.niu.edu/EastTimor ]

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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