East Timor 1999-2002


In 1975 to 1977, Indonesia invaded East Timor, annexing them as a part of the Republic of Indonesia. Throughout Indonesian occupation, there was ongoing political and sometimes violent oppression of the East Timorese, eventually culminating in the Dili Massacre in 1991. This incident triggered mass protests in East Timor, and caused the US, Portugal, and some other Western nations to cut off military and economic ties with Indonesia. However, these efforts were for the most part futile, as many countries, including neighboring Australia, had extensive economic ties with Indonesia and were unwilling to jeopardize diplomatic relations. However, after the Asian Economic Crisis in 1997, the Suharto regime fell and was replaced by Habibie as Prime Minister in 1998. This prompted a change in Australian foreign policy, and led Australia to call for a referendum for East Timorese independence. The Habibie government was pressured to hold a referendum in 1999, and with the presence of the United Nations Mission in East Timor (UNAMET), the election resulted in a landslide vote for independence. However, the Indonesian government did not accept the results of the referendum, and violence ensued on part the Indonesian military and the pro-integration militias in East Timor. 


Basis of Conflict: The East Timorese Crisis started as an Indonesian attack on independence activists after the referendum, but spread throughout the country as the Indonesian army started supporting pro-integration militias in East Timor. 

Regime Type: East Timor, at the time of the referendum and the consequent crisis, was annexed by the Republic of Indonesia, which was a military-led, authoritarian regime under Suharto in 1999. 

Severity of Crisis: The Indonesia-led mass killings prior to 1999 resulted in casualties estimated to be around 100,000 to 300,000 deaths, and are now commonly referred to as an example of genocide in academic circles. After the widespread violence caused by the 1999 referendum, much of the country was destroyed, and more than 200,000 people were displaced


Since the Dili Massacre of 1991, multiple intervention methods were used on part of the UN and Western nations, especially neighboring Australia. First, there was diplomatic pressure on Indonesia by Australia, Portugal, and other stakeholder nations to call for an independence referendum. UNAMET was deployed in 1998 to monitor the referendum for independence, but this mission was largely limited to policing and observation and did not have any capacity to stop and ensuing violence. After violence started growing, the UN Security Council decided to create INTERFET (International Force East Timor), and peacekeeping forces were deployed under the leadership of Australia.


Shortly after allowing INTERFET’s intervention, Indonesia pulled their troops from East Timor, and from late 1999 to 2002, East Timor was governed by the United Nations Transitional Authority in East Timor (UNTAET). UNTAET functioned as an interim government, assisting the rebuilding of infrastructure and government institutions, while maintaining political stability in the region. East Timor declared itself a nation in May 2002, and held elections to vote Mari Alkatiri as Prime Minister and José Alezandre Gusmão as President. However, the lead up to the next election in April 2007 prompted another series of violent outbreaks, with assassination attempt on the newly elected José Ramos-Horta. This was followed by another set of interventions on part of the Australian army and the United Nations.


As can be seen from the conflicts in 2006, East Timor is far from being a politically stable country, despite several successful attempts at bringing temporary peace. Before consideration of events post-1991, East Timor is first a lesson on the necessities of humanitarian intervention. In 1975, when Indonesia annexed East Timor with much violence, very few nations were willing to sacrifice their diplomatic relations with Indonesia by condemning their actions. This eventually led to a more complicated and violent political turmoil, and the death of thousands in what is now labelled as one of the worst genocides in history. Concerning UNAMET, East Timor is an example of both the benefits and the shortcomings of election monitoring. UNAMET was able to secure a referendum in East Timor in 1998, in which a huge majority of East Timorese voted for independence. This was an important step in promoting democratic procedure and confirmed the East Timorese desire for independence. However, UNAMET was only a partial success in that its lack of ability to secure the aftermath of the election led to the outbreak of violence despite UN presence. This was also partially fueled by the Indonesian perception that UNAMET was biased towards the anti-integration East Timorese forces.  As such, election monitoring is an effective method in state-building, but it has to be coupled with protective measures that will ensure security in the aftermath of an election or a referendum. Lastly, INTERFET is largely viewed as a rare success in military intervention, but this is in large part because military force was used with corresponding diplomatic measures; the Australian government was apt at using political pressure to coerce the Indonesian government to pull out of East Timor in 1999; this in turn led to a decreased necessity for INTERFET to use extensive violence. However, this case study once again shows the shortcomings of military intervention as well, as many critics point out that dependency on Australian security has led conflicts to resume in the 2007 elections.