Occupation 1975 – 1999

The Indonesian occupation (1975 -1999)

The Indonesian occupation of East Timor lasted from the invasion on 7 December 1975 to the weeks following August 30, 1999, the date on which the Timorese people voted overwhelmingly for independence rather than for an offer of special regional autonomy within the Republic of Indonesia.

Throughout this twenty-four-year period the territory was under Indonesian control. It was a regime of violence affecting every level of Timorese society designed to subjugate the population. The armed wing of the Timorese resistance (Falintil) conducted a guerrilla campaign against the Indonesian military for the whole length of the occupation. There was a clandestine network throughout the countryside, towns and villages that covertly resisted the occupation, funneled information to the international solidarity movement, and supported the armed resistance.

Subjected to numerous forms of state-sanctioned violence, the majority of the Timorese people lived in fear. The presence of Timorese informers brought suspicion to relationships and interactions, sowing discord in communities large and small.[1] The Indonesians paid and trained Timorese militias as an extension of its reach, terrorising the population. The civil administration was also subordinate to the purposes of the Indonesian government via the military and the police, becoming another means of social control.[2]

The number of conflict-related deaths from 1974 to 1999 was between 102,800 and 183,000, comprising an estimated 18,600 killings, most of which occurred between 1975 and 1980, with over 2,500 killings in 1999.  The deaths of 84,200 people were due to hunger and illness caused directly by occupation-related events.[3]

An enormous proportion of the Timorese people died violently and from unnatural causes under the Indonesian regime. Serious violations occurred during the first years after the invasion followed by a pattern of relatively low-level but consistent violence for the next two decades. Extrajudicial killings, intimidation, torture, arbitrary detention, sexual violence, and political trials which were used to quell opposition, punish victims, and terrorize the people.[4] Human rights abuses affected both individuals and groups.

Massacres accounting for the deaths of hundreds of people each at Lacluta (1981), Kraras (1983) and at the Dili Santa Cruz cemetery (1991) have been documented, and in the case of the Dili massacre, filmed.[5] Indonesian military personnel, either acting alone or in collaboration with Timorese militias and auxiliaries, were found to have carried out the overwhelming number of killings, rapes and incidents of torture.[6]

The early years after the invasion saw tens of thousands of people fleeing to the mountains, but the military assaults against them as well as the impossibility of maintaining a food supply caused many deaths and eventually the surrender of large groups.[7] Massive dislocations organized by the military prevented access to farms and gardens and caused illness and starvation. Over half of the Timorese people experienced one or more displacements from their homes, lasting from short periods of one month to extended periods of time. The average displacement time endured by the Timorese people was approximately four years.[8]

The politically-induced famines of 1978-1979 caused the deaths of thousands of people and ensured that food production and distribution remained precarious throughout the 1980s.  Annual forced marches by the military known as the ‘fence of legs’ continued for at least four years, beginning in 1981.[9] This exercise was designed to flush out the resistance by forcing tens of thousands of Timorese males to march in lines ahead of soldiers. The Timorese returned to their villages debilitated after days and weeks in the human chains. Adequate crops were not planted during these times, resulting in widespread food shortages in the succeeding months.[10] Clandestine resistance against the occupation renewed and strengthened, however, despite the presence of Timorese informers and paramilitary groups.[11] The armed resistance engaged in combat with the Indonesian military and remained a viable guerrilla force for the whole of the occupation.

Australian Policy During the Occupation

Australian government documents stated that the consistent official position was to uphold the Timorese right to self-determination.[12] This is countered by voluminous evidence to the contrary.

To begin with, the Australian voting pattern on the issue at the United Nations and continued military assistance to Indonesia demonstrated support for the Indonesian annexation that continued from 1975 to 1999. Gough Whitlam, the Labor prime minister in 1975, tacitly endorsed Indonesian claims to sovereignty. The Liberal-Country Coalition government under Malcolm Fraser (1975-1982) publicly supported Indonesian claims.[13] When in opposition during those years the Labor Party condemned the annexation.[14] However, its government under Bob Hawke (1983-1991) maintained the Australian government’s support of Indonesia.

The next Labor government under Paul Keating (1991-1996) actively sought to strengthen the relationship with Indonesia and pursued closer ties with the Indonesian military. Keating extolled President Suharto’s New Order government as beneficial.[15] He said that human rights should not get in the way of the relationship between Australia and Indonesia.[16] The succeeding coalition government led by John Howard (1996-2007) continued the policies of the previous decades. Howard described Suharto, the overseer of the Timorese oppression, as a national leader displaying skill and sensitivity.[17] His deputy Tim Fischer went so far as to describe Suharto as ‘perhaps the world’s greatest figure in the latter half of the 20th century.’[18]

A major political disruption of this consensus came when Laurie Brereton, the opposition spokesman on foreign affairs, was successful in bringing a change to Labor Party policy regarding East Timor, which took effect at the party’s national conference in 1998.[19] The resignation of President Suharto in May 1998 and the accession of his replacement B.J. Habibie accompanied growing agitation for change in East Timor itself. Increased international support for the Timorese people, particularly after the Santa Cruz massacre, included massive Australian resistance to government policy. However, even after Suharto’s resignation Australia’s official position of favour towards the Indonesian annexation of East Timor was constant.

Towards the end

The coalition government only slowly began to read the writing on the wall. It moved towards accepting the increasing international consensus on the need for significant change, as shown in John Howard’s letter to Suharto’s successor, President Habibie at the end of 1998. He suggested a development of the president’s recent offer of autonomy which would include discussions with the East Timorese leaders. Nevertheless, Howard emphasised in the letter that Australia’s support for Indonesia’s sovereignty over East Timor was unchanged.[20] He opined that an autonomy package spanning some years would allow time to convince the East Timorese of the benefits of such an arrangement within the Indonesian republic.[21]

President Habibie reacted swiftly and unexpectedly to the letter and to the increasing international pressure by abruptly announcing an act of self-determination in East Timor. Finally, after the Timorese comprehensively rejected the option of autonomy within Indonesia in favour of independence in the United Nations referendum in August 1999, the Australian military undertook leadership of the UN peace-keeping force as the Indonesian military withdrew. InterFET comprised 11,500 international personnel led by Lieutenant-General Peter Cosgrove and an Australian contingent of 5000 persons.

In retrospect

The bedrock of Australian policy in the region for the twenty-four years of the Indonesian occupation of East Timor was the desire to cement a positive relationship with Indonesia and to gain financially from the Timor Sea to the detriment of both the Timorese people and to Australian integrity.

The policies required official Australian responses to massacres, famines, the Timor Sea resources and UN resolutions are now seen as clearly unprincipled and culpable. Australian government publications on the events of the occupation have sought to minimize negative opinion of Indonesia and Australia. Their claims of ‘balance’ are undermined by selective and distorted use of evidence in support of Indonesian policy and the maintenance of a beneficial political and economic relationship to Australia.

© Susan Connelly 2023


[1] Max Stahl, Massacre among the graves, Tapol Bulletin, No 108, (December 1991): 6, 8, accessed May 11, 2020, http://vuir.vu.edu.au/26096/

[2] The Timor-Leste Commission for Reception, Truth and Reconciliation (CAVR), Chega! The Final Report of the Timor-Leste Commission for Reception, Truth and Reconciliation (CAVR), (2013), Part 4: 343, para.1, accessed 13 May 2020,  Part 4: 344-345, para.4-7.


[3] The Timor-Leste Commission, Part 6: 488, para. 8.

[4] The Timor-Leste Commission, Part 6: 488, para. 10.

[5] Joseph Nevins, A Not-So-Distant Horror: Mass Violence in East Timor (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2005) 30; Geoffrey Robinson, If You Leave Us Here, We Will Die: How Genocide Was Stopped in East Timor (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010), 57; James Dunn, East Timor: A Rough Passage to Independence, 3rd ed. (Double Bay, NSW: Longueville Books, 2003), 333-334.

[6] The Timor-Leste Commission, Part 6: 490, para. 19.

[7] Ibid., 77.

[8] Ibid., 44.

[9] John G. Taylor, Indonesia’s Forgotten War: The hidden history of East Timor (Leichhardt: Pluto Press, 1991), 204.

[10] Ibid., 117-119.

[11] The Timor-Leste Commission, Part 4: 11, para. 24.

[12] Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, (DFAT), East Timor in Transition 1998-2000: An Australian Policy Challenge (2001), 13.

[13] Phillip Hudson, ‘Why Fraser gave up on East Timor Sydney Morning Herald’, Sydney Morning Herald, 1 January 2009, https://www.smh.com.au/national/why-fraser-gave-up-on-east-timor-20090101-gdt8a9.html (accessed 6 September 2021).

[14] John Waddingham, “Australia’s new Labor government, March 1983”, Timor Archives: Clearing House for Archival Records on Timor, accessed May 11, 2020, https://timorarchives.wordpress.com/2013/03/05/hawke-labor-march-1983/

[15] Peter Hartcher, “Jakarta leaves Keating at the altar”, The Sydney Morning Herald, April 24, 1992: 15.

[16] Tony Wright, “Jakarta joy as PM backs off human rights”, The Sydney Morning Herald, October 27, 1993: 3.

[17] Michael Millett and Louise Williams, “PM defends soft line on Indonesia”, The Sydney Morning Herald, September 18, 1996: 1.

[18] Gordon Fenney, “Soeharto a 20th century great”, The Sydney Morning Herald, May 15, 1996: 9.

[19] Clinton Fernandes, The Independence of East Timor (Eastbourne: Sussex Academic Press, 2011), 183-188.

[20] DFAT, East Timor in Transition, 181.

[21] Ibid., 182.