The East Timor Independence Referendum

The Indonesian occupation of East Timor was finally brought to an end by internal changes in Indonesia, beginning with the fall of Suharto in May 1998. The following month President B. J. Habibie, Suharto’s successor, floated an offer of autonomy to East Timor, which was still under integrated status. The Indonesian military was staunchly opposed to any concessions that could lead East Timor down the road to independence. Special forces officers based there began setting up an extensive paramilitary organization made up of pro-integration Timorese, intended to frustrate a possible referendum. The Indonesian military paid, trained, and armed militia members and organized their operations against pro-independence groups. Militia violence - including seizures of independence activists, torture, killings, and the destruction of homes - began in October 1998 and escalated in early 1999. By that point, FALINTIL troops had moved into cantonment in the mountaintop town of Aileu and followed the still imprisoned Gusmao’s order not to engage either Indonesian or paramilitary units, so as not to allow any further civil war pretext for continued Indonesian occupation. The decision was followed with agonized restraint at the time as FALINTIL troops watched their countrymen being murdered; it has since been credited as a crucial strategic move that facilitated a faster and more inclusive national healing process.[1]

Gusmao and other Timorese leaders remained firm on their demand for an eventual referendum on independence but were amenable in early 1999 to an extended period of transitional autonomy, in which Indonesia would play an active role, before a vote.[2] Yet Indonesian officials in Jakarta objected to the transitional autonomy approach, believing that a majority of Timorese would choose to remain in

Indonesia and advancing the sentiment that they would rather withdraw entirely if the Timorese chose independence. Indonesia, Portugal, and the UN finally reached agreement, on May 5, 1999, to hold a referendum on whether the people of East Timor accepted Indonesia’s integration-with-autonomy proposal. Although the independence option was not specifically on the ballot, it was clearly the alternative in the Yes-No vote; Habibie declared that if the Timorese voted against autonomy, he would call on the Indonesian parliament to grant them independence.

The UN moved quickly to organize the plebiscite, with the Security Council establishing the United Nations Mission in East Timor (UNAMET) on June 11, 1999, to manage the voting process. The UN had a little over two months to organize a free and fair vote - including the registration of eligible voters, the organization of the vote itself, and the establishment of a secure environment. This latter security concern was paramount - yet Indonesia refused to accept international peacekeepers, insisting that it alone must remain responsible for ensuring security during and after what it called the “popular consultation.” Pro-integration militias directed by the Indonesian military ratcheted up their violent campaign, focusing on districts adjacent to the border with West Timor and forcing thousands of East Timorese to flee their homes and cross the border.

On August 30,1999, in the midst of that intimidation, East Timorese voted in a national referendum - known as the Popular Consultation in East Timor - overwhelmingly against a special autonomy relationship with Indonesia and hence in favor of independence.[3] The country had finally been allowed the act of self-determination it had been promised in 1974 by a withdrawing Portuguese colonial administration. Just hours after the results of the referendum were announced, pro-special autonomy militias - still organized, armed, and assisted by the retreating Indonesian military forces - conducted a pre-planned, systematic “scorched earth” campaign intended to leave the small country both depopulated and in ruins.[4] Some three-quarters of buildings in the country were gutted by fire and demolished in the retreat. An estimated

80 percent of the nation’s 800,000 people fled their homes to escape the violence, with about a quarter of a million displaced persons fleeing and being forcibly deported into neighboring West Timor, where it is estimated that around half of them remain today. Estimates of how many were killed are unreliable, varying from hundreds into the thousands; some mass graves remain unexamined, reports abound of bodies being dumped at sea, and many who fled to West Timor are subsequently unaccounted for. Gusmao’s orders to FALINTIL to remain disengaged were tested to the limit as the fleeing East Timorese flocked to the FALINTIL cantonments with accounts of violence, yet they remained firm and were obeyed. The head of UNAMET, Ian Martin, later observed that the UN’s planning around the aftermath of the referendum had been “on the basis of a best-case scenario that the UN hoped could be realized with a high degree of international attention and pressure but that was never realistic.”[5]

Following two weeks of concerted international pressure, on September 12, 1999, Indonesia finally and reluctantly agreed to the presence of UN troops to help restore security. A multinational blue helmet force (INTERFET), headed by Australia, arrived in Dili on September 20, 1999, in one of the swiftest responses in the history of UN peacekeeping. Within two weeks the Indonesian troops had withdrawn totally and on October 20, 1999, the Indonesian parliament annulled its 1976 annexation of East Timor, bringing the occupation to a formal end.[6] Just five days later, on October 25, the UN Security Council authorized a mandate for the United Nations Transitional Administration in East Timor (UNTAET),[7] which became the governing authority of the territory for a transitional period that would culminate in national elections and the writing of a constitution. As UNAMET and then UNTAET were constituted, responsibility for East Timor within the United Nations shifted from the Department of Political Affairs, which had handled the ongoing dialogue since the 1980s, to the Department of Peacekeeping Operations. Critics later pointed to this switch in assessing the UN’s role and actions in East Timor, arguing that the basic peacekeeping-oriented structure of the mission hindered it from achieving its mandate, which required the mission to govern the country as well as put in place the foundations for political, institutional, and economic development.[8]

East Timor was thought by many at the UN and in wider international intervention circles to be a tabula rasa upon which to prove the effectiveness of internationally assisted peacebuilding and reconstruction initiatives. In many respects, the country appeared the perfect environment for success: violence was effectively over after the Indonesian withdrawal and there was remarkable political accord and goodwill within the country, with no real dissent over appropriate leadership. Yet UNTAET has subsequently been heavily criticized for the manner in which the political timetable and process was implemented.[9] The peacebuilding challenge in East Timor was viewed as very different from that in either Cambodia or Afghanistan. Unlike in most other UN peacekeeping missions, the main political challenge in this case was not to mediate between factions that had been at war. Anthony Gold- stone captures the thinking at the time with the observation that the political adjudication process had already occurred with the national referendum in August 1999; so that “Instead, the political task was the relatively straightforward one of working through a political timetable that had the uncontested goal of independence as the final end point.”57 A set of interrelated challenges arose over the course of this process, however, that proved problematic for subsequent state capacitybuilding and democratic consolidation: UNTAET’s slow incorporation of East Timorese participation into both the administrative and political arenas; the clear dominance of one party as political participation was increased; and the overall timing and sequencing of the political process in relation to the statebuilding dimension of transitional governance. Furthermore, it has become apparent with the advantage of hindsight that the international community misinterpreted the domestic political situation, in particular overestimating the degree of elite political accord and the extent to which the returned FRETILIN leadership spoke for their fellow political leaders.

  • [1] Author interviews with donor officials and civil society leaders; Dili, EastTimor, April 2005. Also Cristalis 2002.
  • [2] Gusmao spoke a number of times in early 1999 about creating an environmentin which the Indonesian military would not feel defeated and of the need tocreate the basis for friendly relations between East Timor and its largeneighbor. Martin 2001: 23.
  • [3] The vote was 21.5 percent in favor of and 78.5 percent against the proposed special autonomy relationship, with 98 percent of 451,792 registered voters (out of a population of about 800,000) participating.
  • [4] UN Security Council Document No. S/1999/976, Annex, Para. 1, 14 September 1999. See also Martin 2001: 24-26 and Dunn 2003, especially pp. 348-359.
  • [5] Martin 2001: 126.
  • [6] Gusmao came home to East Timor and to a hero’s welcome on October 22,1999.
  • [7] UNTAET was established by UN Security Council Resolution 1272 onOctober 25, 1999.
  • [8] Chesterman 2002; and Suhrke 2001.
  • [9] Chopra 2002; Goldstone 2004; and Suhrke 2 001. 57 Goldstone 2004: 85.
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