Grassroots in the Field:
Observing the East Timor Consultation1

By Charles Scheiner2
March, 2000


Since the Indonesian invasion in 1975, “the question of East Timor” has been on the agenda of the United Nations. The Security Council passed two resolutions urging Indonesian withdrawal, and the General Assembly passed eight. Yet the governments of the world declined to resolve the situation or obtain justice for the East Timorese people. In fact, most of the major powers, following the example of the United States, provided Indonesia with military, economic and diplomatic support. They calculated that the advantages of a close relationship with the Suharto regime outweighed the horrors his military inflicted on strategically insignificant East Timor.

For the first 15 years of the occupation, Indonesia closed the territory to outside observers in an effort to smother global concern about their illegal invasion. They had considerable success; Western media and governments ignored the ongoing slaughter of 200,000 East Timorese. Through the 1980s in most of the world, East Timor was the quintessential obscure lost cause, followed only by a tiny fringe of hard-core activists. Solidarity and human rights campaigns mounted in the aftermath of the invasion had waned, and only a handful of people were aware that the atrocities continued. Media coverage, which had always been rare, became nonexistent.

Throughout this period, the West increased its economic, military and political ties with Jakarta. The United States in particular shipped massive quantities of weapons to the Indonesian army, including many of those used with most deadly effect in East Timor. Every year, U.S. taxpayers hosted Indonesian soldiers for training to “improve their professionalism.” And the U.S., British, Australian, and European governments continued to run interference for Indonesia in the United Nations and other international fora.

The Santa Cruz Massacre

But for the persistence of the East Timorese resistance, the story might have ended there. After 13 years of killing and indoctrination, Indonesia believed it had beaten the East Timorese into submission. They began to open the territory to visitors. Simultaneously, the East Timorese formed a civilian underground to break through the wall of silence, smuggling information about the occupation and repression to the few outsiders who would listen. The underground also carried out nonviolent protests, first during the Pope’s visit in 1989 and more massively at the time of a cancelled Portuguese Parliamentary delegation on November 12, 1991.3

Five thousand people joined a peaceful procession that day, marching from a Catholic mass to the grave of a young man murdered by Indonesian soldiers two weeks earlier. The Indonesian military, realizing that such audacity put their lie to the claim that their 27th province was happily integrated, responded with massive, brutal force. They marched up in formation to an unarmed crowd confined by the walls of the Santa Cruz cemetery, raised their U.S.-supplied M-16 automatic rifles and fired continuously for about 15 minutes. When the shooting stopped, at least 271 East Timorese lay dead; perhaps 200 more were murdered in Indonesian military hospitals over the next few days.

In contrast with many previous massacres, this one was witnessed by international journalists. American reporters Amy Goodman and Allan Nairn, British TV cameraman Max Stahl and photographer Steve Cox, and a few others had gone to East Timor to cover the parliamentary visit, and they witnessed the massacre.4 Their reporting and the images of this unprovoked brutality shocked the world and briefly broke through the global media blackout. A few governments suspended aid to Indonesia and many uttered harsh warnings.

More lastingly, the Santa Cruz massacre catalyzed the re-emergence of a worldwide solidarity movement. The East Timor Action Network (ETAN) was formed in the United States, and similar organizations in Europe, Canada, Japan and Australia expanded or began their support for East Timor. In Portugal, widespread grassroots activity forced the government to advocate East Timorese rights in European and international circles.

Solidarity grows

In the United States, ETAN built on existing networks and the internet to achieve a nationwide presence, developing a dozen local chapters and several thousand members over the next four years. Although protests were held at Indonesian consulates and educational events were organized all over the country, the main focus was on Washington. ETAN saw the U.S.-Indonesia military relationship as the most effective lever with which to pressure Jakarta to withdraw from East Timor. ETAN challenged military aid, weapons sales, and military training in an effort to increase the cost to Indonesia of remaining in East Timor to a point where it wasn’t worth it.

From 1992 through 1996, ETAN’s all-volunteer grassroots campaigns blocked several weapons sales, pressured Congress into barring U.S. military training aid, and raised the profile of East Timor in both the mainstream and alternative media.5 Similar campaigns were growing throughout Europe and other parts of the world. From 1994 onward, the Asia-Pacific Coalition on East Timor (APCET), centered in the Philippines and including groups from East and Southeast Asia, Australia and Oceania, brought public pressure to Indonesia’s own neighborhood.

The International Federation for East Timor (IFET) had been formed in 1991 by groups from Europe, Japan, and North America and began to coordinate international NGO campaigns to petition the U.N. and otherwise influence transnational governmental processes. Other conduits, including the internet, Christian church networks and regional conferences, strengthened international cooperation among grassroots activists on East Timor, coordinating closely with East Timorese leaders both inside the occupied territory and in exile.

When the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to East Timorese leaders José Ramos Horta and Bishop Carlos Felipe Ximenes Belo at the end of 1996, ETAN was able to capitalize on the attention on East Timor, using newly available resources and media access to hire field organizing staff and open an office in Washington. Over the next two years, ETAN and others continued to expose and erode the remaining U.S. support for the Indonesian military, and to get the U.S. government to acknowledge East Timorese human and political rights; the use of U.S.-supplied weapons in East Timor was barred in 1997. After the 1997 Asian economic crisis, the U.S. lost confidence that Suharto could continue to reliably protect its interests. As dissent increased in Indonesia, Washington was less willing to back the dictatorship. Congress had banned U.S. military training aid for Indonesia in response to grassroots pressure since 1992, but Pentagon training persisted quietly in Indonesia until it was exposed in early 1998. Before Suharto fell, Congress had built upon Administration unease and Indonesian dissent to suspend all remaining U.S.-Indonesian military training; as Habibie came into office, the U.S. Senate unanimously supported an internationally-supervised referendum on East Timor’s political status.

U.S. grassroots and Congressional pressure on the U.S.-Indonesia military relationship may be one reason that Suharto’s ouster in 1998 was not a reprise of the mass slaughter that consolidated his military coup in 1965 -- Washington policy-makers let their friends in the Indonesian armed forces know that the U.S. would not support a military takeover this time.6

Setting the Stage

In 1992 Indonesian Foreign Minister Ali Alatas called the international outcry over East Timor “a pebble in the shoe, not a major issue but causing a nuisance. It would be a great pity if, because of this question, Indonesia is not able to play a greater role in the world.”7

Six years later, Alatas and newly-anointed president B. J. Habibie were dealing with an intractable economic crisis. With his hold on power tenuous, President Habibie sought increased Western and Japanese support. Together with Alatas (who remained Foreign Minister until President Wahid took office in late 1999), he suggested allowing the East Timorese people to vote on an autonomy plan to remain Indonesia’s 27th province. They believed that the electorate, with sufficient incentive and threats, would support the plan, and make the pebble disappear. For the first time in 24 years, Jakarta entered substantive negotiations with the United Nations and Portugal in an effort to resolve the East Timor issue.

The Indonesian military (TNI) did not share Habibie’s and Alatas’ confidence that Jakarta would win the vote, and stepped up its creation and arming of East Timorese paramilitary groups (so-called militias) to terrorize the East Timorese from voting for independence. By using militias instead of its own units, the TNI hoped to be able to plausibly deny involvement in the terrorism. From late 1998 onward, TNI’s militias escalated their violence against pro-independence East Timorese, and against the civilian population in general. By early 1999, massacres were a weekly occurrence, and tens of thousands of East Timorese had been driven from their villages.

As international activists, ETAN and the other IFET member groups tried to bring these developments to the attention of the negotiators. On March 30, for example, IFET gave a videotape of an Australian TV program8 to Secretary-General Kofi Annan, and wrote

We have been concerned by recent statements by your office and by the Indonesian government that disarmament of the paramilitaries and withdrawal of Indonesian soldiers from East Timor are not seen as prerequisites to the “ballot consultation” in which the East Timorese people are to accept or reject Indonesia’s offer of autonomy. As this program makes clear, a U.N.-conducted East Timorese vote in the current atmosphere of terror would be a mockery of everything the United Nations stands for.9

The negotiations continued, and Indonesia and Portugal were approaching agreement with the Secretary-General on leaving Indonesia responsible for security before and during the vote. On April 5 and 6, militias massacred more than fifty refugees in Liquiça; ten days later they rampaged through Dili, murdering a dozen refugees in the home of prominent independence advocate Manuel Carrascalão, as well as his teenage son. ETAN brought a survivor of the Liquiça massacre to the United States and Europe in late April, where he testified before Congress and met with officials from the United Nations and several governments, as well as with media and religious leaders, before seeking safety in Portugal.10

On April 21, Indonesian Defense Minister General Wiranto flew to East Timor and proclaimed a cease-fire between militias and the East Timorese resistance. The militias never intended to honor the agreement; they inflicted new atrocities hours after signing. The pro-independence forces, who had unilaterally refrained from military confrontation for several months, felt compelled to sign to maintain credibility with the pro-Jakarta international community and to refute Jakarta’s propaganda that East Timor would erupt into civil war if TNI withdrew. Wiranto, whose legal responsibility should have been to order the arrest of perpetrators of violence against civilians, did nothing to restrain the militia forces. IFET again expressed its concern to the Secretary-General and the Indonesian and Portuguese Foreign Ministers, who were in New York negotiating the final details of a consultation agreement scheduled to be signed on May 5:

...the paramilitary violence persists, and Indonesia has made no significant efforts to control it. Murders continue daily, militia leaders exhort their coerced followers to assassinate pro-independence leaders and human rights workers with impunity, and tens of thousands of internal refugees live in fear for their lives....

As soon as the 5 May accord is signed, the United Nations must assume responsibility for creating and preserving law and order in East Timor, and for protecting public safety. The Indonesian military has been there illegally for 23 years, and their occupation has taken more than 200,000 East Timorese lives. … It will be impossible for the United Nations to conduct a meaningful assessment of East Timorese public opinion if those forces -- one party to the conflict -- are controlling the situation on the ground.11

Although the Secretary-General and other U.N. officials were fully aware of the danger of the Jakarta-backed militias, they were unable to persuade any national government to take this issue public. The agreement signed on May 5 set the stage not only for the August 30 vote, but also for the terrorism and destruction which preceded and followed it.12

The Secretary-General and others have since excused allowing the Indonesian military to retain control in East Timor during the referendum process by saying that Jakarta would not have signed the agreement under any other terms, and there would have been no vote.13 They believe that China, at Indonesia’s request, would have vetoed any Security Council resolution that did not leave TNI in charge, and that the East Timorese leadership and public wanted the vote to take place while the window of opportunity was open. However, neither the United States nor any other government put even the slightest pressure on Indonesia to improve the agreement by accepting international responsibility for security. If the international community had threatened in April to curtail or cut off economic and/or military cooperation with Indonesia, as they finally did in mid-September, the May 5 Agreements would have been different and the post-ballot devastation could have been avoided.

The Activists’ Dilemma

People around the world who had worked for years to advance East Timor’s human and political rights pondered how to make the best of a bad situation. We supported the desire of the East Timorese people (as expressed by CNRT leader Xanana Gusmão) that the consultation proceed, and sought ways to help make the vote free, fair and peaceful. Many activists joined UNAMET, the United Nations mission which was to carry out the referendum,14 and played key inside roles in making that process go smoothly.

IFET, having little confidence in governments that had acquiesced or conspired to deny East Timorese rights for the past quarter century, chose to support and monitor UNAMET and the parties to the vote from inside East Timor. UNAMET’s parameters were defined by the May 5 agreements and resulting Security Council resolutions; their personnel were constrained by U.N. protocol not to be critical of member states or to publicly dissent from established U.N. positions.

The IFET Observer Project (IFET-OP) became the largest of the dozen international observer delegations in East Timor. There were also about a dozen Indonesian observer groups, with both pro- and anti-autonomy biases. As a U.N.-accredited project, IFET-OP observers were nonpartisan, taking no position on whether people should vote for autonomy or independence. IFET-OP did, however, strongly support their right to vote in a free and fair election, without intimidation, and frequently reported actual or potential infringements on that right. Most IFET members expected that East Timorese voters would choose independence if given the chance, but the decision was theirs, and the observers went to make certain that it was freely made.

IFET volunteer observers, recruited from every continent and trained in advance, began arriving in East Timor in June. Most field teams lived with East Timorese families or in rented houses for several weeks before the vote, monitoring the registration and campaign phases, building relationships with the local people, and attempting to communicate with all sides (although the militia were rarely willing to talk). By August 30, 125 U.N.-accredited IFET Observers from 20 countries were deployed in 18 teams, covering every district in the territory. They observed balloting at 135 of the 200 polling centers.

The UNAMET mission, hired and directed by the U.N., was charged with conducting the referendum, only the third U.N.-run election in history.15 UNAMET had about 450 non-police international staff and about 4,000 local staff, barely enough to implement the mechanics of the vote on a very tight timetable. The U.N. mission was also limited by diplomatic compromises, institutional goals, insufficient international political will and its hierarchical structure. IFET-OP, the Carter Center and other groups were independent observers, with fewer constraints. Although IFET members had campaigned against the long, brutal and illegal Indonesian occupation, they were committed to genuine self-determination for the East Timorese, and to expose problems and recommend solutions whenever logistics, intimidation or political factors threatened to undermine the process.

IFET-OP relayed what they and the local population observed to the United Nations, the media, and world governments. The IFET teams lived with families, walking through villages and staying visible in the hope that the presence of international observers would augment the limited U.N. presence outside Dili and help deter militia violence. In addition, IFET-OP would be global eyes, voices and hands -- a direct link between the East Timorese people and grassroots people around the world, unmediated by governments or journalists. Through the international network of East Timor support groups that had developed since 1991, IFET-OP would inform and lobby governments to make the consultation as free as possible.

Observing the campaign

The observers quickly saw that the problem of leaving security in Indonesia’s hands was not just theoretical. IFET-OP’s first in-country report described a July 4 militia attack on a humanitarian aid convoy in Liquiça “while the police and military stood idly by.” Although the convoy included international aid workers, UN staff, foreign journalists and an IFET observer, police did nothing while the militias assaulted the humanitarian workers with rocks and machetes. IFET-OP pointed out that the humanitarian crisis -- 30,000-60,000 people had been forced from their homes by militias, many for months on end -- “directly affects the validity of the vote” and called on the Indonesian government to disarm the militias and bring their leaders to justice, to fulfill its commitment “to ensure an ‘environment devoid of violence or other forms of intimidation’ as a ‘prerequisite for the holding of a free and fair ballot in East Timor.’”16

On August 6, in Same (a town in southern East Timor), the IFET-OP team witnessed and reported a militia assault on a just-opened student pro-independence campaign headquarters. This was the first of many attacks on the pro-independence campaign; CNRT offices in many towns were fire-bombed or worse. IFET-OP concluded that the election would not be free and fair if one side could not campaign publicly.

The IFET Observer Project served as an alert system for the U.N. Civilian Police, often asking these unarmed advisors to intervene in difficult situations (they were very cooperative and efficient, given their strict limitations of mandate and resources).

In addition to sending reports to observers’ home governments and to the U.N. Ambassadors of the Security Council countries, IFET-OP teams often briefed foreign delegations and reporters in East Timor. Visiting parliamentarians found them accessible, informed and forthcoming; journalists found their readers could identify with the grassroots IFET-OP volunteers. Although the international visitors to East Timor appreciated IFET-OP (the Canadian and Finnish ambassadors to Indonesia provided funding; U.S. Embassy officials were frequent visitors), there was little response from the U.N. in New York or from capitals around the world. Privately, U.N. staffers in New York appreciated IFET-OP’s reports, which confirmed internal information from UNAMET but could be freely distributed. But publicly, the U.N. and governments rarely responded; they took no effective action to redress the Indonesian military/militia terror.

The largest accredited Observer Project was KIPER,17 a joint Indonesian-East Timorese mission which hoped to deploy more than 500 observers. However, KIPER volunteers were limited by lack of resources and particularly targeted by militia violence. In addition, many of their East Timorese members resigned as observers in order to take a partisan role in the campaign. KIPER was initiated by Solidamor, a group of courageous Indonesians who had taken tremendous risks for several years, opposing the Suharto regime by supporting East Timorese self-determination. They were much appreciated by the East Timorese and in the forefront of grassroots pro-democracy activism in Indonesia.

The two sides agreed to campaign on alternate days, but the “reject” autonomy (i.e. support independence) side was usually prevented from public campaigning by militia threats, as IFET-OP repeatedly reported. When East Timorese people got to know the observers better, they often confided in the foreigners or asked them for help.18 IFET-OP also received reports and rumors of preparations for widespread retaliation after the vote.19 On August 17, at the start of the campaign, IFET-OP reported “warnings by government officials and pro-autonomy spokespersons of large-scale violence if the East Timorese people reject the autonomy option in the August 30 vote, along with widespread reports of arms shipments entering the territory” and recommended “that the international community work diligently through the U.N. to broaden the UNAMET mandate as it relates to security, and to increase significantly the numbers of United Nations security personnel in East Timor before the August 30 vote.”

Seeing no response, IFET-OP wrote a public letter from Dili to the U.N. Secretary-General on August 24, describing “pervasive fears within the East Timorese population that the Indonesian military-backed militias will launch a wave of terror around, or shortly after, the time of the ballot.”

Many in the IFET-OP project were pacifists with principled views against military force. When IFET-OP’s letter to Annan recommended “a much larger international security presence, preferably armed, to maintain security following the vote” several of IFET-OP’s country coordinators (who relayed IFET-OP reports to media and officials in their own countries, and campaigned for their recommendations) stood aside from the decision. But the IFET observers in East Timor, like every East Timorese person20 they spoke with, could see no other choice.

As IFET-OP’s reports became more outspoken, the observers’ presence increasingly disturbed the pro-Indonesian side. Militias often threatened them; on three occasions they surrounded IFET-OP vehicles, brandishing weapons at the occupants for extended periods. An East Timorese IFET driver was kidnapped (and later released unharmed) in Liquiça. Another team, listening to radio conversations between Kopassus and local militia, heard their own murders being ordered.21 But they avoided the trap, and no IFET-OP people were injured. It became clear that the general militia orders were to scare foreigners, not to harm them.

CNRT’s enthusiasm overcame caution on the Thursday before the vote, and a 20,000-person rally was followed by a joyful caravan all over Dili. Although that day was mostly peaceful, the militias retaliated on Friday, killing about a dozen people in various parts of the city. For the first time, sharp international reaction pressured Indonesia to curtail the violence, but a siege mentality pervaded Dili, and most people stayed home until Monday’s vote.

On Saturday, August 28, IFET-OP reported that

the upsurge in violence over the last two days places the entire consultation process in jeopardy.... Unless the United Nations and the international community take quick and decisive action to stem the violence, the results of Monday’s balloting will be contaminated by fear.

Decisive action was not forthcoming. The U.S. State Department portrayed the latest violence as a new development. State Department spokesman James Foley said: “The United States is deeply concerned by these changes in the security situation.” Foley claimed that Washington had relayed its concern directly and repeatedly to the “highest levels” of the Indonesian government but noted: “despite the assurances we have received, violence and intimidation continue to pose a great risk to the success of the UN-administered vote. Urgent remedial attention and action is required.”22

Foley’s statement exemplifies hypocritical U.S. diplomacy, where a public façade obscures a more significant signal behind the scenes.23 Habibie and Alatas -- the officials at the “highest levels” who had given assurances to Washington -- were not in control of the situation. A different message went to those in charge: between August 11 and 25, the U.S. Navy conducted CARAT-99 joint exercises with the Indonesian Navy off Surabaya.24 The Pentagon was simultaneously training Indonesian soldiers (ostensibly in non-military subjects) at the National Defense University (Ft. McNair, DC) and in California,25 and other U.S.-Indonesian military and economic business continued as it had since before Habibie took office. IFET-OP and UNAMET’s reports of violence in East Timor and the less-than-heartfelt pleas from the State Department were destined to be ignored.

The vote -- and its aftermath

August 30 was a glorious day. Most voters went to the polls before dawn, hoping that darkness would reduce the likelihood of militia attack. They waited patiently for hours to cast their ballots, a brief interregnum after 23 years of horrific sacrifice. Although there were a few violent incidents, the day was generally peaceful and nearly everyone voted before noon. By the time the polls closed, 98.6% of the registered voters had transcended intimidation.

Counting took five days, and the threats and violence mounted rapidly. By September 1, four East Timorese U.N. workers had already been murdered, militia roadblocks were proliferating, and many of the East Timorese who lived and worked with IFET observers now felt that proximity brought risk, not safety. IFET-OP withdrew four observer teams from the field, and decided to pull the rest back to Dili and Baucau within the next few days. As many East Timorese men had already fled to the hills, families sought our help in increasing numbers, imploring us to shelter women and children in our houses. It was agonizing to tell them that, no matter how much we wanted to, we could not guarantee their safety. We saw ourselves as under threat and believed our foreign status no longer shielded against violence.

Like some awful Greek tragedy, the situation in East Timor moved inexorably toward catastrophe. Although the August 30 vote stands as a monument to the dedication of local and international UNAMET personnel and the incredible courage of the East Timorese people, the ensuing disaster was not only predictable, but could have been prevented at any time from April to mid-August.

On September 2, IFET-OP assessed the Consultation Process, finding that the voting itself was administered in a free and fair manner, but that security was still inadequate and the East Timorese lived in a state of “fear for their lives.”

The vote was announced on Saturday morning, September 4: 78.5% for independence. Most IFET observers, now in Dili, watched it on CNN. The group clapped once, an embarrassed lapse of nonpartisanship.26 Throughout the day, IFET-OP received reports of increasing violence -- the destruction of East Timor had begun in earnest.

On Sunday, conditions only got worse, and many IFET-OP observers left with most other foreigners on hastily chartered flights. About 50 remained in East Timor, although virtually continuous gunfire and widespread militia activity forced them to abandon several houses in Dili. Sunday evening, the office of Yayasan Hak (the leading East Timorese human rights group) was attacked; police intervened only after an hour of shooting, and only in response to U.S. embassy complaints that an American IFET-OP observer was inside.

Later that night, the IFET headquarters was temporarily evacuated by local police -- too much gunfire, too close. Monday morning, September 6, half of the remaining observers were evacuated by the Royal Australian Air Force. Two dozen stayed -- the only group of foreigners outside the U.N. Compound (UNAMET had retreated from the countryside to compounds in Dili and Baucau) or the Australian consulate. Throughout the day, they took reports of atrocities (people murdered in Bishop Belo’s residence; a thousand forced from the Red Cross office, which was then destroyed; attacks on the Australian ambassador’s car; thousands of East Timorese loaded at gunpoint onto ships and trucks). As long as phones worked, IFET could relay what was happening to journalists and governments, most of which had already fled.27

Like the East Timorese people, the remaining IFET observers kept thinking of 1975, when the international community had abandoned East Timor, allowing the Indonesian military to kill 200,000 people with impunity. IFET-OP was one of the last links between the destruction of East Timor and a world which was running away. But as the day proceeded, IFET-OP came to believe that the rules had changed, that foreigners were now targets. With East Timor being destroyed around them, the IFET-OP observers still in Dili took the Monday night evacuation flight to Darwin, along with some hundred UNAMET personnel. The last IFET observers were evacuated the next day from Baucau, along with Bishop Belo.

In Darwin, IFET-OP held press conferences and pressured the Australian government, but most observers soon returned to their home countries to lobby more effectively for international military intervention.28

In the two weeks before InterFET forces arrived, 650,000 East Timorese people (three-fourths of the population) were driven from their homes, and virtually all the towns were destroyed. Thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, of people were murdered. Almost all of the twenty houses IFET-OP rented in East Timor were looted then demolished, and their local staff dispersed to Australia, Indonesia, and the mountains of East Timor. The whereabouts of some are still unknown.

Following up

The IFET Observer Project presented information at the Emergency Session of the U.N. Human Rights Commission in Geneva in late September. Although IFET offered to provide the U.N. investigating team with detailed information about Indonesian crimes in East Timor, they were never contacted.

IFET also testified on October 6 at the General Assembly in New York. They pointed out that a fundamental error of the U.N. was “failing to listen to the East Timorese people, whose knowledge and observations, if heeded, would have averted the recent disaster.” In retrospect, that statement may be simplistic. Perhaps it is an intrinsic element of the U.N., composed of national governments, not to heed the cries of people who have no government to represent them.

With the development of the UNTAET administration over the next five months, many of the same mistakes are being repeated. Not only does the international community defer to Indonesian sovereignty over the East Timorese who were kidnapped and taken to West Timor,29 but the interim U.N. government makes autocratic decisions which the people of East Timor will have to live with for years. The international war crimes investigation seems to be deferring to the Indonesian one, and both have limited jurisdiction which excludes all crimes committed before 1999.

Although the Indonesian occupation has ended, the territory is still not independent; it is occupied by foreign governments and international NGOs. Although the killing and torture in East Timor is mostly over, the rights of the people continue to be denied. There is poor coordination among the international NGOs, and especially with the many capable East Timorese organizations. This is exacerbated by a lack of infrastructure and resources, and by the incredible disparity between international workers (who have places to sleep, food to eat, and salaries which barely enter the East Timorese economy) and East Timorese (80% of whom are unemployed, and the great majority of whose houses, farms and workplaces have not yet been reconstructed).30

In spite of September’s devastation and the current slow recover, most East Timorese do not regret that the U.N. followed CNRT’s recommendation to proceed with the ballot, although they wish that the international community had acted in time to prevent the post-ballot holocaust. As one older East Timorese man said shortly before voting day, “They’ve been killing us for 24 years. They’ll kill us whether we vote or not. This is the only chance we will have to show the world that East Timor wants independence, and we must use it.” Although the world has forgotten, most East Timorese know in their bones that Indonesia’s invasion and occupation of East Timor in the 1970’s and 1980’s, which killed 200,000 people, was far more brutal than the vengeful destruction which followed their 1999 vote for independence.

IFET is developing another monitoring project, which will also serve to transmit East Timorese concerns to international agencies, governments, and the U.N. Perhaps this time IFET will be more effective in influencing the powers of the world to listen to the needs and respect the judgements and rights of the East Timorese people.

Things Fall Apart31

I was staying with seven other IFET-OP observers at a home in the Kampung Alor neighborhood of Dili, close to an Aitarak militia post. Natercia, who rented us the house, had five children, including two teen-aged daughters. They came by on Friday evening, September 3, 12 hours before the results were to be announced. Natercia asked if her daughters could stay with us, since she was taking her sons to the mountains. She was sure the militia would attack the next day; they had already burned some pro-independence houses in the neighborhood. “If my family isn’t all in one place,” she told us, “some of us will probably survive.”

We told Natercia that her daughters were welcome to stay, but that if we were evacuated, our governments would probably not allow her children to come with us. She took her sons to the mountains, leaving her daughters sleeping on the floor. But before the sun rose, Natercia came back and took the girls away.

I went to work, and the overwhelming vote for independence was announced that morning. When I returned home that afternoon (we were not going out after dark), new Indonesian flags flew in front of every house on the street. The Aitarak militia had visited each home, threatening to kill people if they were pro-independence. The flags were evidence that, although four out of five East Timorese had voted for independence, none lived on our block.

In this climate of terror, there was no place to obtain food, and we resigned ourselves to a hungry evening. But the doorbell soon rang. Maria, whom we had hardly met, lived across the street. She brought us dinner and breakfast to show her appreciation for our coming to her country. She had not evacuated because she didn’t think her 18-month-old son could survive in the hills. I don’t know what happened to them -- the entire neighborhood has been destroyed.


1 A version of this article will appear as a chapter in the forthcoming book East Timor, Indonesia, and the World Community: Resistance, Repression, and Responsibility to be published by Rowman & Littlefield in Autumn 2000.

2 Charles Scheiner is National Coordinator of the East Timor Action Network (ETAN) in the United States and represents the International Federation for East Timor (IFET) at the United Nations in New York. He was International Coordinator for the IFET Observer Project and was an accredited observer in East Timor for two weeks before and one week after the referendum.

3 For a vivid description of the underground and how it was organized, see Constâncio Pinto and Matthew Jardine, East Timor’s Unfinished Struggle: Inside the Timorese Resistance (South End Press, Boston, 1997).

4 One foreigner, New Zealander Kamal Bamadhaj, was not so lucky. After being shot, he bled to death. His mother’s successful damage suit against an Indonesian General who approved the attack is portrayed in Annie Goldson’s powerful 1999 film Punitive Damage.

5 For detailed recounting of the grassroots campaign in the United States, contact ETAN (PO Box 1182, White Plains, NY 10602 USA). Their website contains past annual reports and newsletters which document this history.

6 The grassroots success at building Congressional and political awareness of Indonesia’s crimes was extremely frustrating to Suharto’s backers. One of their responses was to resort to time-tested Indonesian methods of buying influence in Washington, which resulted in the 1996 Clinton-Riady-Lippo-Suharto campaign contribution scandal.

7 Interview published in Tempo, March 28, 1992.

8 A Licence to Kill, produced by Mark Davis and broadcast by the Australian Broadcasting Company on March 19. Copies available from ETAN. The program vividly portrays militia-military cooperation, and shows Indonesian military and political officials, including Ali Alatas, denying that reality.

9 Letter from IFET’s U.N. Representative (the author of this chapter) to Secretary-General Kofi Annan, 30 March 1999. The text of this and other IFET and IFET Observer Project communications are available at

10 The East Timor Action Network published these testimonies as a pamphlet “Paramilitary Violence in East Timor,” ETAN, May 1999.

11 Letter from IFET’s U.N. Representative May 3, 1999.

12 For a warning to the international community from an East Timorese human rights leader, see Aniceto Guterres Lopes, “East Timor’s Bloodiest Tradition,” New York Times, May 5, 1999.

13 For a description of the Secretary-General’s thoughts and efforts during this period, see Afsané Bassir Pour, “La lutte seule de Kofi Annan” in Le Monde, Oct. 31/Nov. 1, 1999.

14 United Nations Assistance Mission in East Timor, consisting of approximately 1,000 international UN staff and volunteers who carried out the vote, including unarmed civilian police advisors, military liaison officers, and electoral officers.

15 The others were in Cambodia and Namibia. With little relevant experience to draw on, the U.N. did an outstanding job developing the mechanisms for the East Timor vote in a short, tense period.

16 Between June and September 1999, IFET-OP issued nine reports and numerous press releases and letters to Annan, Habibie and others. All are available at

17 Komite Independen Pemantau Pemungutan Suara (Independent Committee for Direct Ballot Monitoring).

18 The author was an IFET-OP observer. Shortly after arriving in Dili on August 12, I went to visit the family of an East Timorese friend in exile. After five minutes of pleasantries, they were in tears, explaining their terror of militia violence after the ballot results were announced, and imploring us to allow them to seek refuge in the IFET-OP headquarters. Such requests were repeated by different people dozens of times all across East Timor in the weeks leading up to the ballot.

19 In mid-August, a CNRT official gave IFET-OP a list of shipments of large quantities of automatic rifles and other weapons that he alleged had just been delivered to militia groups across East Timor. The numbers were so large (many thousands) that IFET-OP wrote off the information as incredible and reported it only in general terms, as a rumor. Although most East Timorese people understood the scope of the military’s post-ballot plans, IFET Observers, like UNAMET and the U.N. officials in New York, deluded themselves into believing that their dispassionate foreign intellects had a better grasp of the situation than the East Timorese people who had lived with Indonesian military rule for a quarter-century. We were wrong.

20 The CNRT and most East Timorese pro-independence supporters had called for armed U.N. peacekeepers since before the May 5 agreement, but IFET and IFET-OP had not, advocating rather that armed Indonesian militia, police and military should be disarmed and withdrawn. The armed pro-independence forces, FALINTIL, had refrained from initiating clashes since the beginning of 1999; during the referendum process they were voluntarily confined to cantonment areas. Although the militias had similarly agreed to cantonment, they frequently violated it.

21 A translated transcript of these radio conversations was published as “Apt Pupils,” Harper’s Magazine, Dec. 1999, p. 34.

22 State Department Regular Washington Briefing, August 26, 1999.

23 See the testimony by Allan Nairn in this volume.

24 Lt. Cmdr. Cate Mueller, “CARAT ‘99 enters final phase in Indonesia,” U.S. Navy News report #NS3802. August 24, 1999. This exercise -- Cooperation Afloat Readiness And Training -- would seem to be of dubious legality, given the Congressional ban on Pentagon training of the TNI.

25 Rajiv Chandrasekaran, “U.S. Resumes Training Plan For Officers Of Indonesia,” Washington Post, Feb. 19, 2000.

26 Two Australian activists, arrested for alleged illegal campaigning, watched the announcement on TV at a Dili Police station. They report that the police were genuinely surprised by the outcome of the vote; having deluded themselves that Indonesia would win or that it would be close enough to discredit with alleged irregularities.

27 On the afternoon of September 6, I had a telephone conversation with a well-known reporter for a leading U.S. newspaper who had evacuated to Jakarta a few days earlier. He asked about rumors he had heard of militia members defecting to TNI. Although he had covered East Timor for many months, he still did not understand that the militias were operating under direct command of Indonesia’s military.

28 In Darwin, IFET-OP issued a statement on September 7. Here are excerpts:

We left East Timor for safety, but with tremendous sadness. The East Timorese people have no Australia to run to, no place to hide from militia terror. Last night, Australia and Indonesian military officers prevented one of our East Timorese staff members from boarding the plane with us -- and he faces an unspeakable horror shared by hundreds of thousands of his fellow East Timorese....

As we escaped East Timor, both IFET-OP and the people we left behind kept thinking of 1975, when the international community abandoned East Timor, allowing the Indonesian military to invade and kill 200,000 people with impunity while the nations of the world closed their eyes.

It is beginning to happen again -- and this time it must not be ignored. By its actions, the Indonesian military has not only declared war on the people of East Timor, but on the United Nations -- the representative of all nations of the world. No government would respond to such attacks with delegations and discussions....

For months, the world has accepted the Indonesian fiction that the militias, the military, and the police are separate entities. As our observers have seen in numerous incidents, and as virtually every East Timorese person knows in their bones, these are interchangeable uniforms with the same people, the same weapons sources, and the same purpose. Yesterday’s declaration of martial law is an Orwellian manipulation of reality -- the militia wing of the military already controls nearly all of East Timor by their terrorist actions against UNAMET, civilians, foreigners, and, most seriously, pro-independence advocates -- more than 3/4 of the East Timorese people....

Tens of thousands of East Timorese have fled to the mountains to escape militia terror. Nearly as many have sought sanctuary in churches, police stations, UNAMET compounds and elsewhere. They face militia attacks, starvation, disease and death from lack of security, food, water and health care -- and yet no reliable protection, aid agency or international support is allowed near them.

Equally frightening are widespread reports of East Timorese civilians and refugees being forced onto trucks or ships and taken away to West Timor or other Indonesian islands. Nobody knows how many have been abducted, but it is certainly in the thousands. Where are these people taken to, and what will they face upon arrival? Without any oversight, images of genocidal slaughter from Indonesia’s occupation of East Timor 24 years ago spring to mind.

29 As of this writing, six months after the vote, more than 100,000 East Timorese remain in military- and militia-controlled camps in West Timor (Indonesia), slightly fewer than half of the refugees who fled or were taken there in early September. Two-thirds would probably like to return to East Timor, but a militia propaganda campaign has convinced them that conditions there are unlivable. The U.N. High Commission for Refugees and other international groups are denied access to many of the camps. An estimated 500-1,000 people, mostly children, have died there as a result of inadequate food, health care and sanitation. Although the U.N., the U.S. government, and others have repeatedly asked Indonesia to disarm the militias, allow international access to the camps, and facilitate the return to East Timor of those refugees who wish to go home, the current climate of terror, isolation and disinformation keeps them virtual hostages.

30 The author spoke on a panel at UN Headquarters on February 17, 2000 with several hundred NGO representatives, UN staff, and diplomats present. When I raised the issues of inequity and insensitivity between internationals working in East Timor and the local population, most people accepted my description of the problem as an apartheid-like economy. Their explanation was that this always happens in crisis response situations. Once again, the East Timorese are suffering from international “business as usual.”

31 adapted from Charles Scheiner, “Things fall apart,” Estafeta, vol. 5., no. 3, Autumn 1999.

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