From Pandemonium to Peace: East Timor’s Struggle for Self-Determination

Disclaimer: The following blog post is not a reflection of the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s opinion on the Indonesian occupation of East Timor.

By Nadya Hayasi.

The country of East Timor, now better known as Timor-Leste, had been occupied by Indonesia until their independence on May 20th, 2002. The occupation can only be described as violent and brutal, while the resistance focused on a strategy of nonviolent campaigns, both in East Timor and internationally, in order to push forth their agenda for independence. Through examining the independence struggle and the mobilization of peaceful protests, I believe that nonviolence has foregrounded the independence struggle, but it alone as a political tool would not be sufficient. By examining the effects of the post-Cold War conditions which emphasize sovereignty and freedom, the use of media, and the eventual international circulation of discourse, nonviolence movements in East Timor would not have succeeded without other preconditions which allowed these movements to receive the international attention that it did, and eventually led to the withdrawal of Indonesia from the area.

Indonesia’s occupation of the previously Portuguese-owned colony started in 1975 when the Indonesian military forces invaded East Timor and destroyed any armed resistance to the occupation. Immediately after the invasion, the United Nations General Assembly and Security Council condemned the violation of sovereignty, but many leading countries of the world including the United States, Japan, and Canada supported the Indonesian government’s claim that East Timor is now a territory of Indonesia. Despite the extreme violence presented in Indonesia, the international community was ambivalent about the situation, and the Indonesian occupation of East Timor lasted another two decades.

The self-determination struggle in East Timor originally employed guerilla tactics, launched by Falintil, which is the military wing of the political party Fretilin. Attempts failed as the guerilla movement was brutally crushed by the Indonesian military. Afterward, tactical changes had to be made by Fretilin, who was taken over by Xanana Gusmao, one of the leaders of the resistance movement and eventual first President of independent East Timor. This led to a transformation of the features of resistance, as he established a National Council made up of three wings, including a youth-led Clandestine Front responsible for organizing nonviolent resistance operations.[1] This included protests and marches, instead of guns and violence. Aware of the difficulties facing their movement, East Timorese leaders emphasized the need to advance their nonviolence strategy to increase their chances of victory for the independence movement.[2] The shift in identity and attributes of individual leaders play a decisive role in determining the behavioral patterns of their movements.[3] Nonviolence became a powerful tool for the resistance movement, one which they had never thought of before but certainly worked in their favor for the next few decades. One could argue that the turning tide for the East Timorese people was the switch to nonviolent tactics, however, it was merely the beginning of a long-fought battle toward self-determination.

A group of people protesting on the street. A banner with 'INDONESIA OUT OF EAST TIMOR NOW' written on it is being held, alongside a smaller sign saying 'FREE EAST TIMOR'.
“Indonesia Out of East Timor Now.”[4]

The switch to nonviolence allowed greater freedom for the East Timorese people when they finally gained the sympathy of their oppressors. This led to reduced fear of persecution, which emboldened the resistance activists in East Timor. Ramos-Horta traveled the world to maximize international protest against the Indonesian invasion of East Timor.[5] The travel ban on journalists was lifted in 1988, and resulted in an increase in international attention to self-determination, putting pressure on Indonesia and its policies.[6] This aided the resistance movement by circumventing the Indonesian government’s blanket of silence over East Timor.[7] The presence of journalists and reporters backing the East Timor resistance campaign internationally resulted in greater awareness from the global community. High-profile visits by leaders of the world, including Pope John Paul II in 1989 [8] and US President Bill Clinton in 1994 [9], were met with demonstrations by the East Timorese activists, bringing more attention to the genocide happening in East Timor and their fight towards self-determination.

East Timor’s independence struggle can also be plotted alongside the history of computer-mediated technologies[10] and how the rise of technology as a platform certainly aided East Timor’s calls for the international community to aid in their independence. With the increasing spotlight on the atrocities and chaos in East Timor came about greater calls for independence. Non-governmental organizations including Amnesty International and The Human Rights Watch reported on the atrocities of the Indonesian military in East Timor, with the release of a report by the Human Right Watch in 1995 which stated that “abuses in the territory continue to mount” and “some of the actions of security forces have gone well beyond the bounds of international human rights and humanitarian law.”[11] The profiling of Xanana Gusmao, his capture by Indonesian forces in November 1992, and his subsequent trial attracted further media attention.[12] With the attention came greater support, which helped to dramatically raise the international profile of East Timor, which in turn significantly boosted the momentum of the resistance groups.[13]

The aftermath of the Santa Cruz massacre in 1991, where more than 250 people had been killed and hundreds more wounded,[14] is a prominent example of the resistance movement reaching international audiences. The presence of foreign reporters quickly led to the spread of the news, and two American journalists Amy Goodman and Allan Nairn managed to capture video footage of the brutal massacre. They then released a documentary recounting their experiences, titled ‘Massacre: The Story of East Timor’. which caused outrage after it was broadcasted internationally.[15] East Timor’s international allies increased significantly after the massacre and activists around the world started to organize in solidarity with the East Timorese movement.[16] In the United States, the East Timor Action Network was founded in support of their independence, and soon had chapters in ten cities around the country. A small region in Southeast Asia soon became the focus of many people from millions of miles away, shocked and angry at the cruel treatment of the people of East Timor.

The timing of the end of the Cold War also explained the timing of the independence of East Timor. While the shift to nonviolence occurred in the late 1970s, discussions for independence were not brought up until the late 1990s, after the end of the tumultuous period of the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union. The end of the Cold War saw declining support for then-Indonesian President Suharto, who heavily relied on international support to continue the genocide in East Timor. A report released by the United Nations titled the Commission for Reception, Truth and Reconciliation in East Timor stated that the US “political and military support were fundamental to the Indonesian invasion and occupation” of East Timor.[17] Fears of possible Communist influences led to the support of harsh measures to ensure that East Timor stayed under the control of the staunchly anti-Communist Indonesia, especially after their defeat and retreat from Vietnam in 1975. However, these concerns soon became less of a priority after the end of the Cold War, and the United States became much more aware of the human rights atrocities committed by their Indonesian allies. Eventually, then-US President Bill Clinton announced that his “willingness to support future economic assistance from the international community will depend upon how Indonesia handles the situation” in East Timor.[18] The shift in mindset by the United States became a huge loss for the Indonesian military and oppression movement, which heavily relied on military and financial support from the United States.

A flag tied to a stick is held above a crowd of people. The flag has 3 horizontal stripes, in the colors red, yellow, and red. The right third of the flag is black with a white star in the middle. Written on the yellow stripe in black letters is 'FRETILIN'.
Fretilin Flag.[19]

The end of the Cold War also resulted in a regime change in Indonesia which pushed the East Timor independence cause even further. Loss of support and funding for President Suharto and the subsequent economic and political upheaval due to the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis led to Suharto stepping down as president, replaced by the more democratic B. J. Habibie. Only 3 weeks after taking office, Habibie announced that Indonesia would soon offer East Timor a special plan for autonomy.[20] A change in leadership certainly worked in the East Timor resistance’s favor as after decades of hard work they managed to clinch independence in 2002.

Ultimately, while the shift to nonviolence foregrounded the eventual path towards independence and self-determination, it alone cannot be the determining factor in how East Timor finally gained independence, nor could it explain the timing of East Timor’s independence. Nonviolence as a strategy kickstarted the progress toward independence, and the activists’ persistence in employing nonviolent tactics certainly helped their cause in ensuring international support remains with them even throughout the post-referendum period. However, changes in the international and domestic geopolitical climate and the media attention that was rising and shining a greater spotlight on the atrocities in East Timor cannot be disregarded as factors that led to the eventual independence of East Timor.

[1] Stephan, Maria J. “Fighting for Statehood: the Role of Civilian-Based Resistance in the East Timorese, Palestinian, and Kosovo Albanian Self-Determination Movements”, The Fletcher Forum of World Affairs Vol. 30:2 (2006): 61.

[2] Fukuda, Chisako M. “Peace through Nonviolent Action: The East Timorese Resistance Movement’s Strategy for Engagement.” Pacifica Review: Peace, Security and Global Change 12, no. 1 (2010): 17.

[3] Dudouet, Véronique. “Dynamics and Factors of Transition from Armed Struggle to Nonviolent Resistance.” Journal of Peace Research 50, no. 3 (2013).

[4] Wikiwand (

[5] Hill, David T. “East Timor and the Internet: Global Political Leverage in/on Indonesia.” Indonesia 73 (2002): 28.

[6] Schwarz, Adam. A Nation in Waiting: Indonesia in the 1990s (St. Leonards, NSW: Allen & Unwin, 1999), 223.

[7] Hill, East Timor and the Internet: Global Political Leverage in/on Indonesia, 29.

[8] Schwarz, A Nation in Waiting: Indonesia in the 1990s, 210.

[9] Jardine, Matthew. East Timor: Genocide in Paradise (Chicago, IL: LPC Group, 1999): 68.

[10] Hill, East Timor and the Internet: Global Political Leverage in/on Indonesia, 27.

[11] Human Rights Watch, Indonesia/East Timor: Deteriorating Human Rights in East Timor Vol. 7 No. 3 (1995).

[12] Hill, East Timor and the Internet: Global Political Leverage in/on Indonesia, 32.

[13] Marker, Jamsheed. East Timor: A Memoir of the Negotiations for Independence (North Carolina: McFarlnad & Company, Inc., 2003), 10.

[14] Jardine, East Timor: Genocide in Paradise, 16.

[15] Schwarz, A Nation in Waiting: Indonesia in the 1990s, 212-213.

[16] Jardine, East Timor: Genocide in Paradise, 67.

[17] Timor-Leste Commission for Reception, Truth and Reconciliation (CAVR), Chega! : The Report of the Timor-Leste Commission for Reception, Truth and Reconciliation (CAVR) Executive Summary, Jakarta : KPG in cooperation with STP-CAVR, 2013.

[18] The Howard Years, “Whatever It TakesSeason 1, Episode 2. Australian Broadcasting Corporation. 24 November 2008.

[19] Paula Bronstein, taken from the ABC Radio National website.

[20] Nevins, Joseph. A Not-So-Distant Horror: Mass Violence in East Timor. (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 2005), 82.