Prelude to bloodshed

When results of the Aug. 30, 1999, election in East Timor (Timor Lorosa’e in the native Signal Around the World logo language) revealed that 78 percent of East Timor’s citizens voted for independence from Indonesia, local militias rampaged throughout East Timor – an island about 350 to 375 miles northwest of Darwin, Australia – during September 1999.

Nightly news reports showed burned, ruined buildings in the East Timorese capital, Dili. Rumors of atrocities abounded, with as many as 30,000 estimated to have been killed. Reports said thousands of citizens fled, with most of those staying behind hiding in the hills starving, too scared of the militias to come down.

Before the historic vote, Indonesia had occupied East Timor since December 1975. East Timor was a Portuguese colony for more than 400 years, but in 1975 civil war broke out between local political groups over independence from Portugal. Indonesian dictator Suharto sent troops into East Timor under the guise of restoring order, then in July 1976 Indonesia formally annexed the territory and incorporated Timor Lorosa’e as a province.

The United Nations and the international community didn’t recognize Indonesia’s annexation of East Timor but did little else. From the time of Indonesia’s invasion, East Timor’s pro-independence movement conducted a separatist war alone against Indonesian forces.

East Timor location on globe Boxed area shows location of East Timor, 350-375 miles northwest of Darwin, Australia. (Illustration by East Timor Action Network)
Timor and surrounding countries East Timor and its surrounding countries. Inset shows the composing territories: the mainland (with capital Dili), the enclave of Ocussi-Ambeno and the island of Atauro. The tiny island of Jaco, too small to be seen at this map's scale, is found at East Timor's easternmost end. Across the Timor Sea, Australia is 450 kilometers away and Java, 1,000 kilometers. (Illustration by East Timor Action Network)

According to the East Timor Action Network website (, the United States supported Indonesia by setting up special training programs for its military; selling it arms, jets and other military equipment; and trading with the country. Congress repeatedly tried to tie human-rights accountability to arms-sales programs in dealing with the Reagan, Bush and Clinton administrations. The president, whoever it was, would sternly warn Suharto, but then the United States, according to ETAN, would approach him with something favorable.

"For many years, Washington has sent mixed signals to Jakarta," ETAN said in 1998. "Congress (sometimes with State Department support) limits military training or arms sales to Indonesia. President Clinton decries human-rights violations in East Timor when he meets with Suharto, and the United States sponsors critical resolutions in the U.N. Human Rights Commission. But at the same time U.S. soldiers are training Indonesia’s special forces in urban warfare and sniper tactics. Suharto, a world-class expert in political ritual (his recent self-re-election is a classic example), has no problem decoding the message: the criticisms are intended to placate the American people and Congress, while the continued military support indicates U.S. approval of his regime’s ongoing repression."

Repression may have been a mild word for what went on in East Timor before the United Nations intervened in September 1999. The military under Suharto’s corrupt government was no "slouch"; in fact; over the past 30 years, ETAN noted the military had been "a law unto itself." Troops stationed throughout the country terrorized the population. The military demanded more money from the government for "special operations," including warfare in "urban terrain." What the military didn’t receive by asking, it took. Troops confiscated merchants’ goods under the pretext of anti-hoarding regulations, then sold those goods themselves at military-run markets and pocketed the profits.

But this was nothing compared to the 1991 Santa Cruz Cemetery massacre; Suharto and his appointed governor, Habibie, didn’t tolerate even small-scale or peaceful demonstrations. About 300 unarmed civilians were killed at the cemetery. There were other killings, arrests, tortures, "disappearances."

In 1998, international pressure began to mount on Indonesia; it agreed to a U.N. referendum on the question of either independence or autonomy within Indonesia for East Timor. Indonesia agreed to abide by the election’s results, but on the other hand it supported the pro-Jakarta armed militia groups.

Timorese woman in her stilt house
A Timorese woman smiles out from the window of one of the last stilt houses remaining in East Timor; militias destroyed the rest. The photograph was taken by an ETAN foreign observer -- according to ETAN's website, the presence of foreign observers slightly restrained the militias. (Photo by James Schmid)
Then the economic situation and civil unrest forced Suharto from power; he resigned May 21, 1999, telling his military commanders that if he was going down, they were also. The Indonesian military (known as ABRI) lost its sense of invulnerability and was internationally being called to account for its kidnappings and killings. It hadn’t stopped its "activities," but the East Timorese were encouraged; a "profusion" of meetings, demonstrations and free-speech forums began springing up that were larger and more militant than in the past.

In June a day-long meeting sponsored by Governor Habibie focused on his offer of autonomy; the offer was rejected and a proposal for independence was endorsed. More such forums were held in other regions of East Timor in June 1999, with the same results: independence. When the East Timor government celebrated "Integration Day" July 17, 1999 – the anniversary of East Timor’s formal annexation by Indonesia – most East Timorese boycotted the official ceremonies and wore black.

In July and August 1999, the forums turned from if East Timor wanted independence to what kind of independence and how it could be achieved. At a forum in Dili Aug. 22, for the first time in history, Indonesian activists and intellectuals addressed East Timorese inside the occupied country condemning the occupation and supporting a referendum.

The U.N. referendum on autonomy or independence was held Aug. 30, with 78 percent of the population voting in favor of full independence and an immediate end to Indonesian rule. Immediately following the election, the pro-Jakarta militia groups – aided by the Indonesian armed forces – began their campaign of violence and destruction.

The U.N. Security Council voted unanimously Sept. 14, 1999, to authorize an Australian-led International Force East Timor, granting powers under Chapter 7 (the warfighting chapter) of the U.N. Charter. INTERFET’s mission was to restore peace and security, protect and support U.N. operations and assist the provision of humanitarian relief to the more than 500,000 refugees.

The first elements of the 8,000-man force deployed to Dili Sept. 19. At this time the Australian Defence headquarters asked the United States to provide U.S.-unique communications capabilities to support INTERFET.

"Indonesia’s future is important to us, not only because of its resources and its sea lanes, but for its potential as a leader in the region and the world," said President Bill Clinton as U.S. forces were deploying to East Timor. "It is the fourth most populous nation in the world and the largest Muslim nation in the world. All Asians and Americans have an interest in a stable, democratic, prosperous Indonesia.

"Our fundamental values are also at stake in East Timor. The election Aug. 30 was conducted fairly, under the United Nations’ leadership, with the agreement of the Indonesian government. It produced a clear mandate for independence. The violence since is abhorrent to all of us who care about human dignity and democracy."

When Signal Regiment troops arrived on East Timor – half of an equatorial island within the Indonesian archipelago, about 164 miles long and some 57 miles at its widest point – they found a largely mountainous, poor tropical province. The central crest of mountains are more than 6,600 feet high and steep; many extend to a rocky coastline. The roads are unreliable, and most are unpaved. Some areas are cultivated with small rice paddies and fields. There are two seasons: wet and dry. The wet season is November to April, with daily monsoon rains (the dry season, of course, would be May to October).

Mountains in East Timor East Timor is a mountainous equatorial island about 164 miles long and 57 miles at its widest point. (Photo by James Schmid)

The two major population centers are Dili, Timor Lorosa’e’s capital, located on the north coast, and Baucau, sited 62 miles east. Signaleers worked at both places.

"I went to Dili, East Timor, Oct. 11 (1999)," said MAJ John Dewey, 11th Signal Brigade’s operations officer. "I was prepared to deal with the hot, muggy climate while wearing my flak jacket, to remain doused in bug juice, sleep inside mosquito netting, eat meals-ready-to-eat and do without running water, electricity and a commode. … (But I wasn’t prepared) for what I would see. … Total destruction that we later found out was caused by firetrucks filled with gasoline spewing fuel on the buildings, houses, schools, shops and then igniting. The destruction was calculated, cruel, deliberate … devastation. The burning was done in such a way that nothing was left. All the windows were smashed, electronics were ripped out of the walls, and safes were broken open. The city infrastructure was totally gone. Blowtorches were walked through buildings to burn out the inside cabling, ensuring no future use was possible.

"The result of the destruction looked like work that was directed, inspected and reworked if total obliteration wasn’t achieved. The arson job must have taken at least two weeks. I didn’t expect to see diligent destruction. It was incomprehensible to our soldiers and myself. Alongside the burned buildings in the destroyed city of Dili, children played, waved and thanked us for being there.

"I had an opportunity to attend mass Nov. 14 at the local cathedral two blocks from our compound. A crowd of 2,500 to 3,000 people overflowed the church to the point that many were standing outside peering in through the windows," Dewey recalled. "The cathedral structure was untouched by the destruction. … Probably 50 people from the local community approached me during or after mass to shake my hand. It was quite a humbling experience."

Primary contributor for this article was Army Communicator editor Lisa Alley. Information also taken from Defense Department public-affairs sources as well as from contributions by MAJ Dewey and Bill McPherson, 516th Signal Brigade public-affairs officer.

Acronym QuickScan
ETAN – East Timor Action Network
INTERFET – International Forces East Timor
U.N. – United Nations

dividing rule

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