Voters in East Timor Vote for Independence Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

After East Timorese voted in favor of independence in a referendum sponsored by the United Nations, Indonesian-sponsored violence flared. The ensuing widespread conflict eventually led to international intervention and further U.N. missions to maintain security and guarantee the democratic aspirations of the territory’s inhabitants.

Summary of Event

Portugal began colonizing the small island of Timor in the Malay Archipelago in the sixteenth century but met resistance from its stronger colonial rival, the Netherlands, and from the Timorese themselves. In 1859, the two European countries formally divided the island, giving Portugal control of the eastern half of Timor along with the exclave of Oé-cusse on the northwestern coast and the smaller islands of Atauro and Jaco. Although western Timor became part of independent Indonesia in 1949, Portugal continued to rule eastern Timor, which had by now evolved a distinct culture of its own. However, Timorese plans to assume power after the Portuguese Revolution of 1974 were forestalled when Indonesian troops under the direction of President Suharto invaded the territory late the following year. Despite protests from the United Nations, Indonesia annexed the former Portuguese colony in 1975. East Timor;independence [kw]Voters in East Timor Vote for Independence (Aug. 30, 1999) [kw]East Timor Vote for Independence, Voters in (Aug. 30, 1999) [kw]Timor Vote for Independence, Voters in East (Aug. 30, 1999) [kw]Vote for Independence, Voters in East Timor (Aug. 30, 1999) [kw]Independence, Voters in East Timor Vote for (Aug. 30, 1999) East Timor;independence [g]Southeast Asia;Aug. 30, 1999: Voters in East Timor Vote for Independence[10470] [g]East Timor;Aug. 30, 1999: Voters in East Timor Vote for Independence[10470] [c]Government and politics;Aug. 30, 1999: Voters in East Timor Vote for Independence[10470] [c]Independence movements;Aug. 30, 1999: Voters in East Timor Vote for Independence[10470] Gusmão, José Alexandre Ramos-Horta, José Belo, Carlos Filipe Ximenes Annan, Kofi Habibie, Bacharuddin Jusuf Wahid, Abdurrahman

Faced with widespread resistance, Indonesia instituted a repressive and violent occupation that utilized random massacres, arson, starvation, torture, rape, and coerced sterilization. Initially Indonesia’s main opposition came from the Revolutionary Front of Independent East Timor Revolutionary Front of Independent East Timor (Frente Revolucionária de Timor-Leste Independente, or FRETILIN), founded in 1974. Indonesia agreed to a cease-fire with FRETILIN FRETILIN in 1983 but opened a new offensive the following year. Demonstrations following visits by Pope John Paul II in 1989 and by the U.S. ambassador to Indonesia in 1990 were put down with massive force. A funeral for a FRETILIN supporter in the capital city of Dili in 1991 triggered a massacre in which more than one hundred East Timorese were killed. Before Indonesia reluctantly agreed to a referendum on the territory’s future in 1999, it was estimated that one-third of its population had died and one-third had been confined to concentration camps.

On May 20, 2002, East Timor was internationally recognized as an independent state.





The most important figure to emerge during these years was guerrilla leader José Alexandre Gusmão, a former FRETILIN member who helped establish a coalition of resistance groups and who continued to direct the resistance movement even after his arrest in 1992. The awarding of the 1996 Nobel Peace Prize Nobel Peace Prize;Carlos Filipe Ximenes Belo[Belo] Nobel Peace Prize;José Ramos-Horta[Ramos Horta] to activist Bishop Carlos Filipe Ximenes Belo and José Ramos-Horta, the exiled representative of the East Timorese independence movement to the United Nations, further focused world attention on Indonesian atrocities and eventually forced the country’s hand.

Bowing to increasing international pressure, Indonesian officials met with their counterparts from Portugal (which had never recognized the annexation) and U.N. secretary-general Kofi Annan in mid-1998. As a result, the country offered to allow East Timor to choose its own legislature and set up its own educational system. Indonesian president Bacharuddin Jusuf Habibie went further on January 27, 1999, agreeing to a referendum in which the East Timorese could choose between the limited autonomy previously offered or complete independence. The referendum would be held under the auspices of the United Nations and would be supervised by the United Nations Mission in East Timor United Nations Mission in East Timor (UNAMET), which was established in June 11. The vote was originally set for August 8, but in the face of widespread violence, Annan postponed the vote twice. Annan also pressured Indonesia to allow Gusmão to serve the remainder of his twenty-year sentence under house arrest in the Indonesian capital of Jakarta.

The East Timorese referendum eventually took place on August 30, 1999, an event observed by more than one hundred journalists from around the world. Almost 99 percent of the territory’s eligible population of 450,000 took part, many of them walking for miles and waiting in long lines for hours to vote. When their votes were counted, it was revealed that more than 78 percent had chosen complete independence.

José Alexandre Gusmão.

(U.S. Department of Defense)

The referendum itself had been peaceful, but it merely marked a lull in the violence. Indonesian-sponsored militias, whose members may have numbered nearly twenty thousand, had vowed to turn the territory into a “sea of fire,” and after the results were announced they went on a rampage. Storming and burning the compound of Bishop Belo, they drove out thousands of refugees who had taken shelter. At least four members of the UNAMET contingent were murdered. Along with Bishop Belo and a number of East Timorese, the remaining members of UNAMET were airlifted to Australia. In all, between 30,000 and 100,000 residents were forced to flee Dili, and martial law was declared on September 7.

Released by Indonesian authorities after the referendum, Gusmão assumed the role of East Timor’s head of state, traveling abroad to urge international intervention to stop the bloodshed. On September 15, the United Nations voted to establish a multinational peacekeeping force, the International Force for East Timor International Force for East Timor (INTERFET), and on October 25 set up the United Nations Transitional Administration in East Timor (UNTAET) to administer the territory. The last contingent of Indonesian troops left the territory five days later. In a goodwill gesture, Gusmão visited Jakarta to meet with new Indonesian president Abdurrahman Wahid.

INTERFET itself ended its mission on February 24, 2000, making way for a formal U.N. peacekeeping force. Meanwhile, the territory labored to establish a new political structure. A coalition of political parties, the National Council for East Timorese Resistance (Conselho Nacional de Resistência Timorense, or CNRT), opened its first congress in Dili on August 21. Two months later, a thirty-six-member transitional council was installed, with Gusmão holding one of the seats. At this point, more than 167,000 East Timorese refugees had returned from Indonesian soil, although as many as 120,000 more remained in resettlement camps. Refugees;East Timorese


East Timor’s struggles to attain stability continued into the twenty-first century, even as Indonesian militias continued sporadic attacks. In early 2001, the territory’s transitional council voted to hold an election on August 30 for a Constituent Assembly. For a time, Gusmão had served as speaker of the transitional council, but he resigned at the end of March in the face of internal disputes and was replaced by Ramos-Horta. FRETILIN subsequently won the majority of seats in the Constituent Assembly, and in turn that body asked the United Nations to grant East Timor full independence.

Having reluctantly agreed to run for one five-year term, Gusmão won an April 14, 2002, presidential election with 83 percent of the votes. East Timor became independent on May 20, 2002, as the Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste, and Gusmão began his administration.

Portugal had not invested heavily in Timor, and at the time of its independence Asia’s newest nation had one of the lowest per-capita gross domestic products in the world. East Timor was in ruins and continued to struggle with political dissension, but the nation counted on its offshore petroleum fields and its celebrated coffee beans to help revive its economy. East Timor;independence

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Dunn, James. East Timor: A Rough Passage to Independence. 3d ed. Double Bay, N.S.W.: Longueville Books, 2003. Analysis by an Australian politician and diplomat who served in East Timor. Features a foreword by José Alexandre Gusmão. Includes illustrations, maps, and bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hainsworth, Paul, and Stephen McCloskey, eds. The East Timor Question: The Struggle for Independence from Indonesia. New York: I. B. Tauris, 2000. Wide-ranging collection of essays assesses the struggle in East Timor within the context of Indonesian and world affairs. Features a preface by José Ramos-Horta.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kohen, Arnold S. From the Place of the Dead: The Epic Struggles of Bishop Belo of East Timor. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1999. Biography of the outspoken bishop by a journalist who traveled with him in East Timor from 1993 to 1997. Includes map and bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Marker, Jamsheed. East Timor: A Memoir of the Negotiations for Independence. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 2003. Firsthand account by U.N. secretary-general Kofi Annan’s personal representative for East Timor. Includes index.

Portugal Grants Independence to Its African Colonies

East Timor Declares Independence but Is Annexed by Indonesia

Suharto Resigns, Making Way for Habibie

Categories: History