The invasion of East Timor began on December 7, 1975 when the Indonesian armed forces invaded this newly independent country on the pretext of fighting colonialism . The overthrow of the ephemeral but popular government led by the Revolutionary Front for the Independence of East Timor (Freitilin) ​​marks the beginning of a violent occupation of twenty-five years in which between 60,000 and 100,000 soldiers and East Timorese civilians find death.

During the first years of the war, the Indonesian military faced strong insurgent resistance in the mountainous region of the interior of the island. However, from 1977-1978, the military gained new, more modern weapons from the United States , Australia and other states that allowed them to destroy the Freitilin framework. Despite this superiority, the last two decades of the xx th century are the scene of continuous fighting between Indonesians and East Timorese around the status of East Timor until 1999. At that time, the East Timorese voted for independence during a referendum organized by the United Nations .


East Timor claims its territorial specificity as part of the Portuguese Empire while the rest of Timor , and the Indonesian archipelago more generally, were colonized by the Dutch , an agreement dividing the island between the two. European powers having been signed in 1915 . In collaboration with local leaders, the Portuguese set up a system of forced labor that concerna the entire male population of working age from the beginning of xx th century. The colonial regime was replaced by the Japanese during the Second World War ; this occupation stimulated a resistance movement, the repression of which made 60,000 dead , or 13% of the population of the time. At the end of the war, the Portuguese regained control over the region, while the rest of the island proclaimed its independence .

The departure of the Portuguese and the civil war

According to the Portuguese Constitution in force before 1974, East Timor is referred to as the Portuguese Timor and constitutes an “overseas province” like all the extra-metropolitan territories of Portugal ( Angola , Cape Verde , Portuguese Guinea , Mozambique , Sao Tome and Principe , Macao and the Portuguese territories in India until 1961 ) 1 .

In April 1974 , the Movimento das Forças Armada , a leftist trend within the Portuguese armed forces , fomented a coup d’etat against the authoritarian regime of Estado Novo in Lisbon , the Carnation Revolution . The new regime declares its intention to quickly give independence to the Portuguese colonies (including those that are the scene of liberation struggles in the 1960s) 2 .

Unlike the African colonies, East Timor does not experience a war of national liberation. However, local parties are forming quickly. These include the Timorese Democratic Union ( União Democrática Timorense , UDT) which is the first to be created after the Portuguese Revolution. The UDT is originally composed of senior officials and plantation owners as well as tribal leaders 3 . These leaders have conservative origins and pledge allegiance to Portugal without ever having supported any integration within Indonesia. At the same time, the Fretilin (the Revolutionary Front for an Independent East Timor) is composed of civil servants, teachers and members of the urban elite. The Fretilin quickly becomes more popular than the UDT because it sets up several social programs for the population. Despite their opposition, the two parties form a coalition in January 1975 with the self common goal 3 . This coalition represents almost all the educated population and the vast majority of the inhabitants. Finally, there is one last minor party, APODETI (Democratic Association of Timor), which advocates unification with Indonesia but has a very low popular support 4 .

In April 1975, the UDT was divided by internal conflicts because the faction led by Francisco Lopes da Cruz wants to end the alliance with the Fretilin. Lopes da Cruz fears that the radical wing of Fretilin does not want to establish a communist regime in Timor. However, Fretilin denies these accusations and implicates an Indonesian plot to destabilize the country. However, on August 11, Fretilin receives a letter from UDT representatives informing them of the breakup of the coalition.

The UDT is actually doing a deft maneuver because a short time later, a show of force is organized in the streets followed by the takeover of vital infrastructure of the country such as radio stations, international communication systems, the airport, police stations etc. During the ensuing civil war, the leaders of each side lose control of their troops, and if the UDT and Fretilian leaders retain their restraint, their followers orchestrate bloody purges and murders. UDT leaders arrest more than 80 members of the Fretilien including their future leader Xanana Gusmão. In addition, members of the UDT kill a dozen Fretilin members in four different locations. Among these victims are a founding member of Fretilin and a brother of Vice President Nicolau Lobato . Fretilin replies by appealing to East Timorese military units trained by Portugal. Ultimately, the coup UDT causes a civil war that pits three weeks 1500 mento 2000 soldiers of the regular forces led by Fretilin. As a result of their allegiance to Fretilin, the East Timorese military organization is known as Falintil.

At the end of August, the remaining forces of the UDT retreat to the Indonesian border. A group of 900 people crossed the border and entered West Timor on 24 September 1975 , followed by more than a thousand others and leaving East Timor with Fretilin for the next three months. The death toll during the civil war is estimated at 400 people in Dili and perhaps 60 others in the hills. In addition, many supporters of the UDT are beaten and imprisoned by members of the Fretilin.

Indonesian motives

Initially, Indonesian nationalist motives were broader, and already, before independence, in the 1930s, a movement wanted to bring together the whole of Malay by adopting a common language for the Dutch East Indies: Bahasa Indonesian (or Indonesian ). After independence in 1949 , the project of bringing together Malaysia , Brunei , and East Timor was not so simple, but complex, especially since Singapore became independent of the British in 1965 . Yet what remained of Dutch colonialism, Dutch New Guinea, was successfully annexed in 1963to Indonesia, but its inhabitants are not from the Malay peoples, but are Papuans . The idea of ​​reuniting all Malay peoples into one state is being phased out by the 1960s, but it will come to another face much later, with membership in ASEAN . The last colonizer still in the region, with a well-isolated colony in the huge Indonesian archipelago: Portuguese East Timor, remained to be solved. at the time, Portugalin the new global framework, with decolonization, had no room for maneuver. In 1961, when India annexed Portuguese India, Indonesia had a principled support for driving out the latter colonial power. The plans to annex the Portuguese Timor date back to 1961, but the project was delayed by the annexation of Dutch New Guinea ( Irian Jaya ) between 1961 and 1963, and the anti-communist repression of 1965, which decimated a number of Indonesian army cadres, as well as the power struggles of the late 1960s between Soekarno and Suharto , which eventually prevailed.

Nationalists and hardline military, particularly the leaders of the intelligence agency Kopkamtib and special operations unit Opsus , saw the Portuguese coup opportunity to annex East Timor 5 . Major-General Ali Murtopo , chief of the Opsus and close adviser to Indonesian President Suharto , and his protege General Brigadier Benny Murdani , who led the military intelligence operations, were the spearheads of the annexation project. 5 .

Internal political factors in Indonesia in the mid-1970s, however, were not conducive to such expansionist sentiments. The 1974-75 financial scandal surrounding the oil company Pertamina forced Indonesia to exercise caution not to alarm foreign donors and bankers. Schwarz suggests that this fear had to play in the reluctance of President-dictator Suharto to follow the general desire to invade East Timor in early 1975 6 .

Such considerations, however, have been overshadowed by the fears of both Indonesians and Westerners that Fretilin’s left-wing victory will lead to the creation of a communist state on the Indonesian border. This could have been used as a base by hostile powers to Indonesia and pose a threat to the submarines of the West. It was also feared that the example of an independent East Timor might give rise to secessionist sentiments in other Indonesian provinces.

All these concerns have been successfully used to obtain the support of Western countries eager to maintain good relations with Indonesia, especially the United States which, at that time, completed their painful withdrawal from Indochina 7 . Military intelligence organizations had initially considered a strategic annexation without military action, with the intention of using the APODETI as integration vector 5 .

But Suharto’s ” New Order ” rather prepared the invasion of East Timor. There was no freedom of expression in the “new order” and from there, no need to consult the East Timorese either 8 .

In early September, no less than 200 Special Forces soldiers launched incursions, noticed by the US intelligence services, and followed in October by a conventional military attack. On October 16 , five journalists, known as the five Balibo and working for an Australian network of information, are executed by Indonesian forces on the outskirts of the town of Balibo 9 .


The Indonesian forces invaded East Timor. The Lotus operation ( Operasi Seroja ) was the largest military operation this nation 10 , 11 .

Operation Seroja

Operation Lotus ( operasi Seroja ) begins with naval bombing of Dili , and Indonesian troops are landed in the city along with 641 paratroopers who arrive by air 12 . The latter are then engaged in a fight of nearly six hours against the men of Falintil. According to Joseph Nevins, Indonesian warships are bombarding their own troops, and the transport planes are releasing some of the paratroopers in front of the retreating Falintil forces, and the Indonesian paratroopers are suffering significant losses. However, Indonesian forces quickly capture Dili losing only 35 men, against 122 for the Falintil.

On December 10 , a second invasion led to the capture of Baucau , the second largest city, and on Christmas day , between 10,000 and 15,000 soldiers were landed in Liquisa and Maubara . In April 1976 , 35,000 Indonesian soldiers were present in East Timor while another 10,000 were in West Timor. Most of the Indonesian military comes from the elite corps of the army. At the end of the year, 10,000 menoccupy Dili and 20,000 are deployed in the rest of the country. Overwhelmingly outnumbered, Falintil troops retreated in the mountains to conduct guerrilla operations 13 .

In cities, Indonesian troops begin to carry out assassinations against the population 14 . At the beginning of the occupation, Fretilin radio sent the following message: “Indonesian forces kill indiscriminately. Women and children are killed in the streets. We will all be killed … This is a call for international help. Please, do something to end the invasion. ” A Timorese refugee tells later attending rape and cold-blooded murders of children, women and traders Chinese 15 . The bishop of Dili, Martinho da Costa Lopessays that “the soldiers who landed began to kill all the people they could find. There were many corpses in the streets. All we could see was soldiers kill again and again 16 “. In one incident, a group of 50 men , women and children (including independent Australian reporter Roger East) are lined up along a cliff in Dili and killed, and their remains are thrown into the sea. Many similar killings take place in Dili; witnesses are ordered to observe and count aloud each person executed. In addition to supporters of Fretilin, Chinese migrants are also among the people to be executed and 500 of them are killed from the first day.

The Indonesian impasse

Although the Indonesian military continues to expand in East Timor, most residents are moving from the invaded towns and coastal villages into the mountainous interior. The forces of Falintil, including 2500 men of the former Portuguese colonial army retained their old weapons, significantly slow the progression Indonesian 17 . Thus, during the first months of the invasion, Indonesian control is mainly concentrated on large cities such as Dili, Baucau , Aileu and Same .

Throughout 1976 , the Indonesian military attempted a strategy of advancing troops on the coast of the island to parachute parachutists in the center of the region. However, it is a failure and the army must face a severe resistance Falintil. For example, 3,000 Indonesian soldiers take three months to take Suai , a southern city located just three kilometers from the coast. At the same time, the army continues to restrict the region’s access to foreigners and West Timorese while in August 1976, Suharto admits that the Falintil “maintains forces here and there”.

In April 1977 , Indonesians are deadlocked. Their troops did not progress for more than six months and the invasion has increased the opposition of international opinion to Indonesian politics 18 .

Encirclement and annihilation (1977-1978)

In early 1977, the Indonesian navy commanded missile patrol boats in the United States , Australia , the Netherlands , South Africa and Taiwan, as well as submarines in the United States. Germany . In February 1977, Indonesia received 13 North American OV-10 Bronco aircraft from Rockwell International with the official assistance of the US Government. The Bronco is an ideal device in the context of the invasion of East Timor because it is specifically designed for the fight against the insurgency movements in difficult terrain 19 . At the beginning of 1977,13 Broncos operate in East Timor, helping the Indonesian army to locate Fretilin’s positions. In addition to this new armament, 10,000 additional troops are sent to Timor as part of the launch of a new operation known as the “final solution” 20 .

This campaign is composed of two parts. First, the encirclement and annihilation campaign of bombing villages and mountainous East Timorese regions. This action must cause famine and defoliationground. The villagers are thus forced to leave their homes to take refuge in the lower regions where the soldiers only have to kill them on their arrival. The other survivors are placed in camps from which they can not leave. At the beginning of 1978, the entire civilian population of Arsaibai village near the Indonesian border was killed as a result of bombing and famine in retaliation for its support of Fretilin. At the same time, accusations implicate the use of chemical weapons by the Indonesian army because villagers claim to have found maggots in the plantations as a result of bombing 21. The success of the “encirclement and annihilation” operation allows Indonesians to move on to the second phase, the clean-up operation. During this time, children and men detained in the aforementioned camps must walk with their hands tied and in front of Indonesian troops advancing in the area in search of Fretilin militiamen. When these eventually be found, they must either surrender or pull Indonesian troops serving Timorese prisoners as human shields 22 . In the end, the operation “encirclement and annihilation” of 1977-1978 allows the Indonesians to considerably weaken the organization of Fretilin by eliminating most of its members including its leader, Nicolau dos Reis LobatoWho was killed by troops helicopter the 31 December 1978 , led by Prabowo Subianto 23 .

The period from the beginning of the invasion in 1975 to the successful end of the encirclement and annihilation operation in 1978 is the hardest of all the conflict. It costs the Indonesians over 1000 dead on the 2,000 killed during the period of occupation of East Timor 24 .

Fretilin as underground movement (1979-1999)

Militia survivors of the Indonesian offensive chose Xanana Gusmão as their leader in the late 1970s. However, he was captured by intelligence services near Dili in 1992 and replaced by Mau Honi , also captured in 1993 . It is then Nino Konis Santana who takes the lead of the movement. After his death in an Indonesian ambush in 1998 , he was replaced by Taur Matan Ruak . In the late 1990s, only 200 guerrillascontinue to lead the struggle in mountainous areas and the separatist idea has become the preserve of urban elites. In addition, the clandestine movement is largely paralyzed by the continual arrest of its members and the infiltration of Indonesian agents. The idea of ​​independence is then very utopian until the fall of Suharto in 1998 , replaced by President Jusuf Habibie who makes the decision to grant a referendum to East Timor in 1999 .

Losses East Timorese

In March 1976, Lopes da Cruz, leader of the UDT reports that 60,000 Timorese were killed during the invasion. A delegation of Indonesian aid workers confirms this figure. In an interview with The Sydney Morning Herald on April 5, 1977, Indonesian Foreign Minister Adam Malik says the death toll is ” 50,000 dead and perhaps as high as 80,000.” A figure of 100,000 victims is advanced by McDonald and Taylor 25 . Amnesty International estimates that one-third of the population of Timor-Leste ( 200,000) died because of military action, hunger and disease between 1975 and 1999. In 1979, the US Agency for International Development estimated that 300,000 Timorese were displaced in controlled camps by the Indonesian armed forces.

The monument of integration in Dili is a gift of the Indonesian government as a symbol of the end of colonialism .

Annexation and integration operation

In addition to its military actions, Indonesia is establishing a civilian administration. East Timor enjoys a similar status to other provinces with identical government structure. It is divided into kabupaten(departments), themselves subdivided into kecamatan (districts) then Desa(villages) as in Indonesia. By giving tribal leaders positions of power in the new structures, Indonesians hope to assimilate them more quickly. Indeed, although theoretically benefiting from a regime similar to other provinces, East Timor is in fact run by the Indonesian military. The new administration builds new infrastructure and increases productivity through investments. Productivity in the fields of coffee and double clove, but East Timorese farmers are forced to sell their products at low prices in village cooperatives.

The Provisional Government of East Timor was established in mid-December 1975. It is composed of leaders of APODETI and the UDT. At the same time, Vittorio Winspeare Guicciardi, the UN secretary – general ‘s special representative, tries to gain access to the control zone by Fretilin but remains stuck in Darwin , Australia because the Indonesian military is blocking access to the area. On May 31, 1976, a People’s Assembly composed of members chosen by the Indonesian intelligence services met in Dili and unanimously accepted the Act of Integration. Thus, on July 17 , East Timor officially becomes the 17 th province of the Republic of Indonesia. However, the occupation of East Timor remains a matter of public concern in many countries, of which Portugal and the United Nations have never recognized the Indonesian-installed government or the annexation of the region by Indonesia.


The role of the United States

The administration of American President Gerald Ford did not believe in the viability of the state of East Timor: for the Americans, this state, which occupied the east of the island of Timor, facing the Indonesian giant, and its huge archipelago posed a problem, especially since its nearest neighbor in the region was Australia, some 1,000 km further south, and crossing the sea. For the Americans, East Timor was a remnant , a “confetti” in the history of European colonialism, “lost” in the immense Southeast Asia . Moreover, for the Americans, attaching this territory to Indonesia was logical, given that Tetum, a local language spoken in East Timor, was also spoken in West Timor, under Indonesian sovereignty. This tiny state, faced with the Indonesian giant, was threatened from its birth, especially since Americans feared that the state would become communist, spreading communist ideas in Indonesia, whereas in 1965 a military coup de force might have eliminated to be between 500,000 and 1,000,000 Communists in Indonesia. After 1992 and the collapse of the USSR , the American position changed because the communist danger was averted, which could lead to the independence of East Timor since 1999. As far as communist China was concerned, the Americans were establishing diplomatic and commercial relations with this country, in the 1970s. If the Chinese supported the Khmer RougeCommunists in Cambodia , between 1976 and 1979, they could do nothing to help possible communist movements in this tiny territory, lost in the huge archipelago to the anti-Communist regime of Suharto. In the 1990s, the Chinese moved closer economically with the Suharto regime. With the independence of East Timor in 2002, the Chinese fear increased American influence in Southeast Asia, especially since the Chinese still want to annex Taiwan , after recovering Hong Kong and Macao from the Europeans.

The role of Australia

Australia’s role is rather that of a mediating country: Australia, although remote, was the closest country to East Timor in the region. Already, after 1949, she had accepted to receive many Dutch and Eurasian settlers who were fleeing Indonesia who had become independent of the Dutch. Australia, a country committed to the values ​​of human rights, was the country where many NGOs working in East Timor were based, denouncing Indonesian abuses. Between 1975 and 1999, Australia became the first country of refuge for refugees from East Timor. In 1999, during the independence of East Timor, Australia is seen as the guarantor country of the new country (militarily),seen as an Australian protectorate by Indonesian nationalists, and an extension of European colonialism (Australia having Elizabeth II as queen and head of state).

United Nations reaction

On 12 December 1975, the UN General Assembly approved a resolution stating that, “after hearing the statements of the Portuguese representatives, as a colonial power, concerning the events in the Portuguese Timor … deplores the military intervention of the armed forces. Indonesian Armed Forces in the Portuguese Timor and calls on the Indonesian Government to withdraw its armed forces from Timor-Leste without delay … and recommends that the Security Council take urgent measures to protect the territorial integrity of Timor-Leste as well as the inalienable right of its people to self-determination.

On December 22, 1975, the United Nations Security Council approved resolution 384 deploring Indonesian actions and regretting that Portugal has failed to fulfill its obligations as an administrative power. The resolution calls on all nations and all parties to respect the integrity of East Timor and its right to self-determination. It also urges the UN Secretary-General to send one of its representatives to assess the situation and decide whether the Council remains seized of the situation.

Daniel Patrick Moynihan , then United States ambassador to the United Nations, wrote in his autobiography that “the United States wanted things to be the way they were, and worked in that direction. The State Department wanted the United Nations to prove its ineffectiveness in all the measures it undertook [with regard to the invasion of East Timor]. This task has been entrusted to me, and I have pursued it with considerable success. ” 26 Later, Moynihan admitted that, as US ambassador to the United Nations, he defended a” shameful ” the Cold War against East Timor.

The Brazil , the largest country Lusophone world becomes the sponsor of the new state of East Timor to the United Nations, providing the largest contingent of peacekeepers there, and is one of the first states in the world – with Portugal and Australia – to open an embassy in this country.


According to Noam Chomsky , this invasion allegedly resulted from the presence of oil deposits in the seas of Timor and would be supported by the governments of Australia, the United States, France and Great Britain who would have provided arming Indonesia during the most critical periods of massacres 27 . In support of this theory, Chomsky primarily mentions:

  • The Austro-Indonesian Treaty (1989) authorizing the exploitation of oil fields.
  • The official recognition of Indonesia’s “annexation” of Timor by Australia.
  • The UN testimony of Benedict Anderson , specialist in the history of Indonesia.

In addition, Noam Chomsky has violently criticized the difference in treatment between the huge media coverage given by the Western media to the massacres of the Khmer Rouge communist regime in Cambodia , and the total lack of information on the occupation of East Timor by Indonesia, supported by the United States; despite such violent killings 28 .


  1. ↑ Ramos-Horta 1987 , p.  25.
  2. ↑ Ramos-Horta 1987 , p.  26.
  3. ↑ a and b Taylor 1999 , p.  27.
  4. ↑ Dunn 1996 , p.  6.
  5. ↑ a , b and c Schwarz (1994), p.  201 .
  6. ↑ Schwarz (1994), p.  208 .
  7. ↑ Schwarz (1994), p.  207 .
  8. ↑ ( in ) Jean Gelman Taylor , Indonesia: Peoples and Histories , New Haven and London, Yale University Press ,, pocket ( ISBN  978-0-300-10518-6 ,LCCN  2002152348 ) , page 377.
  9. ↑ Eyewitness account of murder of journalists in 1975 [ archive ] .
  10. ↑ Indonesia (1977), p.  39 .
  11. ↑ Budiardjo and Liong, p.  22 .
  12. ↑ Schwarz 1994 , p.  204.
  13. ↑ Dunn 1996 , p.  257-260.
  14. ↑ Hill, p.  210 .
  15. ↑ Ramos-Horta 1987 , p.  108.
  16. ↑ Taylor 1999 , p.  68.
  17. ↑ Taylor 1999 , p.  70.
  18. ↑ Taylor 1999 , p.  82.
  19. ↑ Taylor 1999 , p.  90.
  20. ↑ Taylor 1999 , p.  91.
  21. ↑ Taylor 1999 , p.  85.
  22. ↑ Gellately and Kiernan 2003 , p.  2003.
  23. ↑ “Presidential in Indonesia: Prabowo Subianto, hand man”  [ archive ] , International Radio France , July 8, 2014.
  24. ↑ van Klinken 2005 , p.  113.
  25. ↑ Taylor 1991 , p.  71.
  26. ↑ A Dangerous Place , Little Brown, 1980, p.  247 .
  27. ↑ ( in ) Noam Chomsky , Powers and prospects , South End Press, 1996 (ISBN  089608535X ) .
  28. ↑ Olivier Azam and Daniel Mermet , Chomsky & Cie, November 26, 2008.