School of Humanities and Social Sciences (HASS)

Companion to East Timor

International Solidarity

The independence of East Timor cannot be adequately understood without taking into consideration the role played by overseas support groups. These groups began as a result of the combined actions of only a few isolated individuals. The number of individuals increased over time and they grew less and less isolated, linking up with each other to share information and coordinate tactics. The cumulative force of their actions resulted in the creation of a global coalition of activists committed to the independence of East Timor. One such activist was Dr Andrew McNaughtan.

A multi-dimensional analysis of the independence struggle is available in The Independence of East Timor. The war was fought not only in the mountains, towns and villages of East Timor, but also in the cities of Indonesia, at the United Nations, in a number of countries around the world, and in the international media. The combatants fought each other for control of the land of East Timor. They also waged a long-running campaign to shape international perceptions of what the war was actually about. The weapons used by the combatants were not just bullets but newspaper articles, public talks, films, texts and protests in order to show that Western governments were actively involved in perpetuating the Indonesian occupation. The continuum of resistance between the armed freedom fighters in the mountains of East Timor, the clandestine resistance in the towns, and the international solidarity activists around the world was the most decisive factor in the war. Although outnumbered in many ways, the independence campaign enjoyed dynamism and flexibility as a result of the war's multiple dimensions. A setback in one theatre did not mean the end of the struggle. Solidarity meant, and still means, the active pursuit of justice. It meant confronting governments, politicians and others opposed to justice. This kind of solidarity was a major challenge for activists because politicians were often willing to support economic development, aid, charity and other uncontroversial ways of dealing with the issue. But when it came to obtaining a just solution to the problem, such as self-determination, activists had to work very hard to break through. The situation remains unchanged today; instead of campaigning for justice for East Timor, civil society tends to focus exclusively on development projects, academic works, and non-political cultural activities.

International solidarity activism went through six phases.

Phase One began before the Indonesian invasion. There were a few overseas supporters who managed to achieve a moderate degree of organisational coherence and structure by the time Indonesia invaded. The weight of evidence indicates that long before most foreign activists had met a single East Timorese, many of them had taken a position in support of self-determination. Much overseas support was forthcoming without any prompting from the East Timorese themselves.

Phase Two began as a response to the Indonesian invasion. Although Indonesian forces enjoyed overwhelming military superiority, Fretilin had managed to hold them to a military stalemate by the end of 1976. Fretilin was able to organize a functioning society in the mountains. But Western military support changed the course of the war. The Indonesian military's operations caused a widespread famine, resulting in mass civilian deaths between 1977 and 1979. A relatively small number of activists, primarily in the USA, Australia and Britain, generated pressure to end the famine.

Phase Three began under very grim conditions for the East Timorese. Military repression was at its harshest. It was extremely difficult for overseas activists to keep in touch with the situation inside the territory. Independence seemed a lost cause, and many solidarity groups disbanded in despair. Others refused to concede that independence was finished as an option. They continued to work on increasing public awareness of the human rights situation throughout the 1980s.

Phase Four began after the Santa Cruz massacre of 12th November 1991. The solidarity movement was able to go on the diplomatic offensive. It capitalized on the publicity generated by the massacre, and successfully challenged Indonesia's claims that East Timor's people were happy and well-integrated. There were growing links between Indonesian pro-democracy activists and East Timorese students in Indonesia. International solidarity achieved perhaps the most significant victory of the 1990s – the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to Bishop Belo and Jose Ramos-Horta.

Phase Five began with the onset of the Asian financial crisis and the implosion of the Indonesian economy. It was a period of confusion and retreat for the Indonesian diplomatic effort: its economy appeared to be collapsing, its president was forced to resign, pro-democracy protestors had gained momentum, and the international solidarity movement for East Timor was invigorated. Experiencing political and psychological dislocation, the Indonesian government finally agreed to hold a ballot on independence. The presence of foreign observers on the ground ensured that the population, although heavily intimidated, still managed to express its views at the polling booths. These observers – and the international publicity they generated through their connection to the international solidarity movement outside the territory – were perhaps the most serious obstacles in the path of the Indonesian authorities.

Phase Six was a very dramatic, intense phase. It thwarted the Indonesian plan to evacuate foreigners and reverse the outcome of the ballot. It compelled the deployment of a peace enforcement mission to East Timor.