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Indonesia: East Timor
Country Study > Chapter 4 > Government and Politics > The Structure of Government > Local Government > East Timor


East Timor, the former Portuguese Timor, was incorporated into the Republic of Indonesia in 1976 as Timor Timur Province, although Portugal never recognized what it saw as the forcible annexation of its former territory. This incorporation followed Indonesian armed intervention in December 1975 in a reaction to a chaotic decolonization process and the declaration of the Democratic Republic of East Timor in November 1975 that had led to civil war. From Jakarta's point of view, this state of affairs held out the alarming prospect of a communist or radical socialist regime emerging under the leadership of the Revolutionary Front for an Independent East Timor. Moreover, Fretilin's rhetorical invocation of kinship with other Third World communist revolutionary movements raised the specter of a national security threat. Jakarta formalized its takeover of East Timor in July 1976 after the Indonesia-sponsored People's Representative Council requested that East Timor be integrated into Indonesia as a province. The human cost of the civil war -- Indonesian military actions and the famine that followed -- was heavy. Estimates of Timorese deaths because of the conflict between 1975 and 1979 range from 100,000 to 250,000. The ability of Fretilin to mount a low-intensity resistance, the draconian countermeasures adopted by Indonesian military forces against suspected Fretilin sympathizers, and charges of Indonesian aggression against East Timor combined to make the problem of the status of East Timor a continuing foreign policy problem for Indonesia in the early 1990s. For many individuals and nongovernmental organizations, as well as for some foreign governments, Indonesian policy in East Timor became the touchstone for negative attitudes toward the Suharto government. Internally, however, Indonesia considered East Timor an integral part of the unitary state, a status that, despite foreign criticism, was non-negotiable.

On paper, East Timor in 1992 conformed administratively to the general Indonesian pattern. In fact, however, de facto military rule existed. For ten years, Jakarta-appointed governor Mario Carrascalão, a Timorese committed to integration, sought to moderate interethnic conflict and resolve intra-Timorese divisions among indigenous political parties. Carrascalão called upon the Timorese people to understand that there were only three political groupings in Indonesia: Golkar, PPP, and PDI. Although the central government invested heavily in Timor's development with more Inpres funds per capita than any other province, resentment of Indonesian rule persisted and was growing in the early 1990s. The problem of integration in Timor was similar to that of Irian Jaya: the imposition of Indonesian political culture on a resistant population. Although Indonesian officials insisted that opposition to Jakarta's rule was confined to Fretilin hardliners, other forces were at work in ways that aggravated a sensitive political environment. The Roman Catholic Church staunchly defended the Christian identity of the Timorese in the face of an influx of Indonesians from other provinces. The church worried about the government's condoning, to the point of encouraging, Islamic proselytization, and about its own freedom of action in a national political system disciplined to Pancasila democracy. Pope John Paul II's four-hour stopover in Dili, the capital of East Timor, on October 12, 1989, called international attention to the church's extraordinary position in the province. The disruption of traditional and Portuguese institutions, as well as forced resettlement of segments of the population, led to land disputes, official corruption, and economic exploitation by non-Timorese Indonesians attracted to the province. These grievances were exacerbated by a heavy-handed military presence not always respectful of Timorese rights. One consequence of Indonesian rule was the spread of literacy and skills acquisition by a younger generation of Timorese who were faced with growing unemployment but who also were politically conscious. It was the emerging militancy of the East Timorese youth, rather than the scattered Fretilin elements, that seemed to pose the greatest challenge to security and stability in the province in the early 1990s.

Indonesian officials who were aware that on a per capita basis East Timor had received a disproportionate share of developmental funds interpreted Timorese resentments as ingratitude. Nevertheless, the combination of military pressure and economic and social development programs had progressed to the point that on January 1, 1989, East Timor was proclaimed an open province to which travel and tourism were permitted on the same basis as elsewhere in Indonesia. Some tensions followed a minor demonstration during the pope's visit, but a reshuffling of the lines of military command and a more determined effort by the new military leadership in the province to improve civil-military relations were expected to ease tensions even further. These hopes were dashed on November 12, 1991, when troops fired on youthful marchers in a funeral procession that had become a proFretilin political demonstration in Dili. At least 50 and perhaps more than 100 people were killed.

The National Investigation Commission appointed by Suharto found the army guilty of "excessive force" and poor discipline in crowd control. The senior officer in East Timor, Brigadier General Rafael S. Warouw, was replaced, as was his superior in Bali; three officers were dismissed from the army, and at least eight officers and soldiers were court-martialed. However, the punishments were relatively light when contrasted with the harsh sentences meted out to Timorese arrested as instigators of the incident. Nevertheless, the president's acceptance of a report that directly contradicted the army's contention that the shootings had been in self-defense and his willingness to take action against military personnel were pragmatic decisions that took the risk of offending ABRI members who preferred solidarity. The central government's main concern seemed to be to contain the international criticism of what some foreign observers called the Dili Massacre.

The November 12 affair confirmed that there were still strong social and political problems in East Timor. It also raised questions as to the relative efficacy of the differing military approaches. Some officers felt that the relative tolerance shown by the military to the restless youth since 1989 was too permissive and encouraged opposition. The Dili affair also pointed out the strong emotions on the military side, which led to the unauthorized presence of members of the local military garrison who were widely accused of misbehavior. The investigation commission mentioned this in its official report, stating "another group of unorganized security personnel, acting outside any control or command, also fired shots and committed beatings, causing more casualties." Carrascalão called the replaced Warouw the "best military commander East Timor has ever had." Tragic as it was, the November 12 incident prompted both military and civilian government agencies to conduct a broad review of development and security policies in East Timor including the question of civil-military relations. In fact, Carrascalão's successor, Abilio Soares, was also a civilian as had been widely expected.

Data as of November 1992

Last Updated: November 1992

Editor's Note: Country Studies included here were published between 1988 and 1998. The Country study for Indonesia was first published in 1993. Where available, the data has been updated through 2008. The date at the bottom of each section will indicate the time period of the data. Information on some countries may no longer be up to date. See the "Research Completed" date at the beginning of each study on the Title Page or the "Data as of" date at the end of each section of text. This information is included due to its comprehensiveness and for historical purposes.

Note that current information from the CIA World Factbook, U.S. Department of State Background Notes, Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade Country Briefs, the UK's Foreign and Commonwealth Office's Country Profiles, and the World Bank can be found on

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