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Indonesia: East Timor
Country Study > Chapter 5 > National Security > The Armed Forces in the National Life > National Defense and Internal Security > East Timor


The East Timor conflict that began in the mid-1970s represented a somewhat different case. East Timor -- then the colony of Portuguese Timor -- was not claimed as a natural part of Indonesia after independence, as Irian Jaya had been. Upon its departure in early December 1975, the Portuguese colonial administration turned over its arms to the leftist, antiIndonesian Fretilin faction. After fighting had broken out among various political factions in the colony and Fretilin had declared East Timor's independence, Indonesian military forces, comprising ten battalions, invaded East Timor on December 7. The Indonesian government took the position that because Portugal was unable to reestablish effective control over its colony, it was necessary for Indonesian forces to restore order at the request of local political leaders. A provisional government petitioned Indonesia for incorporation, and East Timor became the nation's twenty-seventh province -- Timor Timur -- in July 1976. Thereafter, ABRI's military campaign against Fretilin guerrillas in the province was treated as an internal security operation to subdue armed insurgents. It should be noted, however, that many foreign observers believe that the majority of East Timorese did not truly support integration. A succession of United States government administrations have maintained a continuous policy that the United States accepted the integration of East Timor into Indonesia, although not recognizing that the referendum that took place on the issue was legitimate.

By 1988 the situation in East Timor had changed dramatically, with emphasis on rural development, civic action, and improvement of the economic infrastructure. Over half of the military forces in the province were involved in civic action missions, including infrastructure construction, teaching, and agricultural training. Although incidents of unrest sometimes occurred in Dili, they generally reflected economic grievances and social conflict brought about by high expectations for employment and social infrastructures that had not had sufficient time to develop. Ironically, after hundreds of years under a colonial regime that left a legacy of 5 percent literacy, the greatly improved level of education of Timorese youth brought a classic example of unfulfilled rising expectations. Coupled with economic domination by non-Timorese migrants, discontent made exploitation of the situation by the small number of remaining Fretilin supporters inevitable. Periodic heavy-handed army security operations also fueled opposition.

Tragically, a major incident occurred in Dili in November 1991 in which at least 50 and perhaps more than 100 civilians were killed or wounded by army troops reacting to a political demonstration. Unprecedented national and international attention as well as a changing view of ABRI's role in society prompted Suharto to take the extraordinary step in his supreme commander's role to appoint the first-ever National Investigation Commission to look into the incident, identify those at fault, and take corrective action. In its preliminary report in December 1991, the commission found that the army had overreacted to provocation and had used "excessive force" contrary to established procedures. Based on the findings of a separate Military Honor Council, in February 1992, the army chief of staff directed that five officers be censured, at least eight soldiers and officers be court-martialed for major offenses, and six senior officers in the chain of command be relieved of their posts. To its credit, the army itself reacted with anger and dismay to the incident and supported the subsequent disciplinary actions taken against army personnel. Within six months of the incident, three senior officers were dismissed, two others were relieved from active duty, another was suspended, and four junior officers were sentenced to jail terms of between eight and fourteen months.

The army and the government, both subjected to intense international as well as domestic scrutiny (the incident was extensively and openly covered in the press), realized their higher responsibilities and responded in a mature and conciliatory manner to their critics at home and abroad. It may well be that this incident, which provoked the most significant controversy since the 1965 coup attempt, will prove to have been a watershed in the way ABRI viewed its role in society and was in turn viewed by the populace. Suharto's initiative in directing investigative efforts, which emphasized his role as supreme commander of the armed forces, was a dramatic assertion of his continuing authority over the armed forces leadership, most of whom were twenty years younger than he. His public apologies for the incident also emphasized the embarrassment it had caused Indonesia.

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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