Tragedy or Betrayal? The United Nations Consultation in East Timor

Nineteen years after the 1999 referendum in Timor-Leste, in which people voted more than 78% for Independence, on a voter turnout of over 98%, we reprint observer reports of the ballot and what followed. This account by Randall Garrison, now a member of Canada’s parliament, is reprinted from Tok Blong Pasifik, December 1999, published by the Pacific Peoples’ Partnership, a Canadian NGO based in Victoria, BC. Click here for the entire issue.

Randall Garrison was in East Timor from the end of July to early September 1999 as the Co-Coordinator of the International Federation for East Timor (IFET) Observer Project.

At 4:30 AM on August 30 the sound of gunfire broke the still of the night at the IFET Observer Project headquarters
near the centre of Dili. As we struggled out of sleep and toward an assessment of the danger, smoke rose from a house down the road. A quick decision had to be made as to whether our teams should fan out across the city to finish the job they had come to do, to observe the vote on the question of independence for East Timor. Or had the situation become too dangerous? Were a few gunshots and a house afire evidence of one last attempt at intimidation before the vote or did they foreshadow a bloody and horrible day to come? If this was happening in Dill with its heavy international presence, how much worse might it be in the countryside where there was only a handful of observers to act as the eyes of the world?

The IFET contingent had begun to arrive in East Timor more than a month earlier to observe the consultation process to determine whether East Timor would remain part of Indonesia or become independent. The situation was odd in that the parties to the agreement regarding the consultation were Portugal, the former colonial power in East Timor, and Indonesia, the nation that had invaded East Timor twenty-four years earlier. No East Timorese had been part of the talks. Instead, Portugal and Indonesia had agreed that East Timor would be offered a choice between remaining
within Indonesia as an autonomous region or embarking on a transition to independence under UN supervision. Stranger still was the provision whereby Indonesia would be responsible for security during the consultation. This meant that the same Indonesian security forces who had invaded East Timor and been responsible for the deaths of over 200,000 people were now to keep the peace to ensure that a free and fair vote on East Timor’s future could be held.

It was surprising that the CNRT, the pro-independence coalition in East Timor, had accepted the May 5 agreement given its obvious flaw on the security question. Yet after more than twenty years of resistance to Indonesian rule, the CNRT concluded that this might be the only opportunity to find a peaceful end to the conflict. So the CNRT supported the UN-run consultation process, even though its leader, Xanana Gusmao, would remain in prison in Jakarta during the campaign. Gusmao ordered Falintil, the armed wing of the East Timorese resistance, to withdraw to designated areas and maintain a cease-fire throughout the consultation.

Even more surprising was that Indonesia had agreed to a vote on the future status of East Timor at all.
Indonesia continued to insist that it had rescued East Timor from chaos and civil war in I 975 and that the Timorese were now happy to be part of Indonesia and benefit from its generous assistance. Government censorship had ensured that little or no information contradicting this view ever reached the public in the rest of Indonesia. This situation persisted even after the 1991 massacre in which Indonesian security forces killed more than one hundred people in Dili. Indonesia had little to gain internally from such a vote. Even if East Timor opted to remain within Indonesia, allowing a vote in East Timor seemed guaranteed to inflame pro-independence sentiment in other troubled provinces like Aceh and Irian Jaya/West Papua. The Indonesian army feared the vote would threaten national unity and its own prestige.

Leaflet recruiting observers for IFET, printed by Canadian Action for Indonesia and East Timor, 1999.

So why did Indonesia cave in to outside pressure on East Timor? The international community had remained virtually silent when Indonesia seized the former Portuguese colony. For developed nations like Canada and the United States, the resources and markets of Indonesia were clearly more important than the fate of the EastTimorese people. Even in the aftermath of the Dill massacre only a few nations suspended aid to Indonesia and all of those did so only temporarily. Indonesia had never before faced a serious threat of international economic sanctions as a result of its actions in East Timor.

Yet in 1999, things had changed. Indonesia found itself desperately in need of international financial support as it continued to reel from the 1997 collapse of the rupiah. For President Habibie the vote offered a way to keep international financial support flowing and provide a boost to the reform image he so badly needed if he were to have any chance of retaining power in a future election. General Wiranto reluctantly ordered the Indonesian army to withdraw to its barracks and to turn over responsibility for security to the Indonesian police.

Under the May 5 agreement, the United Nations Assistance Mission in East Timor (UNAMET) was mandated
to conduct the entire consultation process, from the registration of voters to the counting of ballots. The international community was invited to provide independent observers to monitor implementation of the agreement. IFET had to move quickly as the vote was scheduled for August, little more than three months after the May 5 agreement had been signed in New York.

The IFET coalition accepted the invitation to provide observers based on a commitment to support East Timor’s right to self-determination. In publicising their findings, observers would help validate both the fairness of the UN-run process and the outcome of the vote. By providing an international presence in East Timor, observers also hoped that violence during the process would be less likely. But would the Indonesian government or conditions on the ground in East Timor allow observers to do this work?

At 4:30 PM on July 30 I took my first walk around Dili with the other newly arrived Canadian observers. IFET had an office up and running in the capital, yet the IFET team still numbered less than a dozen. Neither the still tiny international presence nor the recently announced delay in the vote were encouraging. Could a vote actually be held safely and were we, as volunteers, really prepared for the task ahead? We stood on the waterfront, daunted by the challenge before us and chilled by the atmosphere in Dili, which was a curious mix of hope and fear. A sense of hope was conveyed in the sincerity with which the East Timorese spontaneously thanked international observers for coming, from the children shouting “Hello, Mister” to those who simply shook our hands with tears in their eyes. Yet in any contact beyond initial greetings, what inevitably followed was a plea begging observers not to leave after the vote.  It was clear that having observers present provided confidence in the consultation process and a measure of reassurance about security. But it was also clear that  the Timorese feared violence from those who opposed the consultation and its likely outcome.

It was clear that there was some support in East Timor for maintaining ties with Indonesia (the ‘autonomy’ option on the ballot). But it was also clear that leaders of the pro-autonomy forces were most often those with close personal ties to Indonesian government officials or security forces. Indirect government support for the pro-autonomy forces was apparent. There is no other possible explanation for the financial resources at their disposal, nor the open use of government facilities and vehicles for their campaign. Yet it was clear to all that pro-autonomy forces were a minority and could not win without violence and intimidation.

In March of 1999, when rumours that Indonesia might agree to a referendum began to circulate, the Indonesian army began to assist in organising militias. The military financed, armed and trained some twenty private, paramilitary groups across East Timor. These groups were made up of local East Timorese, mostly young, unemployed men. They were given little more than T-shirts, sometimes a gun, more often a machete. But more importantly, they were given the lead role in the army’s desperate campaign to avoid a vote for independence.

Excerpt from a letter home from an IFET observer, 12 August 1999.

For us as observers it was easy to see that this was not an ethnic conflict nor a civil war in any ordinary sense. It is true that fear of violence had caused many non-Timorese to flee earlier in the year. By July most of the transmigrants were already gone. Many professionals had also left, leaving classrooms unattended and a A pro-autonomy campaign rally severe shortage of doctors. Yet there were no reports of attacks on the many non-Timorese who remained in Dili. Nor did Catholic-Moslem differences play a role in the conflict. Never did I hear pro-independence feelings expressed as anti-Indonesian on a personal level.

Any hostility expressed by pro-independence supporters was directed at the Indonesian government, its security forces, or their Timorese accomplices. From the outset, fear in East Timor was as visible as hope. It was evident that the pro-autonomy forces were running an escalating campaign of violence and intimidation with the goal of derailing the consultation process. If that was not possible, then they hoped to intimidate enough pro-independence voters to turn the results in their favour. Militia members spread rumours that the Indonesian government would know how each person voted, with the obvious implication that retaliation could be expected for voting against Indonesia. By mid-August pro-autonomy forces were threatening a blood bath if the independence option won.

At 10:00 PM on August 21 the IFET coordinating group met. We had reports in hand from the twelve teams we now had in the field. Tensions in the group were high. The UN had announced that the vote would proceed on August 30. IFET had a difficult decision to make. Could we justify proceeding with a vote in the conditions we had observed? Could the outcome of a vote conducted in a climate of violence and intimidation ever be described as ‘free and fair’? At the same time, the registration of voters had, in fact, been carried out successfully by UNAMET despite intimidation. As well, there were no calls from East Timorese to delay the vote, except by those who had opposed the consultation from the beginning. We also had to take into consideration that many Timorese feared that if the vote were further delayed, it might never be held. Indonesia not only failed to provide security as it had promised in the May 5 agreement, throughout the consultation the militias operated with the open complicity of the Indonesian security forces. It is illegal to possess arms in Indonesia, let alone carry them publicly. Yet as IFET observers, we all witnessed militia members brandishing weapons in public, often in the presence of security forces. Militias were openly in control of many towns and maintained road blocks which allowed them to control traffic in and out of most towns. On more than one occasion the police privately excused their lack of action saying they could do nothing because of the militias’ connection with the army.

An impression may have been created by the international media that the situation in East Timor was one of a peaceful campaign followed by a sudden explosion of violence. Nothing could be further from the truth. IFET observers had already witnessed shootings in Dili and an attack on student and refugee groups in the town of Same during broad daylight in the presence of the Indonesian police. There were nighttime attacks on pro-independence offices in Dili and virtually every other town in East Timor. Key community leaders had been assassinated, including the traditional chief of Los Palos. IFET had reported these incidents to the UN and to the international media. We had privately expressed our concerns to UNAMET senior officials about security on the day of the vote and about the uncertain period that would follow.

As the vote approached, observers began to be targeted directly. Many times IFET observers were threatened with violence at militia roadblocks. Twice our local drivers were kidnapped. Nevertheless, on the night of August 21 IFET volunteers began our discussion and decision-making with a common position. We unanimously agreed that we would stay through the vote and as long as we could afterwards. Having committed ourselves to providing an international presence, we could not simply pack up and leave. But could we continue to support holding the vote? Well after midnight we ended our discussion by agreeing to support proceeding with the vote on August 30.

In a letter to UN Secretary General Kofi Annan dated August 24 we publicly expressed our alarm about the security situation in EasTimor. We called for Indonesia to disarm the militias before the vote, noting the obvious capacity of Indonesia to control the groups it had created. We stressed the need to bring in armed peacekeepers for the day of the vote and to provide an ongoing international presence in the event of a pro-independence outcome. As much as
both precautions were needed, we knew neither were likely to be taken; nevertheless, we agreed to support continuing the process. Would we regret this decision? Were we sanctioning a disaster?

At dawn on August 30th thousands began to stream to the polls. The mood was more grim than festive as voters waited in long lines to cast their ballots. Despite the campaign of intimidation, by the end of the day an unbelievable 98% of East Timorese had voted. IFET teams were able to observe the voting at two-thirds of the polling places in East Timor and reported only one major incident of violence. Despite the many flaws of the UN system, on the ground UNAMET had many dedicated international and local staff committed to making the consultation process work. They carried out their responsibilities effectively in most difficult circumstances. Despite insinuations by the militias of pro-independence bias on the part of the UN, not a single incident of UNAMET staff attempting to influence the vote was documented.

The actual count was to be delayed for a few days as all the ballots were to be mixed together and counted in Dili so that no one would know regional or local results. Immediately after the polls closed, however, the situation rapidly deteriorated outside Dili. There was an attack on the ballot boxes in Ermera and our observers in Oecussi reported much of the town was on fire. By nightfall IFET was forced to begin emergency evacuations of teams from Oecussi, Ermera, and Aileu. We also began preparations for evacuating other teams and perhaps the observer project as a whole.

The delay before the announcement of the vote created an eerie period of calm in Dili. IFET tried to remain as visible as possible to show that international observers were still present, though an exodus of journalists and UN officials had begun. The day after the vote Aaron Goodman and I went round East Dili. In talking with ordinary people we found universal fear, with virtually every family planning to leave for the hills. Packing had already begun. As soon as the count was known violence was expected.

It was no surprise when it was announced that more than 78% had voted in favour of independence. And it was no surprise that the wave of violence that had begun in rural areas now engulfed Dili as well. However, this was not random violence. UN local staff were attacked and the UNAMET headquarters was besieged. Community leaders were targeted, including priests and nuns. Militia members went house to house setting fires until more than 80% of the buildings in East Timor had been destroyed. More than 100,000 East Timorese were driven across the border into West Timor at gunpoint, apparently so that it would appear that thousands were fleeing independence.

At 3:00 P.M. on September 1 Aaron and I left for Bali on a chartered plane crowded with journalists. We were among the first of our group to leave. Many IFET volunteers were reluctant to go, arguing that we, like UNAMET, had made a commitment to stay. Yet it wasn’t clear whether observers could do any good at this point. It was now unsafe for observers even to leave the houses where they were staying. However, I believe that during the consultation we had been able to provide independent confirmation that the outcome of the vote did, in fact, reflect the will of the Timorese people. As well, I believe the presence of IFET along with other observer organisations helped restrain violence. But the time came when we could not be effective because it was no longer safe to do our job. The last of the IFET volunteers were evacuated from Baucau by the Australian air force on September 7.

The violence and destruction that followed the pro-independence vote on August 30 raises many difficult questions. Could a less violent outcome reasonably have been expected for a conflict that had already resulted in the loss of over 250,000 lives? Or was the process agreed upon for the UN Consultation so flawed from the outset that this nightmarish outcome was inevitable? Were there things that those in charge failed to do that could have prevented the explosion of violence? Or were the East Timorese simply misled by the world community with the promise that their security would be guaranteed during and after the vote? Debate on these questions will go on as the rebuilding of East Timor under UN control begins. The UN Human Rights Commission has begun an inquiry to answer what, for me, is the central question, which is not could things have been different, but who was responsible for things as they were? Before we can turn the page of history on the UN Consultation in East Timor we must find a way to hold accountable those who were responsible for hundreds, if not thousands, of deaths and the complete destruction of the social and physical infrastructure of a nation. We must begin that quest by looking at the actions of the Indonesian security forces.

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