East Timor Independence Referendum

Twenty years ago, on the eastern half of a far flung island nestled in the middle of maritime Southeast Asia, a democratic exercise of power was held for the first time in over twenty years. It was an outcome that few, even many of its supporters, would have considered possible even a few years prior. But at the close of the 20th century, the inhabitants of the eastern half of the island of Timor elected to become a free, independent nation by voting to separate from its longtime occupier Indonesia.

The brutal regime of Indonesian dictator Suharto had invaded and annexed East Timor in late 1975, shortly after the small province declared its independence from Portuguese colonization. For the next quarter-century, the Indonesian military subjected the mostly Catholic, and Portuguese and Tetum speaking Timorese inhabitants to an all encompassing campaign of destruction of their culture, religion, and language. This was all part of an attempt to homogenize them into Indonesia’s nationalist “New Order.” These programs of indoctrination and cultural erasure were accompanied with large scale political violence and mass-terror conducted by the Indonesian Army and its allied militias. Warrantess arrests, imprisonment, torture, summary exexcution or outright disapearance were all risks taken by any East Timorese -or even Indonesian- citizen that sought to even mildly question or critique this occupation. The exact death toll of the 25 years of occupation is unknown, but contemporary scholars estimate the number as high as 300,000, out of a population of only 860,000 in 1999; indeed, many historians have termed the occupation a genocide.

By the 1980’s the mass atrocities, cultural eradication, and dictatorial occupation of East Timor by Indonesia had become unacceptable to their neighbors like Australia and New Zealand, former colonizer Portugal, and the United Nations. After several failed attempts to broker an agreement, Indonesia, Portugal, and the UN General-Secretariat finally reached an accord in May of 1999. This agreement held for a referendum to take place that would offer East Timorese voters the choice of either greater autonomy as a special province within Indonesia or outright independence. The date for the vote was set for August 30th, 1999.

In the leadup to the poll, international supervisors from the UN and observers from other countries and NGOs entered East Timor to help set up and run the referendum. Jeff Fischer, an elections expert and current adjunct professor at Georgetown, was at that time the UN Mission to East Timor’s Chief Electoral Officer. He recently wrote a blog post for Democracy and Society about his experience on the job, which can be read here. Mr. Fischer regards the actual conducting of the referendum as a success, a process in which the East Timorese people freely and fairly exercised their right of self-determination, despite a sustained campaign of harassment and intimidation of citizens by anti-independence militias in the months leading up to the poll. The ultimate outcome of the ballot was independence, with about 80% of voters opting for independence, while around 20% choosing to stay with Indonesia as an autonomous province. Most importantly, the vote reflected a strong popular will of ordinary citizens to participate in democracy, with almost 97% of eligible voters successfully casting a ballot.

While the voting was largely successful, violence and unrest quickly returned to East Timor, with anti-independence gangs razing towns, and the Indonesian army forced thousands of civilians into West Timor, under the control of Indonesia. Things deteriorated to the point that the United Nations chose to deploy a peacekeeping mission. As Indonesia’s soldiers and police withdrew from the province, blue-helmeted peacekeepers attempted to disarm rival militias and gangs for three years from 1999 to 2002, when East Timor formally became an independent state. Sadly, over one thousand more East Timorese died over that period.

The legacy of the 1999 referendum is quite complicated, with many deaths occurring directly because of it, and East Timor’s political and economic future being left uncertain. But it was ultimately a successful exercise in democratic governance, which set a new country on the path of citizen rule down which it aspires to continue today. It also left a template for other regions seeking independence to follow. For instance, the looming (yet frequently delayed) Bougaineville independence referendum from Papua New Guinea has followed many of the same guidelines established by the Timor vote. Twenty years on, while the Bougainvelle referendum must learn from the mistakes of the East Timorese referendum, it can also be informed by that vote’s ultimate success.