A Tale of Timor and New World Disorder?

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NAPSNet Special Report

Recommended Citation

Susan Lynne Tillou, "A Tale of Timor and New World Disorder?", NAPSNet Special Reports, September 16, 1999, https://nautilus.org/napsnet/napsnet-special-reports/a-tale-of-timor-and-new-world-disorder/

September 16, 1999

This is the latest in an ongoing series of articles on the crisis in East 
Timor.  This article is by Susan Tillou, Research Associate and 
Coordinator of Asia Studies Programming at the Council on Foreign 
Relations.  Ms. Tillou served this summer as a District Electoral Office 
with the United Nations Mission in East Timor.  This article is also 
available on the Intellectual Capital website at:

A guide to all NAPSNet East Timor Special Reports is available online at:


A Tale of Timor and New World Disorder? 
by Susan Lynne Tillou *

It was early afternoon when our United Nations Mission in East Timor 
(UNAMET) electoral team arrived at the small village of Kaimege in the 
Western district of Liquia.  As we drove up to the village, men, women 
and children ran out to the street just to greet our vehicle with the 
only English phrase universally known throughout East Timor: "Hello 
Mister."  The excitement level was high and there was no doubt that the 
Timorese saw the United Nations as the vehicle for their expression of 
self-determination.  After 24 years of harsh Indonesian rule in the 
territory, the East Timorese finally felt justice would prevail.

Curious and somewhat hesitant, the villagers had been waiting some time 
for our arrival.  My teammates--another district electoral officer from 
Germany and two Timorese local staff--and I opened the doors of our 
Landrover and used the car stereo to broadcast a recorded message from 
United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan.  The message we had come to 
deliver was simple: UNAMET would be the neutral facilitator of the August 
30 popular consultation, the East Timorese voters' choice would be 
secret, and no matter the outcome of the referendum, UNAMET would remain 
in East Timor.

At the conclusion of our voter education session, we solicited questions.  
A middle-aged farmer named Afonso stood up.  "What will UNAMET do to 
guard our safety after the vote?"

Until now we had understood the main security concern to be the run up to 
the election.  The intimidation in our district had been especially 
severe--militias had control over the town and, we had understood, were 
in collusion with local government officials, police and the military.  
In the months prior, a majority of the people sympathetic to the 
independence cause had been tortured, killed or run into the nearby 
hills. The town had recently become notorious after militia and army in 
coordination with police massacred at least forty civilians who sought 
refuge from recent fighting in the town's church.  Liquia proper, with an 
estimated population of 22,000, had become a veritable ghost town.  
Little did we know this was a small glimpse of something worse to come.

As our team continued to other villages that day, this particular 
question was posed again and again.  Even our locally-recruited UNAMET 
staff asked what kind of protection UNAMET would provide them as they 
left the voting sites on the day of polling.  Quickly, it became evident 
to us in the field that the Timorese would have no problem risking their 
lives--even coming down from the hills to villages which they escaped in 
fear--just to cast their votes, but all knew the punishment for this 
freedom of choice would come later.

The following morning, Afonso came to see me at our registration center.  
He had been hiding in nearby bushes waiting for our electoral team to 
arrive.  He told me that during the evening, two militiamen had come with 
guns to his house under orders from the village chief to kill him.  His 
wife delayed them at the door and he escaped out the back of the house.  
He had been sought out because he attended the UNAMET voter education 
meeting and dared to ask a question.

In a short amount of time on the ground, the collusion between the 
militia, and the local authorities--including the police and army--became 
blaringly obvious.  Yet, bound by the security arrangements established 
in the May 5 accord signed by the Secretary General and the Portuguese 
and Indonesian Foreign Affairs Ministers, UNAMET was forced to place 
shaky trust in Indonesian security forces to protect its operations and 

In the pursuing days, we learned of similar situations of intimidation 
and threat directly related to our presence and interaction with the 
people in Liquia.  Reports to the police were futile, most times even 
working against our best intentions because of the close collaboration 
between the militia and police.  The reality was sobering: UNAMET had no 
secondary recourse to ensure the safety of the voters, the local or the 
international staff.  At the same time, the resolve of the East Timorese 
to meet with us and even work for us was astounding.  They put their full 
faith in the 72-nation presence that was the United Nations mission to 
allow their voice to be heard and, ultimately, to protect their 

To be sure, it was no small miracle that the United Nations was able to 
orchestrate such an elaborate election functionally, logistically and in 
such a short time period. The electoral process was immensely successful, 
but the imperative to rely only on the Indonesian authorities for 
security was flawed from the beginning.

In addition, there was an illogical and dangerous gap between UNAMET 
Phase One (the popular consultation) and Phase Three (the implementation 
of the outcome of the vote).  Since Phase Three could not begin until 
after the Indonesian Parliament (MPR) met and considered ratifying the 
results of the vote, there was a temporal no man's land between the 
announcement of the results on September 4 and the MPR session scheduled 
for sometime in November--a period where chaos could rule with little, if 
any, repercussions.  UNAMET was bound by the May 5 Agreement to retain a 
presence during Phase Two, but no role had been established for the civil 
affairs officers who were to remain on the ground during these two 
months.  It remains difficult to understand why the vote was not 
scheduled closer to the time of the new MPR session to avoid this gap.

On the day before the popular consultation, I held one last meeting with 
my local staff to run-through each of their duties.  Again the issue of 
their personal security came up.  Frustrated by a lack of contingency 
planning, I told them each to pack their bags and to be prepared to go 
wherever they needed for safety directly after the polling.  I even drove 
one local staff member too frightened to stay in Liquia to a bishop's 
compound in Dili as the rest of my team continued to the airport to leave 
the country.  Even considering our difficult security circumstances and 
living conditions, the most difficult part of the mission for many UNAMET 
staff was having to leave behind those who risked so much in order to 
vote--and those who risked even more to work for UNAMET .

As evidenced by the killings of local staff directly after the polling, 
and the ensuing destruction and carnage since the September 4 
announcement of the results, Habibie has not been able to control the 
military-backed militias running rampant in East Timor.  There had been 
some debate about whether or not Habibie retained enough power to control 
the situation, but the one man who surely did, General Wiranto, certainly 
was not held accountable soon enough.

As East Timorese ran for the hills or were forcefully deported to 
militia-run camps in West Timor, the United Nations made an announcement 
that they were evacuating all remaining staff in Dili.  This statement 
was revised later to say that a small presence would remain, but the 
announcement -- and the eventual evacuation of the compound -- sent a 
clear message to the East Timorese voters that they had been abandoned by 
the international community that had promised them so much.

Unfortunately as the United States and the West considered slapping 
Indonesia's hand by invoking trade and economic sanctions, the militia 
and the army were given time and space to complete their mission of 
revenge.  The belief that economic sanctions might have somehow 
influenced the Indonesian military's will and actions was a logical 
stretch.  The Indonesian military's actions at the highest levels are 
more likely based on internal Indonesian politics than international 
relations.  Why would military officials with so much invested in the old 
Suharto regime not want to promote anarchy in order to avert peaceful 
transition to a more reform minded government, especially one which might 
support the secession of an Indonesian province?

Of course, the lower ranks of the military and the militia have an 
additional incentive to seek revenge through a scorched-earth policy.  
Although possibly for different reasons, there is no doubt that the 
various levels of Indonesian security authorities collaborated in this 
campaign of terror.  Still, knowing of this complicity, the international 
community has felt obligated to bend over backward on the terms of the 
international peacekeeping force so as to avoid further destabilizing the 
Indonesian political situation.

The lessons to be drawn from the experience in East Timor are difficult: 
freedom of choice and placing trust in the United Nations may have a high 
cost, and there is no legitimate and competent region-wide security 
regime in Asia through which such crises can be addressed.  Through its 
failure to provide security for the UN mission, Indonesia has tarnished 
its image worldwide, potentially ruining chances for a quick and stable 
transition to democracy and recovery from the recent financial crisis.  
In addition, the ability of the military to spotlight Habibie's lack of 
power undercuts his chances of being elected president this Fall and even 
suggests the potential for a military coupe.

Embarrassingly pushed aside in Kosovo, the mission in East Timor was a 
chance for the UN to regain credibility.  Instead, the failure to ensure 
effective security measures to buttress the UN's work on the ground 
allowed for yet another stain on the its record.  There is a larger 
question of why a coalition of nations would unilaterally intervene for 
humanitarian purposes in Kosovo and not East Timor.  Since the Indonesian 
annexation, over 200,000 Timorese have lost their lives--possibly 
thousands more in the past week alone.  This is the myth of the Blair and 
Clinton doctrines--a direct illustration of the gap between ideology and 
the chaos that is the new world order.

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