A Portuguese colony for over 400 years, East Timor was invaded by Indonesia in 1975 and remained under tight control until 1999 when the population of 800,000 voted for their independence in a UN-sponsored referendum. On May 20th, 2002, East Timor became an independent country.
The people of East Timor have 16 distinct, indigenous languages, and more than 30 sub-dialects, as well as an array of traditions and cultural practices (ETRA Inc, January 4, 1999). After the 1999 referendum vote, in which nearly 80 percent of the East Timorese population voted for separation from Indonesia, pro-Indonesian militias – with help from Indonesian security forces – launched a campaign of intentional violence throughout the entire territory. More than 1,000 civilians were killed, and with a multitude of people being beaten, raped, shot, and stabbed. Over 500,000 were displaced from their homes (UNTAET, 2001). Within days of the voting, over 70 percent of East Timor’s infrastructure was ruined. More than 250,000 people were bused or fled to Indonesian territory, mainly in West Timor, where more than 60,000 remain till this day as refugees and prisoners of army-backed militias (Human Rights Watch, August 2000).
Although full independence for East Timor has been implemented, a peaceful future is not assured. In UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan’s recent report to the Security Council, he stated “that hard-line militia may still pose a long term threat” (Annan, Kofi, UN Security Council January 17, 2002).
Victims: These include East Timorese refugees in West Timor, especially women and children. Militia leaders in West Timor refugee camps intimidate refugees and spread disinformation to discourage them from returning to East Timor (Human Rights Watch, 2002). Although the militia stronghold over the camps has decreased, there are an estimated 60,000 refugees who remain displaced (Annan, UN Security Council January 17, 2002). More than 547 refugees have died in the camps of West Timor by July 2000 (Associated Press, July 19, 2000). Hunger and disease caused an additional 300 refugees to die by March 2001 in just one of the camps in West Timor (BBC News, March 28, 2001).
Pro-Indonesian Militias: Armed and trained by the Indonesian army (TNI), the Pro-Indonesian militias planned and initialized the violence against the East Timor people in 1999, and continue to intimidate and harass refugees in West Timor. Although violence against the East Timorese people is lessening, the following abuses demonstrate human rights violations committed in the past year.
Nature of Abuse
- Frequent Physical Brutality: Rape, torture, and trafficking add to the victimization of women and children in refugee camps. Pro-autonomy leaders are at risk for violence as well. On March 7, 2001, a planned grenade attack on East Timor independence leader Xanana Gusmao was foiled by police. The attack was orchestrated by a pro-Indonesian militia group CDP-RDTL, who repeatedly threatened to kill Gusmao (LUSA. March 7, 2001).
- Restricted Speech, Press and Political Access: Militia leaders in West Timorese refugee camps spread disinformation, intimidate, and harass East Timor refugees from returning home.
Rape and Trafficking: Women and children are victimized in the militia-controlled refugee camps in West Timor. Between 1,200 and 2,000 children kidnapped in East Timor in 1999 remain hostages in different parts of Indonesia (AGENCE FRANCE PRESSE, January 25, 2002). An example of the brutality occurring is the 15-year old East-Timorese girl that was rescued from West Timor where she had been held as a sexual slave in a militia-controlled camp (Human Rights Watch, 2002). The girl was kidnapped when she was 13 and continually raped for 17 months by the militia-leader of the refugee camp (Los Angeles Times, December 4, 2001). If not secluded in the camps, some children have been taken to orphanages in Java. More have been sold or handed to strangers to work in sweatshops or as household servants (Los Angeles Times, December 4, 2001). Many girls ranging in age from 11 to 20 are caught up in trafficking (OXFAM, December 2001). Because they need money, parents will sell their girls as prostitutes. A report to the international press in November 2000, stated that 33 East Timorese pregnant women claimed that “they had been abducted and forced to serve as sex slaves for the TNI in West Timor” (U.S. State Department, March 4, 2002).
As its own independent country, the future for East Timor looks hopeful. This optimism stems from increased international awareness, and a strong, charismatic leader. Moreover, the repatriation of refugees fosters good relations with the Indonesian government, which permits greater chances of success.
However, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has estimated that 60,000 former residents of East Timor remain in the camps. Since the government of Indonesia cut off all refugee assistance on January 1, 2002, the remaining refugees complain of hunger and insecurity (AGENCE FRANCE PRESSE, May 10, 2002). They suffer high rates of poverty, unemployment, and poor health. Indonesian authorities say that refugees have until May 21st, 2002, to decide if they want to be repatriated back to East Timor, or resettle in Indonesia. The majority of refugees who have still yet to decide are former civil servants, police, soldiers, militiamen, and their families, who did not vote for an independent East Timor, and were members of the pro-Indonesian militias that spurred the 1999 violence.
Agence France-Press. (AGENCE FRANCE PRESSE) “Up to 2,000 kidnapped Timorese children held in Indonesia: UN.” January 25, 2002.
Agence France-Presse. (AGENCE FRANCE PRESSE) “East Timorese refugees ponder their future days before independence.” May 10, 2002.
Annan, A. Kofi. “Report of the Secretary-General on the United Nations Transitional
Administration in East Timor.” United Nations Security Council. January 17, 2002.
Associated Press. “At least 547 Refugees Have Died In Indonesian W Timor: Governor.” July 19, 2000.
BBC News. “Timor Refugees dying of hunger.” March 28, 2001.
ETRA Inc. “Language.” East Timor Relief Association Inc. January. 4, 1999.
Human Rights Watch. “Unfinished Business: Justice for East Timor.” August 2000.
Human Rights Watch. “World Report 2002.”
Los Angeles Times. “Timor’s Missing Children.” December 4, 2001.
LUSA. “UN Police Abort Grenade Attack on Gusmao, Detain Three.” March 7, 2001.
OXFAM Community Aid Abroad. “Women reach out: East Timorese refugees in West Timor.” December 2001.
TimorNet. “An Information Service on East Timor / Timor Loro Sae.” April 2000.
University of Coimbra, Portugal
UNTAET. “East Timor – UNTAET Background.” United Nations Transitional Administration in East Timor. 2001.
U.S. Depatement of State. “East Timor: Country Reports on Human Rights Practices.” March 4, 2002. Online: