Skip to main content /WORLD /WORLD


Subscribe to one of our news e-mail lists.
Enter your address:

CNN Mobile

CNN Websites



CNN International



FLASHBACK: East Timor, August 1999

East Timorese display jubilance over their right to vote in 1999  

By CNN's Joe Havely in Dili

DILI, East Timor (CNN) -- On August 30, 1999 East Timor stood up and was counted.

After 24 years of conflict and bloodshed under Indonesian rule, the people of Indonesia’s 27th province were given something they had never had before -- the chance to have their say in how they wanted to be ruled.

In a climb down few had dared think even possible even a year earlier, Indonesia’s President BJ Habibie announced that he was prepared to give the territory -- taken by force by Indonesian soldiers in 1975 -- a free vote on its future.

Originally scheduled to take place on August 8, the UN-sponsored vote was delayed because of worsening violence and intimidation by pro-Indonesian militias armed by the military.

The violence was, however, just a foretaste of what was to come.

Timor: A legacy of torment  

Eventually on August 30 the vote went ahead and hundreds of thousands of East Timorese began queuing before dawn for the historic poll.

The choice

Thousands who had fled to the forest to escape the militias came out of hiding, quietly determined that they would not be scared away from having their say.

Before them, a choice: To accept Habibie’s offer of wide-ranging autonomy within Indonesia, or to reject it, effectively cutting ties with Jakarta and become a new nation.

At the end of the day a massive 98.6% of those entitled to do so had cast their vote -- an overwhelming 78.5% of them chose independence.

ballot boxes
Hundreds of thousands voted in the 1999 polls  

An all to brief period of euphoria followed.

The vote to cut East Timor loose outraged the pro-Indonesian militias and their masters in the Indonesian military -- both of whom complained of widespread voting irregularities.

The Indonesian military, which once regarded the territory as its personal fiefdom and had invested some 20,000 men in bringing it to heel, implemented a scorched earth policy.

Like a spoiled child spurned, they set about orchestrating a mass rampage across the territory.

Reign of terror

The reign of terror that followed killed hundreds, possibly thousands and left East Timor a smoldering ruin.

Around two thirds of the population fled the territory, many of them ended up in refugee camps in Indonesian West Timor where they remained subject to the violent whims of the militiamen.

Tens of thousands are still there.

Women were gang raped, homes and businesses were burned to the ground and an estimated 85% of the territory’s infrastructure was destroyed.

Unarmed, the UN mission brought in to oversee the vote was forced to withdraw -- a move many at the time condemned as an unforgivable betrayal.

It was a humiliation for the organization and many international workers bade tearful farewells to their East Timorese colleagues, fearing they would never see them again.

Most of the world’s journalists who had come to report on the vote also pulled out -- but a few chose to stay on, camping out in the UN compound with hundreds of refugees, risking a far from certain future to stick with a story they had by then become personally involved with.


In the words of one who stayed on, “we felt that if there was no-one left reporting what was happening here, there would be no pressure on the world to do something to stop it.”

Facing mounting international criticism President Habibie allowed a UN intervention force, led by Australia, to enter what Jakarta still regarded as officially its territory.

Three weeks after East Timor voted to reject Jakarta’s rule, the first peacekeepers arrived, armed with a strong Security Council mandate to do whatever was necessary to restore order.

jubilant voters
Peace in East Timor is fragile  

The first troops met strong resistance from the Indonesian soldiers who regarded the new arrivals as an invasion force.

Although there was little in the way of direct clashes, subsequent reports documenting the landing of the intervention force point to a growing concern among Australian officials that the action could spark a war with Indonesia.

The destruction they found was in many areas almost total -- house after house, business after business had been burned to the ground.

Almost the entire government workforce had fled the territory and the entire public records had been reduced to ashes.


Within weeks the UN was back in force in East Timor, setting about establishing a transitional administration to see the territory through to independence.

The task they faced then was enormous -- building a country and the powers to run it from scratch.

Two years later much has been achieved. Power and water supplies have been restored, shops are reopening, homes are being rebuilt.

Nonetheless the scars -- both physical and mental -- remain obvious today.

Almost none of those responsible for the instigating the violence of 1999 have been brought to justice and many East Timorese fear that their fragile peace could be all too easily shattered.

East Timor’s first free election on August 30, 2001 will be a giant leap down the road towards full independence --- but it will remain dependent on the outside world for a long time yet.

See related sites about World
Note: Pages will open in a new browser window
External sites are not endorsed by CNN Interactive.



Back to the top