The Indonesian Occupation: 1975-1999

Australians are very concerned and friendly to Timorese people, but what the Australian government has done, side with Indonesia, I will not speak of, I might get too angry. [I]… feel very sad and disappointed.

Leongue Tjungue,
East Timor,

In 1974 the Salazar-Caetano dictatorship fell in Portugal. In response to the new government’s decolonisation policies, political parties formed hurriedly in East Timor. Fearing the growing popularity of the leftist Fretlin Party and urged on by Indonesia, the conservative UDT Party seized power.

This brazen act triggered a civil war. Fretilin prevailed quickly and on 28 November 1975 it proclaimed the Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste. Indonesia, citing cold war fears of a ‘communist’ neighbour, invaded East Timor a week later, formally incorporating it into Indonesia in July 1976.

Indonesia avoided media scrutiny with a press black-out and the execution of foreign journalists. Australia and the West silently supported Indonesia’s actions, Australia recognising the annexation in 1978.

Falintal, the armed wing of Fretlin, vastly out-numbered and out-gunned, offered fierce resistance to the Indonesians causing severe casualties. It was not until 1979 that Indonesia totally controlled East Timor.

By that time savage fighting, massacres, large-scale population ‘re-settlement’ and famine had taken a horrific civilian toll. Possibly one third of the population of 700,000 in 1975 died during the Indonesian occupation.

This was a period marked by a large military presence, human rights violations, torture and the violent suppression of dissent. Outside visits were banned until December 1988.

During this time the East Timorese remained opposed to Indonesian rule. Falintal, under Xanana Gusmão, adapted to fight a guerrilla war but also looked to political solutions.

In 1986 a united front of all local and overseas pro-independence groups, including UDT, was formed. Civil and student groups passively resisted the occupation. With Timorese Catholic Church support, the push for independence grew.

Students from Escola Female Secondary School parading in Dili in June 1990.

Students from Escola Female Secondary School parading in Dili in June 1990. Conditions improved from the 1980s with reduced fighting, a stronger economy and the intervention of international agencies such as the International Committee of the Red Cross. The provision of education, roads and other infrastructure increased during this period. Nevertheless, Timorese culture was eroded, unemployment was high and many of the improvements benefited Indonesian immigrants or the military rather than loc
Photographer Hugh O’ Shaughnessy. Courtesy Hugh O’ Shaughnessy and The Arquivo e Biblioteca da Fundação Mário Soares, The Archives & Museum of East-Timorese Resistance 

Indonesian troops fighting in the streets of Dili

Indonesian troops fighting in the streets of Dili against determined Falintal resistance, 7 December 1975. The Indonesian invasion and later military campaigns were marked by indiscriminate killing, rape, systematic plunder and the torture and starvation of prisoners and internees.
Courtesy The Archives & Museum of East-Timorese Resistance, donated by Mário Carrascalão 05735.002.012