Indonesia and Timor-Leste: from Occupation to Cooperation

24 November 2015

In a recent interview, Timor-Leste’s Prime Minister Rui Maria De Araujo characterised the relationship between Timor-Leste and Indonesia as ‘mature’, having steadily improved over the thirteen years since Timor-Leste’s independence.

This blog will explore the history between the two nations up to present-day circumstances. It will assess the validity of the Prime Minister’s claim and examine how two countries – with one having invaded and the other in very recent history, followed by a military reign of terror – have managed to overcome animosity and develop productive, bilateral ties, as well as to what extent this is true. Finally, it will consider the effects of this particular international relationship upon the Timor Leste’s populace, development and navigation of the international stage.

History of the Nations

The island Timor, Malay for “east”, is located in the south of Maritime Southeast Asia, north of the Timor Sea. The western section of the island, West Timor, was known as Indonesian Timor until 1975. It now forms part of Indonesia, along with an archipelago comprising of thousands of other Indonesian islands. Meanwhile the eastern section of the island is the nation Timor-Leste, or East Timor.


Credit: East Timor Map.

Indonesian Timor was a Dutch colony, formed from the nationalised colonies of the Dutch East India Company which was incorporated by the Dutch government in 1800. Timor Leste was on the other hand under Portuguese control, with the Portuguese having arrived to the region in 1515 and declaring it a colony in 1702.

During the Second World War, Japan occupied the island of Timor. This led to a bloody resistance guerrilla movement from the Allies along with Timorese volunteers, culminating in the Battle of Timor (1942-43). 40,000 to 70,000 Timorese lives were lost. Post-war, the resistance movement grew and continued to strengthen until eventually Indonesia established itself as an independent nation. Portugal however managed to re-establish control over Timor-Leste.

It was not until 1975 that Timor-Leste declared itself independent from Portugal. But nine days after this independence, the country was invaded by its Indonesian neighbours who claimed the territory for itself under the pretext of ‘anti-colonialism’, in that it was ‘reunifying’ the island. It was further claimed by Indonesian authorities that this was a response to requests for assistance made by East Timorese leaders themselves.

Regardless of the impetus for invasion, violent suppression ensued in an occupation that lasted 24 years, with over 100,000 conflict related deaths, from killings, resultant hunger and illness of both soldiers and civilians. This amounted to a third of Timor-Leste’s population. In parallel to Indonesian military presence in Timor-Leste, attempts to assimilate Timor-Lestians were made through a civil administrative presence, where Timor-Leste was awarded equal status to other Indonesian provinces and structured the same way, with districts, sub districts and villages.

The occupation involved routine and systematic torture, deliberate starvation, extrajudicial executions and even outright massacres, the most infamous of these the Santa Cruz or Dili massacre of 1991, where 250 pro-independence demonstrators were shot in a cemetery in the capital. Whilst this garnered media attention and condemnation around the world, and the UN continuously condemned the actions of the Indonesian government, U.S., U.K. and Australian governments remained supportive of Indonesia throughout the occupation. It was a 1999 United Nations-sponsored referendum which finally led Timor-Leste to autonomy in 2002.

While such treatment as that of Indonesia’s to Timor-Leste is always staggering and comprehending motives can be complex, the disregard of shared experience with a nation in quite such close proximity feels incomprehensible. The hypocrisy of the colonised becoming the coloniser is elucidated to some extent by Bertrand’s claim that Timor-Leste ‘had few prior links to the rest of the archipelago. As a former Portuguese colony, it lacked a shared colonial experience with other regions’[1].

Yet both regions comprise of a multitude of ethnic groupings and so in localised contexts, these connections may be stronger than for the nation’s overall. In his recent interview, Timor-Leste’s Prime Minister drew upon the very fact that the group of Timor-Lestians living inside an enclave of Indonesian territory share ‘the same culture, ethnicity and ethno-linguistic background’ as the Indonesians there, to emphasise their closeness.

Commission of Truth and Friendship

The Commission of Truth and Friendship (CTF) was established by the governments of Indonesia and Timor-Leste in August 2005 originally to investigate acts of violence that occurred in Timor-Leste around the 1999 independence referendum. The report took three years to conduct and in its 2008 conclusions it found that crimes against humanity had been committed by Indonesian security forces, who it stated were responsible for about 70% of violent killings. Government representatives of the very highest level were implicated.

Bilateral Ties Today: Triumphs and Tensions

Today, exactly one decade on from the commissioning of the CTF, the two nations enjoy predominantly harmonious relations, with strong political and economic ties, both governmental and corporate. The countries exchange military information and there is an Indonesian embassy in Dili and vice-versa, an East Timorese one in Jakarta. All nine border crossing points between the two countries are open. The nations are frequently cooperate internationally, most recently at a conference of South East Asian health ministers in Timor-Leste’s capital to agree on health priorities and work together on outbreak prevention and eliminating tropical diseases.

Indonesia is by far Timor-Leste’s largest trading partner, accounting for approximately 50% of its imports. Meanwhile Indonesia’s low-cost airline Citilink has recently opened a new route connecting Bali to Timor-Leste’s capital Dili, in an attempt to boost tourism and its economy. Timor-Leste’s Prime Minister himself spent nine years studying at Indonesian universities, which is not uncommon, there are currently about 500 Timorese students in their neighbouring country whilst about 700 Indonesian citizens are still living across the border in Timor-Leste.

Tensions do persist, principally around issues of land and maritime borders. Enclaves of territory remain part of Indonesia, but with its inhabitants issued identity cards by the Timor-Leste government, such as is the case in Nakuta village in East Amofoang sub-district. Other border issues remain unresolved in Noel Besi-Citrana and Bijael Sunan-Oben. Yet despite such ongoing and unresolved issues, there is a goodwill attitude in solving them cooperatively. Consultation over maritime borders has recently begun with commitment made in August between Prime Minister Araújo and Indonesian President “Jokowi” Widodo to negotiate unresolved land and maritime border issues by the end of the year. The Indonesian Ministry of Foreign Affairs will meet the government of East Timor in December to discuss border issues.

Other tensions stem from the CTF, which was not satisfactory to all. Timor-Leste NGO the National Alliance for International Tribunal (ANTI) wrote an open letter criticising the lack of public consultation with victims and condemning the fact the commission assigned institutional rather than individual responsibility. Further, Amnesty, ANTI and KontraS, the Commission for the Disappeared and Victims of Violence made a joint statement in 2013 that the report’s calls have been ignored whilst other shortcomings of the CTF’s final report were published in An Unfinished Truth. Last year, Amnesty International together with The Timor-Leste National Alliance for an International Tribunal (ANTI) called for both governments to expedite the establishment of a Commission for Disappeared Persons, something recommended in the CTF now seven years ago. The delay, they say, ‘highlights the continued lack of political will to address impunity and has prolonged the suffering of victims and their families’.


The two island-sharing sovereign states are inextricably connected in their past and present and their relationship has huge ramifications for Timor-Lestians. Timor-Leste, the first new nation of this century, was born with little infrastructure, extensive illiteracy rates, vast unemployment and serious malnutrition. The poverty of Timor-Leste is undeniably caused in part by Indonesia’s occupation and exploitation. But the same nation which inflicted such conditions eases them in part through its cooperation, investment and support of its development.

In a press conference in just August of this year, President Jokowi reaffirmed Indonesia’s commitment to help boost infrastructure development in Timor-Leste, signing two memorandums of understanding on agricultural and technical cooperation in the forestry sector.

Looking beyond economic support, the diplomacy skills developed and practiced as a result of the bilateral relationship has led to pioneering international politics with The Commission of Truth and Friendship becoming the very first modern bilateral truth commission. Moreover, these diplomacy skills are now being employed further ashore, extending to Australia and New Zealand where embittered disagreement over maritime borders and fuel reserves exist. Timor-Leste and Australia are about to embark upon a legal battle over a seabed petroleum field where a lucrative contribution to the economy will be contested for and Timor-Leste will very much be the underdog, requiring all the expertise it has amassed in its short life.

Much commentary has been made on the nature of Indonesian involvement in Timor-Leste’s development. While the Commission for Reception, Truth and Reconciliation recommended a reparations program, analysis from the East-West Centre argues that after occupation ‘reparations are not limited to monetary compensation’ but can materialise rather in multiple forms. This has certainly happened on community based levels, such as the victim advocacy conducted by HAK (Law, Human Rights and Justice. Translates in Indonesian as Hukum, hak Asai dan Keadilan) set up in 1996 by young East Timorese and Indonesian activists. Further examples are workshops on reparations and recovery for female victims.

Legal expert Karolus Kopong Medan from Indonesia’s East Nusa Tenggara province believes local diplomacy to be the solution to border disputes, arguing it ‘offers traditional leaders and the local community the opportunity to resolve the dispute as per prevailing customs and culture, since not all border disputes can be resolved … between governments’. He believes in ensuring ‘brotherly relations among the Timorese remain intact, despite the fact that they have a different citizenship’; emphasising how successful bilateral ties are not just about politicians shaking hands but about amicability between citizens living beside each other.

Seemingly adhering to this, ahead of the bilateral-government meeting in December to discuss border issues, the head of the border management office has committed to inclusion of community leaders from the areas to attend the meeting, considering they own the lands in Nakuta village and “involving the leaders is important to gain a fair result and to avoid social conflicts among the local people living in border areas”.

Nothing can take back the lives lost, terror inflicted and land destroyed under the Indonesian occupation of Timor-Leste. Yet the involvement and responsibility shown by Indonesia today is something that many other nations could do well to reflect upon. Portugal itself, which after colonising the land for centuries then failed to safeguard the transition to independence, is far from exempt from blame for Timor-Leste’s poverty and alarming malnutrition. Yet we do not see a Portuguese Truth Commission, nor any reparations made of any sort.

[1] Bertrand, J. (2004) Nationalism and Ethnic Conflict in Indonesia. Cambridge University Press. Page 136.

Disclaimer: This blog is a space for discussion and personal reflection. Any opinions expressed within the blog are those of the author and are not necessarily held by HART. Individual authors are responsible for the accuracy of statements made within the blog.

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