This chapter outlines the process of separating East Timor from Indonesia, and associated political conflict. The account includes the role of the Indonesian military and local militias, UN intervention, mass exodus to West Timor, and post-ballot investigations of human rights abuses. The chapter concludes with brief commentary on nation-building problems facing East Timor, including relations with Indonesia.
Processes of separating East Timor from Indonesia reflected an extreme conflict between principles of national sovereignty and universal human rights. Although its cause attracted support from human rights activists throughout the world, the international community and a reluctant Indonesia ultimately conceded the legitimacy of East Timor's claims for self-determination on the basis of the technicality of its former status as a Portuguese rather than Dutch colony.
Responding to persistent international pressure, and continuing East Timorese resistance, Indonesia began talks with the UN and Portugal in mid-1998, indicating willingness to grant a degree of autonomy. In January 1999, President Habibie rejected the notion of autonomy as an interim arrangement, along lines proposed by East Timorese leaders over several years (Ramos-Horta 1994; Spaeth 1996), instead announcing that if Indonesia's offer proved unacceptable, the government would recommend to the MPR annulment of the original act of integration (Tap VI/MPR/1978). Agreement was reached on 5 May 1999 on modalities for a UN supervised ballot, with Indonesia retaining sovereignty until the process was completed. It also undertook responsibility to ensure an environment free from violence and intimidation (United Nations 1999a).
The TNI expanded training and mobilisation of local militias from early 1999. Unarmed staff from the United Nations Mission for East Timor (UNAMET) experienced sustained harassment, forcing closure of outlying centres. This disrupted voter information and education programmes, conveying a message that UNAMET was unable to offer protection. Television evidence of TNI and police collaboration with militias outraged international opinion, but requests for international peacekeeping forces to operate alongside Indonesian security forces were firmly rebuffed.