Popular Consultation in East Timor: Voting Over Violence Determines Sovereignty – But Justice is Fleeting

By Jeff Fischer

August 30 is the 20th anniversary of the voting in East Timor for the country’s independence from Indonesia.  The balloting was termed the Popular Consultation and was mandated under the Agreement between the Republic of Indonesia and the Portuguese Republic on the Question of East Timor, signed on May 5, 1999 by those governments and the United Nations (UN).  The agreement mandated the UN to supervise and administer the voting. The balloting was conducted by the United Nations Assistance Mission in East Timor (UNAMET). Other examples of international supervision and administration of elections include Cambodia (1993), Bosnia and Herzegovina (1996), and Kosovo (2000), among others.

I was Chief Electoral Officer for UNAMET and responsible for administering the voting.  The Popular Consultation was one of those occasions when the ballot was employed to determine the territorial status of an entity.  However, this independence came at a tremendous human cost; in a wave of retaliatory post-election violence triggered by the 78.5 percent vote for independence, Indonesian security forces and their militia proxies were responsible for the murder of 1,200 to 1,500 persons, making it one the deadliest elections in modern history.  Additionally, at least 400,000 persons were forcibly displaced by the violence or by the direct actions of Indonesian forces. While there were investigations into the violence, justice for the victims has been fleeting.

From the early 1600s, the Dutch and Portuguese fought over Timor. Ultimately, they divided it, with the Dutch controlling the western half and the Portuguese the eastern half. In 1950, West Timor was incorporated into the Dutch East Indies when it became the Republic of Indonesia, while East Timor remained a Portuguese colony until the mid- 1970s. In 1974, Portugal sought to establish a provisional government and a popular assembly that would determine the status of East Timor. Civil war broke out between those who favored independence and those who advocated integration with Indonesia. Unable to control the situation, Portugal withdrew.

In November 1975, East Timor declared its independence for the first time. Just nine days later, Indonesia intervened militarily.  In July 1976, Indonesia integrated East Timor as its 27th province, killing thousands of East Timorese in the process.

Beginning in 1982, successive UN Secretaries-General held talks with Indonesia and Portugal aimed at resolving the status of the territory. In June 1998, Indonesia proposed a limited autonomy for East Timor within Indonesia. Following negotiations based on this proposal, a set of agreements between Indonesia and Portugal were signed in New York on May 5, 1999.  The two governments entrusted the Secretary-General with organizing and conducting a “popular consultation” in order to ascertain whether the East Timorese people accepted or rejected a special autonomy for East Timor within the Republic of Indonesia.

Despite violent clashes between opponents and supporters of the autonomy proposal, Secretary-General Kofi Annan repeatedly expressed the determination of the UN to fulfill its responsibilities to the people of East Timor.  He stressed that threats and intimidation would not prevent the East Timorese from deciding their own future. In a reconciliation attempt prior to the elections, UNAMET facilitated an historic meeting between the pro-independence Armed Forces for the National Liberation of East Timor, known by its portuguese acronym FALINTIL, and the Indonesian Armed Forces (TNI) at the main FALINTIL cantonment site in East Timor. The two sides agreed to discuss cantonment,the laying down of arms, and possible disarmament, however, such a reconciliation did not occur.

An independent Electoral Commission monitored the UN mission’s electoral activities. Despite an extremely tight timetable, a high level of tension, and the Territory’s mountainous terrain, poor roads and difficult communications, UNAMET registered 451,792 voters among the population of just over 800,000 in East Timor and abroad. On voting day, August 30, 1999, some 98 percent of registered voters went to the polls.

On Sept 3, 1999, the UN announced the result of the popular consultation: 94,388 or 21.5 percent of East Timorese voted in favor of the special autonomy proposal and 344,580 or 78.5 percent voted against.  Following the announcement of the result, pro-integration militias, supported by Indonesian security forces, launched a rampage throughout the territory.  

Unable to control the post-ballot violence it had fostered, the Indonesian government agreed to accept an offer of assistance from several governments, including Australia, New Zealand, the Philippines and Malaysia.  In mid-September, following two days of consultations, the Security Council voted unanimously to set up a multinational force by adopting resolution 1264, until replaced by a UN peacekeeping operation. The resolution also called for the eventual formation of a Transitional Administration of East Timor.  The Security Council authorized the multinational force (INTERFET) under a unified command structure headed by Australia to restore peace and security to the region.

As Indonesian Armed Forces and police withdrew from the area, authority for East Timor was transferred to the UN.  Subsequent to a formal recognition of the earlier consultation result by the Indonesian People’s Consultative Assembly, the UN Security Council established the United Nations Transitional Administration in East Timor (UNTAET) on October 25, as an integrated, multidimensional peacekeeping operation responsible for the administration of East Timor during its transition to independence. 

UNTAET consisted of a governance and public administration component, a civilian police component of up to 1,640 civilian police, and an armed United Nations peacekeeping force, equivalent in size to INTERFET (the multinational force under unified command headed by Australia).  

After the initial Popular Consultation ballot, UNTAET began a process of transformation and institution-building while the means for sustainable development and secure economic growth proceeded.  When civil registration ended for the Territory’s first democratic elections in June 2001, 778,989 East Timorese had been registered and issued temporary identity cards. On August 30, 2001, voters elected a Constituent Assembly and a new East Timorese government, which would eventually replace the Transitional Cabinet created in 2000. The territory’s first constitution was signed on March 22, 2002, followed by presidential elections in April. Francisco da Amaral and Xanana Gusmão were the only two candidates.  Popular independence leader, Xanana Gusmão was announced as President-elect of East Timor after capturing 82.7 percent of the vote. The Constituent Assembly was transformed into the country’s first parliament on May 20, 2002, whereupon East Timor became an independent nation, Timor-Leste.

The mechanisms for transitional justice for those victims involved international, Indonesian, and Timor-Leste initiatives. (Timor-Leste became the official name of the new country).  These included the UN’s Commission of Inquiry on East Timor, three UN Special Rapporteurs, the Indonesian Human Rights Commission, UNTAET’s Serious Crimes Unit (SCU) and its East Timor Commission for Reception, Truth and Reconciliation.  Finally, in 2002, the Ad Hoc Human Rights Court in Indonesia was established by Indonesian authorities. There were 12 trials involving 18 defendants. Six of the defendants were convicted with sentences ranging from 3 to 10 years. Among those convicted were military officers, a militia leader, political leaders, and civilian officials, all regarded as leaders of the 1999 violence.  

However, in April 2008, the Indonesia Supreme Court reversed the convictions of all defendants in the East Timor electoral violence cases.

As a result, any retrospective review of the Popular Consultation experience must be one of mixed outcomes.  First, it speaks to the necessity of the values-based ingredient of genuine political will without which the terms of any political agreement can be breached.  Second, it reveals weaknesses in the transitional justice mechanisms. While multiple international commissions and instruments were employed to investigate and convict the perpetrators, at the end of the day, convictions were reversed with no avenues of subsequent appeal.  However, from another perspective, it is a showcase of political courage on the part of the Timorese people and demonstrates one example of elections as an instrument to determine sovereignty whose legitimacy and outcomes were ultimately not rejected even by its fiercest opponents.



Jeff Fischer currently serves as a Senior Electoral Advisor for the Electoral Education and Integrity Practice Area at Creative Associates International, Inc. He also teaches graduate-level courses in the Democracy and Governance Program at Georgetown University, including International Electoral Policy and Practice, Electoral Integrity, and Electoral Policy Study Groups, the latter of which is in cooperation with USAID.