East Timor’s Fight for Freedom Holds Lessons for Palestine

In 1975, Indonesian dictator Suharto occupied East Timor. Despite the West’s support for Suharto, the people of East Timor won their independence 24 years later — and their struggle may be a precedent for Palestinian liberation today.

Suharto announces his withdrawal from position as the president of Indonesia on May 20, 1998. (Paula Bronstein / Liaison via Getty Images)

After waging a twenty-four-year struggle for liberation, on May 20, 2002, the Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste joined the international community as an independent nation.

From the mid-1970s until the 1990s, however, for many, the idea of East Timorese liberation seemed impossible. Following the 1975 invasion led by President Suharto, Indonesia had occupied and ruthlessly oppressed East Timor while Western countries provided arms and political cover. Western leaders feted and supported Suharto, while excusing and denying the death toll and propagating a false narrative regarding the origins and nature of the conflict.

The key to the Timorese people’s success was a multipronged campaign involving military resistance, an organized nonviolent civil resistance, and effective international diplomacy. An international solidarity movement supported the latter, working to counter pro-Suharto Western narratives and demonstrate the reality of the situation under Indonesian occupation.

Although the Palestinian movement faces a different set of circumstances, the East Timorese struggle stands as a precedent for Palestinian national liberation, as well as a potential source of inspiration and strategic insight. And, for supporters of Palestinian liberation in the Western world, the international movement for East Timor highlights the contribution that international solidarity can make.

Invasion, Resistance, and Denial

After a campaign of destabilization enabled by Australia and other Western powers, Indonesia invaded East Timor in December 1975. The Suharto regime’s attempts to quell Timorese resistance — led by the Revolutionary Front for an Independent East Timor, known by its Portuguese abbreviation Fretilin — were catastrophic, leading to a prolonged conflict, severe human rights abuses and a large loss of life.

The Indonesian military campaign aimed to encircle and annihilate areas controlled by Fretilin, committing widespread, systematic human rights violations and war crimes. These included destroying food stores, crops, and agricultural facilities as well as killings, torture, sexual violence, and detention. Western-supplied arms — including US OV-Broncos and Australian Nomad aircraft — enabled the onslaught.

The Indonesian army forced large numbers from rural areas into Indonesian-controlled camps, where inadequate food, shelter, and medical support caused widespread, artificial famine. According to demographic analysis, Indonesia’s twenty-four-year occupation claimed the lives of up to a third of East Timor’s population. At the time, Western supporters of the aggression scoffed at the use of the term genocide — but subsequent research has argued credibly that Indonesia’s actions meet the definition of the term under international law.

Australia’s role in supporting Indonesia was especially significant. As a Western democracy geographically close to East Timor, other nations deferred to Australia’s perceived expertise. Rather than speaking up for East Timor, however, Australia used its position to protect the Suharto regime, deny the reality of Indonesia’s occupation and to attempt to remove the issue from the United Nations’ agenda. Although well informed of Indonesian actions and objectives, Australian governments from Gough Whitlam to John Howard denied accounts of ongoing abuses as much as possible. And when mounting evidence made this difficult, Australia blamed the Timorese, going as far as to present the invaders as restoring order.

Indeed, in 1977, when the Dutch government considered supporting an international inquiry about the situation in 1977, Malcolm Fraser’s Coalition government talked them out of it, with officials in the Hague and Canberra assuring the Dutch minister for foreign affairs and the Dutch ambassador that the situation in the territory were stable. Australia also lobbied extensively on a country-to-country basis, for example, with a senior diplomat informing concerned Swedish officials in February 1978 that claims of abuses were “wildly exaggerated,” that the resistance was a “spent force,” and that large numbers of people were returning to areas under Indonesian control.

Similarly, in September 1978, when a delegation of foreign ambassadors visiting East Timor reported a very dire situation, then-Australian foreign minister, Andrew Peacock, issued a release informing the world that a responsible Indonesian administration was dealing as best it could with a situation not of its making. Peacock instead blamed the Timorese themselves and the underdeveloped nature of the territory.

In sum, Australia lent Indonesian propaganda international credibility it would not have otherwise achieved. The United States, UK, West Germany, and other Western governments — who viewed an anti-communist military government in Southeast Asia as in their interests — consulted with Australia and propagated similar positions.

In a manner reminiscent of the Palestinian conflict, Australia and other Western governments responded to Indonesia’s occupation with stock responses that feigned concern for the East Timorese people while ignoring the reality of their plight. This enabled their continued slaughter and oppression. In defending the “value” of military aid to Indonesia in late 1976, for example, Reg Withers, the Fraser Coalition government’s Senate foreign affairs spokesperson, made no reference to the actual invasion. Instead, Withers expressed “deep regret” about the “loss of life and human suffering that has resulted from the fighting in the territory.”

Like the government of Israel, the Indonesian government led a proactive public relations campaign. It hosted tours of selected journalists who reciprocated by dismissing claims of human rights abuses and a high death toll in the Western media, while reiterating false claims regarding the circumstances of the invasion and the extent and causes of suffering. Peter Hastings of the Sydney Morning Herald and Richard Gill of the Melbourne Herald, for example, visited East Timor under Indonesian protection in 1978, as did a journalist working for the Far Eastern Economic Review.

They returned to Australia to parrot tropes about a responsible Indonesian administration doing its best under difficult conditions and blaming the crisis on fighting between Timorese. They echoed Indonesian claims about abuses committed by Fretilin while raising no such concerns about the Indonesian military. And these efforts had a flow-on effect, as other journalists and Western governments cited their accounts, praising them as responsible professionals with on-the-ground experience, in contrast with activists and human rights groups whose accounts were framed as emotive and irresponsible.

The Indonesian government regularly asserted that the Timorese resistance used human shields. There is no evidence, however, that Indonesia was concerned with the civilian toll. To the contrary, civilian casualties suited the Suharto regime, whose goal was to drive the population into camps in order to starve Fretilin of support.

The parallels with Israeli Defense Force (IDF) strategy and propaganda are striking. The IDF, after all, operates under the Dahiya Doctrine, which dictates the overwhelming use of force to inflict collective punishment for resistance. Similarly, the IDF has demonstrated its willingness to kill large numbers of civilians in order to assassinate single Hamas commanders while statements by senior Israeli government figures have called explicitly for the ethnic cleansing of Gaza. And, as with Indonesia’s brutality in East Timor, this is facilitated by the support Israel receives — materially and politically — from Western governments.

The Solidarity Movement

From before the invasion, a Timorese support movement developed in Australia, expanding as years progressed to New Zealand, the United States, the UK, Japan, and a number of European nations. When Indonesia closed access to the territory during the late 1970s and 1980s, and prior to the internet, information reached the outside world via smuggled letters, elements of the Catholic Church and, in the early years, a clandestine shortwave radio link between the Timorese resistance and activists in northern Australia.

During these years, the mainstream media demonstrated limited interest while the solidarity movement disseminated news from these sources via newsletters and community radio programs. Although initially small, the Timor solidarity movement organized protests, boycotts, lobbying, and other actions. Timor lobbies in Australian and UK parliaments and in US Congress further supported the campaign. As activist David Scott later wrote, “East Timor supporters had to be prepared to be patronized as ‘attention seekers,’ ‘communists,’ ‘fellow travelers,’ ‘bleeding hearts,’ ‘pinkos,’ ‘un-Australian’ and, the cruelest of all, ‘naïve.’”

More seriously, defenders of the occupation claimed that Timor activists were motivated by racism against Indonesia. At the heart, however, their acceptance of atrocities committed against the East Timorese was grounded in an ingrained Western belief that regarded the lives of formerly colonized people as less valuable and that regarded mass killing as an acceptable part of conflicts that the West supported. The parallel with contemporary supporters of Israel need not be labored. And it helps us understand what some have aptly termed the Palestinian exception to free speech — namely, the attempt to silence critics of Israel with accusations of antisemitism.

The mid-1980s saw the emergence of an East Timorese nonmilitary youth resistance movement RENTIL. RENTIL youth greeted a late-1989 visit to East Timor by Pope John Paul II with a demonstration, unfurling pro-independence banners in front of the international media accompanying him. In the weeks following, the Indonesian military detained and tortured many. But this did not prevent Timorese youth demonstrating when the US ambassador to Indonesia, John Monjo, visited in January 1990 — actions that were met with similar repression. Thanks to contacts established over the previous fifteen years, the international solidarity movement was able to report these developments in its publications, media releases, and letters of protest, leading to increased coverage in the mainstream media.

Simultaneously, José Ramos-Horta continued to advocate for the East Timorese resistance at the UN while the Timorese resistance coordinated with the Timorese diaspora in Australia, Portugal, the UK, and elsewhere to adopt an approach that prioritized work in international arena and with the solidarity movement.

As the territory opened at last to the world in the early 1990s, Westerners sympathetic to Timorese aspirations increasingly visited. On November 12, 1991, this proved significant when the Indonesian military killed hundreds of young people by firing on a peaceful protest in the capital, Dili. Although no larger than previous massacres, a number of foreign witnesses were present. The Indonesian military killed one and beat up a number of others. British journalist Max Stahl filmed the event and media outlets around the world subsequently broadcast it.

The outrage revitalized East Timor support organizations around the world. As the cycle of demonstrations and repression continued in Dili over the following years, the Indonesian government became increasingly frustrated at the international condemnations that followed each subsequent crackdown.

As the 1990s progressed, the international solidarity campaign gained momentum. Working with the external Timorese resistance and diaspora, they countered Indonesia’s false narrative about the origins and nature of the conflict. Over time, the nature of the occupation became increasingly known to the world, discrediting Western-supported accounts. Newspapers in the United States and Europe began to cover East Timor more and with greater accuracy. One significant example was a New York Times editorial, published on September 25, 1992, entitled “The Cemetery Called East Timor.”

Pressure Mounts on Indonesia

Eventually, growing public awareness made the status quo unviable. In March 1993, when the UN Human Rights Commission passed a resolution criticizing Indonesia for ongoing abuses in East Timor, even the United States and Australia found themselves pressured into supporting it, signalling a break with the position of their predecessors.

Then, in May 1993, the capture of resistance leader Xanana Gusmão turned into a pyrrhic victory for Indonesia, as Gusmão came to lead the resistance from his Jakarta prison cell, emerging as an internationally known figure. Another major development occurred in 1996, when the Nobel Peace Prize was jointly awarded to Timorese Bishop Belo and Ramos-Horta.

When Suharto visited Germany in 1995, the response he received typified the mounting pressure on Indonesia. The East Timor solidarity movement organized extensive protests — activists egged Suharto while visiting a museum, and a young Timorese hit him on the head with a newspaper. Four parties in the Dresden parliament declared President Suharto unwelcome and the Dresden Opera refused to play for him. Similar demonstrations in other German cities forced Suharto to cut short his visit. From then, international visits by Indonesian leaders and officials were met with similar mobilizations.

Attention also began to focus on Western governments’ complicity with Indonesian occupation, and the solidarity movement began to step up its tactics. In 1996, three British women entered a military base in Warton and took hammers to a Hawke ground attack aircraft scheduled for delivery to Indonesia. A jury acquitted them the following year, accepting their argument that they were acting to prevent the greater crime of genocide.

Faced with a large-scale democratic uprising across Indonesia, Suharto resigned in 1998. His successor B. J. Habibie surprised the world by announcing in January 1999 that East Timor would be provided a “popular consultation” on its future. Both preceding and following the vote, the Indonesian military orchestrated violence that claimed an estimated further 1,200 to 1,500 Timorese lives. Despite this, on August 30, 1999, 78.5 percent of voters chose independence.

A rearguard scorched earth campaign by the Indonesian military destroyed infrastructure, drove many from their homes and claimed many more lives. It only ended when an Australian-led international peacekeeping force in East Timor (INTERFET) arrived in Dili on September 20 of the same year, following a UN Security Council mandate passed on September 15. After a transitional UN administration and elections, the Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste emerged as an independent nation on March 20, 2002.

Challenging Narratives

Despite the self-evident parallels between Indonesia’s occupation of East Timor and Israel’s occupation of Palestine, it’s impossible to predict a pathway to freedom for the Palestinian people. The systemic nature of Israeli apartheid, the expanding occupation, mass violence in Gaza, and the radicalization of Israeli politics toward right-wing extremism make it clear that Israel will never of its own choosing reach a fair settlement with the Palestinians. It’s equally clear that Western governments will continue to support Israel and supply arms.

However, there are some conclusions we can draw from the comparison. Most importantly, the Palestinian people must author their own liberation — and an international solidarity movement can play a vital role in supporting them.

As with East Timor, the Palestinian solidarity movement must challenge Western pro-Israel narratives.  While framing the struggle in a human rights context and asserting that the targeting of civilians is never acceptable, it must work to build an understanding that Israel is the primary aggressor.

Additionally, this means insisting on accurate, evidence-based language. It matters that bodies like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have recognized Israel’s occupation as constituting apartheid. And following the South African submission to the International Court of Justice, it has become clear that Israeli actions are genocidal.

Challenging the pro-Israel lobby in Western countries will be arduous, and this work will be met by slander. But we should also take heart from the fact that whenever people have stood up for human dignity and against the slaughter of innocents — from the movements against war in Vietnam and apartheid in South Africa, to the struggles for civil rights and indigenous sovereignty and the Timor campaign — we have been forced to fight our own governments, usually in the face of vilification.

And history is also full of seemingly impossible victories. In August 1994, Australian foreign minister Gareth Evans told Melbourne newspaper the Age that it would be impossible for East Timor to regain its independence as the stakes were too high. Almost exactly five years later, the Indonesian occupation ended.

The perpetual repression of the Palestinian people — with the attendant cost in human suffering and regional destabilization — is unviable. How and when the Israeli occupation ends, and the blood that will be shed before it does, will be partly determined by the international community. And it is on this international level that the Palestine solidarity movement can make its greatest contribution.