Humanitarian Intervention in East Timor

Instructor: Michelle Penn

Michelle has a J.D. and her PhD in History.

In this lesson, we will learn about what led to the humanitarian intervention of East Timor, how the intervention progressed, its outcome, and the controversies over the intervention.

When to Intervene

Humanitarian interventions are often full of controversy, with many people questioning whether interventions are truly humanitarian and beneficial to the people they proclaim to be helping. The humanitarian intervention of East Timor only occurred after violence and conflict that left 25% of the population dead, in events that are often referred to as genocide. While the intervention resulted in a largely peaceful East Timor, people still disagree about how the international community handled East Timor. Let's learn a little about the events leading up to the intervention, so you can decide for yourself what the international community should have done.

Map of East Timor, which shares borders with Indonesia
East Timor


The people of East Timor, a nation made up of the eastern half of the island of Timor and nearby islands Atauro and Jaco, and the enclave Oecusse, and about 400 miles northwest of Australia, have overcome a brutal history. First colonized by Portugal in the 16th century--which brought Catholicism, but also economic exploitation to East Timor--East Timor saw an opportunity for independence when a military coup overthrew the oppressive Portuguese dictator in 1974. While East Timorese political parties were in talks with Portugal over independence, the conservative Timorese Democratic Union, abbreviated as UDT, staged a coup and declared East Timor's independence.

UDT was opposed by a more left-wing group called the Revolutionary Front for an Independent East Timor, known as FRETILIN. Fighting broke out between FRETILIN and UDT with FRETILIN gaining control of East Timor in November 1975.

In the midst of the conflict, the Indonesian government, led by Indonesian President Suharto, said it was considering intervening in the war. Suharto said he was intervening to prevent the unrest from spreading to Indonesian West Timor, but most scholars agree that he was really concerned about keeping the left-wing FRETILIN out of power.

On December 7, 1975, the Indonesian military invaded East Timor and installed a pro-Indonesian government. Indonesia said that they were not invading and occupying East Timor, but had been 'invited' by pro-Indonesian forces in East Timor.

A few months later, the United Nations Security Council condemned Indonesia's invasion of East Timor, and called for troops to leave. That call would be ignored.

Continued Opposition

Instead, Indonesia continued to occupy East Timor. Opposition and protests against the occupation continued into the 1990s. In 1991, over 100 mourners at funeral for a FRETILIN leader were shot and killed by Indonesian troops. Many Australians and Americans, along with other people around the world, became concerned about their governments' relationship with Suharto. Many Catholic leaders and organizations helped lead the independence movement in East Timor.

In 1996, the East Timorese FRETILIN political leader Jose Ramos-Horta and Catholic Bishop Carlos Filipe Ximenes Belo were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for raising awareness of East Timor's struggle for independence.


In 1999, the Security Council of the United Nations organized a referendum, or vote, on the issue of East Timor's independence. Nearly 80% of East Timorese voted for independence. Unfortunately, in retaliation for the vote, pro-Indonesian militias and Indonesian troops carried out acts of terrorism killing over a thousand and destroying East Timor's infrastructure. Around 80% of buildings in East Timor were burned, including many homes.

This cruel and senseless act of destruction finally prompted the international community to act. Because the United Nations doesn't have a standing army, the United Nations called for countries to intervene quickly because it would take a little while before the United Nations could send a peacekeeping force there. Australia organized troops from around the world, including the United States, Portugal, New Zealand and Thailand. This multinational peace-keeping force was called INTERFET, short for the International Force for East Timor.

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