Dec 01, 2022 Last Updated 6:29 AM, Nov 29, 2022

East Timor ten years after the referendum

East Timor ten years after the referendum

Hedda Haugen Askland and Thushara Dibley

   A street vendor in Dili selling Indonesian books and other
   products  imported from Indonesia
   Thushara Dibley

August this year marks ten years since the historic vote in East Timor for independence from Indonesia. In that time East Timor has become established as an independent nation whose leaders have cultivated a nationalism that emphasises East Timor’s Portuguese heritage and valorises the resistance against the Indonesian occupation. Nonetheless, as the contributors of this edition show, independent East Timor remains connected to Indonesia in diverse and intricate ways.

Not long after East Timor became independent, Inside Indonesia decided we would no longer run stories about East Timor, unless they dealt directly with the new country’s connection – historical or current – to Indonesia. East Timor was now an independent country, and we thought it would be an insult to treat domestic East Timorese affairs as if they were still ‘inside’ Indonesia. Ten years on, we’ve decided to devote an entire edition to the relations between the two countries, to look both at the legacies of the past occupation and at connections that continue in the present.

When the Indonesian forces left East Timor in 1999, they left a nation in ruins. As they withdrew from the territory, Indonesian forces and Indonesian backed militia systematically looted and burned buildings, randomly fired at and killed civilians and forced East Timorese across the border into West Timor. Seventy per cent of public buildings, private houses and essential infrastructure were damaged during the violence. Nine hundred East Timorese were killed after the ballot and around 500,000 people fled from their homes, either forcefully deported over the border or voluntarily fleeing inland. The violence lasted for three weeks and ended with the arrival of international forces.

Reconciliation and justice have been important issues for East Timor in the wake of the atrocities that occurred during the Indonesian occupation and in the aftermath of the referendum. Lia Kent’s article ‘The politics of remembering and forgetting ’, explores the many meanings that reconciliation has in East Timor. Kent explains how the question of justice has been addressed by both the East Timorese people and the state. The question of justice is also addressed by Helene van Klinken. Her article ‘Children of the enemy ’ describes the situation of a woman who was abducted as a child by an Indonesian soldier during the occupation. As van Klinken shows, justice and reconciliation are complex issues when people’s lives have become intimately marked by Indonesian culture and life-style.

East Timor’s culture and politics were considerably influenced by the violent nature of the Indonesian occupation. James Scambary’s article ‘Trapped in the legacy of the past ’ explores what militant youth groups established during the Indonesian occupation are doing now. David Gutteling’s piece ‘A problematic division ’ considers the various border challenges facing the East Timorese and Indonesian nation, including the question of how to deal with militia and cross-border crime. The theme of violence is also explored in Chris Parkinson’s photo essay 'Graphic Resistance '. The photos Chris has taken of grafitti around East Timor shows how struggle, violence and trauma manifest itself through contemporary street art.

Despite this legacy of violence, cultural ties with Indonesia remain strong. At the end of the occupation, the vast majority of the East Timorese population spoke Indonesian, a language which offers opportunities for continued contact and exchange with their neighbour. But as Marie Quinn illustrates in her article ‘Letting go of Indonesian ’, the question of language and maintenance of Indonesian language skills continues to present challenges to the nation. Angie Bexley in her article ‘Getting an education ’ explains how knowledge of Indonesian language and connections to Indonesia are still relevant from an educational perspective, while in 'A hybrid popular culture ' Annie Sloman shows how East Timorese pop culture continues to be influenced by developments in Indonesia. As Bexley and Sloman demonstrate, Indonesian culture remains a living part of East Timorese communities.

At the dawn of independence, East Timor was often seen in opposition to its former occupier and there was a focus on the two nations’ divergent historical and cultural roots. The articles of this edition show that Indonesia and East Timor are engaged in a cultural, political and social relationship which is set to continue.     ii

Hedda Haugen Askland ( is conducting her PhD at the University of Newcastle. Her PhD is an ethnographic study of East Timorese expatriates’ lives after the realisation of independence in East Timor. In particularly, it considers how exiles relate and respond to political changes and communal violence in their home country.

Thushara Dibley ( is a PhD candidate at the University of Sydney. Her research is about how local and international NGOs collaborate to implement peacebuilding projects in East Timor and Aceh.

Inside Indonesia 96: Apr-Jun 2009

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