May 16, 2022 Last Updated 8:50 AM, May 6, 2022

Out of the tiger's teeth

Published: Jul 30, 2007

The inside story of East Timor's ballot for freedom

Helene van Klinken

In mid-June 1999 I arrived in East Timor to work with the newly established United Nations Assistance Mission in East Timor (Unamet). I was sent to the beautiful district of Ermera, in the hills an hour's drive south of Dili. It is a picturesque, fertile, coffee growing area. The welcome people gave to Unamet was unbelievable. Children would pop out of fragrant coffee gardens as we drove past, waving and calling in chorus, 'Unamet, Unamet!'

My job as a political affairs officer was to meet everyone, and report to Unamet's Dili headquarters what they were saying and hoping for, and whether it was possible for the popular consultation to proceed. It is without doubt the most amazing job I have ever done.

The new President Habibie first mentioned offering wide-ranging autonomy to East Timor in June 1998. But the people of East Timor came out instead in support of independence, and of a referendum. In Ermera, long-standing East Timorese supporters of Indonesia made peace with their Timorese bothers and sisters, joining the pro-independence side. Even Timorese soldiers who had fought for Indonesia sought reconciliation with Falintil. This unity among East Timorese represented a dilemma for Indonesians, in whose minds fear of Falintil and pro-independence actors was well established. A foreign visitor in East Timor at the time described the atmosphere to me as a 'Prague Spring'.

With the likelihood of a popular consultation, a savage crackdown began in Ermera on 10 April. A CNRT youth, Antonio Lima, was killed and the CNRT office burnt down. People later told us that the killings were done by Indonesian police and military in uniform, who patrolled the streets searching for and shooting pro-independence leaders. These killings began five days after the widely reported massacre in a church in nearby Liquica. The Ermera district CNRT leader, Eduardo de Deus Barreto, was arrested. He was later jailed for 'extorting money and coercing people to join the CNRT'. All remaining CNRT leaders fled to the hills around Ermera. During the days that followed many more pro-independence people were killed.

In some areas of East Timor, Falintil had managed to maintain long-term control of a few villages. Indonesian military posts stationed in these areas reached some sort of modus vivendi with Falintil, and they did not 'disturb' each other. One such 'liberated area' was Fatubolo village, close to the district administrative centre Gleno. On 10 April all senior Ermera CNRT office-holders fled into this Falintil-controlled territory, though some went to Dili which was also considered safe. When I later visited the Falintil base I met many important people from the Ermera community.

Civil servants who were prepared to sign statements promising to support autonomy could come out of hiding on 24 April, 1999. The CNRT itself was forced to 'disband' on 26 April.


Militias have been part of the military strategy in East Timor since 1975. However, beginning in late 1998 many more were conscripted, bribed and forced to join their ranks. Each district had its own militia, although militia did not always keep to their designated districts and there was even competition between them. In Ermera district they were called Darah Integrasi, Blood of Integration. They claimed 1,500 members, but according to informants the number of committed members was in the low hundreds. Miguel Soares Babo was its commander, while his brother Antonio dos Santos was second-in-command. Antonio was a low ranking TNI officer, who said he was on 'civilian duties'. He was the real force and spokesperson. Miguel was often drunk and prone to abusive language.

While there have always been military outposts in remote areas of East Timor, the numbers of these posts in Ermera was now greatly increased, many of them established after the crackdown in April and May 1999. A military post was usually a simple structure of bamboo and local materials, with the telltale tall communications antenna. At a post there were often four Indonesian officers and about ten East Timorese TNI soldiers. A group of about 20 militia, mostly locally recruited, was also stationed at each post, thus demonstrating once more the close link between militia and military.

We received numerous complaints from villagers about the activities of these soldiers. In the middle of the night soldiers would throw stones on the roofs of houses of people known to have housed Falintil soldiers in the past. They would shoot randomly into the air to intimidate people. They would break into houses saying they had received information that Falintil soldiers were attacking the occupants. Most often they were drunk, and frequently they terrorised female members of the household, sometimes spending all day lying round inebriated in a house, making it impossible for the owners to care for their children or cook.

The many government officials, sub-district and village heads and village secretaries who remained in hiding and refused to sign statements supporting autonomy were replaced with people who were persuaded and bribed to support integration with Indonesia.

CNRT leaders were inspiring people who did not sell their souls, even though they lived with constant threats and in fear. They would express their disappointment about their fellow countrymen who had capitulated to the pressures. Local CNRT leader Amaral would always say that Timorese have to be honest but tell a few lies, and that even while they were afraid they must also be brave. When facing a tiger, you have to be careful or you'll get caught by one of his teeth, he would say.

Indonesians seemed to have no idea of the breadth of support the CNRT enjoyed. One Balinese government official honestly told me that he believed 70% of people in Ermera supported autonomy.


On the first day of registration people turned out in their hundreds at each centre, queuing like sardines in a tin. Registration centres were joyful places. The Timorese people had taken the decision into their own hands. No matter what the security situation was like they were going to vote. Registration was a resounding success, numbers far exceeding estimates. I did not meet any Timorese in Ermera who had wanted to register but were unable to do so. As a result of this success, in some ways Unamet slipped into a false sense of what we could achieve.

We also had to make a judgement as to whether there were equal opportunities for both sides. For the CNRT in Ermera it was a constant struggle, though they philosophically said, 'we've been campaigning for 24 years. Our people know what they want'. Nevertheless they were not passive, and engaged in strategies to raise their profile. As the CNRT had no office and their leadership was in hiding, the pro-autonomy actors felt they had the upper hand.

The next step was the campaign, a period of about ten days prior to voting day. Militia provided the 'crowds' at the autonomy campaigns. Public servants, who were obliged to support autonomy, led the rallies. The militia travelled around all day in several trucks, conducting random campaigns whenever and wherever they could find a crowd. Some militia complained to Unamet local staff about having to 'yell party slogans all day', without even being given food.

In the end the CNRT cancelled all but two of its six planned meetings, because the leaders were worried about threats to ordinary people who attended rallies, especially those held far from the main Unamet headquarters.

There were strong indications that Timorese from both sides wanted to resolve their differences peacefully. In this they requested the mediation of Unamet. The militia commanders were particularly keen to meet with Falintil. The Indonesian district police commander was supportive of such a meeting. In mid-June he visited Falintil in the area controlled by them (Region IV), and saluted its commander, whose code name was Ular (Snake), before shaking hands. The Timorese were jubilant about this meeting, claiming it was the first time in 24 years an Indonesian official had openly recognised Falintil. However, after some time it became clear that the Indonesian district military commander was against any such rapprochement. He would always say he could not guarantee security.

So how did the CNRT convey their message to the people, given that the right to campaign and open an office was basically denied them? At every sub-district and village level there were CNRT secretaries, who carried the message, albeit clandestinely. Priests and nuns also gave moral courage and leadership, many at great personal risk. On the occasion that Bishop Belo came to Ermera he told the people that this vote was a once-only opportunity given to them by the international community. They should not be afraid. They should vote according to their conscience, not just thinking of their own safety but remembering they were choosing the future for their children and grandchildren.

Also a group of university students was instrumental in spreading the message. The university students mostly belonged to the East Timorese Students' Solidarity Council. Some belonged to East Timorese organisations in Java, Bali and Sulawesi. In Ermera they were very well organised. Some 200 of them originating in Ermera returned to their home villages at the commencement of registration to explain to people the registration and voting process, and to gather information about human rights abuses. They were in constant conflict with the authorities, who claimed they 'angered the people'.


After an agreement between Falintil commanders and senior Dili Unamet officials, Falintil guerillas moved into 'cantonment', meaning they pulled back to predefined areas in the mountains while retaining their weapons. One of these areas was located in Ermera district, in Poetete village. There on 20 August, they celebrated Falintil Day. It was the first time ever they had been able to celebrate it openly, and for many East Timorese it was the first time they had met with the guerillas. The celebration was no less than a campaign rally of 18,000 people.

The shops and streets of the towns in Ermera were deserted. The militia, with their police and TNI escorts, were angry to find no one at the village where they had planned a rally. On their way home the next day, they vented their anger by attacking villagers and destroying homes of people who had just returned from attending the Falintil celebration.

Two days before the vote, the CNRT held a flag raising in the cantonment. As the flag rose slowly under the intense tropical glare, men hugged each other, their tears flowing unashamedly. The cantonment was by far the most interesting place in Ermera district, alive with hope and indeed forgiveness.

Incidents involving militia, reported to Unamet, were passed to the Indonesian police, as they were responsible for investigation. But little action was ever taken, despite the promises, and never an arrest of a militia member. After the vote, the police commander told the Unamet police commander that he had been ordered 'from above' not to interfere with the actions of the militia.

Voting day, Monday 30 August, unlike registration, was not a jubilant occasion. Bishop Belo, in a pastoral letter read in all churches the previous day, exhorted people to go home afterwards and pray, and keep on praying. Don't do anything to provoke, he told them, presumably meaning 'don't celebrate'. By 7:30 on the morning of the vote, we heard on our Unamet radios that most people were already waiting in line to vote, and this was the case everywhere in East Timor. Many people had travelled the previous evening to their polling centres, as voting had to take place where you registered. A small percentage of people were intimidated after registration and left the areas where they had registered, so were unable to vote. Despite all the fears that voting might be disrupted, 98.5% of registered voters were successful in casting their votes.

The militia attack on our Gleno polling station at midday that day came as a surprise, as Ermera was by this time considered safe, although it was always a knife-edge situation. The US ambassador, Roy Stapleton, had come to view voting there, and was in the yard when shooting broke out and rocks were thrown at the walls of the polling station. The Timorese could hardly believe their luck, to have the ambassador of the superpower actually witness this attack! After several hours and an attempt to address the militia's complaints, the polling station was reopened. Only about 300 of the approximately 2,500 registered voters at this polling station were too frightened to return after the attack.

In a distant sub-district of Ermera, Atsabe, over three hours drive away, a more disturbing attack was taking place, in which at least one and probably three local Unamet staff were murdered by militias.

Even the ballot boxes in Gleno were not removed without incident. New militia arrived in town the day after polling. The rumour was that they were inserted because Darah Integrasi had never been 'effective'. They tried to prevent the helicopter from picking up the ballot boxes, but not with sufficient determination to succeed. During this attempt, Unamet staff saw Indonesian police mobile brigade members handing traditional weapons to the militia.

The evening after the vote, the burning of houses of CNRT leaders began. A young twelve-year old girl came to the Unamet headquarters to tell us about her house that was burnt, together with their store of rice and corn. Soon after that, all of East Timor was in ashes, and we were evacuated back to Australia. It was as if winter had come to beautiful Ermera.

Helene van Klinken ( teaches Indonesian language in Brisbane. The views in this article represent her own and are not necessarily the official Unamet position. This essay is dedicated to Ana, a wonderful East Timorese friend whose fate remains unknown. A longer version appears in a special edition of the Bulletin of Concerned Asian Scholars.

Inside Indonesia 61: Jan - Mar 2000

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