This Day In History: Indonesia Invades East Timor (1975)

On this date in 1975, the Indonesian army invaded the small nation of East Timor.  East Timor to the north of Australia. The Indonesians launched an early morning attack. The invasion came as a complete surprise to the East Timorese. East Timor occupies half of the island of Timor, the western half is part of Indonesia.   East Timor had been a Portuguese colony for centuries and was culturally and religiously distinct from its much larger neighbor Indonesia, which had been a Dutch colony. The Portuguese had a revolution and the old authoritarian regime was ousted. The new government wanted to withdraw from the remaining Portuguese colonies, including East Timor. They left their colony of East Timor in August 1974. The government of Indonesia began to try to subvert the new government and Indonesian troops began to move into remote areas of East Timor and had occupied several areas of it by December 1975.  The East Timorese immediately held an election and the new government declared the Democratic Republic of East Timor. Indonesia wanted to annex East Timor as they believed that it was historically part of their nation. The Indonesian army crossed the border into East Timor and marines were landed on beaches. There was also a landing by paratroopers.  The main target on the first day was the East Timorese capital, Dili. On December, the 19th that the second largest East Timorese city was captured. A few days later they captured the capital of East Timor.  The Indonesians had completely overwhelmed the small nation.

Map of the Invasion of East Timor

However, many East Timorese headed to the hills and the jungle and fought a guerrilla war against the occupier.  It is believed that in the first few years of military occupation that the Indonesian army and security forces were directly responsible for the deaths of 100,000 East Timorese. Many starved to death in camps or in the jungle. Many atrocities were carried out by the Indonesian army, but this did not end the East Timorese resistance. The Suharto government in Jakarta brutally repressed any form of East Timorese resistance. The Catholic Church was a great support for many East Timorese at this dark time. The world was increasingly appalled by the Indonesian occupation of the small nation.

In 1998 the Indonesian dictator Suharto died.  The East Timorese began to agitate for a free election. This was held in 1999 despite massive intimidation from Indonesian-backed militias. In 1999 the East Timorese voted for independence. The UN put pressure on the Indonesians and an Australian-led peacekeeping force was allowed into the country. East Timor secured its independence in 2001. The final death toll as a result of the Indonesian occupation of East Timor was possibly 200,000 (1975-1999).