Asian & Asian American Studies

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The Independence of East Timor

Multi-Dimensional Perspectives – Occupation, Resistance, and International Political Activism

In the series
Asian & Asian American Studies

Clinton Fernandes is Associate Professor at the University of New South Wales. Prior to becoming an academic, he spent 15 years in the Australian Army and served as the Australian Intelligence Corps – Principal Analyst (East Timor) in the final years of East Timor's independence struggle. In 2008 and 2009 he assisted the Australian Federal Police's War Crimes team on the subject of the Indonesian military and the East Timorese resistance. From 2007 to 2009 he served as the Consulting Historian for Balibo, a feature film about the murder of six Australian-based journalists in East Timor in 1975.

This book is a history of the struggle for independence after East Timor was invaded by Indonesia in 1975. The occupation, which lasted 24 years, was immediately resisted through guerrilla warfare and clandestine resistance. A continuum of effort between the armed freedom fighters in the mountains, the resilience of urban supporters, and international activism and support eventually brought about liberation in September 1999. Given that the Timor rebels did not have a land border with a friendly state, had no external supplier of weapons and no liberated area in which to recover between guerrilla operations, their successful resistance is unique in the history of guerrilla warfare and independence struggles. Equally uncommon was an unexpected weapon in the struggle – a remarkable display of strategic non-violent action.

The Independence of East Timor is the first study to integrate all the major factors in East Timor’s independence struggle. The multi-dimensional perspectives addressed in this volume include Indonesian, US and Australian diplomacy; Indonesian military operations and activities against the populace; East Timorese resistance at all social levels; human rights abuses; the issue of oil; and international diplomacy resulting from global solidarity activism.

Hardback ISBN: 978-1-84519-428-4
Hardback Price: £47.50 / $69.95
Release Date: April/May 2011
Paperback ISBN: 978-1-84519-491-8
Paperback Price: £19.95 / $34.95
Release Date: February 2012
Page Extent / Format: 240 pp. / 229 x 152 mm
Illustrated: No



1. East Timor and Indonesia
2. Destabilisation and War
3. The Politics of Starvation
4. Regeneration in the 1980s
5. Santa Cruz and the Aftermath
6. Chaos and Order
7. The Juventude
8. The Tide Turns
9. Fracturing the Bi-partisan Consensus
10. Military Body Language


This excellent study of the long struggle for independence in East Timor was written by an author who seems to have had access to everyone, on all sides, who played any role. In a very tight format, Fernandes makes this history almost too inclusive. He populates the long story with nearly everyone who had a say or played a role, but he fails to single out individuals or explain why they were key to achieving eventual success or tried to block it. He includes friends and foes, leaders, and ordinary individuals who did or said anything that contributes to making his narrative as complete as possible, but most disappear as the subject passes without helping readers understand why they were important, or not, to Timor’s independence. Despite this, the book will have lasting value as a primary source for studies to come and be read and consulted by teachers, writers, and scholars looking for clues as to where to turn next as they seek to develop new descriptions and/or interpretations. Recommended.

This seminal book by Clinton Fernandes is a unique account of the history of East Timor’s struggle for independence from its Indonesian colonizer. The East Timorese case study is distinctive compared to other anti-colonial movements because its strategy for non-violent confrontation inspired the leaders to locate their campaign transnationally  appealing to international diplomacy as well as to international supporters (many of whom were ordinary citizens) for funding, allies and legitimization. This book is a clearly written, comprehensive and well-documented account of this exceptional history. Its multi-dimensional approach tells the fascinating story from a variety of perspectives: Indonesian, US and Australian diplomacy; Indonesian military operations and activities against the populace; East Timorese resistance at all social levels; human rights abuses; the issue of oil; and international diplomacy resulting from global solidarity activism. The author was an intelligence officer at a time when Australian policy was opposed to East Timorese self-determination, and who saw first hand how the activists forced the Australian government to reverse its policy it had defended over two decades. From this exceptional location, Fernandes is well placed to analyze, interpret and assess the highly original East Timorese ideology, concept and dynamics of strategic non-violent action. The scope and breadth of this monograph makes it essential reading for all who are interested in international politics, Southeast Asian independence struggles, and contemporary diplomacy.
From the Preface by Series Editor Mina Roces

The struggle of East Timor for independence, resisting aggression and slaughter backed by the great powers, is an inspiration for those who value freedom and justice. Fernandes provides an expert and perceptive inquiry into this true modern epic, exploring in unparalleled depth the internal dynamics and international dimensions of the struggle. This most welcome contribution is a worthy tribute to those who endured and overcame, yielding lessons of great significance for understanding of the realities of international society and the resources of the human spirit.
Noam Chomsky

No better account exists of East Timor’s long struggle to emerge from Indonesia’s occupation, one that long seemed hopeless to the outside world. Fernandes has an admirable grasp of Timorese, Indonesian, Portuguese and other accounts – as much at home in Jakarta’s military politics as in the activist networks supporting the Timorese resistance. Riveting detail is crammed into this vivid account of a fight on many fronts.
Hamish McDonald, Asia-Pacific Editor, Sydney Morning Herald

The Independence of East Timor provides the most exhaustive and detailed account to date of the many, varied and creative ways in which the country’s internal resistance combined with an international solidarity movement to expose the brutalities of Indonesia’s occupation, achieve Indonesia’s withdrawal, and create the conditions for East Timor’s independence.
John G. Taylor, Professor of Politics, London South Bank University, and author of East Timor: The Price of Freedom

As would be expected from Prof. Clinton Fernandes with his analytical grasp of military, geopolitical, cultural and resistance dynamics, this book provides a much-needed and multi-dimensional approach to the many facets of the struggle of the people of Timor-Leste (East Timor) for independence. While the book in theory does not focus on the sufferings of the Timorese under the Indonesian occupation, it shines a light on that period while examining such phenomena as the ambiguities of the response of Western governments and people within the Cold War, the nature of the Indonesian army, the forums where the conflict was carried out – locally, regionally, internationally and not least ideologically.
Steve Kibble, Progressio Advocacy Africa

The book provides a documented and detailed account of particular events and periods during the Indonesian occupation, in each case assessing the ways in which internal opposition and international actions combined to influence decision-making in Indonesia, the USA, Europe and Australia. Within East Timor, the author focuses on events such as the military-induced famine of 1978–1979, the subsequent forced resettlement of the population, specific incidences of massacres organised by the military in the country's villages, and the 1991 Santa Cruz massacre. In each case, he shows how, under extremely difficult conditions, information was transmitted from the territory to international networks which used this information skilfully in strategic lobbying. Fernandes documents the activities of these networks in various countries, such as the USA, UK, Portugal, Ireland, Australia, Norway, Sweden and France, assessing the outcomes of their lobbying of national governments and international organisations such as the UN and its various agencies. As an intelligence officer at a time when Australian policy was opposed to East Timorese self-determination, Fernandes witnessed at first hand the increasing influence of Australian campaigners on government policy, and their ultimate success in reversing the Government’s support for the Indonesian occupation.
... In writing The Independence of East Timor, Clinton Fernandes has opened up an issue of crucial importance in our understanding of the processes by which East Timor attained its independence. Hopefully, further research will enrich our understanding of the importance of the relations between internal opposition and external support in achieving that independence.
John G. Taylor © 2017, Asian Affairs

The chapter on events leading up to the referendum, or consultation, as it was officially called, is of special importance. It shows that, despite growing international pressures, and the new stand of President Habibie, TNI generals, mainly those from Kopassus who had led the invasion in October 1974 and had then virtually controlled the administration of the annexed province, sought desperately to head off the loss of the 27th province, especially when it became clear that UN involvement would make this difficult. Hence the setting up of the militia had nothing to do with pro-integration Timorese. It was formally launched at ABRI headquarters in August 1998 by Kopassus generals Zakky Anwar Makarim and Sjafrie Sjamsuddin who gave the few assembled Timorese pro-integration leaders the operational agenda – in effect the formation of military units to sabotage the independence movement by intimidation and the use of violence. These were key generals, not rogue commanders as Alexander Downer described them in 1999, when mass killings began to take place. And so, Indonesia's last year of occupation ended as it began in Balibo – in a wave of violence and terror, and massive destruction. According to a UNTAET (UN Transitional Administration in East Timor) report in 2000, 73% of all houses and buildings were destroyed or seriously damaged, and one third of the population forcibly displaced.
... As Fernandes shows, the Howard Government's position remained ambiguous. While the Prime Minister's letter to President Habibie suggested a referendum, he also recorded his own preference for East Timor to remain with Indonesia. His foreign minister's statements suggested that what was clearly a carefully planned ABRI operation was in fact the work of 'rogue elements'. There was an element of continuity in Australian foreign policy. Under Whitlam, the government had been careful not to draw attention to Indonesian military preparations for the invasion of East Timor, even though these were well known to it from intelligence sources, and in 1999 the Howard Government declined to endorse well-founded reports that the TNI had itself set up the militia units and controlled them.
... When in 1999 US officials, among them Stanley Roth, became concerned at reports that the TNI was directing the operations of the militia, Australian officials were instructed that such intelligence material should not be passed on to the Americans. When Major Merv Jenkins, a concerned Australian officer stationed in Washington, passed on such material to his US counterparts he was threatened by Australian officials with prosecution. Following this incident Jenkins committed suicide.
... I encountered this protective attitude when I became UN specialist on crimes against humanity in East Timor. A senior Australian official let me know that I would get no assistance from them in my search for evidence on the role of Indonesian military commanders behind the violence and destruction carried out in 1999. It was my conclusion that Australian mission officials also encouraged Timorese leaders not to press for an international tribunal to try those military leaders responsible for major war crimes. Much has been written about how Australian attitudes to Timor had changed, but in reality it was more about opportunism than substance. Thanks to these attitudes a number of senior TNI officers have escaped the exposure they richly deserved, including officers who gave drugs to reluctant militia 'to make them brave’, and massacres of dozens of civilians followed.
Dissent. James Dunn is a former diplomat and Director of the Foreign Affairs group in the Australian Parliament's Legislative Research Service. His fact-finding mission to East Timor in 1974 resulted in a report recommending self-determination for the now independent nation of Timor Leste. He also worked with the UN as an advisor, producing a report in 2001 on crimes against humanity in East Timor.

Reviewed in French in Africana Studia (Universidad da Porto).

As Clinton Fernandes makes clear in his book's title, he seeks to present a multidimensional perspective on East Timor’s realization of nation-statehood – an outcome that conventional wisdom insisted was impossible not so long ago. The “continuum of resistance to Indonesia’s brutal invasion and occupation (1975–1999) of the Connecticut-size territory, he asserts, "was the most decisive factor” (p. 2) in bringing about the independence of the former Portuguese colony. Although it is questionable that Fernandes substantiates his unique claim, he certainly shows that the continuum was of great significance in its scope and multifaceted nature, and in contributing to various outcomes.
... One hopes that other scholars – or perhaps Fernandes himself – will continue to develop the lines of inquiry that his valuable work explores. As he states near the outset of his clearly written book, each of the topics he interrogates “warrant in-depth studies in their own right” (p. 2). In examining a number of these areas, Fernandes breaks a lot of new ground, while making a convincing case for the benefits of taking a multi-dimensional approach to understanding how East Timor's struggle for freedom overcame inestimable odds and achieved independence.
The Journal of Military History

A nice side effect of East Timor’s successful bid for independence in 1999 was the surge of energy within East Timor solidarity groups around the world. As when multiracial elections were finally held in South Africa in 1994, or when El Salvadorans signed their peace agreement at Chapultepec Castle in 1992, the feel-good factor after years of campaigning was palpable. This book is inspired by the afterglow of East Timor’s independence. It celebrates the lives of many of the American, Australian, and other activists who supported the twenty-four-year campaign for an independent East Timor. The book also contains a good historical account of the armed struggle, and of the international diplomatic effort, but the dozens, perhaps hundreds of individuals and their organizations who supported the Timorese in the West are its rhetorical heart. Without the “structure of legitimacy” they created, Fernandes argues (p. 50), “East Timor might well have gone the way of the West Papuans or the South Moluccans.” On the cover is a portrait of the late Australian medical doctor Andrew McNaughtan, who committed to the cause after his first visit to Timor in 1994. The book is co-dedicated to him. Perhaps the most influential solidarity hero in the book is the New York journalist Arnold Kohen, whose persistent publicity did much to turn the tide of opinion in the US Congress. Others, like the Chilean ex-diplomat Juan Federer, kept a much lower profile than did Kohen. Surprisingly, often their activism was ignited by a romance with a Timorese person. By their nonviolent confrontation with a cruel military regime, the long-suffering East Timorese inspired the best in people all over the world. The East Timorese seduced Clinton Fernandes, too; he abandoned a career with Australian military intelligence to vent more freely his outrage at Australian complicity in East Timor’s troubles.
... Difficult questions for further work aside, the book is a solid and worthwhile record of the remarkable struggle the East Timorese waged for their tiny nation, against the greatest odds. The solidarity that they inspired in the nations of their enemies must be the clearest proof that freedom is a universal dream.
Gerry van Klinken writing in Indonesia

The Independence of East Timor offers the clearest, most detailed presentation to date of the East Timorese battle against the ironic and brutal colonial rule of Indonesia. It is broadly researched and much enriched by the author’s privileged access to information hitherto outside the public domain. It also fills a gap in the literature through its in-depth account of the international alliance of activists who rallied support for East Timor’s independence and effectively helped secure the Nobel Peace Prize for the heroes of the deeply endangered freedom movement. The book is imperative reading for scholars concerned with the recent history of independence movements and for anyone with an interest in new strategic studies, postcolonialism, international relations, modern revolutions, small wars and insurgencies, and Southeast Asian and Australasian studies.
Laura M. Calkins, Texas Tech University, Michigan War Studies Review;

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