East Timor Crisis: U.S. Policy and Options
CRS Report for Congress
East Timor Crisis: U.S. Policy and Options
Specialist in Asian Affairs
Foreign Affairs, Defense, and Trade Division
East Timorese voters rejected an Indonesian plan for autonomy in a referendum of
August 30, 1999, thus expressing a preference for independence. Since the
announcement of the results of the referendum, East Timorese para-military groups,
backed by the Indonesian military, have instituted widespread violence and terror. A
United Nations-sponsored international peace-keeping force entered East Timor in late
September 1999 led by Australian forces. The United States, including the Congress, has
been involved in the issue of East Timor for many years. The Clinton Administration has
acted in the present crisis to pressure Indonesia to accept international peacekeepers,
suspend U.S. military-related programs in Indonesia, support the suspension of aid
programs to Indonesia from international financial institutions, assist the international
peacekeeping force with transportation and communications, and warn Indonesia of
negative consequences if Indonesia does not cooperate with peacekeepers and does not
allow an estimated 200,000 East Timorese refugees in the Indonesian province of West
Timor to return home.
Background to the Crisis
On September 4, 1999, United Nations officials announced the results of a U.N.-
sponsored referendum of August 30, 1999, in East Timor; 78.5% of the voters rejected
an Indonesian government plan for East Timor to receive a special autonomy arrangement
within Indonesia. This means, in effect, that the East Timorese expressed a preference for
independence. In an agreement of May 5, 1999, between Indonesia and Portugal (East
Timor’s colonial ruler until 1974) under U.N. auspices, the Indonesian government
promised that if the East Timorese voted against autonomy, the government “shall take
the constitutional steps necessary to terminate its links with East Timor,” and the U.N.
Secretary General “shall ... initiate the procedure enabling East Timor to begin a process
of transition toward independence.”1
1Congressional Research Service. East Timor’s Coming Decision on Autonomy or Independence.
CRS Report RS20256. July 9, 1999. pp. 1-2.
Congressional Research Service ˜ The Library of Congress
The announcement of the referendum’s result sparked an upsurge of killings and
other acts of terror commited by East Timorese para-military groups. These groups came
into being in early 1999 after Indonesian President B.J. Habibie announced plans to hold
the referendum. They began acts of violence apparently aimed at intimidating prospective
voters. There is evidence that the Indonesian army has recruited and armed these groups
and that the Indonesian high command under General Wiranto has sanctioned their
activities.2 Reports appeared in the post-referendum situation that members of the3
Indonesian police and military had joined with the paramilitary groups.
The violence had several targets. Para-military groups reportedly killed hundreds
of East Timorese supporters of independence and transported forcibly thousands of others
across the border into Indonesian West Timor and other parts of Indonesia. U.N. officials
and relief agencies estimate that 200,000 or more people -- possibly 20% of East Timor’s
population -- have been relocated. The government of Indonesia registered over 244,000
in camps in West Timor and nearby islands.4 Pro-independence neighborhoods in the
capital, Dili, and other towns were targeted for burning. The paramilitary groups attacked
foreigners with weapons, including assaults on U.N. personnel and foreign diplomatic
personnel; attacked hotels that house foreigners; burnt down the International Committee
of the Red Cross building in Dili; and gained physical control over the western portions5
of East Timor adjacent to the Indonesian province of West Timor.
U.N. Sponsored Peacekeepers
By mid-September, international pressure, including U.S. pressure, led the Indonesian
government to accept proposals for an international peace-keeping force. On September
15, 1999, the U.N. Security Council passed a resolution authorizing “the establishment of
a multinational force under a unified command structure” to restore peace and order in
East Timor, protect U.N. operations in East Timor, and facilitate humanitarian assistance.
The resolution authorized the peacekeepers to “take all necessary measures” to fulfill the
The first elements of the peacekeeping force, mainly Australians, arrived in East
Timor on September 20, 1999. The force is envisaged to reach close to 8,000 with over
half coming from Australia. Other participants are New Zealand, Great Britain, Thailand,
Malaysia, Singapore, the Philippines, South Korea, and the United States. With the
2Ibid., p. 4.
3Richburg, Keith B. Devastated East Timor Put Under Martial Law. Washington Post, September
Washington Post, September 9, 1999. P. A.
4Congressional Research Service. East Timor: Humaritarian Emergency and International
Assistance. By Lois B. McHugh. CRS Report RS20360. October 13, 1999.
5Mydans, Seth. East Timor Falls Into Gangs’ Hands; Killings Reported. New York Times,
September 6, 1999. P. A1. Martinkus, John. Violence Emptying East Timor. Washington Times,
September 8, 1999. P. A10. Mydans, Seth. Indonesia Says No to Timor Peacekeepers. New York
Times, September 9, 1999. P. A8.
6U.S. Information Agency. Text of UN Security Council Resolution 1264 on East Timor
entrance of the peace-keepers, most of the para-military groups retreated into Indonesian
West Timor. The approximately 20,000 Indonesian troops in East Timor withdrew, the
withdrawal completed on October 31, 1999. Indonesia’s parliament, elected on June 7,7
U.N. officials estimated that East Timor will need $135 million in humanitarian aid
between October 1999 and April 2000.8 Most of the aid will go to feeding and providing
housing for up to 740,000 of East Timor’s total population estimated at 890,000. The
U.N. Human Rights Commission has established a commission to investigate who was
responsible for the violence in East Timor.9
Since the peacekeeping force entered East Timor, Australian, New Zealand, and
British troops expanded their operations from East Timor’s capital of Dili and have
concentrated their forces in the western sector of East Timor, facing the border with
Indonesian West Timor. In mid-October, elements of the East Timorese paramilitary
groups conducted small-scale incursions into East Timor from West Timor, resulting in
several firefights with peacekeeping forces.10 The paramilitary groups also exercised firm
control over the camps in West Timor populated by an estimated 200,000 or more East
Timorese. Reports indicated that the paramilitary groups intimidated the people in the
camps and prevented them from returning to East Timor.
By early November, the situation appeared to change to a degree. After October 18,
there were no significant incursions or firefights. East Timorese began to leave the camps11
in West Timor and return to East Timor. As of November 5, 1999, 40,000 had returned.
Abdurrahman Wahid, Indonesia’s new President chosen by the parliament on October 20,
offered to meet with Jose Gusmao, the leader of East Timorese independence forces. He
removed General Wiranto from his positions as armed forces commander-in-chief and
defense minister and appointed a civilian as defense minister (the first time a civilian has
held that position).
On October 25, 1999, the U.N. Security Council authorized the creation of a U.N.
Transitional Administration in East Timor (UNTAET), to be established probably in early
2000. UNATAET’s mission is to prepare East Timor for full independence. It is expected
to last at least 3 years. It is slated to have a peacekeeping contingent of 9,150 and
hundreds of civilian administrators. The initial cost estimate for UNTAET is $700 million
to $1 billion annually.
7U.N. Force Tales Full Control in E. Timor. Washington Times, September 27, 1999.
8CRS, East Timor: Humanitarian Emergency and International Assistance, p. 3.
9Barr, Cameron W. Who Will Investigate Atrocities? Christian Science Monitor, September 30,
10Chandrasekaran, Rajiv. Militias in E. Timor Starting Firefights with Peacekeepers. Washington
Post, October 17, 1999. P. A21.
11Information supplied by the Australian Embassy, November 5, 1999.
The U.S. government, including Congress, has been involved in the issue of East
Timor since Indonesia invaded the former Portuguese colony in December 1975 and
annexed it in 1976. Congress has a long legislative record regarding East Timor,
especially since Indonesian military units massacred peaceful demonstrators in Dili in
November 1991. In response, Congress terminated Indonesian military participation in the
U.S. International Military Education Training (IMET) program in 1992 and placed special
conditions on Indonesian participation when it worked out an agreement with the Clinton
Administration in 1995 to restore Indonesian participation. In 1994, Congress included
in the FY1995 foreign operations appropriations bill (P.L. 103-306) a ban on the export
to Indonesia of light arms and crowd control items until the Secretary of State reported
to Congress “significant progress” on human rights in East Timor. In 1996 and 1998,
congressional criticism was influential in blocking the Clinton Administration’s planned
sale of F-16 aircraft to Indonesia and in bringing about the cancellation of U.S. military
exercises with Indonesian special forces units. Also, significant numbers of congressmen
have gone on record as supporting self-determination for East Timor.12
As stated previously, the Clinton Administration pressured the Indonesian
government to accept international peacekeepers. The Administration has taken additional
(1) Suspending U.S. military-related programs with Indonesia, including training
exercises, joint military meetings, commercial arms sales, and military-related assistance.
The suspended military-related assistance included Economic Support Funds (ESF) and
the International Military Education Training (IMET). For fiscal year 2000, the13
Administration has budgeted $5 million for ESF and $400,000 for IMET.
(2) Supported decisions by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank to
suspend their assistance programs to Indonesia.14
(3) Dispatched by early October 1999 about 300 U.S. military personnel to East
Timor as part of the peacekeeping force, providing transportation and communications
(4) Issued warnings to Indonesia that U.S. military-related programs will not be
resumed and that Indonesia could face additional U.S. sanctions unless it cooperates with
12For more details on congressional legislation and other activities related to East Timor since 1991,
see the following CRS Reports for Congress: Indonesian-U.S. Relations and Impact of the East
Timor Issue, CRS Report 92-983F; Indonesia-U.S. Relations, CRS Report 97-186F; and
Indonesia: U.S. Relations with the Indonesian Military, CRS Report 98-677F.
13Richburg, Keith B. Indonesia Softening on Peacekeepers. Washington Post, September 12,
14Mufson, Steven and Graham, Bradley. U.S., IMF Move to Isolate Jakarta. Washington Post,
September 10, 1999. P. A1.
15Gertz, Bill. Additional Troops Sent to East Timor. Washington Times, September 30, 1999. P.
the international peace-keeping force, including controlling the Timorese para-military
groups in West Timor, and allows the estimated 150,000-200,000 East Timorese refugees
in West Timor to return home.16
(5) Provided $20.4 million in humanitarian assistance through October 12, 1999.
In early November, congressional action focused on an amendment offered in the
Senate to the Bankruptcy Reform Act of 1999 (S. 625). The amendment, whose principal
sponsor is Senator Russell Feingold, would cut off military and economic aid to Indonesia
until the Indonesian government accepted East Timor’s vote for independence. The
importance of this measures is that goes beyond the Administration’s suspension of the
small military-related aid program and would suspend by law the much larger U.S.
economic aid program. The Clinton Administration budgeted $75 million in development
economic assistance for Indonesia in fiscal year 2000. (The original Feingold bill providing
for the suspension of military and economic aid is S. 1568.)
16Gertz, Bill. Cohen Tells Leaders to Control Troops, Back Peacekeepers. Washington Times,
October 1, 1999. P. A1.