The Gender Security Project
CRSV: East Timor Genocide
This case note is a part of our series of case notes that document the occurrence of sexual violence in violent conflict. The case note contains explicit mentions of different forms of sexual assault. Reader discretion is advised.
Background of the Conflict
During the US-backed Indonesian invasion and occupation of East Timor, the Indonesian New Order Government implemented “pacification campaigns” targeting the people of East Timor (Blakely 2009). The invasion began in August 1975 and continued thereafter. The Indonesian National Armed Forces (TNI) carried out large-scale massacres of Timorese citizens. Within the first two days of the invasion of Dili alone, over 2,000 Timorese were massacred. This continued throughout the rest of 1975. In February 1976, Indonesia captured other villages and parts of East Timor, and either drove out the forces and the population, or gunned down large swathes of the population (Payaslian 2019).
In March 1977 ex-Australian consul James Dunn reported that the Indonesian forces had killed between 50,000 and 100,000 civilians in East Timor (NSA 2005). The FRETELIN and its armed wing, FALINTIL, waged guerrilla warfare against the TNI as a resistance movement. In 1981-1982, the TNI launched a military operation called Operasi Keamanan and forcibly marched about 50,000 to 80,000 Timorese men and boys as human shields. In 1983, it launched Operation Clean Sweep, which included massacres, summary executions, and forced disappearances. In 1991, the Santa Cruz massacre took place, where Indonesian forces fired on pro-independence marchers, and killed up to 270 people.
Following the large-scale destruction and mass killings, many people were forced to leave their homes in the hills and surrender to the TNI. When they surrendered, they were often executed. Those that were not executed were sent to receiving centres where they were interrogated and killed if they were suspected of being members of the resistance.
Prevalence of Sexual Violence
Sexual violence was used as part of the genocidal campaign. As the TNI invaded and progressed into the Timorese territory, aside from opening fire indiscriminately, they also raped women and children (Ramos-Horta 1987, p. 108). Rape and sexual violence were commonly used as strategic approaches both during their invasions and attacks, and during the interrogation of women. Accurate records of the number of incidents remain absent because women had no route to report the violence under military occupation, and stigmatization silenced them (Aditjondro 1998).
Women were raped, faced sexual violence and harassment, intimidation, torture, forced marriage, and forced sterilization and contraceptive. As Bishop Belo (2001) wrote: “Up to 3,000 died in 1999, untold numbers of women were raped and 500,000 persons displaced—100,000 are yet to return.” An unverifiable number of Timorese women and girls were abducted, raped, and impregnated by Indonesian solders; often kept captive and enslaved; and later rejected by their families (Harris-Rimmer 2009). An even more acute form of gender-based violence occurred during the post-referendum violence of 1999: the systematic rape of Timorese women and girls in the context of their forced deportation to West Timorese camps (UN Special Rapporteur 1999).
Strategic Use of Sexual Violence
Sexual violence was strategically used by the military as a form of revenge targeting women who joined the resistance themselves, or whose family members or friends supported the call for independence. It was also used as a means to target women in order to force their colleagues, relatives, and friends out of hiding (UN Special Rapporteur 1999), or to identify their whereabouts. Sexual violence, rape, torture, and intimidation were used as techniques to extract confessions during detention, particularly around engagement in the resistance and disclosure of the whereabouts of other agents engaging in the resistance. In several cases, rape and sexual violence were used as a means to intimidate and punish women for either participating or deterring them from participating in the resistance. In some instances, women were forcibly married to the troops after which they were detained and harassed on a daily basis. In this context, rape and sexual violence were used to humiliate and shame women for participating in the resistance, and for their ethnic identity as Timorese women.
Aditjondro, George. "The Silent Suffering of Our Timorese Sisters". Free East Timor: Australia's Culpability in East Timor's Genocide. Random House Milsons Point: Australia Pty Ltd, 1998.
Belo, Bishop Carlos Filipe Ximenes. 2001. ‘To Forge a Future, Timor Needs Justice for the Past.’ Sydney Morning Herald. 28 August.
Blakeley, Ruth (2009). State Terrorism and Neoliberalism: The North in the South. Routledge.
Harris-Rimmer, S. (2009). After the guns fall silent: Sexual and gender-based violence in Timor-Leste. Issue brief. Timor-Leste Armed Violence Assessment (TLAVA). Issue Brief, (5). https://www.files.ethz.ch/isn/143628/Timor-Leste-Violence-IB5-ENGLISH.pdf
National Security Archive (NSA). (2005). A Quarter Century of U.S. Support for Occupation https://nsarchive2.gwu.edu/NSAEBB/NSAEBB174/
Payaslian, Simon. (2019). "20th Century Genocides". Oxford bibliographies.
Ramos-Horta, José. (1987). Funu: The Unfinished Saga of East Timor. Lawrenceville, NJ: The Read Sea Press.
UN Special Rapporteurs. 1999. Report on the Joint Mission to East Timor Undertaken by the Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbitrary Executions, the Special Rapporteur on the Question of Torture, and the Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women, Its Causes and Consequences: Situation of Human Rights in East Timor. A/54/660 of 10 December. Geneva: UN.