One Year In East Timor

Reviewed by Masood Ahmed Khan

13 September, 2018 12:00 AM printer

One Year In East Timor

One Year in East Timor" by Major General Rezaqul Haider (Retired)  of Bangladesh Army is probably the first-hand account of its kind written succinctly by someone, highlighting the actual happenings during the tumultuous year 1999-2000 leading to the independence of the tiny country.

 The book deals with the difficulties in bringing various forces with stakes on a negotiating table under the auspices of a mandated UN resolution. There were misgivings leading to suspicion by all and it was difficult to satisfy all of them. Even the UN was accused of bipartisan approach. Nonetheless, due to resolve and untiring efforts of UN team on ground, the transitory phase was successfully negotiated which ultimately resulted in the independence.

For the ease of better comprehension and for easy reference, the author has subdivided his memoirs in 4 phases. Phases 1 and 2 cover the UNAMET (United Nation Assistance Mission in East Timor) period, Phase 3 describes the INTERFET (International Force in East Timor) period and Phase 4 wraps up with the initial days of UNTAET (United Nation Transitional Administration in East Timor) period. Phase 1 was for about 2 months from the establishment of UNTAET until popular consultation on 1 September 1999. This phase is essentially the struggle between pro-integration forces versus the pro-independence forces supported by their international proxies to win over the local populace. All, towards that end, employed all overt and covert means.  Even the local staff was alleged to have respective biases. Physical intimidation was the common tool to influence the local populace or the UN staff during registration period. There were strong indicators of use of violence if the result of the consultation did not favour a particular group. In the absence of peacekeeping force and with a limited number of about 50 military liaison officers, it was annoyingly difficult for the UN military observers to prevent use of force by the competing parties. On the ballot day, people in large numbers cast their votes under tense environment. As the result was announced on 5 September 1999 in favour of pro-independence, all hell broke loose, as expected.  Systematic and wide spread ransacking, bloodshed, loot, plunder and arson by pro-integration forces was reported throughout the region.

Phase II covers the period of the first 3 weeks of September 1999 of continued systematic destruction of infrastructure, intimidation of the pro-independence populace and the UN staff while the Indonesian forces stood by watching the mayhem impotently. This period lasted for about 3 weeks and culminated in the exodus of the local populace, evacuation of UNAMET to Darwin. With the commencement of bedlam at the hands of militia, the populace found it expedient to leave their hamlets and took refuge in the nearby mountains for safety and security reasons.  The situation in the capital city of Dilli was slightly different. The city dwellers found it convenient to rush to the nearby UNAMET compound to take refuge and about 3000 of them; mostly women and children barged into the UN compound under hailing bullets of the militia. Imposition of martial law by the Indonesian government did not help towards improving the security situation. With such a large number of IDPs in the UN compound and the UN staff itself besieged, it became logistically impossible to sustain. The orders for evacuation of UNAMET staff and the beleaguered IDPs came around 10 September 1999. The evacuation to Darwin was completed in 5 days utilising RAAF C 130s leaving a token representation of about 10 UNAMET persons including 5 MLOs staying back who moved out to an abandoned Australian Consulate compound few kilometers away.  Meanwhile all Indonesian forces in East Timor limited their active participation and started their gradual withdrawal towards the regional cantonments.

Phase III covers about a period of 2 months from 3rd week of September to 4th week of November 1999. During this phase, the INTERFET moved in to East Timor and TNI (Indonesian Armed Forces) was evacuated out of the island.  The jostling for the driving position by incoming new forces marred this period. INTERFET as the name implies was international forces for East Timor but fundamentally it comprised Australian Defense Forces led by Major General Peter Cosgrove an Australian general. The writer personally knew him, as both were studying in National Defense College in India. INTERFET had their own way of operating which led to friction with TNI, UNAMET staff and the FALINTIL (The Freedom Fighters of East Timor).  INTERFET worked independently without consultation that led to an incident wherein the Australian troops ingresses inadvertently in West Timor and killed an Indonesian policeman in an exchange of fire.  In another incident, Xanana Gusmao removed his Australian SF guards but got them employed later on.  TNI gradual withdrawal from ET started in mid-October and was completed in the end November 1999. While the TNI was withdrawing, the FALINTIL started feeling uneasy in their cantoned areas and started relocating to better locations on their own. Meanwhile the UN Security Council on 15 October 1999, approved transitory administration mission called UNTAET and authorised the deployment of UN peacekeeping forces. On 17 November, the new UN SRSG (Special Representative of the Secretary General) of UNTAET along with his core team reached ET (East Timor) to take over effective control.

Phase IV was the transitory administration period from October 1999 to May 2002 which included arrival of IPKF (International Peace Keeping Force) and withdrawal of INTERFET leaving some elements to operate under IPKF.  UNTAET was burdened with enormity of the multifarious tasks that included administration, security and order, coordination of relief assistance, rehabilitation of physical infrastructure, create structure for sustainable governance and rule of law, and assist in drafting new constitution and conducting elections. Towards this end, various MOUs were signed with different governments/international organisations to facilitate rebuilding of the nation. The large number of pro-integration people that crossed over to West Timor after the ballot announcement started trickling back under an atmosphere of fear and uncertainty. Reprisal by pro-autonomy populace against pro-integration refugees was also reported. The author left ET somewhere in the middle of year 2000 as his contract as CMLO (Chief Military Liaison Officer)/CMO (Chief Military Observer) expired, and as they say, the rest is history that could now be found in the archives.

Independence is never easy and has a price. It is never given, it is won. Many sacrificed their lives to let the country breathe that day. Independence does not bring satisfaction to all the parties with competing interests. Post-independence is good time to focus on peace, instead of in-fighting. People in power should strive for reconciliation and forgiveness instead of division. East Timor is no exception.

However, the book has been written after 17 years of the independence. A lot of water has flown under the bridge since then. The author has purposely limited himself to the narration of events during his stay of one year in East Timor, it is strongly suggested that he may expand the scope in a sequel to the first book, to cover the events leading to and post-independence period as well. The students of history would love to read the whole story in a consolidated form.

Overall, the book is as enthralling as any full action suspense movie.


The writer is a retired Brigadier of

Pakistan Army