15 Jul 2011

East Timor's independence referendum

East Timor's independence referendum

In mid-November 1998 44 civilians were reported, by the Catholic Church, to have been killed during a military crackdown against separatist rebels in southern East Timor. In January 1999 after months of increasing political pressure, the government consented to consider further the possibility of autonomy or even independence for East Timor, annexed by Indonesia in 1976. In April 1999, despite the signing of a peace agreement while talks on autonomy continued, fighting broke out between opposing factions. Over 25 East Timorese refugees were massacred by the militia without the Indonesian army attempting to intervene. In May, Indonesia and Portugal signed a UN-brokered deal for a referendum on autonomy for East Timor to be held on 8 August. The choice would be independence or autonomy within Indonesia. However, the referendum was postponed in June to allow UN monitors to improve security.In July 1999, the country's election commission rejected the results of the June parliamentary elections. The failure to endorse the results came after 27 of the 48 parties which contested the June election refused to sign off on the final vote count because of claimed irregularities. The five major parties who had won most of the seats in the new parliament had all signed off. The election commission finally accepted the election results in August and President Habibie conceded that the party of his rival, Megawati Sukarnoputri, had come first with 34% of the vote, followed by his Golkar party with 22%. The election was the first free ballot in Indonesia in 44 years and the result was regarded as crucial to the democratic transformation of the after decades of authoritarian rule.

In September 1999, nearly 80% of East Timorese population voted for independence in the territory. This sparked wide-spread violence throughout East Timor, which led to a humanitarian crisis. After more than 7,000 people had died and more than 300,000 made refugees by three weeks of violence which was, on the whole, instigated by pro-Indonesian militias, an Australian-led International Force for East Timor (INTERFET) peacekeeping force was sent to East Timor to try and restore order, despite Indonesian protests. All but 4,500 of the 26,000 Indonesian troops and police in East Timor were withdrawn by the end of the month. By October 1999, the Indonesian parliament had agreed unanimously to accept East Timor's independence, and the UN agreed to send 11,000 peacekeepers to oversee the implementation of independence.

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