Companion to East Timor - The Politics of Starvation

The Politics of Starvation

Reputable demographic techniques have shown that thirty per cent of East Timor's population died during the war. Most of these deaths occurred between 1977 and 1979 because the Indonesian military's operations caused a widespread famine.

The Indonesian government had early warning of the famine but the military objective of destroying the resistance overrode all other considerations. A number of Western governments also had early warning of the famine but their priority was to maintain good relations with the Suharto regime. They deliberately refrained from proposing humanitarian aid until the Indonesian military gave them the go-ahead.

The Indonesian authorities prevented food aid from entering East Timor for the first five months after the invasion. Australian activists tried to communicate with and send aid to East Timor but the Fraser government cracked down on them repeatedly. By April 1977, there were credible reports that the food situation in East Timor was growing perilous. The Indonesian military intensified its operations in August 1977, destroying agricultural areas and other food sources such as livestock. There were illnesses and food shortages, forcing more and more civilians to leave the hills and make their way to Indonesian forces in order to surrender.

The Indonesian military's first priority was to destroy the resistance, not to care for the population. It detained those who surrendered in camps that were not equipped to care for their welfare. Most people who were sick died from diseases such as cholera, diarrhoea and tuberculosis. East Timorese collaborators from Apodeti helped the Indonesian military to identify members of the resistance in the camps. Torture and rape were common during the interrogation process. People identified as Fretilin or Falintil were either executed immediately or interrogated at greater length and then executed. Female relatives of Fretilin leaders were often made the sexual slaves of Indonesian military officers. At the conclusion of their posting to East Timor, officers frequently transferred their 'ownership rights' over these women to other officers.

By late 1979, there were approximately 300,000 to 370,000 people in the camps. There were severe restrictions on movement as well as inadequate food, medicine, sanitation and shelter. The result was a famine in which thousands of East Timorese died. Thousands of people were also sent to the island of Atauro from 1980 onwards. There too, illness and starvation were commonplace.

At this time, the Australian government's primary aim was to contain domestic public opinion so as to extend de facto recognition of Indonesian rule over East Timor. This was also true of several other Western governments. Humanitarian aid finally arrived in sufficient quantities after pressure generated by a relatively small number of activists, primarily in the USA, Australia and Britain. The activists' efforts ended the famine and created awareness of East Timor in the US Congress and large media organizations. International support for East Timor was rebuilt in the 1980s after the crushing defeats of the 1970s.