The British and Occupied East Timor: Support for Indonesia Behind a Façade of Neutrality


Memo #204

By Anna Costa – acosta [at]

As late as 1996, a British National Audit Office Report corroborated the government version of Britain as an honest broker in East Timor’s struggle for self-determination under Indonesian occupation, which followed the end of Portuguese colonial rule in 1974 and Indonesia’s invasion of the territory in 1975. But recently released archival evidence refutes the claim that Britain was negotiating a diplomatic solution between Indonesia, Portugal, and East Timor.

In fact, Britain not only accommodated but also assisted the Indonesian occupation through continued abstention on UN resolutions penalizing Indonesia, through arms sales and development assistance, and by providing advice to Indonesia on how to repair its public image after the exposure of the country’s atrocities in Timor.

Britain’s unwillingness to jeopardize its bilateral relationship with Indonesia was not without controversy. A domestic bureaucratic and political struggle took place between politico-commercial and strategic interests advanced particularly by the Foreign Office, and developmental-humanitarian concerns exemplified by the Overseas Development Ministry. Eventually, the former set of concerns trumped considerations of ethics and even compliance with international law.

Although surreptitious, British support of Indonesia was unequivocal. The British policy of abstention at the UN was representative neither of passivity, nor of a desire to find the middle ground between the Portuguese, Indonesian, and East Timorese positions. While indeed a form of mediation, abstention was aimed at reconciling eminently British conflicting imperatives: avoiding imperilling relations with Indonesia while maintaining a rhetorical commitment to self-determination.

Studies of the role of the US and Australian governments in the aftermath of the invasion have generally stressed the pre-eminence of Cold War logic. An analysis of British conduct and motives not only provides a missing piece in the puzzle of international liability for one of the bloodiest acts of occupation of the twentieth century, but also sheds light on conflicts of interest and competition within the US-led camp. Economic competition and political regionalization in Europe and Southeast Asia often transcended, and sometimes even contradicted, the Cold War politics of two opposing monolithic “socialist” and “free world” camps.

Anna Costa’s research centres on Chinese foreign policy and nationalism. She is currently a Hong Kong Fellowship Scheme PhD candidate at the University of Hong Kong.

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In 1991, a massacre by Indonesian forces at a funeral for an independence activist in the Santa Cruz Cemetery in Dili (pictured here) drew attention to the brutal conditions of the Indonesian occupation of East Timor
(source: )



  • The National Security Archive at George Washington University has made available a series of US and British diplomatic documents on Timor-related issues


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