Timor-Leste 2006 – Combining Found Data and Innovative Surveys To Uncover the Truth

Large-scale human rights violations in Timor-Leste began in 1975 when the Indonesian government invaded the small island and continued until Timorese independence in 1999. Disappearances, torture, forced displacement and extra-judicial killings took place during the Indonesian occupation compounded by a severe famine. Estimates of deaths ranged from 50,000 to 200,000, but individual sources reflected only a fraction of total fatalities. The Commission for Reception, Truth and Reconciliation in East Timor (CAVR) asked HRDAG to investigate abuses during the conflict. This chapter describes how Ball and HRDAG scientists Romesh Silva and Scott Weikart discovered how inherent biases in Timorese data sources could be overcome by comparing three innovative data sets: narrative testimonies, Silva’s census of public graveyards, and a retrospective mortality survey of Timorese households. No truth commission had ever surveyed the population about past killings and no human rights project had used gravestone information to estimate deaths. HRDAG researchers matched reported deaths across the datasets and used MSE to determine the pattern and magnitude of conflict-related deaths and violations. HRDAG analysis revealed the surprising truth that far more people died in Timor-Leste as a result of famine than in the fighting itself. HRDAG found that 102,800 (+/- 11,000) Timorese died as a result of human rights violations during the conflict. Of these dead, 18,600 people were murdered or disappeared and 84,200 citizens died of hunger and illness in excess of what would be expected during peacetime.