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History of East Timor

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The Timorese people descend from migrants from Asia and Melanesia. Their society was organized into many small kingdoms, a structure that existed when Portuguese explorers arrived in the early 16th century. The Dutch came a few decades later. The two European powers established settlements and fought each other for control of Timor until a series of treaties between 1859 and 1913 assigned West Timor to the Dutch and East Timor to the Portuguese.

During World War II, Japanese forces invaded Timor and battled a contingent of Australian troops assisted by Timorese. Once the Australians were forced to withdraw in 1943, the Japanese destroyed many Timorese communities suspected of helping them. An estimated 60,000 Timorese died during the war. Following Japan’s surrender to the Allies in 1945, the Portuguese and Dutch returned. Indonesia (including West Timor)won independence from the Dutch in 1949, while Portugal kept its East Timor colony. By the 1970s, Portugal was suffering heavy financial and troop losses fighting independence movements in its African colonies of Angola and Mozambique. Opposition to these wars fueled a coup that ousted Portugal’s fascist government in 1974. The new Portuguese government prepared to withdraw from its colonies, including East Timor. Meanwhile, Indonesian leaders covertly planned to annex East Timor once the Portuguese left.

East Timor’s two main political groups—the Revolutionary Front for an Independent East Timor (FRETILIN) and the Timorese Democratic Union (UDT)—formed a coalition in January 1975, but divisions between them led to armed conflict that August. The Portuguese administration withdrew to Atauro. FRETILIN gained the upper hand against UDT forces, pushing them into West Timor. On 28 November 1975, FRETILIN declared East Timor’s independence. Nine days later, Indonesian leaders ordered the military to invade. Indonesian forces killed 50,000 people in six months and displaced large portions of the Timorese population, causing widespread disease and food shortages. As many as 200,000 East Timorese died as a result of the invasion and occupation.

Indonesia announced the annexation of East Timor as its27th province in July 1976. From remote mountain hideouts, FRETILIN waged a guerilla war, supported by widespread civilian resistance and an international diplomatic campaign. In November 1991, the Indonesian military fired on a pro independence demonstration, killing 270 people and sparking international condemnation. Two East Timorese independence campaigners, Bishop Carlos Ximenes Belo and José Ramos-Horta, received the 1996 Nobel Peace Prize, further highlighting the situation in East Timor.

In 1998, an economic crisis sparked demonstrations and riots in Indonesia, forcing the resignation of its president, Suharto. His successor, B. J. Habibie, announced that a referendum on independence would be held in East Timor in August 1999. Pro-Indonesian militias, backed by the Indonesian military, launched a terror campaign to influence the poll, but 78.5 percent of East Timorese nevertheless voted for independence. The militias and Indonesian military responded by killing more than one thousand Timorese, displacing three fourths of the population, and destroying nearly all infrastructure. In late September 1999, an Australian-led peacekeeping force was deployed, and the Indonesian forces withdrew.

A transitional UN administration, backed by UN peacekeepers, governed East Timor until it became an independent nation on 20 May 2002. Popular resistance leader Xanana Gusmão became the nation’s first president. UN peacekeepers left in June 2005, and East Timor seemed headed for a peaceful future. However, civil unrest gripped the nation after the government fired six hundred soldiers for refusing to end a strike in March 2006. The decision sparked widespread factional fighting between rebel soldiers and forces loyal to the government. To restore order, a UN peacekeeping mission was reestablished in August 2006.


Democratic Republic of East Timor (Timor- Leste).” CultureGrams World Edition. 2008.

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