First colonized by the Portuguese around 1520, the land now officially known as Timor Leste and more commonly as East Timor, has had a long and troubled history, with a very traumatic birth as an independent country.
No visit to the country should really be considered without a basic understanding of these events because they are fundamental to the ethos of Timor Leste.
The Portuguese first landed near Pante Macassar on the north coast of the island – in what is now the enclave of Oecusse in the Indonesian western half of the island.
The were actually looking for the fabled spice islands of the Moluccas, and control of the incredibly lucrative spice trade, when they stumbled upon th island of Timor and its vast stands of sandalwood trees – highly prized for their aromatic oil.
But by the end of the 16th century the Dutch (in the form of the Dutch East India Company) had arrived in the Moluccas with bigger and better ships & guns, together with much stronger financial backing than the incumbent Portuguese, and quickly dominated the area from their main base in Batavia – now called Jakarta.
By 1613 the Dutch had gained control of the western half of Timor, forcing the Portuguese in to the eastern half and the two countries continued to skirmish until 1860 when in true European colonial fashion this defacto arrangement was formalized with a treaty partitioning the island in to two parts consisting of Dutch West Timor and Portuguese East Timor together with the enclave of Oecusse.
When the Dutch formally withdrew from the East Indies in 1949 and the Republic of Indonesia was born, West Timor was incorporated in to the new country, while East Timor remained under Portugal’s control until 1975 when political turmoil in Lisbon, and a military mounted coup d’état, resulted in the Portuguese abruptly leaving and effectively abandoning the territory after 455 years of colonial rule.
The sudden withdrawal of the Portuguese left East Timor extremely vulnerable and on the 16th July 1976, just nine days after the Democratic Republic of East Timor was declared an independent nation, Indonesia invaded and annexed it.
Timor Leste Overview & History: The Indonesian Years
With the benefit of 20/20 hindsight it is tempting to view the Indonesian invasion through the prism of Realpolitik – as the specter of communism was still stalking South-East Asia. The left-leaning Fretilin government appeared to be a potential communist state and President Suharto of Indonesia was the west’s new best friend after the troubled years under his mercurial predecessor Sukarno.
But that ignores the broader reality and does little to mitigate the results of the invasion in terms of the 200,000 East Timorese that Amnesty International estimated died from either military action, starvation or disease from 1975 through to 1999 – roughly one third of East Timor’s population.
Or the estimated 300,000 East Timorese the U.S. Agency for International Development estimated were moved into camps controlled by Indonesian armed forces.
Timor Leste Overview & History: The Trauma of Independence
The Dili Massacre in 1991 was the critical turning point for the independence movement in East Timor.
The cold-blooded slaughter of at least 250 East Timorese by the Indonesian military was witnessed by two American journalists, Amy Goodman and Allan Nairn, and caught on videotape by Max Stahl, who was filming undercover for Yorkshire Television.
The video footage was subsequently smuggled in to Australia, despite the best efforts of the authorities in Darwin to seize it, and was released publicly in the UK documentary In Cold Blood: The Massacre of East Timor in January 1992.
The fall of Indonesian President Suharto in 1998 and the elevation of B. J. Habibie to replace him was the trigger for a UN-sponsored agreement between Indonesia and Portugal that allowed a UN-supervised referendum in August 1999.
The result was a resounding vote for independence – which was taken very badly by the Indonesian military who promptly retaliated by organizing and sponsoring anti-independence Timorese militias.
Those militias implemented what was effectively a scorched-earth campaign of retribution – killing over 1,400 Timorese and destroying around 70% of the country’s infrastructure, including homes, irrigation and water supply systems, schools and virtually 100% of the country’s electricity generation & distribution system.
The arrival of Australian-led peacekeeping troops – the International Force for East Timor (INTERFET) on the 20th September 1999 brought the violence and destruction to an end and on the 20th May 2002, Timor-Leste was formally recognized as an independent state with Xanana Gusmão sworn in as the country’s first President.