East Timor History
For such a small and remote little country, East Timorese modern history is incredibly complex and rich in complicated details that are well beyond the scope of this website. The following can be only a rough summary of the most important aspects. At the end of this chapter a couple of suggestions for further reading are given to facilitate more in-depth study. But first, here are the historical basics:
, or Timor-Leste in Portuguese, was colonized by Portugal
in the early 16th century. West Timor meanwhile became part of the Dutch
“East Indies” colony, which was later to become today's Indonesia
Before the arrival of colonialism the island of Timor, despite its rather small size, had been ruled by dozens of smaller independent kingdoms. The Portuguese colonial rulers utilized this fragmentation of power by forming alliances with some of these local kingdoms and their chiefs (liurai), thus pitting some Timorese against others, rather than getting their own hands dirty (a strategy later copied by the Indonesians). Portugal never had a sizeable military force of its own on the island, but this arrangement and its own minimal military presence were sufficient for the Portuguese to keep control over the colony.
Timor was of interest to the European colonial powers for two reasons: a) its strategic location along the southern line of the 'spice routes' (e.g. to and from Ambon/the Malukas to the north-east – see Indonesia
) and b) for its own exploitable riches. The latter was at first primarily sandalwood, but later when the sandalwood supplies were nearly exhausted and exports to China
declined, the Dutch and Portuguese introduced the growing of coffee. Timorese coffee is still a prized commodity today.
For centuries, Portuguese Timor remained a remote European possession that its masters didn't pay too much attention to. There had been uprisings among the Timorese but these had been put down with relative ease and never really threatened the island’s colonial status. It was only in the late 19th and early 20th century that Portugal assumed a tighter grip on the whole territory and started infrastructure developments (still comparatively small scale as they may have been) – see Aipelo, Liquica and Maubara
Portuguese control over East Timor was briefly interrupted during WWII
occupied the island, despite Portugal
's neutrality in the war and despite Australia
having sent troops to defend the island (which they did, heroically but ultimately unsuccessfully – see Dare
). After the Japanese surrender in 1945, Portugal re-assumed colonial power in Timor-Leste.
It wasn't until the late 1960s and early 1970s that a Timorese nationalist movement began to form. This picked up the idea of independence – as decolonization elsewhere, e.g. in West Africa was already in full swing. Returning Timorese who had studied abroad also brought back with them elements of the ideology that had gained wide currency in Europe in the student movements of late 1960s (see below).
Then came the Carnation Revolution in Portugal of April 1974 that ended the Salazar military dictatorship and in its wake kick-started a process in which Portugal would finally shed its colonies as well (see under Lisbon
and Cape Verde
). Some of these had already been increasingly difficult to maintain in the face of ever strengthening liberation movements and guerrilla wars, in particular in its African colonies of Guinea-Bissau, Mozambique and Angola.
In East Timor different political factions formed. The most significant of which were the UDT, which initially favoured a process towards autonomy under Portuguese guidance (but was later pressured into supporting Indonesian dominance), APODETI, which openly supported a move towards integration with Indonesia (but was the smallest faction), and ASDT, soon to be renamed FRETILIN, which advocated full national independence and gained significant popular support in this.
Fretilin (which is an acronym of “Frente Revolucionária de Timor-Leste Independente” or 'Revolutionary Front for an Independent East Timor') was highly influenced by both other post-colonial independence movements as well as the leftist movements within Europe of the late 1960s and early 1970s, especially through returning East Timorese who had gone to Europe as students. This partly explains the favoured left-wing rhetoric that was readily adopted, even though at least initially the underpinning of this in any genuine communist ideology was at best half-hearted and possibly just pretentious. (It was only later, during the resistance struggle, that Fretilin actually adopted an official Marxist stance – but even that was not to last and was gradually dropped during the 1980s and 90s).
Still, 1974/75 was a politically highly charged time in East Timor and internal disagreements turned into bitter conflict between the different factions, including violence teetering on the brink of civil war. But ultimately Fretilin gained the upper hand and in late 1975 it unilaterally declared East Timor
's independence under its leader Nicolau Lobato.
While a mere handful of nations, mainly other ex-Portuguese colonies, recognized this independence, Portugal
itself did not, nor did the island's powerful neighbours Australia
or Indonesia or their allies and partners in the West.
Indonesia had been watching what was happening on its south-eastern doorstep with some concern. All that wannabe socialist revolutionary rhetoric on the part of Fretilin fuelled deep-seated fears of a communist
“domino effect” if East Timor was allowed to have its way. One has to remember that the Indonesian regime at the time under General Suharto had itself been founded on a particularly ruthless form of anti-communism. This had culminated early on in the purges of 1965/66 in which up to a million alleged “communists” were murdered – see under Indonesia
, and especially Pancasila Sakti
. Now in East Timor too, Indonesia aimed to influence matters through support of the anti-independence factions, including paramilitary incursions and arming Timorese militias.
When East Timor unilaterally declared its independence, calls within the Indonesian leadership for a proper military intervention were getting louder. But Suharto himself was initially reluctant. With weaponry mainly supplied by the USA
there were concerns that using these weapons in a military act of aggression and subsequent annexation could be detrimental to continued American support. But it quickly became clear that such fears were unfounded. (One also has to remember that the USA was at the time reeling from its traumatic fiasco of losing the Vietnam War
against the communist Vietcong.)
During a meeting of the then US President Gerald Ford and his Secretary of State Henry Kissinger with Suharto in Jakarta
on 5 December 1975, it was made clear that the US would not stand in the way of an Indonesian invasion of East Timor. Instead it was clearly signalled that they “understood” (i.e. would condone) Indonesia's need to “sort out” their “communist” threat to the region. Their only request was that military operations should not begin until after Ford and Kissinger had left Indonesia and returned home.
And so it came. Within less than 24 hours of that meeting, Indonesia launched its full-scale invasion of East Timor. The little country and its fledging leadership had almost nothing to counter such military might, so Fretilin retreated into the mountainous hinterland as Indonesian forces quickly took control of the capital Dili
and other important places (cf. also Balibo
However, the Indonesians underestimated the resistance against their takeover of the island. They had initially thought that they'd easily gain control over the entire territory in no time, but things panned out differently. What followed was a period of bitter guerrilla war waged, with some remarkable success, from their mountain strongholds by FALINTIL, the newly formed military wing of Fretilin (Falintil too is an acronym; it stands for “Forças Armadas de Libertação Nacional de Timor-Leste”, or 'Armed Forces for the National Liberation of East Timor').
Ratcheting up their campaign between 1976 and 1979, the Indonesians increasingly resorted to aerial bombardments using their modern military aircraft supplied by the USA
(and Great Britain
at a later stage too). Strikes were aimed not only at Falintil command posts, especially on Mt Matebian, but also at civilian targets, including crops.
Given their dire situation, more and more civilians surrendered. Large numbers were sent to “resettlement camps”, which were effectively concentration camps
(and were regarded as such by Falintil). Hunger and appalling living conditions took a further heavy toll on the people. It is estimated that by the end of 1978 East Timor had lost almost a quarter of its entire population, either to direct acts of war or to starvation and disease. Red Cross images of half-starved Timorese children in such camps caused an early stir of awareness in the world outside (cf. Chega!
Unknown to the world, in contrast, Indonesia also followed a vile quasi-genocidal strategy of a more indirect nature, namely under the mantle of “birth control”. Thus pregnancies were frequently aborted under some pretext in official hospitals so that Timorese women would rather risk giving birth in the countryside than go to hospital.
Timorese civilians were also recruited into taking part in “search and annihilation” operations by the Indonesians, in particular in a type of operation named “fence of legs”. In this thousands of Timorese had to encircle the last hold-out positions of Falintil. Yet a crucial part of its command still managed to break through to continue the fight from yet more secluded hiding places where they would manage to survive yet more sweep-up operations by the Indonesians. Still, the resistance was hanging by a thread at that point. From initially ca. 20,000 strong Falintil had dwindled to a few hundred. In-fighting due to ideological fault lines and even purges did not help matters either.
Another blow to Falintil and the resistance came right at the end of the year 1978 when its commander Nicolau Lobato was killed by the Indonesians on 31 December. He was later replaced by another frontman of the resistance, Xanana Gusmão, a guerrilla leader by default rather than ambition, who rather saw himself as a poet, but was to become regarded the premier national hero of the country (cf. Xanana Reading Room
Following their military successes against the resistance, the Indonesians declared occupied East Timor “pacified” in March 1979 … yet the resistance was not quite over and done with. Under Xanana, Falintil not only continued active and passive (and clandestine) resistance within East Timor, it also took on a more indirect, diplomatic strategy. This was also crucially led abroad, in exile as it were, by José Ramos-Horta who had become East Timor's main spokesperson at the United Nations
and in the West in general.
In 1996 Ramos-Horta was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize – jointly with another East Timorese, namely Bishop Belo, who had worked for a peaceful betterment of the East Timorese situation primarily through the church.
Support from the Catholic Church had previously already come from the very highest position, when Pope John Paul II paid East Timor a visit in October 1989. Already known for supporting resistance against the regime in his native Poland
, it was clear that this visit also had political implications of the highest order. On the other hand, his visit also ran the risk of being seen as condoning the Indonesian annexation. Thus the Timorese used the situation for demonstrations. And although the Indonesian security forces tried their utmost to suppress such visible protests, the occasion still marked a kind of turning point that rekindled popular resistance.
On the international front, only two months later came another low point in the whole story, when Australia
signed an agreement on the joint exploitation of the “Timor Gap” oilfields in the Timor Sea. This clearly amounted to an open acceptance of Indonesia's annexation on the part of a Western nation. And of course East Timor
would see nothing of the profits. (That said, though, it has to be acknowledged that the Indonesians did in fact invest a lot in infrastructure enhancements in East Timor, e.g. in roads.)
A more violent shake-up in Timor itself was the Santa Cruz massacre in 1991 when hundreds of civilians were shot dead by the Indonesian army in a cemetery following a church service for a protester who had been killed by the Indonesian security forces. However, this time video images of the massacre reached the outside world and suddenly sent a shocking signal to the international community – see under Santa Cruz cemetery
Thus, the issue of East Timor and the plight of its population gradually became better known in the outside world. Support for the Timorese cause slowly crept into Indonesia itself as well, where student movements expressed increasing discontent not only with their own dictator but also with their country's continued occupation of Timor-Leste (or “Timor Timur” as the name translates into Bahasa Indonesia).
When in 1992 Xanana Gusmão was arrested by the Indonesians and put in prison in Jakarta
, this too wasn't quite the success the occupiers had anticipated. Rather than weakening the resistance it suddenly found itself with an East-Timorese equivalent of South Africa
's Nelson Mandela (who also visited Xanana in prison himself): a popular figure, revered by his people as well as the international media. As such, Xanana managed to co-ordinate and lead the resistance movement even from his prison cell. From the Indonesian point of view, this was hardly better for their position than if Xanana had remained in the underground in Timor itself. Instead they now had to deal with a propagandistic disadvantage that was hard to compensate for.
It also helped East Timor that by this time the general international political mood had swung from the previous Cold-War
-era Western support for old dictators for the sake of anti-communism to a more jubilant freedom-seeking stance. Communism
had been swept away together with the USSR
and the Eastern Bloc
, peace and unity were the watchwords in central Europe (especially Germany
), while in Indonesia Suharto's grip on power was beginning to show cracks.
After Suharto was finally deposed in 1998, it opened up a real chance for East Timor to achieve an end of the occupation, as Suharto's successor Habibie showed signs of a reluctant willingness to let East Timor go. The hardliners in the Indonesian military, however, had other ideas. So when the idea of allowing the Timorese an open referendum in which to choose their own fate, a dirty campaign began of “influencing” – or rather: intimidating – the population into supporting continued integration with Indonesia. Yet again, it wasn't the Indonesian military itself that undertook most of the operations. Instead they recruited, armed and trained Timorese militias. And these launched an increasing campaign of violence that swept across the country, especially in the western parts closer to the Indonesian border (cf. Liquica
In this volatile situation an agreement was reached between Indonesia
and the United Nations
in May 1999 to hold a UN-supervised “consultation” of the East Timorese people regarding their future (Indonesia had insisted that the word “referendum” not be used, as it would carry much more weight than a mere “consultation” and would also be less of a threat with regard to the question of the legitimacy of the occupation).
The United Nations Mission in East Timor (UNAMET) was established to organize and supervise this ballot. However, no military peacekeeping forces were sent along. Instead, “security” was left entirely in the Indonesians' hands (i.e. the same hands that unofficially supported and organized the anti-independence militias). This was a screamingly obvious mistake.
Yet it went along as planned. The referendum to take place on 30 August 1999 would consist of only a single question: whether the people accept or reject the proposal of “special autonomy” but remaining part of Indonesia. Rejection would lead to a separation from Indonesia. The word “independence” was not mentioned, so people had to be educated that it was “rejecting autonomy” that opened up that path (one has to remember in this context that about half of all East Timorese at that time were illiterate).
The Indonesians must have been confident that their vague ballot question and in particular their orchestrated campaign of intimidation would ensure a pro-integration vote. But this was, yet again, a miscalculation. The turnout for the referendum was, at over 98% of eligible voters, momentous – despite all the threats and violence. A few days later the result of nearly 80% in favour of independence was announced … and then all hell broke loose.
In fact hell had already announced itself with unmistakable clarity even before the result was published. After a surprisingly peaceful ballot day itself (relatively speaking) militia attacks resumed and all regional UN offices were evacuated. Journalists were urged to leave the country and most, as well as businesspeople and non-essential UN staff, did try to get out as soon as they could. Locally people would prepare to flee for the mountains or take refuge in convents, hospitals and such institutions deemed safer than people's homes. The atmosphere must have been ominous. So when the results were officially announced, there was no partying – only the calm before a vicious storm.
The Indonesians, as they had always done, had orchestrated the violence that was now to erupt in such a way that they could claim that it was the Timorese themselves that were fighting each other, “running amok” in uncontrollable “frenzy” – and thus “proving” that the Indonesian military was required to “restore order”. Yet it was the militias that had too obviously been installed by the Indonesian army and secret services that committed virtually all of the violence. At the same time Falintil refrained from any fighting and had even agreed to retreat to so-called “cantonment” sites in the run-up to the referendum, which basically meant laying down their weapons. Thus the Indonesian strategy did not work. Their fabrications and propaganda were eventually just too see-through. And after all, this time there had been international observers.
However, immediately after the ballot that had gone the “wrong way” for them, the Indonesian military tried to get all journalists, ideally even all foreigners, out of the country. Only a handful managed to remain in Dili
. At least the UN did not immediately evacuate altogether, even though it was briefly contemplated, but vetoed by the UN staff in Dili themselves. (They wanted to avoid the impression of almost a mirror-image repetition of what had happened in Srebrenica
, where the UN did largely desert those whom it was supposed to protect.) But the remaining UN presence was still powerless to do anything constructive at this point, struggling to even cope with the shortages of supplies for themselves and the refugees who had taken shelter in their compound.
In the post-referendum surge of violence, even the bishop's seat, the UN and the Red Cross compounds in Dili
came under attack and practically fell under siege. But in the main the militias were busy looting the country and engaging in a general scorched-earth policy, burning shops and other buildings en masse. They took what they could carry and destroyed what they could not. And not just material booty, there were also deportations of thousands of East Timorese to Indonesian West Timor. Many also voluntarily fled into what they saw as safety in West Timor – it would take a long time for all those displaced people to return to their homes … and some never did. After the chaos of September 1999, forensic explorations later discovered mass graves of massacred East Timorese even on West Timor territory.
The opportunistic looting apart, one had to wonder, though, what the Indonesians' and pro-integration militias' motives now were, after they had lost the referendum. Simply revenge? Was it a kind of “if we can't have it, no one shall” reaction that made them cause such havoc, burning down houses and destroying much of the country's infrastructure?
However, as reports of what was going on in East Timor reached the outside world, pressure mounted on the UN and powerful countries in the West, including Australia, to do something. But as usual the big players were reluctant. After all, Indonesia was a major power in Asia, rich in natural resources, and at least potentially an economic powerhouse. And East Timor? A dispensable poor little dwarf. Yet things had shifted. Protests in Western cities and an embarrassed Indonesia led the still indecisive UN to undertake an inspection mission, with representatives of the Security Council as well as the Indonesian military commander General Wiranto.
Shortly afterwards, following a UN meeting in which the violence in East Timor was widely condemned, Indonesia
's president Habibie finally caved in and accepted the deployment of foreign military troops “to assist” in the situation. Without this acceptance, none of the military powers that counted would have gone in (obviously for fear of risking open confrontation with Indonesia).
In mid-September an international intervention force (“Interfet”) was finally mandated by the UN and deployed in East Timor, under the leadership of Australia
. The latter is somewhat ironic, given that up to that point Australia had always diplomatically been on the Indonesian side all through the 24-year occupation of East Timor. However, even as early as during the run-up to the referendum, the Australian military had already put together a well-prepared intervention force, so now that it was indeed needed it could be deployed virtually with immediate effect (as these things go – it still took several days for them to arrive, but that's comparatively swift).
Thus, what could have turned into a second Timorese full-on genocide was eventually halted. For once international intervention was apparently a success. Not an immediate success, mind you – the Indonesian army only retreated leaving behind a trail of death and destruction. And even after they had gone, international aid for the civilian population camped out in their mountain hideouts came only painfully slowly.
However, the pro-Indonesian militias were finally stopped and disarmed (that is: those who hadn't already fled to West Timor) – but by then they had laid waste to much of the country's infrastructure. So a slow and laborious path of reconstruction had to be embarked upon. But at least East Timor
was, for the first time, properly on the road to freedom, even though it was still a stony path.
On 20 May 2002, East Timor officially became independent and Xanana Gusmão (who had been released from prison shortly after the independence vote) was sworn in as the new country's first president, after having won East Timor's first presidential election in April with 80% of the vote. In September 2002 East Timor also became the first new country to join the United Nations in the 21st century.
It has been argued that one reason why on this occasion the UN
managed to get it right was in large part thanks to the personal effort of its then Secretary-General Kofi Annan – indeed it may have played a role that he was eager to avoid having another case like Rwanda
on his hands, when the UN (with Annan crucially involved as head of Peacekeeping Operations at the time) so miserably failed to prevent what could have been a preventable genocide
. With East Timor, it appears, he was adamant not to let history repeat itself.
On the other hand, it was not Annan but the UN staff on the ground in Dili
who had refused to be evacuated and thus desert the East Timorese but instead insisted on staying put and continued to call for an intervention force. Had they left East Timor, it may never have come to that. So their
courage has to be acknowledged even more.
But even after independence was achieved, not all was well in East Timor
. The nascent nation was not yet to live happily ever after. The newly set-up United Nations Transitional Administration in East Timor (UNTAET) as well as Interfet came under criticism for ruling like dictatorial colonialists, treating the former resistance fighters with disrespect and for lacking commitment in evidence-gathering regarding the human rights violations and killings perpetrated by the Indonesians and the militias. (One accusation was that the Australians, in particular, were still more concerned about their country's relations with Indonesia than they were with truth-finding – presumably the latter would only have got in the way of the former …)
The Timorese themselves, however, achieved a commendable amount of success in terms of truth and reconciliation – cf. Chega!
CAVR, the commission especially set up for this purpose, compiled a detailed report on human rights violations, which was published in 2005. This remains the main source of evidence about the darkest period in East Timor’s history. Other commissions and organizations dealt with the post-conflict outlook and coming to terms with the past as well. But while truth-finding and reconciliation had been addressed in various ways, proper “justice” was, as so often, something that would almost fall by the wayside. A few militia leaders were put on trial, but, by and large, too many of the guilty never had to pay for their crimes. Priority was given to forgiveness instead, and not everybody was happy with that.
Within Indonesia virtually all of the perpetrators and organizers of the crimes committed in East Timor were let off, even officially acquitted in Indonesian trials that had been supposed to fulfil Indonesia's part of coming to terms with its role in Timor. To this day that has never really happened at all. One of the former Indonesian special forces commanders, Prabowo, who had been heavily involved in East Timor (including torture and killings) even ran for presidency in 2014 and was only narrowly defeated (by Jokowi – see under Indonesia
In East Timor itself 2006 saw another hefty outbreak of violence following demonstrations by disgruntled members of the military that led to clashes between the army, ex-army groups and the police as well as new armed gangs of civilians. Numerous lives were lost, houses in Dili were set ablaze again. It looked like a return to September 1999. The roots of the conflict were a complex mixture of disappointment on the part of resistance veterans, economic reasons as well as a mounting conflict between the eastern and western halves of the country that even bordered on showing elements of ethnic cleansing. In the end, the descent into civil-war-like violence was, again, averted with the help of international peacekeeping forces (again led by Australians). Some of those responsible were subsequently put on trial. But many of the underlying problems remained unsolved.
In February 2008 renegade soldiers plotted a co-ordinated assassination attempt on both José Ramos-Horta and Xanana Gusmão (the former had meanwhile become president and the latter was prime minister of East Timor at the time – cf. Xanana Reading Room
). Xanana escaped unharmed but Ramos-Horta was seriously injured and had to be treated in Australia for two months. On his return he urged the UN to extend their mission in East Timor.
Somewhat shell-shocked by the past two years of rekindled internal violence, the country slowly calmed down again. At the end of 2012 the last part of the UN peacekeeping mission in Timor-Leste was officially ended, following peaceful presidential and parliamentary elections held earlier that year.
So things have improved a lot but a certain insecurity remains, mainly due to continued poverty and worrying unemployment rates. East Timor is still one of the poorest countries in Asia. One hope of economic recovery and development lies in oil – the very same oilfields in the Timor Gap that Australia once happily agreed to share with Indonesia (see above) but has since agreed to exploit “jointly” with East Timor (though at what relative rates remains a bone of contention).
Another hope for the country may lie in tourism. But that is only small business as yet. Still, travelling to this far-away little country does give a certain degree of support to it. So do check my guide on East Timor travel destinations
The above account could only give a superficial overview – but there's a large body of material available for those who want to study the fascinating story of East Timor in more depth. Of the many books that have been written on this subject, I can personally recommend the following two especially:
1) “If You Leave Us Here, We Will Die – How Genocide was Stopped in East Timor” by Geoffrey Robinson (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press: 2010), 320pp.
This is a kind of mix of an academic historian's treatise (that comes with a concomitant degree of “dryness” at times) combined with the author's vivid eyewitness reports from when he was part of the UN mission in Timor in 1999. It brilliantly unravels all the involvement (or refusal of involvement) of other nations (esp. the US) and also places the Indonesian occupation in its own wider political context. But the book concentrates mostly on East Timor itself, how independence was finally achieved, how the militia violence was stopped, as well as on the question of conflict resolution and the subsequent (lack of) justice in this case.
2) “East Timor – A Nation's Bitter Dawn” by Irena Cristalis (London, New York, Zed Books, 2009) 340pp.
This is the work of a Dutch journalist who has visited East Timor countless times from the early 1990s onwards and was also there during the most dramatic phases of the country's struggle for independence and beyond (i.e. it also covers the post-independence crises). It is less academic but at least as detailed as the above book, especially with regard to personal observations and contacts with a plethora of people involved, both well known (such as Xanana) and less well known. It is the ideal counterweight to the above-mentioned, more academic work. It also has more on the post-referendum period and its political complications. But it is on balance more about people than politics.
Both books contain valuable glossaries of abbreviations and special terms – of which there are a bewilderingly large number in this context.