History of East Timor


Portuguese rule

From the 16th century onwards, East Timor was a Portuguese colony known as Portuguese Timor. The rest of the island of Timor, and the other islands that were later to become Indonesia, were colonised by the Dutch between the 17th and 19th centuries, and were known as the Dutch East Indies. Portugal largely neglected the colony, using it mainly as a place to exile those who the government in Lisbon saw as "problems" - these included political prisoners as well as ordinary criminals.

Although Portugal was neutral during World War II, in December 1941, Portuguese Timor was occupied by Australian and Dutch forces, which were expecting a Japanese invasion. When the Japanese did occupy Timor, in February 1942, the Allies and Timorese volunteers engaged them in a guerilla campaign. (See: Battle of Timor (1942-43).) This assistance cost the civilian population dearly: Japanese forces burned many villages and seized food supplies. The Japanese occupation resulted in the deaths of 40,000-70,000 Timorese.

Portuguese Timor was handed back to Portugal after the war, but Portugal continued to neglect the colony. Very little investment was made in infrastructure, education and healthcare. The colony was declared an 'Overseas Province' of the Portuguese Republic in 1955. Locally, authority rested with the Portuguese Governor and the Legislative Council, as well as local chiefs or liurai. Only a small minority of Timorese were educated, and even fewer went on to university in Portugal.

During this time, Indonesia did not express any interest in Portuguese Timor, despite the anti-colonial rhetoric of President Sukarno. This was partly as Indonesia was preoccupied with gaining control of West Irian in New Guinea, which had been retained by the Netherlands after Indonesian independence. In fact, at the United Nations, Indonesian diplomats stressed that their country did not seek control over any territory outside the former Netherlands East Indies, explicitly mentioning Portuguese Timor.

Decolonisation, coup, and independence

After the fall of the Portuguese fascist regime in 1974, independence was encouraged by the new, democratic Portuguese government.

One of the first acts of the new government in Lisbon was to appoint a new Governor for the colony on November 18, 1974, in the form of Mário Lemos Pires, who would ultimately be, as events were to prove, the last Governor of Portuguese Timor.

One of his first decrees made upon his arrival in Dili was to legalise political parties in preparation for elections to a Constituent Assembly in 1976. Three main political parties were formed:

The União Democrática Timorense (Timorese Democratic Union or UDT), was supported by the traditional elites, initially supported continued association with Lisbon, or as they put it in Tetum, mate bandera hum - 'in the shadow of the [Portuguese] flag', but later adopted a 'gradualist' approach to independence. One of its leaders, Mario Viegas Carrascalão, one of the few Timorese to have been educated at university in Portugal, later became Indonesian Governor of East Timor during the 1980s and early 1990s, although with the demise of Indonesian rule, he would change to supporting independence.

The Associação Social Democrática Timorese (Timorese Social Democratic Association ASDT) supported a rapid movement to independence. It later changed its name to Frente Revolucionaria de Timor Leste Independente (Revolutionary Front of Independent East Timor or Fretilin). Fretilin was criticised by many in Australia and Indonesia as being Marxist, its name sounding reminiscent of FRELIMO in Mozambique but it was more influenced by African nationalists like Amílcar Cabral in Portuguese Guinea (now Guinea-Bissau) and Cape Verde.

The Associação Popular Democrática Timorese (Timorese Popular Democratic Association or Apodeti) supported integration with Indonesia, as an autonomous province, but had very little grassroots support. One of its leaders, Abilio Osorio Soares, later served as the last Indonesian-appointed Governor of East Timor. Apodeti drew support from a few liurai in the border region, some of whom had collaborated with the Japanese during the Second World War. It also had some support in the small Muslim minority, although Marí Alkatiri, a Muslim, was a prominent Fretilin leader, and became Prime Minister in 2002.

Other smaller parties included Klibur Oan Timur Asuwain or KOTA whose name translated from the Tetum language as 'Sons of the Mountain Warriors', which sought to create a form of monarchy involving the local liurai, and the Partido Trabalhista or Labour Party, but neither had any significant support. They would, however, collaborate with Indonesia. The Associação Democratica para a Integração de Timor Leste na Austrália (ADITLA), advocated integration with Australia, but folded after the Australian government emphatically ruled out the idea.

Developments in Portuguese Timor during 1974 and 1975 were watched closely by Indonesia and Australia. The Suharto regime, which had ruthlessly suppressed Indonesia's Communist Party PKI in 1965, was alarmed by what it saw as the increasingly left-leaning Fretilin, and by the prospect of a small state in the midst of the sprawling archipelago serving as an inspiration to independence-minded provinces of the Republic such as Aceh, West Irian and the Moluccas.

Australia's Labor Prime Minister, Gough Whitlam, had developed a close working relationship with the Indonesian leader, and also followed events with concern. At a meeting in the Javanese town of Wonosobo in 1974, he told Suharto that an independent Timor would be 'an unviable state, and a potential threat to the stability of the region'. While recognising the need for an act of self-determination, he considered integration with Indonesia to be in Timor's best interests.

In local elections on 13th March 1975, Fretilin and UDT emerged as the largest parties, having previously formed an alliance to campaign for independence. Indonesian military intelligence, known as BAKIN, began attempting to cause divisions between the pro-independence parties, and promote the support of Apodeti. This was known as Operasi Komodo or 'Operation Komodo' after the giant Komodo lizard found in the eastern Indonesian island of the same name. Many Indonesian military figures held meetings with UDT leaders, who made it plain that Jakarta would not tolerate a Fretilin-led administration in an independent East Timor. The coalition between Fretilin and UDT later broke up.

During the course of 1975, Portugal became increasingly detached from political developments in its colony, becoming embroiled in civil unrest and political crises, and more concerned with decolonisation in its African colonies of Angola and Mozambique than with Portuguese Timor. Many local leaders saw independence as unrealistic, and were open to discussions with Jakarta over Portuguese Timor's incorporation into the Indonesian state.

The United States had also expressed concerns over Portuguese Timor in the wake of the war in Vietnam. Having gained Indonesia as an ally, Washington did not want to see the vast archipelago destabilised by a left-wing regime in its midst.

On August 11, 1975, the UDT mounted a coup, in a bid to halt the increasing popularity of Fretilin. Governor Pires fled to the offshore island of Atauro, north of the capital, Dili, from where he later attempted to broker an agreement between the two sides. He was urged by Fretilin to return and resume the decolonisation process, but he insisted that he was awaiting instructions from the government in Lisbon, now increasingly uninterested.

Indonesia sought to portray the conflict as a civil war, which had plunged Portuguese Timor into anarchy and chaos, but after only a month, aid and relief agencies from Australia and elsewhere visited the territory, and reported that the situation was stable. Nevertheless, many UDT supporters had fled across the border into Indonesian Timor, where they were coerced into supporting integration with Indonesia. In October 1975, in the border town of Balibo, two Australian television crews reporting on the conflict were killed by Indonesian forces, after they witnessed Indonesian incursions into Portuguese Timor.

While Fretilin had sought the return of the Portuguese Governor, pointedly flying the Portuguese flag from government offices, the deteriorating situation meant that it had to make an appeal to the world for international support, independently of Portugal.

On November 28, 1975, Fretilin made a unilateral declaration of independence of the Democratic Republic of East Timor (Republica Democrática de Timor Leste in Portuguese). This was not recognised by either Portugal, Indonesia, or Australia. Fretilin's Francisco Xavier do Amaral became the first President, while Fretilin leader Nicolau dos Reis Lobato was Prime Minister. Indonesia's response was to have UDT, Apodeti, KOTA and Trabalhista leaders sign a declaration calling for integration with Indonesia called the Balibo Declaration, although it was drafted by Indonesian intelligence and signed in Bali, Indonesia not Balibo, Portuguese Timor. Xanana Gusmão, now the country's President, described this as the 'Balibohong Declaration', a pun on the Indonesian word for 'lie'.

Indonesian invasion and occupation, with US support

On December 7, Indonesian forces launched a massive air and sea invasion, known as Operasi Seroja, or 'Operation Lotus', almost entirely using US supplied equipment.

A year earlier, in December 1974, Henry Kissinger of the US government had been asked by an Indonesian government representative whether or not the US would approve the invasion. In March 1975, US Ambassador to Indonesia, David Newsom, recommended a policy of silence on the issue and was supported by Kissinger. On October 8, 1974, a member of the National Security Council, Philip Habib, told meeting participants that It looks like the Indonesians have begun the attack on Timor. Kissinger's response to his staff was to ask, I'm assuming you're really going to keep your mouth shut on this subject?

On the day before the invasion, US President Gerald Ford and Henry Kissinger met with Indonesia's Suharto. According to declassified documents released by the National Security Archive (NSA), in December of 2001, they gave a green light for the invasion. In response to Suharto saying "We want your understanding if it was deemed necessary to take rapid or drastic action [in East Timor]." Ford replied, "We will understand and not press you on the issue. We understand the problem and the intentions you have." Kissinger similarly agreed, though he had fears that the use of US-made arms in the invasion would be exposed to public scrutiny, talking of their desire to "influence the reaction in America" so that "there would be less chance of people talking in an unauthorised way".

Similarly, Australian governments protested loudly in public after the event but had already provided private assurances that no substantive action would be taken. This was an unpopular policy with the Australian public, as the heroic actions of the Timorese people during World War II were well-remembered, and vigorous protests took place in Australia, but to no avail. It is widely believed that the primary motivating factor for the Whitlam and Fraser governments lack of opposition was the possibility of oil being found in the waters between Australia and Timor.

During the invasion mass killings and rapes took place: 60,000 Timorese were dead by mid-February. A puppet Provisional Government of East Timor was installed in mid-December, consisting of Apodeti and UDT leaders. Attempts by the United Nations Secretary General's Special Representative, Vittorio Winspeare Guicciardi to visit Fretilin-held areas from Darwin, Australia were obstructed by the Indonesian military, which blockaded East Timor. On May 31, 1976, a 'People's Assembly' in Dili, selected by Indonesian intelligence, unanimously endorsed an 'Act of Integration', and on July 17, East Timor officially became the 27th province of the Republic of Indonesia. Although the United Nations had turned a blind eye to the Indonesian annexation of West Irian some years previously, the occupation of East Timor remained a public issue in many nations, Portugal in particular, and the UN never recognised either the regime installed by the Indonesians or the subsequent annexation.

In fact on December 12, 1975, the United Nations General Assembly approved a resolution according to which, "having heard the statements of the representatives of Portugal, as the Administering Power, concerning developments in Portuguese Timor...deplores the military intervention of the armed forces of Indonesia in Portuguese Timor and calls upon the Government of Indonesia to withdraw without delay its armed forces from the Territory...and recommends that the Security Council take urgent action to protect the territorial integrity of Portuguese Timor and the inalienable right of its people to self-determination".

However, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the US ambassador to the UN at the time, wrote in his biography that "the United States wished things to turn out as they did, and worked to bring this about. The Department of State desired that the United Nations prove utterly ineffective in whatever measures it undertook [with regard to the invasion of East Timor]. This task was given to me, and I carried it forward with not inconsiderable success." (A Dangerous Place, Little Brown, 1980, p. 247) Later, he admitted that as American ambassador to the UN, he had defended a "shameless" Cold War policy toward East Timor.

Western governments were criticized during the war for their role in supporting the Indonesian government, for example with arms sales. The U.S. had supported Suharto's regime in Indonesia during the Cold War as it was seen as a bulwark against communism and it continued the practice during the invasion of East Timor. While the U.S. government claimed to have suspended military assistance from December 1975 to June 1976, military aid was actually above what the Department of State proposed and Congress continued to increase it.

The U.S. also made four new offers of arms, including supplies and parts for OV-10 Broncos which, according to Cornell University Professor Benedict Anderson, are "specially designed for counter-insurgency actions against adversaries without effective anti-aircraft weapons and wholly useless for defending Indonesia against a foreign enemy", adding that the policy continued under the Carter administration.

Testifying before Congress, the Deputy Legal Advisor of the State Department, George Aldrich aid the Indonesians "were armed roughly 90 percent with our equipment. ... we really did not know very much. Maybe we did not want to know very much but I gather that for a time we did not know." Indonesia was never informed of the supposed US "aid suspension". David T. Kenney, Country Officer for Indonesia in the State Department, also testified before Congress that one purpose for the arms was "to keep that area [Timor] peaceful.

"The invasion was not given much coverage by the U.S. media. When the subject was covered, the deaths were attributed to the preceding civil war. This caused some to later accuse the media of blatant bias, because coverage of the genocide in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge was much more common.

In 1992 the United States ended its military training programme in Indonesia, and in 1994 the United States banned the export of small arms and riot control equipment to that country. Nevertheless, organisations monitoring trade in arms have estimated that between 1992 and 1997 the United States sold more than $1 billion worth of arms to Indonesia. In 1995 the training programme was resumed but included lessons about human rights and the control of civilian crowds. The Joint Combined Exchange Training program managed by Green Berets and Air Force commandos continued until 1996 without the knowledge of Congress. The fact that some of the aircraft sold to the Indonesian army were not designed for offensive purposes did not prevent them from being so used. Arms sales to Indonesia remained suspended until a promise was received that lethal weapons and helicopters would not be used in East Timor. The UK government is also known to have allowed the sales of arms to be used in East Timor.

Towards independence

Several Timorese groups fought a resistance war against Indonesian forces for the independence of East Timor, during which many atrocities and human rights violations by the Indonesian army were reported. A sad highpoint was the killing of many East Timorese youngsters (reportedly over 250) at a cemetery in Dili on November 12, 1991. In total, estimates of the number of deaths in the war range from 100,000 to 200,000—out of a total East Timorese population of only 800,000.

The Dili Massacre was to prove the turning point for sympathy to the East Timorese cause in the world arena as, with the dissolution of the Soviet Union that same year, the "Marxist bogey" that Indonesia had often used against the idea of an independent East Timor had vanished.

The Massacre had a profound effect on public opinion in Portugal, especially after television footage showing East Timorese praying in Portuguese, and independence leader Xanana Gusmão gained widespread respect, being awarded the Portugal's highest honour in 1993, after he had been captured and imprisoned by the Indonesians.

In Australia, there was also widespread public outrage, and criticism of Canberra's close relationship with the Suharto regime and recognition of Jakarta's sovereignty over East Timor. This caused the Australian government embarrassment, but Foreign Minister Gareth Evans played down the killings, describing them as 'an aberration, not an act of state policy'.

Portugal started to apply international pressure unsuccessfully, constantly raising the issue with its fellow European Union members in their dealings with Indonesia. However, other EU countries like the UK had close economic relations with Indonesia, including arms sales, and saw no advantage in forcefully raising the issue.

In 1996, Bishop Carlos Felipe Ximenes Belo and Jose Ramos-Horta, two leading East Timorese activists for peace and independence, received the Nobel Peace Prize.

In 1998, following the resignation of Suharto and his replacement by President Habibie, Jakarta moved towards offering East Timor autonomy within the Indonesian state, although ruled out independence, and stated that Portugal and the UN must recognise Indonesian sovereignty.

However in 1999, the Indonesian government decided, under strong international pressure, to hold a referendum about the future of East Timor. Portugal had started to gain some political allies firstly in the EU, and after that in other places of the world to pressure Indonesia. The referendum, held on August 30, gave a clear majority (78.5%) in favour of independence, rejecting the alternative offer of being an autonomous province within Indonesia, to be known as the Special Autonomous Region of East Timor (SARET).Directly after this, Indonesian-backed paramilitaries as well as Indonesian soldiers carried out a campaign of violence and terrorism in retaliation. According to Noam Chomsky, "In one month, this massive military operation murdered some 2,000 people, raped hundreds of women and girls, displaced three-quarters of the population, and demolished 75 percent of the country's infrastructure" (Radical Priorities, 72).

Activists in Portugal, Australia, the United States, and elsewhere pressured their governments to take action, with US President Bill Clinton eventually threatening Indonesia, in dire economic straits already, with the withdrawal of IMF loans. The Indonesian government consented to withdraw its troops and allow a multinational force into Timor to stablilize the area.

It was clear that the UN did not have sufficient resources to combat the paramilitary forces directly. Instead, the UN authorised the creation of a multinational military force known as INTERFET (International Force for East Timor), with Security Council Resolution 1264. Troops were contributed by 17 nations, about 9,900 in total. 4,400 came from Australia, the remainder mostly from South-East Asia [6]. The force was led by Major-General (now General) Peter Cosgrove. Troops landed in East Timor on September 20, 1999.

The independent republic

The administration of East Timor was taken over by the UN through the United Nations Transitional Administration for East Timor (UNTAET), established on October 25 [7]. The INTERFET deployment ended on February 14, 2000 with the transfer of military command to the UN [8]. Elections were held in late 2001 for a constituent assembly to draft a constitution, a task finished in February 2002. East Timor became formally independent on May 20, 2002. Xanana Gusmão was sworn in as the country's President. East Timor became a member of the UN on September 27, 2002.

On December 4, 2002, after a student had been arrested the previous day, rioting students set fire to the house of the Prime Minister Marí Alkatiri and advanced on the police station. The police opened fire and one student was killed, whose body the students carried to the National Parliament building. There they fought the police, set a supermarket on fire and plundered shops. The police opened fire again and four more students were killed. Alkatiri called an inquiry and blamed foreign influence for the violence.

Relations with Australia have been strained by disputes over the maritime boundary between the two countries. Canberra claims petroleum and natural gas fields in an area known as the 'Timor Gap', which East Timor regards as lying within its maritime boundaries.

External Links

East Timor Action Network
Human Rights Watch publications on East Timor
Timor's Tutorial in Oil Politics






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