History of Timor-Leste: A History
Anthropological investigations indicate that the first
people to arrive in Timor, approximately 40,000 to 20,000
years BC, were of the Vedo-Australoide type, similar
to the Vedas of Ceylon. A second wave, which arrived
around 3000 years BC, consisted of Melanesians, similar
to those living today in Papua New-Guinea and some Pacific
Islands. Probably due to the mountainous nature of the
country, these new arrivals did not mix with the former
inhabitants, who withdrew to the interior mountainous
regions. This may be one reason why Timor-Leste has
so many different languages. A third wave of people
who arrived around 2500 BC consisted of 'proto-malays'
- people coming from South China and North Indochina.
Even today the Chinese in Timor-Leste, mainly Hakka,
are one of the more important trading communities.
Portuguese colonize Timor
The Portuguese reached the coast of Timor on what is now
the enclave of Oecussi around 1515. They made huge profits
from exports of sandalwood but eventually overexploited
this resource. As sandalwood became almost extinct the Portuguese
in 1815 introduced coffee plantations, along with sugar
cane and cotton. Timor-Leste remained largely underdeveloped
with an economy based on barter. Prior to World War II,
the capital, Dili, had no electricity or water supply and
there were few roads. Even so, before the Second World War,
Timor-Leste was seen as strategically important. When World
War II started the Australians and the Dutch, aware of Timor's
importance of as a buffer zone, landed in Dili despite Portuguese
protests. The Japanese then used the presence of the Australians
as a pretext for an invasion in February 1942 and stayed
until September 1945. By the end of the war Timor was in
ruins. Approximately 50,000 Timorese had lost their lives
as a result of Japanese occupation and the efforts of the
Timorese to resist the invaders and protect Australia. People
were also forced to give food to the Japanese, so when the
Japanese finally surrendered the scene in Timor was one
of human misery and devastation.
The 1960s - a new era
of Portuguese colonialism
Timorese and the Portuguese tried to help the country
recover. But development was slow. The average annual
growth rate between 1953 and 1962 was just 2%. Meanwhile
the United Nations declared Timor-Leste a non-self
governing territory under Portuguese administration.
It was only then that Portugal tried seriously and
systematically to develop Timor-Leste through three
successive five-year plans. Portugal governed Timor-Leste
with a combination of direct and indirect rule, managing
the population as a whole through the traditional
power structures rather than by using colonial civil
servants. This left traditional Timorese society almost
In 1974, however, the 'transition
to democracy' in Portugal had a sudden impact on all
its colonies. The political climate in Portugal shifted
to the left and for the first time the Timorese were
given freedom to form their own political parties.
One of the early leaders
On August 11, 1975, the more conservative
Timorese parties launched a coup in an attempt to seize
power from the Portuguese and prevent the ascendancy of
the left-wing Frente Revolucionária do Timor Leste
Independente (Fretilin). Clashes between the two main Timorese
contenders escalated into violence resulting in more than
2,000 deaths. On November 28, 1975, Fretilin declared Timor-Leste
as the República Democrática de Timor Leste
(RDTL). RDTL was recognized just by a few countries, mainly
former Portuguese colonies, and was short-lived. Ten days
later on December 7 1975 Indonesian troops invaded.
The Indonesian occupation
Some 60,000 people lost their lives in the early years of
Indonesian annexation - contributing to a total of about
200,000 deaths for the whole period of their administration.
In an effort to stamp greater control over its dissident
new province - whose seizure was condemned by the United
Nations - Indonesia invested considerable sums in Timor-Leste
leading to more rapid economic growth which averaged 6%
per year over the period 1983-1997. Unlike the Portuguese
the Indonesians favoured strong, direct rule, which was
never accepted by the Timorese people who were determined
to preserve their culture and national identity.
In 1991, the Indonesian military gave
permission for a parliamentary delegation from Portugal.
The visit was cancelled at the last minute. Immediately,
the Indonesian military went on the attack. A young student,
Sebastião Gomes, was killed and many others were
arrested. On November 12, 1991 thousands of Timorese marched
towards the Santa Cruz cemetery to mourn for Sebastião
Gomes. The Indonesian Army opened fire and killed more than
200 people. The 'Santa Cruz Massacre' marked a turning point
in the brutal occupation of Timor-Leste as the shocking
images were beamed around the world. Individuals and organizations
started to put increasing pressure on their governments
and on international organizations on behalf of Timor-Leste.
The imprisonment of resistance leader Xanana Gusmão
in 1992 also put the spotlight on the human rights situation.
Indonesia found itself in an increasingly
difficult position which culminated in October 1996 when
the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to two Timorese leaders,
Bishop Ximenes Belo and José Ramos Horta, adding
to the growing assertiveness of the independence movement.
Then in 1997 and 1998, Soeharto's New Order was shaken by
a severe economic crisis, leading to widespread demands
for political change. Soeharto was forced to resign and
was replaced by his vice-president, Dr. Habibie. President
Habibie was unwilling to maintain the 'burden' of such an
expensive province and in January 1999 offered Timor-Leste
'wide-ranging autonomy'. Should the Timorese reject this
then Indonesia would be prepared to 'let Timor-Leste go'.
An agreement on a popular consultation in Timor-Leste was
finally reached in May 1999 under the auspices of UN Secretary-General
The UN started to prepare for the referendum by setting
up the United Nations Assistance Mission for Timor-Leste,
UNAMET. On June 3, 1999 the UN raised its flag on the soil
of Timor-Leste. In September 1999 the people of Timor-Leste
voted overwhelmingly - 78% - in favour of independence from
Indonesia. The pro-integration militia gangs and the Indonesian
armed forces responded with extraordinary brutality, rampaging
and plundering across the country. As a result, one-third
of the population were forced to resettle in refugee camps
in West Timor and neighbouring islands. Another one-third
looked for refuge in the mountains of Timor-Leste. Between
1,000 and 2,000 people are reported to have died in the
violence. The UN Security Council authorized a multinational
force (INTERFET) under the unified command structure of
a member state, Australia, to restore peace and security.
The UN also launched a large-scale humanitarian operation
including food supplies and other basic services.
On October 25 1999, the UN Security Council established
the United Nations Transitional Administration in Timor-Leste
(UNTAET) as an integrated, multidimensional peacekeeping
operation responsible for the administration of Timor-Leste
during its transition to independence.
On August 30, 2001, Timor-Leste had its first free elections
- for representatives who were charged with writing a new
Constitution. This was agreed on March 24, 2002. On May
20th, Timor-Leste became the world's newest democracy and
the first new country of the third millennium. The celebrations
took place at Taci Tolou just outside Dili, a former mass
grave site, and were attended by dignitaries including United
Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan, former President of
the United States Bill Clinton and perhaps most significantly,
President Megawati of Indonesia. Click here for pictures
of the celebrations. At midnight on May 19th, the new flag
of Timor-Leste was raised, the new national anthem was sung
and Timor-Leste's long fight for freedom was finally over.