About Government Information & Services Gateway
    Local History
    The Capital
    The Government
    Timorese Culture
    Travel Guide

  Brief History of Timor-Leste: A History

Culture of Timor-Leste

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.

The 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

The 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 untouched.

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.

Nicolao Lobato
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 Kofi Anan.

A referendum for freedom

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.

Flag of Government of The Republic of Democratic Timor-Leste

Government of the Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste

About Timor-Leste.gov.tl Site Map Help on Timor-Leste.gov.tl Contact us Portuguese Version Tetun Version