East Timor became an independent state on May 20,
2002, after a quarter of a century of Indonesian
occupation and before that, about 400 years as a
Portuguese colony. The area was poor and undeveloped
when Portugal left the colony in 1974 and prepared its
independence. One year later, Indonesia invaded the
territory. The Indonesian government gradually increased
prosperity for some East Timorans and modernized
society. But it came at the price of political
repression and violations of human rights.
After the Second World War, opposition to the
Portuguese colonial power began to emerge, while the
newly independent Indonesia claimed the area. In 1959,
East Timorians revolted, probably with support from
List of most commonly used acronyms containing East Timor. Also includes historical, economical and political aspects of the country.
The revolt was wiped out and the UN continued to
regard the area as Portuguese. The situation changed
after a military coup that led to a regime change in
Portugal in 1974. The new leaders in Lisbon wanted to
withdraw from the colonies and the idea was that East
Timor would become independent four years later.
Already a month after the Lisbon coup, three
political parties had been formed in East Timor. The
Timorese Democratic Union (UDT), which was heavily
influenced by the Portuguese cultural sphere, advocated
democracy and a gradual transition to independence. The
Timorese Social Democratic Alliance (ASDT) worked for a
significantly faster path to independence and had a more
radical program. The third party, Apodeti, was probably
formed with the support of Indonesian intelligence and
advocated integration with Indonesia.
ASDT quickly gained popular support, radicalized and
renamed the Revolutionary Front for an independent East
Timor (Fretilin). Fretilin's popularity worried
Indonesia, which feared that an East Timor led by the
front could be the basis for a communist invasion of
Indonesia. Therefore, Indonesian military and
intelligence service prepared increasingly intensive
military intervention in East Timor. The threat from
Indonesia prompted Portugal to leave the colony and a
new date for independence was set for 1976. Local
elections were held in 1975 which Fretilin won big. A
vote for integration with Indonesia was also carried out
by a special East Timorese council handpicked by
Indonesia, but the vote was rejected by the UN.
August 11, 1975 became a fateful date. UDT,
infiltrated by Indonesian intelligence and military,
made a failed coup attempt in Dili. A few weeks later,
Fretilin struck out against UDT and its supporters. The
Civil War was a fact. The Portuguese administration
fled, Fretilin quickly took over in the war and
proclaimed an independent East Timor on August 28, 1975.
Fretilin's declaration of independence became
Indonesia's pretext to attack Dili on December 7. The
attack came the day after US President Gerald Ford
visited Jakarta. Documents show that the attack got the
go-ahead from the US and that the UK also knew about the
The Indonesian invasion and the first phase of the
occupation became brutal. During the first five years,
at least 100,000 East Timorese civilians died,
representing 15 percent of the population. Human rights
organizations report that a total of 200,000 people, or
a third of the population, died as a direct or indirect
consequence of the annexation - in battle or by
epidemics and famines.
In May 1976, Indonesian President Suharto declared
East Timor as his country's 27th province, but the
outside world never approved the annexation. Every year
from 1976 to 1982, the UN adopted a resolution demanding
an Indonesian withdrawal. In the eyes of the outside
world, East Timor was still Portuguese. In 1979,
however, Australia acknowledged Indonesia's supremacy
over the area.
Resistance to the occupation
The East Timorians themselves offered unexpectedly
fierce resistance. Fretilin's military branch, guerrilla
Falintil, led by José Alexandre Xanana Gusmão, fought
against the Indonesian military. Gradually, resistance
from student and youth organizations also grew. The
Catholic Church offered protection and criticized
Indonesia for human rights violations. East Timorese in
exile worked for their cause with the help of
information campaigns and diplomacy.
In 1989, the resistance groups met under the joint
umbrella organization Timorian Resistance Movement
National Council (CNRT).
Indonesia pursued a tough assimilation policy. In
order to break the East Timorese resistance to the
occupation, the government wanted them to blend into
Indonesian society as quickly as possible. Therefore,
Indonesians were attracted to move to East Timor with
various benefits such as cheap agricultural land and
good jobs. East Timorians were attracted to other
islands with, for example, university grants.
The high economic growth in Indonesia in the 1980s
was used to build a modern Indonesian state apparatus in
East Timor with school systems and administration, and
Indonesian was made into official language. The standard
of living improved, but the repression remained fierce
and starvation harvests many lives. To show that it had
full control over the territory, Indonesia allowed East
Timor to open to the outside world in 1988. Only a few
hundred guerrilla warriors were then reported to be
present. In 1992, Xanana Gusmão was arrested and
sentenced to 20 years in prison.
Massacre is turning point
A turnaround came in November 1991 after the
Indonesian military opened fire on a peaceful
demonstration train gathered at a funeral of a Fretilin
follower at Santa Cruz Cemetery in Dili. Between 100 and
180 people were killed. The outside world reacted when
images from the massacre were shown on TV. Strong
protests forced Indonesia to investigate the incident.
Some military commanders were designated as guilty and
two high ranking commanders were dismissed.
Support from the outside world was further increased
when East Timorese bishop and human rights activist
Carlos Filipe Ximenes Belo, along with exile East
Timorese leader José Ramos-Horta, received the Nobel
Peace Prize in 1996. But despite the UN and prominent
people such as South African President Nelson Mandela,
it was the first mediation attempt 1998 as the struggle
for independence began to give clear results.
With the 1998 Asian crisis, President Suharto's
32-year-old power in Indonesia collapsed. His successor,
President BJ Habibie, promised troops retreat and
special status, a kind of internal self-government, for
East Timor, but no independence. Political prisoners
were released, but not Xanana Gusmão. In early 1999,
Habibie suddenly announced that East Timor could become
independent if the people did not accept the proposal
for special status that existed. In May, Portugal,
Indonesia and the UN decided that a UN-supervised
referendum would be held on August 8 in East Timor on
the proposal. A no would mean independence.
A referendum and a wave of violence
Before the referendum, an extensive wave of violence
spread across East Timor, staged by Indonesian-friendly
armed groups with support from local Indonesian
militias. High commanders in Jakarta were supposed to
support the actions. In April 1999, the violence
culminated when 57 civilians were shot or hacked to
death by the militia at a cemetery in the town of
Liquica. Several other massacres were performed.
Nevertheless, the referendum could be carried out on
30 August. As many as 98.5 percent of the population
took part in the election and 78.5 percent voted for
independence. The election result led to a new wave of
violence erupting and the militia ran amok. Large parts
of East Timor were destroyed. 80 percent of the
infrastructure and schools were destroyed. Hundreds of
people were killed and up to half a million were forced
to flee their homes, many of them to West Timor. The UN
brought home its staff.
After a few weeks, international pressure forced
Indonesia to accept the introduction of an international
squad. The Australian-led force Interfet, with 11,300
men, was able to slowly restore order. In October, the
last Indonesian troops left East Timor and the election
results were accepted by Indonesia's highest
decision-making body MPR.
UN administration and reconstruction
Shortly thereafter, the UN took over control of East
Timor. A transitional administration (Untaet) was given
the task of helping with the rebuilding of society and
keeping in the helm until a new independent state could
In December 1999, a national council of 15 members
from the Untaet, the Timorian Resistance Movement
National Council CNRT, the Catholic Church and groups
advocating integration with Indonesia was formed. The
task of the Council was to monitor the administration.
In February 2000, Interfet left East Timor and Untaet
also took over the role of peacekeeper with nearly 9,000
UN soldiers. During the spring of that year, the
situation was so calm that the refugees in West Timor
began to return.
In July 2000, a transitional government was formed,
with Untaet and East Timorians sharing responsibility. A
new national council with 33 East Timorese
representatives from business, politics and the church
was formed. The leader of the new council became Xanana
Gusmão. After the first free and general elections in
August 2001, the National Council and the Transitional
Government were replaced by a parliament and a new
government, but the Untaet retained the ultimate right
of decision until independence in 2002.
General elections and independence
In the August 2001 parliamentary election, Fretilin
won 55 of Parliament's 88 seats. The other mandates were
distributed to a number of small parties. Fretilin was
the only political party of greater importance. The
opposition was made up of dozens of small parties with
no real political influence.
After the election, Parliament appointed Fretilin
Secretary-General Mari Alkatiri as Prime Minister.
Alkatiri appointed 24 ministers to his government: ten
from Fretilin, three from the Democratic Party and
eleven independents. Independent politician José
Ramos-Horta became Foreign Minister. He was leader of
the East Timorians in exile during the occupation and
received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1996 with Bishop Belo
In the April 2002 presidential election, Xanana
Gusmão was nominated as a candidate for a number of
small parties. He had previously been Fretilin's
foreground figure, but left the party when he thought it
had gained too much dominance in politics. Gusmão won
the election with 83 percent of the vote. The single
challenger, Francisco Xavier do Amaral from the Social
Democratic Party, received 17 percent.
On May 20, 2002, the Democratic Republic of East
Timor was formally proclaimed. At the same time, Untaet
was replaced by a smaller UN operation (Unmiset).
Together with the new government, Unmiset continued to
build a legal system and a police force. At the same
time, legal processes were initiated to deal with those
responsible for human rights crimes committed in the
past (see Political system).
Soon, a number of contradictions emerged within
Fretilin and the government. One group around President
Gusmão warned of Fretilin's dominance, and within the
ruling party there were differing views on the legal
settlement with those responsible for the 1999 wave of
violence. In addition, there was tension between an
older, Portuguese-speaking generation of leaders and
younger Indonesian-speaking politicians who grew up
during the occupation. Sad noises were also heard
between former exile East Timorians and those who led
the home-country resistance. Not least, the former
guerrillas early expressed strong dissatisfaction that
their efforts during the occupation were not valued
highly enough after independence.
The attitude of the East Timorese to the government
and other political institutions was generally
skeptical. A common belief was that the country was
ruled by a Portuguese-speaking elite who were mostly
abroad during the occupation. The first opinion poll in
November 2003 showed that government support had fallen.
The dissatisfaction was particularly great with
healthcare, schooling and the judiciary. The government
was also criticized for growing corruption and a lack of
tolerance towards oppositionists.
At the border with Indonesia, violence continued to
occur at regular intervals. The underlying forces were
often the waste of Indonesia-friendly militia groups,
which managed to cross the border. In 2004 and 2005
there were violence attributed to government-critical
armed groups based in the countryside. Several of the
supporters must have been former guerrillas.
In May 2005, the UN mission Unmiset was dissolved.
There was still a small group of UN employees (Unotil)
of 440 men.
In April 2006, riots broke out in Dili when a
demonstration conducted by 600 fired army soldiers
degenerated. The soldiers - mainly former guerrillas -
had deserted in March in protest against discrimination
and poor working conditions. Five people were killed in
the rattlesnakes that lasted for several days. A number
of people were arrested by the police and tens of
thousands of residents escaped from the riots.
Prime Minister Alkatiri received sharp criticism from
East Timorians for his way of dealing with the
situation. Claims were heard on his departure, Defense
Minister Roque Rodrigues and Secretary of State Rogerio
In May, new violence erupted between police and the
former guerrillas, who have now camped in the mountains
outside Dili. The rebels threatened with civil war and
demanded the departure of Alkatiri. Inside the city, the
situation was aggravated by the fact that armed youth
gangs, which supported either side, began to ravage the
streets. More than 20 people were killed in the unrest.
The government finally requested help from the outside
world. An Australian-led international force flew to
Dili to restore order. The UN evacuated a large part of
On May 30, President Gusmão introduced a state of
emergency and took over command of the army and the
police himself. He dismissed the Minister of the
Interior and the Minister of Defense, and appointed
Foreign Minister Ramos-Horta as the new Minister of
Security. At the same time, the intervention force
announced that it controlled Dili's central parts. By
that time, about 100,000 East Timorians had sought
refuge in temporary refugee camps in and around the
The government is falling
In June 2006, a series of demonstrations were held in
Dili with demands for Alkatiri's departure. At the same
time, Ramos-Horta began negotiations with rebel
soldiers' leader Alfredo Reinado, who promised to lay
down the weapons. An arrest warrant was issued against
the fired Interior Minister Lobato, who was accused of
having supplied the rebels with weapons aimed at
overthrowing political rivals.
On June 25, Ramos-Horta left his government posts in
protest of Alkatiri remaining as prime minister. The
following day, Alkatiri chose to resign as President
Gusmão demanded it.
In July, Ramos Horta was named new Prime Minister.
His government included nine members of Alkatiri's old
ministry. Of the total 15 government members, the
majority were Fretilin members, while the rest were
independent or belonged to the Democratic Party (PD).
Security had now been strengthened and the
international force gradually reduced. Rebel leader
Reinado was arrested by Australian soldiers in July but
managed to escape into the mountains a month later. In
August 2006, a new UN peacekeeping mission (Unmit) was
established, consisting of about 1,600 police and
In October, the UN presented an investigation into
the events that had claimed at least 37 people's lives
during the spring and summer and forced 155,000 to flee.
Emphasis was placed on the role of the rulers in the
distribution of weapons to the rebels. The investigators
had found no evidence that Alkatiri had been carrying
weapons with rebels, but they concluded that he had not
done enough to prevent the weapons from coming into the
wrong hands. In March 2007, Lobato was sentenced for
illegal weapons distribution to 7.5 years in prison.
Fretiline loses power
In the spring and summer of 2007, East Timor got a
new president and a new government. A quieter period in
the country's history thus began. In the April / May
presidential election, Prime Minister Ramos Horta
prevailed. The election was described by international
election observers as free and fair. On several
occasions during the election campaign, however,
violence broke out between supporters and opponents of
In early 2007, President Gusmão had announced that he
was aiming for the Prime Minister's post in the June
parliamentary elections. To get a political platform, he
formed a new party, the National Congress for the
Reconstruction of East Timor (CNRT). The parliamentary
elections also ran smoothly and were labeled freely and
fairly by EU observers. Fretilin became the largest
party and CNRT came second.
After lengthy negotiations, the CNRT formed a
government in August with three small parties, including
the Democratic Party. Fretilin thus ended up in
Assassination attempt on the president
After the change of government, East Timor
experienced a relatively quiet period when the CNRT-led
government could concentrate on issues such as poverty
reduction and how best to manage the money from the
country's growing oil fund (see Natural Resources and
Energy). However, a crisis occurred in February
2008, when President José Ramos Horta and Prime Minister
Gusmão were subjected to a concerted assassination
attempt. Ramos Horta was seriously injured, while Gusmão
The president underwent successful rehabilitation at
a hospital in Australia. A hunt began on the suspected
perpetrators, who eventually surrendered to the police.
In March 2010, 24 people were sentenced to prison for
involvement in the murder trials. They were pardoned by
the president six months later.
On the anniversary of the attempted murder, the
International Crisis Group published a report in which
the think tank found that security in East Timor had
increased significantly during the past year. The
refugee camps that had been formed around Dili in
connection with the unrest in 2006 had largely
disappeared since people dared to return home. At the
end of 2012, security in the country was judged to be so
good that the UN mission Unmit and the Australia-led
international security force were taken home.
The CNRT government is re-elected
When the presidential elections were held again in
March 2012, Ramos Horta was among the candidates, as was
Parliament's President Fernando "Lasama" de Araújo, his
representative Fretilin leader Francisco Guterres "Lu
Olo" and former Defense Chief Taur Matan Ruak, who
during the occupation was the commander of the now
disbanded Falintil -gerillan. Election day became calm
and Taur Matan Ruak won clearly in the second round of
elections in April against Guterre's "Lu Olo". The
change of presidential post took place on May 20 - on
the tenth anniversary of East Timor's independence.
The July 2012 parliamentary elections resulted in
CNRT victory with 30 out of 65 seats. The second largest
party was Fretilin with 25 seats. Two smaller parties
also took a seat in Parliament: the Democratic Party and
Frenti-Mudanҫa, an outbreak party from Fretilin. CNRT
formed a coalition government with the two small
parties, thereby putting Fretilin in opposition again.
Xanana Gusmão remained at the Prime Minister's post.
The main priorities in government work after the
elections were to fight poverty, high unemployment and
corruption. In recent years, corruption had spread in
the state administration, including in Parliament and
the government. Several ministers - including Gusmão -
were accused of corruption and abuse of power. During
his tenure as prime minister, Gusmão was also criticized
for not doing enough to curb the problem.
In February 2015, Prime Minister Gusmão chose to step
down, something he has long advocated. Former Health
Minister Rui Maria de Araújo from Fretilin became the
new prime minister for a down-to-earth government
consisting of 37 ministers. The election of a new prime
minister was made on the recommendation of Gusmão, who
remained in the government as minister responsible for
planning and strategic investment.