East Timor Modern History

By | January 31, 2023

East Timor is a country located in Southeastern Asia. With the capital city of Dili, East Timor has a population of 1,318,456 based on a recent census from COUNTRYAAH. 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 Indonesia.

  • ABBREVIATIONFINDER: 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. Check best-medical-schools for more information about East Timor.

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.

Indonesian invasion

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 plans.

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 be proclaimed.

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 (see Religion).

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).

Political contradictions

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.

New violence

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 Lobato.

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 its staff.

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 capital.

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 unarmed soldiers.

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 Fretilin.

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 opposition.

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 escaped unharmed.

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.

East Timor Modern History