East Timor

A Nation in Waiting


[ East Timor emerged into the 21st century having endured 400 years of colonial rule, followed by nearly quarter of a century of brutally repressive occupation, and finally a brief but devastating period of violence. Having chosen independence, the people of this tiny country face the multiple tasks that building a political, social and commercial infrastructure out of the ashes of conflict implies.]


Timor, which lies 482 km north of Darwin, Australia, was settled by Malay, Melanesian and Polynesian people before the arrival of Dutch and Protégées settlers in the 16th century. The eastern part of the island began what was to be a long and traumatic struggle for independence in 1974, when Portugal began a process of decolonisation.


On 11 August 1975 the Timorese Democratic Union (UDT) staged a coup to pre-empt Indonesia’s threat to intervene should the nationalist liberation movement, Fretilin, come to power after Portugal’s withdrawal. The ensuing civil war cost the lives of 1,500 people and saw Fretilin take control of most of Portuguese Timor.




Worried by the proximity of an independent state with radical policies, in December 1975 Indonesia launched a full-scale invasion of East Timor with the knowledge of the United States and the encouragement of Australia. After a fraudulent act of self-determination (the Balibo Declaration) in May 1976 East Timor was declared to be Indonesia’s 27th Province. The United Nations always regarded the annexation as illegal.


There followed years of determined resistence by the poorly armed Falintil on behalf of the East Timorese. It is estimated that some 200,000 people — a third of the population at the time of the invasion died from malnutirtion, preventable diseases, or at the hands of the occupying forces.

Under the Indonesian dictator Suharto, negotiations between the Indonesian government and Portugal — in international law the administering power — became deadlocked. It was not until 1997-98, with financial crisis sweeping Asia and the final ebbing of international support for Suharto’s corrupt regime, that there were real signs of change.


When Suharto fell, his successor Jusuf Habibie bowed to international pressure and in essence traded East Timor for much-need support from the International Monetary Fund. Habibie offered the East Timorese autonomy within Indonesia. If they rejected it, Indonesia would let East Timor go. The offer was a pragmatic one, made by a stand-in president, and without wide consultation. Much of the Indonesian military was appalled.

In negotiating the terms under which a ballot on the autonomy package would take place, the United Nations allowed Indonesia to provide the security. this was to prove costly, as it left the way open for those in the military special forces, Kopassus, responsible for the original invasion, to try to influence the result or wreak revenge should they fail.


Popular Consultation


Braving violent intimidation by Indonesian militia, more than 90 per cent of eligible East Timorese voters turned out, and nearly 80 percent of them voted for independence. The United Nations had assured voters it would stay after the ballot. Although a backlash had been predicted, the severity of the violence that followed the announcement of the results took the world by surprise. As UN personnel fled, the Indonesian military and militias drove nearly 300,000 people over the border into West Timor, while killing raping and looting, and laying waste to East Timor’s long-neglected infrastructure.




Following an intervention by an armed international force (INTERFET) in September 1999, and with the departure of all Indonesian troops on 31 October, East Timor came under the United Nations Transitional Administration in East Timor (UNTAET) headed by Sergio de Mello. It was expected to take UNTAET two to three years to prepare the territory for full independence. The first six months of freedom were spent responding the hungry of the hundreds of thousands of displaced. By April 2000 there were still 100,000 East Timorese in refugee camps in West Timor alone. Some were displaced further afield. Militias were running many of the camps and preventing people from returning to East Timor.


UNTAET inherited a country with a largely unemployed population and an economy in ruins. Key challenges include the search for reconciliation with justice, and supporting the growth of a strong civil society in East Timor. But the East Timorese are now free at last to begin constructing an independent nation.


In the late 1990s, the political scene in East Timor came to be dominated by the National Council for East Timorese Resistance (CNRT), a grouping of old anti-Indonesian parties. The CNRT is led by Xanana Gusmao, the ‘Asian Mandela’ who spent most of the 1990s in jail in Indonesia for his part in the armed resistance. His popularity among the East Timorese, and the resilience of the people, will be major factors shaping the recovery that needs to take place at every level society.       


[Source : Timor Link]