Timor Leste is the official Portuguese name of the country most English speaking people know as East Timor. Timor Leste became independent in 2002 after a long history of colonisation by the Portuguese and Indonesia. Like many newly post-colonial independent nations, it is now struggling to come to terms with its own identity and is in the middle of a political and humanitarian crisis. It is a crisis whose roots are steeped in the history of the country and is in many ways an inevitable consequence of that history.
Timor-Leste is one half of the island of Timor. Timor is a variant of the Malay word ‘Timur’ which means east and gets its name from the fact it is the most easterly of a chain of islands such as Bali, Lombok and Flores collectively called the Lesser Sunda islands. All these islands and the western half of Timor itself are part of Indonesia.
The earliest people to inhabit the island were Australoid people who fanned out through the islands over 40,000 years ago on their new way to New Guinea and Australia. A second wave of Melanesians arrived 3,000 years ago on their way out to conquer the Pacific. Proto-Malays also arrived and between them a fairly advanced system of government emerged under local chieftains speaking a language called ‘tetum’. Modern Tetum (also called ‘Tetun’) was greatly influenced by Portuguese and is still the language of 85% of Timor’s modern inhabitants.
The Portuguese first arrived on the island in the 16th century and commenced trading the precious sandalwood with the local tribes. Timor had the highest quality white sandalwood in the Indies. The Dutch East India Company founded in 1602 was also heavily involved in the area. The Dutch government had given the company the right to run the business of exporting spices to Europe as an effective state from their capital Batavia (Jakarta). The Dutch took slaves from Timor to work the nutmeg and mace plantations in Banda. Portugal fought running battles with the Dutch throughout the 17th century as they sought dominance of the lucrative trade routes. After 50 years of destructive struggle they signed a treaty in The Hague to formalise the territories they both occupied. The Portuguese were forced back to Timor and took formal possession of the island with the arrival of the first governor in 1702. Portugal largely neglected the colony which allowed the Dutch to colonise the western part of Timor. A second treaty was required in 1859 to fix the new border on the divided island.
Portugal was neutral in World War II but Australian and Dutch troops invaded East Timor in December 1941 in anticipation of a Japanese landing. After protest from the Portuguese governor, the Dutch force returned across their border. The small Australian force was overwhelmed by the Japanese who landed in the capital Dili in early 1942. They retreated into the mountains and fought a guerrilla campaign known as the Battle of Timor. The Australians, aided by locals, held out for two years before being evacuated. Some 40,000 to 70,000 Timorese civilians were killed in this campaign.
After the war, the Dutch East Indies, including West Timor, won its independence from the Netherlands as Indonesia. East Timor remained Portuguese until 1975. Portugal was ruled by the fascist dictator Antonio Salazar from 1932 until 1968. He kept his country neutral in the war so that he could retain Portugal’s colonies. In the sixties, his African colonies of Angola, Mozambique and others rebelled and East Timor became forgotten about once more. After Salazar died, the regime quickly collapsed and his successor Caetano was overthrown in the bloodless ‘Carnation revolution’ of 1974. Portugal had its first free elections one year later – the same year in which most of its colonies, including East Timor, proclaimed their independence.
The party of independence was FRETELIN an acronym for Frente Revolucionária de Timor-Leste Independente (Revolutionary Front for an Independent East Timor). Fretelin incurred the wrath of neighbouring Indonesia due to its supposed links to Communist China. Indonesia had long coveted East Timor, just as they coveted West Papua which the Dutch relinquished in 1962. With Jakarta raising the spectre of communism, the US and Australia turned a blind eye while the Indonesia military prepared to invade. In February 1975 Indonesia staged a mock invasion of East Timor in South Sumatra. In October special forces began to infiltrate secretly into East Timor to provoke clashes to provide the pretext for a full-scale invasion. These cross-border incursions included the murder of five TV journalists despite the Australian Whitlam government having advanced knowledge of the attack.
The full invasion was launched in October after Indonesia president Suharto received assurances from the White House that the US would not intervene. The territory was declared the 27th province of Indonesia in July 1976 as Timor Timur. Portugal (and the UN) never formally recognised this. The Timorese took their resistance into the hills and fought a guerrilla campaign for the next 25 years. They inflicted severe casualties on the Indonesia military who took revenge on the civilian population.
Two of the worst massacres were the 1991 Dili massacre where almost 300 people were killed when the military opened indiscriminate fire at a student funeral and the 1999 Liquica Church massacre when soldiers opened fire in a Catholic church killing 200 people who were seeking refuge. Estimates vary but somewhere between 100,000 to 250,000 people were killed out of an initial population of about 600,000 Timorese since 1975. The Dili Massacre did start to turn world opinion as the Communist ogre was now past and journalists had smuggled footage of the killing to show the world.
In 1999, the UN sponsored an agreement between Indonesia and Portugal which allowed for a referendum on independence. But before the referendum took place, pro-Indonesian militias commenced a large-scale campaign of retribution, killing, looting and destroying the countries fragile infrastructure. Australia led a UN peace keeping force INTERFET to end the violence. The referendum was passed and on 20 May 2002, East Timor, soon renamed as Timor-Leste, was internationally recognized as an independent state.
The honeymoon of nationhood is now over. Unrest started in the country in April 2006 following the riots in Dili associated with protests over the dismissal of around 600 army soldiers for desertion. The riots exposed a political divide. Factions gathered around Catholic president Gusmao and his Muslim prime minister Mari Alkatiri. The UN estimated that 75% of the capital's population fled the violence and sought refuge in surrounding mountains. The sacked soldiers who ignited the protests were predominantly from the western part of the country, and they had regularly complained about discriminatory practices in the allegedly eastern-dominated national army. The police force is similarly split. There are also tensions over the fact that Portuguese, the language of the elite, is the official language ahead of Tetum. And now the foreign armies are back to bring order to the streets of Dili.
As former government adviser, Lora Horta, says “The early days of nationhood are never easy”.