History and Conflict in East Timor

The island of Timor was first colonized by the Portugese in 1520. The Portugese had come to Timor to trade sandalwood and eventually established settlements and ports. At this time the Dutch were in control of several of the surrounding islands. By 1613 the Dutch had taken control of the western portion of Timor. The Dutch and Portugese fought for control over the island until 1860. At this time a treaty was made dividing Timor into eastern and western portions.

The treaty gave the western portion to the Netherlands and the eastern portion to Portugal. Eventually the Netherlands gave up its colonies in the Dutch West Indies including West Timor, giving birth to Indonesia. The Dutch recognized the western part of Timor as Indonesia in 1949.

The Portugese remained in control of East Timor for 455 years, until 1975. A military coup in Portugal in 1974 increased political activity both in Portugal and Portugese Timor. In 1975 Portugal pulled out of East Timor, leaving it vulnerable to invasion or conquest. The Timorese Democratic Union demanded independence.

July 16, 1976, nine days after East Timor was declared an independent nation, it was invaded and annexed by Indonesia. However only Australia officially recognized the annexation. In July of 1976 East Timor was declared the 27th province of Indonesia. Indonesia occupied East Timor for the next twenty four years. More than 200,000 Timorese reportedly died from famine, disease, and fighting since the country’s annexation.

In February of 1983, the United Nations commission on Human Rights adopted a resolution affirming East Timor’s right to independence and self determination. However the following year, 1984, conditions worsened. There were reports of widespread hunger, disease, and repression amongst civilians. There were also increased reports of battles between rebels and Indonesian troops.

In September of 1995 East Timorese activists forced their way into foreign embassies in Jakarta, Indonesia appealing for political asylum. The East Timorese were granted asylum by the Portugese who were still recognized by the United Nations as an administrative power in East Timor. The Indonesian government, who actually controlled East Timor, permitted the asylum seekers to leave East Timor, but denied to the international community that where was any persecution going on in East Timor. In the same month rioting occurred in protest against Indonesian Muslim Immigrants. Over 250 alleged rioters were arrested.

In 1996 Indonesia was angered by the outcome of the 1996 Nobel Peace Prize winners. Bishop Carlos Belo and Jose Ramos-Horta shared the 1996 Nobel Peace Prize “for their work toward a just and peaceful solution to the conflict in East Timor.”


In November of 1997 the Australian-East Timor Association released reports cataloguing human rights abuses perpetrated by members of the Indonesian armed forces against Timorese women. There were accounts of enforced prostitution, rape, and compulsory serialisation programmes.

The Asian economic crisis of 1997 hit Indonesia and East Timor hard. This fed instability throughout Indonesia that was transferred onto East Timor. This instability lead to Indonesian President, Suharto’s, resignation in 1998 after a thirty two year rule. After Suharto’s resignation, B. J. Habibie took office and agreed to hold a referendum on East Timorese independence.

The 1999 referendum vote for political autonomy or independence allowed all East Timorese to participate. However following the announcement of the referendum violence broke out in East Timor. Anti-independence militia groups based in East Timor began violence and intimidation campaigns. Summary killings, kidnapping, and harassment occurred. The Indonesian military forced young East Timorese to join the militia and then trained and organized them. A few months before the referendum vote, anti-independence militia killed 57 civilians in a churchyard.

After 25 years of Indonesian rule 78.5% of the East Timorese population voted to secede from Indonesia. The pro-Jakarta militias and Indonesian soldiers in turn, killed hundreds of civilians. According to the United Nations the militias forced 500,000 East Timorese to flee their homes. Due to international pressures, Indonesia allowed United Nation forces to enter into East Timor on September 12, 1999. By the end of October the last of the Indonesian soldiers had left East Timor. For the next three years East Timor was governed by the United Nations Transitional Authority in East Timor.

East Timor declared itself a nation on May 20, 2002. Mari Alkatiri, a former guerrilla leader was elected Prime Minister and former rebel leader, José Alezandre Gusmão, was elected president.

Human Rights Organizations claim that 200,000 of the 650,000 Timorese people were killed during the annexation by the Indonesian forces. The Indonesian occupation and invasion of East Timor is one of the worst atrocities of the twenty first century.