The Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste, sometimes known in English as East Timor,[note 1] is a small country in the southeast of the Indonesian archipelago, occupying about half of the island of Timor. It is an impoverished country, ranked 147 out of 187 on the Human Development Index. Despite its small size and poverty, it contains massive oil fields, giving it much-unwanted attention from much larger countries. This has resulted in it being subjugated throughout much of its history, and still to an extent today.
The human settlement of Timor-Leste goes a long way back, with archeological remains at Jerimalai dating back 42,000 years, with some remains being possibly even older. There were several migrations to Timor, which included Melanesians and Austronesians. Eventually, Timor became a part of Indian, Chinese, and Malay trading networks. Timor was mentioned in the Zhu Fan Zhi, a Chinese text written in the 13th century; this is the first known mention of the island in writing. At the time, it was primarily known for its sandalwood and exported beeswax, certain spices, and slaves in exchange for metals, rice, and textiles. There were some small kingdoms on the island, Wehali being the most significant.
The Portuguese 'discovered' Timor sometime between 1512 and 1515 when traders landed on the island. Christian missionaries first arrived in 1556, and during the next century, Portuguese efforts to control the island would expand. In 1642, Portugal invaded the island to expand Portuguese influence and lessen the power of local kings. In 1702, It officially became a Portuguese colony known as "Portuguese Timor", but their control was shaky due to attacks from the locals, Dominican friars, and the competing Dutch imperialism. This would come to a head in the Battle of Penfui in 1749, where the Dutch decisively defeated the Portuguese-aligned Topasses despite being outnumbered, leading to the island's split. Twenty years later, the capital city of Dili was founded to increase Portuguese colonial presence in the area.
The Portuguese mainly used their colony to grow sandalwood and later coffee and also to exile prisoners. They put no real investment into the infrastructure, health facilities, or education, leaving the native populations mostly abandoned. In the early 20th century, a bad economy at home led Portugal to try to exploit even more wealth from its colonies. When Portugal tried to effectively enslave the population (this happened in their African colonies, too), this led to the East Timorese rebellion of 1911–12. The rebellion was ultimately crushed, costing 3,424 Timorese their lives and wounding over 12,000 more, but it was an important event in forming their national identity. The Hague drew the somewhat peculiar border[note 2] between the Dutch and Portuguese colonies in 1914; these borders are still used today.
Portugal was neutral during WWII, but Timor-Leste couldn't escape the bloodshed. It was first invaded not by Japan, interestingly enough, but by Australia and the Dutch, who predicted a Japanese attack on the island. They were right, and this led to the Battle of Timor. It was a brutal guerrilla fight, and after a year, the Allies were forced to withdraw. This was particularly brutal to the civilian population; the Japanese burned down villages, cut food supply lines, and forced many of the women into sexual slavery. Somewhere between 40,000-70,000 Timorese died during the occupation. After the war, it was given back to Portugal, which continued to neglect the colony.
During the 1974 Carnation Revolution, Portugal had effectively abandoned the colony. Political parties in Timor-Leste were legalized, and three main political parties formed: the pro-Portugal UDT, the pro-Indonesia Apodeti, and the pro-independence ASDT (later renamed Fretilin). Fretilin became the most popular, which worried Indonesia so much that they tried to influence the elections in Apodeti's favor (Operation Komodo). Moreover, it also worried the UDT, which was popular among the region's elites. Ultimately, in 1975, the UDT pulled a coup on the governor to prevent Fretilin from winning the elections. Fretilin responded by declaring independence. Six countries recognized them: Albania, Cape Verde, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Mozambique, and São Tomé and Príncipe. All six were incidentally led by communist governments at the time (four of the countries were also former-Portuguese colonies).
Meet the new boss, worse than the old boss
You'd think declaring independence would end Timor-Leste's colonial troubles, but the country can't get a break. As mentioned, Indonesia was already interfering in Timor-Leste before they declared independence. They responded to their freedom by having the UDT and Apodeti leaders sign a document written by the Indonesian government calling for integration. As this was during the Cold War and Timor-Leste was only recognized by communist states, western countries were perfectly willing to look the other way while this was happening, even when the Indonesian army killed five Australian reporters (Balibo Five) who were reporting on Indonesian incursions on the border. Ultimately, the Indonesian invasion of East Timor, backed by numerous countries, including the United States and Australia, began in December 1975. With mostly US-supplied equipment (thanks, Kissinger!), the Indonesian army quickly took the capital Dili after extensive naval bombardment. Indonesian forces slaughtered Fretilin supporters, Chinese migrants,[note 3] random citizens, and at least one foreign journalist in the streets of the cities. The brutality forced the populations out of the occupied cities and into the mountains. Former colonial troops were well-equipped by Portugal and could force the Indonesian army to a stalemate in the mountains.
The stalemate forced Indonesia to try even harsher tactics to subdue Fretilin. One technique was "encirclement and annihilation", where airplanes would bomb villages in the mountains, resulting in fires and famines. When the civilians would go down from the mountain to surrender, they would either be shot or thrown into concentration camps. Chemical weapons were additionally used on the populations. Afterward was the "final cleansing campaign" (isn't that such a lovely name) when Indonesians would use prisoners from the concentration camps as human shields, forcing Fretilin members to either surrender or shoot their own people. When the Timorese president Nicolau Lobato was killed by Indonesian soldiers flying in a helicopter, the entire island was effectively under Indonesian control. But that didn't end the suffering either: for the rest of the occupation, the Timorese were subject to a genocidal "routine and systematic torture, sexual slavery, extrajudicial executions, massacres, and deliberate starvation", according to the UN. In 1983, a new series of massacres known as "Operational Clean-Sweep" started after the president of Timor-Leste tried to get the UN and Portugal involved. The big moment came in 1991, with the Santa Cruz massacre, where at least 250 pro-independence peaceful protestors were mercilessly shot by the Indonesians. This straw broke the camel's back and led to the US and Australia, among other countries, finally ending their support for Indonesia's occupation (apparently, all the scary shit Indonesia did previously wasn't enough).
In 1998, Indonesian 'President' (more like a dictator) Suharto resigned over numerous economic and political crises. Australia pressured the new leader into holding an independence referendum in Timor-Leste. In 1999, with over 97% turnout, the Timorese voted overwhelmingly to reject an offer for more autonomy within Indonesia and thus became independent again. The Indonesians took this extremely well. By "well", we mean they massacred civilians, forced over 300,000 people into West Timor (the part owned by Indonesia), and destroyed the country's irrigation systems, electrical grid, schools, and water supply systems. They really can't take a break. Ultimately, a multinational force from the UN had to be sent to get Indonesia to back off. The Indonesian occupation of Timor-Leste ranks alongside the Khmer Rouge killings, the Yugoslav wars, and the Rwandan genocide as one of the worst humanitarian disasters of the second half of the 20th century. It is widely considered to be a genocide. The number of people killed is debated due to poor census-keeping but is generally agreed to be anywhere from 100,000 to 300,000 or possibly higher. In 2002, the country was finally recognized as independent.
Even after independence, things are not looking great for Timor-Leste. The country is still relevant for its oil, very little of which it actually gets to use. Shortly after its independence, Australia signed the Timor Sea Treaty, giving Australia access to most of its oil fields. Australia was even caught spying on Timor-Leste so they would have information that would allow them to have the upper hand in any negotiations over the oil field. While Australia gives Timor-Leste foreign aid, it takes much oil from the country, leaving it perpetually poor. The domestic situation isn't much better, with a coup attempt in 2006 that led to several other countries intervening. Despite being nominally independent, Timor-Leste's history of going from overlord to overlord seems like it has yet to stop.
In a nutshell
- Papua New Guinea — another island split in two due to colonialism. The western half of the island is another Indonesian human rights disaster.
- Leste means "east" in Portuguese, whereas "Timor" is derived from the Malay timur, which also means "east", so the country's name is effectively "east east". To its credit, it is the most democratic country to refer to itself as a "Democratic Republic" (looking at you, People's Democratic Republic of Korea and the Democratic Republic of the Congo).
- Timor-Leste owns an exclave in Indonesian Timor Barat.
- The Indonesians had previously slaughtered ethnic Chinese in the Indonesian mass killings of 1965–66.
- Timor-Leste, UNDP
- Operation Komodo, With One Planet
- UN verdict on East Timor
- Helen Davidson, Australia accused of 'siphoning' millions in Timor-Leste oil revenue The Guardian 15 Apr. 2019