.Posted: June 18, 2001 - By Tim Wise

Crisis in East Timor

East Timor 1999

East Timor is a nation of some 800,000 inhabitants located on a small island on the southeastern tip of the Indonesian archipelago, 400 miles north of Australia.

The western half of the island had been a Dutch colony, and was therefore part of what became independent Indonesia after World War II. But the eastern half, which had been ruled for three centuries by Portugal, was given its independence with the collapse of the Portuguese empire in 1975. Indonesia invaded the country in December of that year and annexed East Timor in 1976.

There are 12 ethnic groups in East Timor each of which has its own language: 9 Austronesian language groups - Tetum, Mambai, Tokodede, Kemak, Galoli, Idate, Waima'a, Naueti; and 3 Papuan language groups - Bunak, Makasae, Fatuluku. The Tetum live in two separate geographic areas within East Timor. A simplified version of the Tetum language was utilised in Dili by the Portuguese as a lingua franca. This language has spread throughout East Timor so that Tetum, in its original or simplified form, came to be spoken by about 60% of the population. Though widespread, it is not understood by all.

For centuries the East Timorese had been farmers, living in scattered hamlets and eating what they grew. Only a few coastal East Timorese were fishermen. Trading and shop keeping had for generations been in the hands of the Chinese. East Timor is extremely mountainous, so the majority of East Timorese had always lived in isolation, far from towns and foreign influences, tied to their fields and animistic practices. In spite of centuries of Catholic missionary work by the Portuguese, in 1975 animists still numbered as much as 72 % of the population. The local Timorese kings still played an important part in their lives and allegiances, whilst interference from Portuguese administrators and military was almost non-existent.

The island of Timor was first colonised in the 17th Century by the Portuguese, who used the island for its resources of Sandalwood. They found a highly developed local community, but in the spirit of colonialisation bruttaly suppressed them. The island changed hands several times between the Portuguese and the Dutch who had extensive colonies in the region who eventually split the island between them, Portugal controlling the East, Holland controlling the West.

Much before the arrival of Portuguese and Dutch, Timor was part of the commercial nets politically centered east of Java, after in the Celebes, and linked by trade to China and India. In documents published during the Ming dynasty, in 1436, the commercial value of Timor is put in relief and described as a place where the mountains are covered by trees of sandalwood producing the country nothing else. One of the first Portuguese to visit the island, Duarte Barbosa, wrote in 1518: there's an abundance of sandalwood, white, to which the Muslims in India and Persia give great value and where much of it is used. Dutch administrator Schulte-Nordholt is also refers to the interest it represented for the Portuguese.

Portugal ruled the colony with a ruthless and brutal regime. However despite their attempts to pacify the island through breaking up the local kingdoms the islanders, for the most part, retained their traditional lifestyle and held their traditional allegiances. Rebellions against Portuguese rule were crushed brutally.

The Japanese took over the island in 1941 and a small group of Allied troops with native support waged a guerilla campaign against the occupiers. While the military fetes of the Allies are still admired by some it is often forgotten that the support given by the natives cost them 60,000 lives (13% of their population).

The Dutch colonies, including West Timor eventualy won independence and formed the country now known as Indonesia, however the Eastern part of the island remained in Portuguese hands.

After the War the Portuguese fascist regime ruled the island as before. However the fall of the Caetano dictatorship in 1974 radically changed the mentality on the island. Three main political parties emerged, one advocating autonomy within Portugal, one for full independence and the other for integration into Indonesia.

The UDT (pro Portugal) started with the most support, but the local population were swayed by the Socialist tendancies of the ASDT (pro Independence) who initiated farming co-operatives to return the land to the people and mounted a literacy campaign across the country. Soon both parties formed a coalition and the ASDT became Fretilin.

Adopedti (pro Indonesia) enjoyed very little support in East Timor, but backed by the military regime of General Suharto in Indonesia campaigned for integration and tried to undermine support for the coalition.

Fearing the Communist elements of the ASDT the UDT withdrew from the coalition and demanded that all communists be removed from the island. In August 1975 they staged a coup in the capital, Dili. Fretilin opposed the coup and soon routed the UDT forces and set up their own administration throughout the country.

The Indonesian army prolonged the conflict in several towns by providing soldiers and in December 1975 invaded the border town of Batugadé. After Batugadé's fall Fretilin declared independence, and the Indonesian army invaded Dili on 7th December while the International community stood by and watched.

The invasion was particularly brutal with the Indonesian army summarily executing thosands of civilians. More than 10% of the population of Dili were killed in the first four months, with a death toll of between 60,000 - 100,000.

The Timorese have bitterly resisted the Indonesian invasion over the past 24 years, and the territory was never fully pacified. Timorese such as guerrilla leader Xanana Gusmao and 1996 Nobel Peace Prize winners Jose Ramos Horta and Bishop Carlos Belo have fought for independence throughout Indonesia's occupation. Indonesia is estimated to have killed as many as 100,000 Timorese in its failed attempts to colonize East Timor.

The U.S. had tacitly supported Indonesia's 1975 invasion of East Timor because Indonesia was its key southeast Asian ally during the Cold War. Over the next decade, Washington routinely voted against U.N. resolutions recognizing East Timor's independence and urging Indonesia's withdrawal. With Cold War concerns a thing of the past, however, the U.S. now wants Indonesia to respect the will of East Timor's people as expressed democratically through August's referendum. But Indonesia's economic and political centrality to the region, and its potential instability, make Washington cautious about applying pressure on Jakarta over East Timor.

  • East Timor Internet Resources

  • East Timor International Support Centre provides information about how the centre operates, a collection of news reports from different sources around the world and biographies of prominent East Timorese campaigners such as Xanana Gusmao, Jose Ramos Horta and Bishop Belo.

  • East Timor Human Rights Centre includes reports on human rights violations in East Timor, and information on its Urgent Action Network.

  • Action in Solidarity with Indonesia and East Timor (ASIET), has regular news updates, a diary of upcoming events and hosts Indonesia's PRD, the People's Democratic Party Website. It also has a pool of publications and videos on the subject. This site is a useful source for links and contacts around the world.

  • TimorNet from the University of Coimbra, Portugal has two main areas incorporating a history of the territory and an extensive information resource guide.

  • TAPOL is an Indonesian human rights campaign group based in the UK, and the site contains reports and press releases written by the Tapol team.

  • The National Council of Timorese Resistance (CNRT) comes via the Australian domain and has extensive information on Xanana Gusmao, leader of the East Timorese resistance movement. It includes reports on his trial, his meeting with Nelson Mandela, and a variety of interviews, letters and speeches.

  • The Republic of Indonesia Foreign Ministry site in English and Indonesian provides an extensive list of links to Indonesian Government institutions, mostly in Indonesian.

  • The National Commission on Human Rights gives the government line on human rights issues.

  • The United Nations has been closely involved in trying to bring about an acceptable consensus on East Timor's future and is expected to play an important role in a transition period if and when the territory is given its independence.

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