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History of East Timor

From the 16th century onwards, East Timor was a Portuguese colony known as Portuguese Timor. The rest of the island of Timor, and the other islands that were later to become Indonesia, were colonised by the Dutch between the 17th and 19th centuries, and were known as the Dutch East Indies. Portugal largely neglected the colony, using it mainly as a place to exile those who the government in Lisbon saw as "problems" - these included political prisoners as well as ordinary criminals.

During World War II, Australian and Dutch troops occupied Portuguese Timor, to fortify it against advancing Japanese forces. This was against Portugal's wishes, and despite their declaration of neutrality. Japan easily beat back Allied forces and occupied the island. Aided by the local people, several hundred Australian soldiers carried out a guerilla war against the Japanese occupation. The cost to the civilian population of this assistance was high: the Japanese army burned many villages and seized food supplies.

Portuguese Timor was handed back to Portugal after the war, but Portugal continued to neglect the colony. Independence movements gained strength, and after the fall of the Portuguese fascist regime in 1974, independence was encouraged by the new, democratic Portuguese government. On November 28, 1975, Portuguese Timor declared its independence as the Democratic Republic of East Timor (RDTL in the Portuguese acronym).

However, this independence was to prove short-lived, as nine days later Indonesian forces launched a massive air and sea invasion. During the invasion mass killings and rapes took place: 60,000 Timorese were dead by mid-February. A puppet Provisional Government of East Timor was installed in mid-December and in July the following year, following a vote by handpicked representatives and a request by the Provisional Government, East Timor was officially annexed by Indonesia. Although the United Nations had turned a blind eye to the Indonesian annexation of West Irian some years previously, the occupation of East Timor remained a public issue in many nations, Portugal in particular, and the UN never recognised either the regime installed by the Indonesians or the subsequent annexation.

According to documents released by the National Security Archive (NSA), in December of 2001, this invasion was given the green light by the US government. Gerald Ford and Henry Kissinger met with Suharto on December 6, 1975. In response to Suharto saying "We want your understanding if it was deemed necessary to take rapid or drastic action [in East Timor]." Ford replied, "We will understand and not press you on the issue. We understand the problem and the intentions you have." Kissinger similarly agreed, with reservations about the use of US-made arms in the invasion. Similarly, Australian governments protested loudly in public after the event but had already provided private assurances that no substantive action would be taken. This was an unpopular policy with the Australian public, as the heroic actions of the Timorese people during World War II were well-remembered, and vigorous protests took place in Australia, but to no avail. It is widely believed that the primary motivating factor for the Whitlam and Fraser governments lack of opposition was the possibility of oil being found in the waters between Australia and Timor.

The war for independence

Several Timorese groups fought a resistance war against Indonesian forces for the independence of East Timor, during which many atrocities and human rights violations by the Indonesian army were reported. A sad highpoint was the killing of many East Timorese youngsters (reportedly over 250) at a cemetery in Dili on November 12, 1991. In total, estimates of the number of deaths in the war range from 100,000 to 350,000—out of a total East Timorese population of only 800,000. The Dili Massacre was to prove the turning point for sympathy to the East Timorese cause in the world arena as, with the dissolution of the Soviet Union that same year, the "Marxist bogey" that Indonesia had often used against the idea of an independent East Timor had vanished. In 1996, Carlos Felipe Ximenes Belo and Jose Ramos-Horta, two leading East Timorese activists for peace and independence, received the Nobel Peace Prize.

In 1999, the Indonesian government decided, under strong international pressure, to hold a referendum about the future of East Timor. The referendum, held on August 30, gave a clear majority (78.5%) in favor of independence, rejecting the alternative offer of being an autonomous province within Indonesia.

Directly after this, paramilitaries backed by Indonesia as well as actual Indonesian army forces carried out a campaign of violence and terrorism to reverse the referendum. Activists in Australia, the United States, and elsewhere pressured their governments to take action, with US President Bill Clinton eventually threatening Indonesia, in dire economic straits already, with the withdrawal of IMF loans. The Indonesian government consented to withdraw its troops and allow a multinational force into Timor to stablilize the area.

After the referendum, a multinational force under the auspices of the United Nations and led by Australia landed in East Timor, and administration of East Timor was taken over by the UN through the United Nations Transitional Administration for East Timor. Elections were held in late 2001 for a national assembly to draft a constitution, a task which was finished in February 2002. East Timor became formally independent on May 20, 2002. The president is Xanana Gusmão, who had been the leader of the East Timor rebel forces. East Timor became a member of the UN on September 27, 2002.

The role of western governments

Western governments were criticized during the war for their role in supporting the Indonesian government, for example with arms sales. The US had supported Suharto's regime in Indonesia during the cold war as it was seen as a bulwark against communism. In 1992 the United States ended its military training programme in Indonesia, and in 1994 the United States banned the export of small arms and riot control equipment to that country. Nevertheless, organisations monitoring trade in arms have estimated that between 1992 and 1997 the United States sold more than $1 billion worth of arms to Indonesia. In 1995 the training programme was resumed but included lessons about human rights and the control of civilian crowds. The Joint Combined Exchange Training[?] program managed by Green Berets and Air Force commandos continued until 1996 without the knowledge of Congress. The fact that that some aircraft sold to the Indonesian army were not designed for offensive purposes did not prevent them from being so used. Arms sales to Indonesia remained suspended until a promise was received that lethal weapons and helicopters would not be used in East Timor. The UK government is also known to have allowed the sales of arms to be used in East Timor.

The independent republic

After independence, violent incidents continued. On December 4, 2002, after a student had been arrested the previous day, rioting students set fire to the house of the Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri[?] and advanced on the police station. The police opened fire and one student was killed, whos body the students carried to the parliament building. There they fought the police, set a supermarket on fire and plundered shops. The police opened fire again and four more students were killed. Alkatiri called an inquiry and blamed foreign influence for the violence.

Main article: East Timor



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