Timor-Leste (East Timor) has a rich history and culture developed over centuries. Archeological evidence of Neolithic settlement in caves in Tutuala dates as far back as 35,000 years ago. The early Austronesian hunter-gather arrivals were later joined by Asian migrants who introduced agriculture. Over time, Timor-Leste became divided into a number of small kingdoms of complex hierarchical social organization with strategic marital alliances, laws on land use and the exchange of tribute. Fighting between the different kinship groups disrupted the relatively stable patterns of land use and marriages between clans.
From as early as the 13th century, there are records of visiting Javanese and Chinese traders drawn by sandalwood, honey and wax.
In the early 16th century European settlers began arriving. West Timor was colonized by the Dutch, while Timor-Leste became a Portuguese colony for over 400 years. Portuguese governance took advantage of forming alliances where they could with the existing traditional political structures based on kinship systems which were self-governing. While the Portuguese introduced coffee production, along with sugar cane and cotton, their rule was also a time of periodic bloody uprisings as they raised local taxes and used forced labour in construction plantations. Missionaries soon followed spreading the Catholic faith. As the colonists were mostly concerned with trading and for the best part concentrated their presence around the coast, the traditional lifestyle and animist beliefs of most Timorese remained preserved in the hinterland and were relatively unchanged well into the 20th century.
When World War started Timor was still divided between two colonial powers, the Dutch in the west and the Portuguese in the east. As of 1941, Australia had agreed with Dutch and British officials that Allied troops, would reinforce Timor should Japan enter the war. Thus, as soon as Japanese forces begun to attack in 1942 the Allied (formed by troops from Australia, United Kingdom, and the Netherlands East Indies) landed on the island. The western Dutch side of the island surrendered to the attack in Kupang quite quickly, but a guerrilla warfare continued in the east of the island for some time. Assistance also came from the Portuguese who, even though were kept as a neutral country in the war, tried to maintain order in their colony.
Timorese people offered food, shelter, and ponies for carrying heavy equipment. They took on the responsibility of guides and protectors. Some Timorese took up arms and fought alongside the Australians, their familiarity with the terrain made them expert at helping set up ambushes. Many Timorese were executed by the Japanese for providing assistance to the guerrillas.
As Japanese pressure increased, guerrilla operations became more difficult. From the beginning of December 1942, operations were wound down and troops were evacuated in Australia, with the last troops leaving by 1943. Some Timorese continued a resistance campaign following the Australian withdrawal. By the end of the war in 1945 Timor was in ruins. Approximately 50,000 Timorese had lost their lives as a result of Japanese occupation and the efforts of the Timorese to resist the invaders.
Ultimately, Japanese forces remained in control of Timor until their surrender in September 1945, following the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the Soviet invasion of Manchuria. On 5 September 1945, the Japanese commanding officer met Portuguese Governor Manuel de Abreu Ferreira de Carvalho, effectively returning power to him and placing the Japanese forces under Portuguese authority.
At a time when many were beginning to have hopes of being able to shape a democratic self-governing country while shaking off the inequality synonymous with a long history of colonial imperialism, Indonesia was threatening from the outside and from within. Indonesia had begun intervening politically through APODETI, and also brought in military to what was still seen officially as Portuguese territory.
East Timor declared itself independent from Portugal on 28 November 1975, but was invaded by neighbouring Indonesia just nine days later. The country became a province of Indonesia for the following 24 years. During that time more than 200,000 Timorese lost their lives as a result of the systemic violence employed by the Indonesian military, associated disease and famine. Although Indonesia did make substantial investment in infrastructures during its occupation in East Timor,dissatisfaction remained widespread.
The independence movement operated on three significant fronts; the armed front, the clandestine front and the diplomatic front. The different phases of the resistance to Indonesian occupation reflected changes within the FRETILIN/FALANTIL leadership as well as the changing nature of the international political climate. Many people risked their lives to ensure that evidence reached the outside world. Powerful leaders and influencial international organisations eventually were forced to recognize the harrowing reality for Timorese.
Indonesia found itself in an increasingly difficult position by October 1996, when the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to two Timorese leaders, Bishop Ximenes Belo and José Ramos Horta, adding to the growing assertiveness of the independence movement. Then in January 1999 Indonesia offered Timor-Leste ‘wide-ranging autonomy’. Shortly after spirited Timorese resistance and concerted efforts at the United Nations culminated in an independence referendum being held in 1999. Despite a bloody campaign of intimidation, an overwhelming 78.5% of Timorese bravely voted for independence.
In response to this, the Indonesian army and backed militia rampaged through the country, torching Dili and other towns. As a result, one-third of the population were forced to resettle in refugee camps in West Timor and neighbouring islands. Another one-third looked for refuge in the mountains of Timor-Leste. Nationwide, it is estimated that 1,000 – 2,000 more civilians were massacred at this time and around 70% of services, infrastructure and buildings were destroyed.
Following these events, the country was in a critical situation and the UN intervened and launched a large-scale humanitarian operation, including food supplies and other basic services and announced the need for a UN peacekeeping force to settle in the country. In the meantime, the International Force East Timor (INTERFET) was organized and led by Australia to address the humanitarian and security crisis until the arrival of UN peacekeepers.
On October 25th, 1999, the UN Security Council established the United Nations Transitional Administration in Timor-Leste (UNTAET) as an integrated, multidimensional peacekeeping operation responsible for the administration of Timor-Leste during its transition to independence.
In 2001, Timor-Leste had its first free elections – for representatives who were charged with writing a new Constitution. In 2002, the country regained its independence and became the world’s newest democracy and the first new country of the third millennium. Since that time and with relative calm in recent years Timor-Leste’s primary focus has been on national development.