East Timor essay

East Timor is the world’s newest nation, occupying the eastern half of the island of Timor in the southern Pacific Ocean. A small nation of 15,000 km2, East Timor shares a border with Indonesia and lies near the northern coastline of Australia. With a population of slightly less than one million, the people are predominately Indonesian-Malay and Papuan, and 93 percent are Catholic with small Muslim (4 percent) and Protestant minorities (Taylor, 1991).

According to the 2005 UNDP Human Development Report, East Timor is ranked 140th out of 177 nations (the lowest in Asia, though up from 158th in 2003) based on its human development index (Hicks, 2004). Services are currently the largest sector of the economy (though agriculture will surpass it as services decline following the international departure), and East Timor is the poorest nation in Asia with a GDP of $.

3 billion, a per capita GDP of $389, and 42 percent of the population below the poverty line (Hicks, 2004). The median age is only 20 years old and 43 percent of the population is under 15 years of age, though life expectancy at birth has expanded from 40 years in the period 1970-75 to 56 in the period 2000-05 (Hicks, 2004). Adult literacy stands at 59 percent (Hicks, 2004). Historical Overview of East Timor

Early migration to the island of Timor falls primarily into two groups: 1) Indonesian-Malay groups like the Belunese and Rotinese who resided in the coastal regions, spoke Tetun, practiced a matrilineal culture, and used wet-rice cultivation, and 2) Melanesians, akin to the Papuans, who settled in the mountainous highlands and west of the island, spoke Atoni, shared a patrilineal system, and largely employed swidden rice cultivation (Taylor, 1991). The big part of East Timor’s history relates to the period of being a Portuguese colony.

However, Portugal was most concerned with its largest colony Brazil, and its African possessions; the far off island of Timor, with only limited resources, was never a priority in Portuguese colonial policy, often to the advantage of the ordinary Timorese. Neutral during World War II, Portugal briefly lost East Timor when Dutch and Australian troops occupied the island from December 1941 until February 1943. Intermittent fighting with the Japanese, who had landed in Dili in 1942, continued and an estimated 40,000 Timorese perished during this period.

Though a potent symbol of steadfast resistance for Australians, World War II did little to change the status of East Timor. Despite the valiant fighting of Timorese to defend their homeland and Australia’s northern frontier from Japanese aggression, Portugal resumed administration in August 1945 and held the province until it abdicated its colonial possessions in 1975 (Taylor, 1991). Aside from a 1959 Timorese uprising in Viqueque (Wekeke) against Portugal (Jakarta later used the 1959 rebellion to justify its anti-European mandate), international interest in East Timor was silent.

Following Portugal’s rapid decolonization, Timorese political movements quickly stepped into the breach. Frente Revolucionaria de Timor Leste Independents (FRETILIN, or Revolutionary Front for an Independent East Timor) called for unity of the people under a socialist banner and was predominately Catholic, though with a small Muslim membership as well (Taylor, 1991). Unido Democratica Timorense (UDT, or Timorese Democratic Union) was composed of middle and upper class Catholics, and Associado Popular Democratica Timorense (APODETI, or Timorese Popular Democratic Association) sought integration with Indonesia.

On January 22, 1975, FRETILIN (led by Nicolau dos Reis Lobato) and UDT (led by Mario Carrascalao) formed a coalition with a pro-independence platform, but on May 27, 1975, the UDT withdrew from the coalition. Indonesia provided covert support to political groupings in East Timor and sought to exploit divisions between leftist FRETILIN and the rightist UDT in the civil war of August-September 1975. Following an August 10, 1975 UDT coup to expel the communists, FRETILIN seized Dili and pushed the UDT to the border of West Timor.

On November 28, 1975, FRETILIN declared independence and proclaimed the ‘Democratic Republic of East Timor (Schwarz, 1994:195-203). The following day, UDT and APODETI jointly declared integration with Indonesia and the civil war intensified. After getting approval for the planned offensive from U. S. President Gerald Ford and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger during their visit to Jakarta days before, Indonesia began a naval bombardment of Dili on December 7, 1975 (Kiernan, 2004).

Claiming to end the internal civil war and recognize the ‘majority’ population’s desire to integrate with Indonesia, 30,000 Indonesian troops were deployed and an estimated 100,000-200,000 Timorese perished in a nation of less than one million (approximately 25 percent of the population) before Indonesia gained control (Kiernan, 2004). Indonesian forces and Timorese militias slaughtered of tens of thousands in the process of consolidating Indonesian rule.

Women were raped or forcibly taken by Indonesian officers to be wives, and suspected guerrillas were often disemboweled on the ground or flown out over the sea in helicopters before being cast to their death, becoming ‘disappeared. ‘ Indonesia was able to establish its authority in Dili rather quickly (the eastern part of the island proved more difficult), and East Timor became the 27th province of Indonesia on July 17, 1976. Indonesia stationed military and police in the province, and torture and abuse by Indonesian Kopassus special forces units marked the occupation.

Scorched earth policies by Indonesian military planners and the consequent refugee situation resulted in widespread famine (from 1979-81) and death. Australia, the United States, and many other nations condoned Indonesia’s bloody seizure of East Timor to maintain good relations with its strategic ally (as had been done for Dutch Papua in the early 1960s) and to prevent an imagined communist foothold in ‘the middle of Indonesia,’ though civil unrest and internecine guerrilla warfare exemplified East Timor’s history for a generation (Inbaraj, 1997).

The 1991 Santa Cruz massacre in which Indonesian troops killed around 150-250 Timorese demonstrators (and left scores more missing) publicly mourning the death of a comrade during a visit of foreign diplomats was perhaps the single most notorious event. During the occupation, a coalition of Timorese pro-independence organizations (mainly FRETILIN) called the National Council of Maubere Resistance (Conselho National de Resistencia Maubere, CNRM) coordinated internal opposition to Indonesia, though Indonesian forces captured its leader, Kay Rala “Xanana” Gusmao, in 1992 (Inbaraj, 1997).