Little is known of Timor before AD 1500, although Chinese and Javanese traders visited the island from at least the 13th century, and possibly as early as the 7th century. These traders searched the coastal settlements for aromatic sandalwood, which was valued for its use in making furniture and incense, and beeswax, used for making candles. Portuguese traders arrived between 1509 and 1511, but it wasn’t until 1556 that a handful of Dominican friars established the first Portuguese settlement at Lifau – in the present-day Oecussi enclave – and set about converting the Timorese to Catholicism.
In 1642, Francisco Fernandes led a Portuguese military expedition to weaken the power of the Timor kings. Comprised primarily of Topasses, the ‘black Portuguese’ mestizos (people of mixed parentage) from neighbouring Flores, his small army of musketeers settled in Timor, extending Portuguese influence into the interior.
To counter the Portuguese, the Dutch established a base at Kupang in western Timor in 1653. The Portuguese appointed an administrator to Lifau in 1656, but the Topasses went on to become a law unto themselves, driving out the Portuguese governor in 1705.
By 1749 the Topasses controlled central Timor and marched on Kupang, but the Dutch won the ensuing battle, expanding their control of western Timor in the process. On the Portuguese side, after more attacks from the Topasses in Lifau, the colonial base was moved east to Dili in 1769.
The 1859 Treaty of Lisbon divided Timor, giving Portugal the eastern half, together with the north coast pocket of Oecussi; this was formalised in 1904. Portuguese Timor was a sleepy and neglected outpost ruled through a traditional system of liurai (local chiefs). Control outside Dili was limited and it wasn’t until the 20th century that the Portuguese intervened in the interior.
In 1941, Australia sent a small commando force into Portuguese Timor to counter the Japanese, deliberately breaching the colony’s neutral status. Although the military initiative angered neutral Portugal and dragged Portuguese Timor into the Pacific War, it slowed the Japanese expansion. Australia’s success was largely due to the support it received from the locals, for whom the cost was phenomenal. In 1942 the Portuguese handed control to the Japanese whose soldiers razed whole villages, seized food supplies and killed Timorese in areas where the Australians were operating. By the end of the war, between 40, 000 and 60, 000 Timorese had died.
After WWII the colony reverted to Portuguese rule until, following the coup in Portugal on 25 April 1974, Lisbon set about discarding its colonial empire. Within a few weeks political parties had been formed in East Timor, and the Timorese Democratic Union (UDT) attempted to seize power in August 1975. A brief civil war saw its rival Fretilin (previously known as the Timorese Social Democrats) come out on top, declaring the independent existence of the Democratic Republic of East Timor on 28 November. But on 7 December the Indonesians launched their attack on Dili.
Indonesia opposed the formation of an independent East Timor, and the leftist Fretilin raised the spectre of Communism. The full-scale invasion of the former colony came one day after Henry Kissinger and Gerald Ford departed Jakarta, having tacitly given their assent. (Indeed, the Americans urged the Indonesians to conduct a swift campaign so that the world wouldn’t see them using weapons provided by the USA.) Australia also sided with Indonesia, leaving the Timorese to face Indonesia alone.
By 1976 there were 35, 000 Indonesian troops in East Timor. Falintil, the military wing of Fretilin, fought a guerrilla war with marked success in the first few years, but weakened considerably thereafter. The cost of the brutal takeover to the East Timorese was huge; it’s estimated that at least 100, 000 died in the hostilities, and ensuing disease and famine.
By 1989, Indonesia had things firmly under control and opened East Timor to tourism. Then, on 12 November 1991 Indonesian troops fired on protesters gathered at the Santa Cruz Cemetery in Dili to commemorate the killing of an independence activist. With the event captured on film and aired around the world, the embarrassed Indonesian government admitted to 19 killings, although it’s estimated that over 200 died in the massacre.
While Indonesia introduced a civilian administration, the military remained in control. Aided by secret police and civilian Timorese militia to crush dissent, reports of arrest, torture and murder were numerous.
Timorese hopes for independence remained high, but Indonesia showed no signs of making concessions until the fall of the Soeharto regime. Shortly after taking office in May 1998, Soeharto’s successor, President Habibie, unexpectedly announced a referendum for East Timorese autonomy, much to the horror of the military. On 30 August 1999, East Timor voted overwhelmingly (78.5%) for independence from, rather than autonomy within, Indonesia. Though the Indonesian government promised to respect the results of the UN-sponsored vote, military-backed Timorese militias massacred, burnt and looted the country.
International condemnation led to UN troops bringing peace to East Timor beginning in September 1999. Half a million people had been displaced, and telecommunications, power installations, bridges, government buildings, shops and houses were destroyed. Today these scars are everywhere.
The UN set up a temporary administration during the transition to independence, and aid and foreign workers flooded into the country. As well as physically rebuilding the country, East Timor has had to create a civil service, police, judiciary, education, health system and so on, with staff recruited and trained from scratch.
The UN handed over government to East Timor on 20 May 2002. Falintil leader Xanana Gusmão was president of the new nation, and the longtime leader of Fretilin Mari Alkatiri, who ran the organisation from exile in Mozambique, was prime minister.
In December 2002, Dili was wracked by riots as years of poverty and frustration proved too much for the nascent democracy. The economy was in a shambles and people were ready for things to start improving – and fast. But without any viable industry or employment potential, East Timor was reliant almost entirely on foreign aid.
Only a small UN contingent remained in East Timor by mid-2005. As the number of outsiders shrank, the challenges of creating a new nation virtually from scratch became all too apparent. Government factions squabbled while the enormous needs of the people festered. By 2006 it was clear that too much had been expected too soon.
East Timor will continue to rely on foreign money as it struggles to establish a viable economy.
Gas and oil deposits in the Timor Sea have the greatest potential to help East Timor’s economy to develop without the assistance of foreign aid. Proud of its image as a benefactor of East Timor, Australia was anything but in negotiations with the tiny country over revenues from the oil fields; through outright bullying, the Howard government tried to keep payments to East Timor negligible, despite the fact that it is one of the world’s poorest countries. Only perseverance on the part of the Timorese won them an agreement that will provide US$4 billion in the next few years and much more thereafter.
High in the hills above Dili is another resource: coffee. Some 50, 000 people work to produce the country’s sought-after arabica beans, noted for their cocoa and vanilla character. Shade-grown and mostly organic (because few farmers can afford fertilizers and pesticides), Timorese coffee is prized by companies such as Starbucks, and production is increasing.
East Timor’s tourism industry has great potential, although there needs to be a perception of stability for numbers to grow beyond the 1500 people who visit each year.