Portugal Settles In

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 and beeswax. Portuguese traders arrived between 1509 and 1511, and in 1556 a handful of Dominican friars established the first Portuguese settlement at Lifau in Oecusse and set about converting the Timorese to Catholicism.

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 (people from the region who claimed Portuguese ancestry and/or identified with the culture) 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 Oecusse; 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 a major way in the interior.

World War II

In 1941 Australia sent a small commando force (known as Sparrow Force) into Portuguese Timor to counter the Japanese. Although the military initiative angered neutral Portugal and dragged the colony into the Pacific War, it slowed the Japanese expansion. In February 1942 the Japanese forced the surrender of the Allies following the bloody Battle of Timor, but several hundred commandos stayed on for another year, waging many successful raids on Japanese forces with the help of locals, including creados (Timorese boys who assisted Australian servicemen during WWII). The Japanese retaliated by razing villages, seizing food and killing Timorese in areas where Australians were operating. By the end of the war, up to 60,000 Timorese had died.

Portugal Pulls Out, Indonesia Invades

After WWII the colony reverted to Portuguese rule, but following the Carnation Revolution in Portugal in April 1974, Lisbon began a program of decolonisation. Within a few weeks, political parties had formed in Timor-Leste and the Timorese Democratic Union (UDT) attempted to seize power in August 1975. A brief but brutal civil war saw UDT’s rival Fretilin (previously known as the Association of Timorese Social Democrats) come out on top, and it urgently declared the independent existence of the Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste on 28 November, amid an undeclared invasion by Indonesia. On 7 December Indonesia officially launched a full-scale attack on Dili after months of incursions (including at Balibó, where five Australia-based journalists were killed on 16 October).

Anti-communist Indonesia feared an independent Timor-Leste governed by a left-leaning Fretilin would bring communism to its door, and commenced its invasion of Timor-Leste just a 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 the US had provided). Australia and Britain also sided with Indonesia.

Falintil, the military wing of Fretilin, fought a guerrilla war against Indonesian troops (which numbered 35,000 by 1976) with marked success in the first few years, but weakened considerably thereafter, though the resistance continued. The cost of the takeover to the Timorese was huge; it’s estimated that up to 183,000 died in the hostilities, and the ensuing disease and famine.

By 1989 Indonesia had things firmly under control and opened Timor-Leste to limited controlled tourism. On 12 November 1991 Indonesian troops fired on protesters who’d 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 Indonesian government admitted to 19 killings (later increased to more than 50), although it’s estimated that over 250 died in the massacre. While Indonesia introduced a civilian administration, the military remained in control. Aided by secret police and civilian pro-Indonesian militia to crush dissent, reports of arrest, torture and murder were commonplace.


After Indonesia’s President Soeharto resigned in May 1998, his replacement BJ Habibie unexpectedly announced a referendum for autonomy in Timor-Leste. January 1999 marked the commencement of attacks by militias backed by the Indonesian National Armed Forces (TNI), who began terrorising the population to coerce them into rejecting independence.

Attacks peaked in April 1999, just prior to the arrival of the UN Electoral Mission, when, according to a report commissioned by the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, up to 60 people were massacred near Liquiçá church. Other attacks occurred in Dili and Maliana while Indonesian authorities looked on. Attacks escalated in the weeks prior to the vote, with thousands seeking refuge in the hills away from the reach of the TNI and militia.

Despite threats, intimidation and brutality, on 30 August 1999 Timor-Leste 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, militias and Indonesian forces went on a rampage, killing people, burning and looting buildings and destroying infrastructure.

While the world watched in horror, the UN was attacked and forced to evacuate, leaving the East Timorese defenceless. On 20 September, weeks after the main massacres in Suai, Dili, Maliana and Oecusse, the Australian-led International Force for East Timor (INTERFET) arrived in Dili. The Indonesian forces and their militia supporters left for West Timor, leaving behind scenes of devastation. Half a million people had been displaced, and telecommunications, power installations, bridges, government buildings, shops and houses were destroyed.

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, Timor-Leste 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 Timor-Leste on 20 May 2002 with Falintil leader Xanana Gusmão elected president, and long-time leader of Fretilin, Mari Alkatiri, chosen as prime minister.

Birth Pangs

The early years of independence have been rocky ones for Timor-Leste, due in large part to the challenges involved with creating a new nation from the ground up. Poverty and frustration, not to mention rather rocky elections, have led to numerous riots taking place since 2002. However, since 2008 Timor-Leste has been a much safer and more stable country and the most recent elections – in 2012 and 2017 – were peaceful.

Cast of Characters

The Leaders of Timor-Leste

Charismatic leader Xanana Gusmão led guerrilla forces from 1978 until 1992, when he was captured and imprisoned in Jakarta. He earned the enmity of many of his old Fretilin brethren by breaking with the party after independence and, in 2007, forming the National Congress for Timorese Reconstruction (CNRT) party. He was the first president of the country, from 2002 until 2007, after which he switched to prime minister. He resigned in 2015. His former wife, Australian-born Kirsty Sword-Gusmão, runs prominent charity the Alola Foundation.

Fretilin's Mari Alkatiri was the new country's first prime minister, but resigned in 2006 after political unrest resulted in hundreds of thousands of Timorese fleeing to internally displaced persons camps and the beefing up of UN forces. He took on the role of Chairman Authority of the Special Zone of Social Market Economy of Timor-Leste (ZEESM), and his face beams from billboards in Oecusse.

Both Gusmão and Alkatiri have had stints as prime minister, and though Gusmão announced his separation from CNRT post-2017's parliamentary elections, he was most recently involved in brokering a deal between Australia and Timor-Leste about the maritime boundary (which effects both countries' oil and gas revenues). Alkatiri was elected prime minister again in the 2017 elections.

José Ramos-Horta is the magnetic Nobel Prize winner who spent 20 years in exile during the Indonesian occupation. He took over as prime minister after Alkatiri was forced from office in 2006, and was elected president in 2007 with a huge margin. In 2008 he was shot during an alleged assassination attempt. He survived, and remained as president until 2012. He took a post in the 2017 cabinet, and can still often be seen driving fast around Dili in his navy blue convertible hot rod.