State of East Timor

By Santina, Peter | Harvard International Review, Fall 1999 | Go to article overview

State of East Timor


Santina, Peter, Harvard International Review


Abstract:

East Timor only approaches the prospect of independence this year, long after the heyday of anti-colonial struggle in the developing world. After a referendum in August 1999 in which over 70% of east Timorese voted for an end to Indonesian rule, a spate of militia-backed violence prompted the dispatch of international peacekeepers to restore and maintain order. Although the peacekeepers appear to have halted Indonesian-sponsored violence against the Timorese, East Timor's reliance on more powerful countries of the world looms ominously as the colony transforms itself into an independent country.

Text:

Prospects For An Economic Foothold

East Timor only approaches the prospect of independence this year, long after the heyday of anti-colonial struggle in the developing world. After a referendum in August 1999 in which over 70 percent of East Timorese voted for an end to Indonesian rule, a spate of militia-backed violence prompted the dispatch of international peacekeepers to restore and maintain order. Although the peacekeepers appear to have halted

Indonesian-sponsored violence against the Timorese, East Timor's reliance on more powerful countries of the world looms ominously as the colony transforms itself into an independent country. This new dependence on the international community will be difficult to avoid as the Timorese construct their economy, but also necessary, for independence to be reached.

Liberation and Re-Colonization

The eastern half of the island of Timor was officially incorporated into Portugal in 1859. In 1974, a popular revolution overthrew 50 years of right-wing dictatorship in Portugal. The new Portuguese government, exhausted by years of fighting to maintain its fading colonial empire, quickly withdrew its forces from all of its territories, including East Timor.

Prior to the 1974 withdrawal, the government had promoted democratic principles in East Timor, and three political parties were formed. The most popular party was the Revolutionary Front for an Independent East Timor (Fretilin), which demanded independence from foreign control. In 1975, local elections were held in which Fretilin won 55 percent of the vote, reflecting East Timorese support for independence.

However, the Indonesian government was fearful that an independent East Timor would encourage other concentrated ethnic groups in the Indonesian archipelago to seek independence. The oil and gas deposits off the coast of East Timor, along with the island's prosperous coffee and sandalwood trade, compounded Indonesia's interest in East Timor.

Beginning in 1974, the Indonesian military began to destabilize East Timor, sparking a civil war between Fretilin and the other Timorese parties. The continuing Indonesian intervention and the refusal of the Portuguese to return to the island led Fretilin to proclaim the Democratic Republic of East Timor on November 28, 1975.

In December 1975, the Indonesian military launched a full-scale invasion of the newly independent nation, killing civilians, raping women, and forcing East Timorese to move into concentration camps. International human rights organizations estimate that more than 200,000 Timorese died as a direct result of the Indonesian invasion. Since the invasion, Timorese guerrillas have fought the occupying troops tooth and nail, with Fretilin members taking up arms as the Liberation Army of East Timor (Falintil).

The strong East Timorese guerrilla movement and its many civilian supporters forced Indonesia to station as many as 35,000 troops in an area approximately the size of Connecticut. In 1986, the leader of the armed struggle, Xanana Gusmao, united most of the resistance forces under the National Council of Timorese Resistance (CNRT). The CNRT's Special Representative, jose Ramos-Horta, has traveled around the world as a Timorese exile, trying to raise awareness and mobilize support. …

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