History of Timor-Leste

A brief History of Timor-Leste

According to anthropologists, the first people to arrive in Timor, approximately 40,000 to 20,000 B.C., were of the Vedo-Australoide type, similar to the Vedas of Ceylon.

A second wave, which arrived around 3000 B.C., consisted of Melanesians, similar to those living today in Papua New-Guinea and some Pacific Islands. Probably due to the mountainous nature of the country, these new arrivals did not mix with the former inhabitants, who withdrew to the interior mountainous regions. This may be one reason why Timor-Leste has so many different languages.

A third wave of people, who arrived around 2.500 B.C., consisted of ‘Proto-Malays’ – coming from South China and North Indochina. Even today, the Chinese in Timor-Leste, mainly Hakka, are one of the more important trading communities.

There is documentation of sporadic trading between Timor and China as far back as the 7th century, including the slave trade and trade in beeswax and sandalwood, a rich wood used in the manufacturing of luxurious furniture and fragrances.

By the 14th century, the inhabitants of Timor were paying taxes to the Java Kingdom.

The name Timor comes from the name given to the island by the Malays — Timur means East.

The Portuguese arrive in Timor

The Portuguese reached the coast of Timor on what is now the enclave of Oecusse, around 1515. They made huge profits from exports of sandalwood, but eventually overexploited the resource. As sandalwood became almost extinct, the Portuguese in 1815 introduced coffee plantations, along with sugar cane and cotton.

The Portuguese people were followed by the missionaries and the Catholic religion.

With the arrival of the first Portuguese governor in 1702, the colonial organization of the territory began, and the creation of the Portuguese Timor.

A history of territorial disputes between the Portuguese and the Dutch, who controlled West Timor, was settled with the Frontier Treaty of 1904 Portugal-Holland, which established the border between the two halves of the island, still respected today. The treaty was fully implemented in 1916.

When World War II began, the Australians and the Dutch, aware of Timor’s importance of as a buffer zone, landed in Dili despite Portuguese protests. The Japanese then used the presence of the Australians as a pretext for an invasion, in February 1942. They occupied the island until September 1945.

By the end of the war, 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 and protect Australia. When the Japanese finally surrendered the scene in Timor was one of human misery and devastation. Recovery would be slow.

The end of Portuguese colonialism

Portugal governed Timor-Leste with a combination of direct and indirect rule, managing the population as a whole through the traditional power structures rather than by using colonial civil servants. This model of governance left traditional Timorese society almost untouched.

1974’s coup in Portugal (the “Carnation Revoution”) marked the beginning of decolonization for Portuguese Timor and other colonies; shortly afterward Timor’s Portuguese Governor Mário Lemos Pires announced plans to grant the colony independence.

Plans were drawn up to hold general elections with a view to independence in 1978. During most of 1975 a bitter internal struggle occurred between two rival factions in Portuguese Timor, FRETILIN (the Revolutionary Front for an Independent East Timor) and the rival faction, the Timorese Democratic Union (UDT).

Taking advantage of the internal disorder, and with an eye to absorbing the colony, Indonesia immediately began a campaign of destabilization, and frequent raids into Portuguese Timor were staged from Indonesian West Timor.

By late 1975 FRETILIN had gained control of Portuguese Timor. On 28 November 1975, Fretilin declared the independence of Portuguese Timor as “The Democratic Republic of East Timor”, or “República Democrática de Timor-Leste” (RDTL).

Freedom was short lived. Nine days later, Indonesia invaded East Timor. Its warships landed at the capital of Dili and began rounding up and executing the leaders and members of the political parties, and their family members.

The Indonesian occupation

In the early stages of the Indonesian occupation, more than 60,000 Timorese lost their lives, often under brutal conditions. Entire villages were exterminated. Torture centers were commonplace and political prisoners publicly executed en masse. Populations were forcibly displaced often resulting in large scale starvation.

By the time the occupation ended, at least 200,000 Timorese — one third of their population — had perished.

Nicolau Lobato, a national hero and the second President of the RDTL and FALINTIL Commander was killed in combat on December, 31st, 1978.

During the occupation years journalists were banned from the island. The armed aggression against the Timorese received little to no media coverage — it has been referred to as the “forgotten conflict”, the people of the island considered a Cold War casualty.

On November 12, 1991, Timor-Leste rocketed back into the international media when several thousand students in Dili staged a non violent demonstration for democracy. In Santa Cruz Cemetery in the capital, the demonstration began as a funeral of one of their fellow students, an independence activist killed by Indonesian soldiers. It grew into a peaceful march of several thousand, carrying banners and shouting slogans for independence and democracy.

Indonesian soldiers opened fire on the students. More than 300 were killed.

British Cinematographer Max Stahl was present in the cemetery and covertly filmed parts of the massacre. The video was spirited out of the country and released to the international media.

The release of the video of the ‘Santa Cruz Massacre’ marked a turning point in the brutal occupation of Timor-Leste, as individuals and human rights organizations began to pressure their governments and international organizations on behalf of the Timorese.

In 1992 East Timor resistance leader Xanana Gusmao was captured and imprisoned.

Indonesia’s position in East Timor became increasingly difficult in 1996 when two Timorese leaders, Bishop Ximenes Belo and José Ramos Horta, were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, “for their work toward a just and peaceful solution to the conflict in East Timor.”

In 1997 and 1998 Indonesia was shaken by a severe economic crisis, leading to widespread demands for political change. Indonesian President Suharto was forced to resign, to be replaced by his vice-president, B. J. Habibie.

After increasing political pressure and back-room negotiations that involved other world leaders, Habibie announced that he would allow the people of Timor-Leste to determine their future with a referendum on independence.

Referendum for freedom

On August 30, 1999, under the auspices of UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, a popular consultation was held in Timor-Leste, allowing the Timorese population to choose, by vote, continued annexation by Indonesia or independence.

The people of Timor-Leste voted overwhelmingly – more than 80% – in favor of independence.

Indonesia backed “Pro-integration militia” gangs and the Indonesian armed forces responded with extraordinary brutality, embarking on a rampage of burning and killing across the island. One-third of the population was involuntarily displaced and resettled at gunpoint in refugee camps in West Timor and neighboring islands. Another one-third sought refuge in the mountains of Timor-Leste.

Between 1,000 and 2,000 people are reported to have died in the violence. 85% of the buildings — virtually all businesses, all schools, were destroyed. Fishing nets were burned, trucks stolen to West Timor or permanently disabled, buffalo used to work the fields either stolen or slaughtered.

With backing from the United States and support from Australia, the United Nations Security Council authorized a multinational force (INTERFET), under the unified command structure of Australia, to restore peace and security to the island. The UN simultaneously launched a large-scale humanitarian operation, moving temporary housing, food, and medical care into the island.

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.


On August 30th, 2001, Timor-Leste held its first free elections in 24 years – voting for the members of their new Parliament, who would be charged with writing the Constitution for the new democracy. On April 14, 2002, resistance leader Xanana Gusmao, who had been released from prison in Indonesia in 1999, was elected President of independent Timor-Leste.

On May 20th, 2002, with the newly elected government in place, the United Nations turned over the reins of the country and Timor-Leste became the world’s newest democracy — and the first new country of the third millennium.

The celebrations took place at Taci Tolo, just outside Dili.

At midnight the new flag of Timor-Leste was raised, the new national anthem was sung and Timor-Leste’s long fight for freedom was finally over.