A Short History of East Timor

 East Timor, as a nation, has had a troubled history - no matter how you look at it. This document will attempt to provide some fact and neutral comment about Timor’s history without the hyperbole that normally accompanies such information. All information contained here is sourced from the Internet.

 The document is divided into 5 parts:

1. Colonisation
2. WW II
3. 1945 – 1975
4. Under Indonesia
5. Referendum and After


The island of Timor was first colonised in 1520 by the Portuguese, but had been visited by them as early as 1515. Even in the 16th Century, it was realised that there was a great resource in the island’s sandalwood. As was the practice at that time, there was little attention paid to the needs of the local people and there was no imperative to preserve local culture or practice when establishing trade and colonial enclaves.  Like all colonial administrators, Portugal did not allow any local dissention on its rule – for example in 1910, when an armed rebellion broke out, it took the Portuguese a year and a half to suppress it. The Portuguese moved African and Indian colonial troops into Timor in 1912 to help pacify the island.


The island changed hands several times between the Portuguese and the Dutch, who already had extensive colonies in the region. In 1859, a formal boundary was established by treaty defining the Dutch-controlled West Timor and Portuguese-controlled East Timor. This treaty was re-affirmed in 1893 between the British, Spanish, Dutch and Portuguese. East Timor was governed as part of the Portuguese colony of Macau until 1896 when it became a separate colony with its own governor.

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 During WW II, Portugal declared itself neutral and this declaration was extended to its overseas territories. Australia asked the British to speak to the Portuguese and Dutch during the middle of 1941 to form a defence pact against the Japanese. This pact was not forthcoming, due in part to pressure brought to bear on Portugal by the Japan. The Australian military was only able to spare two battalions and some support troops for the Indonesian archipelago: Gull Force (2/21 Batallion(Bn)), to be headquarted in Ambon and Sparrow Force (2/40 Bn) to be headquarted in Kupang. 

On 17th December 1941, the Australian 2/2 Independent Company and 260 Dutch troops landed in Dili. The Dutch troops (mainly Indonesian soldiers and Dutch officers) secured Dili and the Australians secured Comoro Airfield. This landing was referred to as the “first” invasion of neutral Timor by the then Portuguese president, Oliveira de Salazar. The Portuguese Governor in Dili at the time, J. Santos Carvalho, demanded to be treated as a prisoner of war and confined himself to his residence.


The Australian troops were stricken by Malaria. At one point in January 1942, less than two months after landing, 2/2 Independent Company was reduced to 10 men fit for duty.


 The Japanese landed on the island during the evening of 19 February 1942 at the Comoro Airfield – the second invasion. The Japanese 38th Infantry Group (commanded by Major General Takeo Ito), having just finished fighting in Ambon against Gull Force, was given responsibility for taking Timor. 2/228 Infantry Bn group (estimated at up to 4 000 troops) was given the task of capturing Dili. They landed and the Dutch troops started to withdraw to Atambua and the Australians moved inland through Ermera after destroying Comoro airfield. The main body of Sparrow Force (a large part of 2/40 Bn and its supporting units stationed in Kupang) surrounded to the Japanese on 23 Feb 1942, leaving 2/2 Independent Coy without higher command and fighting a rearguard action against the Japanese. The remnants of 2/40 Bn and 2/2 coy met at Lolotoe in March 1942 to plan the future of their war. Forty members of 2/40 Bn based themselves in Memo to provide early warning of Japanese movement from West Timor. The main area of patrolling was in the Maliana basin from Balibo to Bobanaro and as far northwest as Gleno. The remains of Sparrow Force were resupplied by para drop and a few small boats from Australia. 

In May 1942, the 300 Australians left in Timor were ordered to keep harassing the Japanese forces since there was no ability for them to be evacuated. 2/2 Coy, re-enforced with a platoon from the remains of 2/40 Bn, occupied positions at Memo, Cailaco, Atsabe, Ainaro, Maubisse, and on the outskirts of Dili. Sparrow Force and the remains of the Dutch troops managed to confine the Japanese to Dili until August. In August 1942, with a troop ratio of 10:1, the Japanese commander broke out of Dili with the aim of destroying the Allied forces left on Timor.

Australia estimated that the Japanese had 4 –5 Batallions of troops in Timor; tied down by 2/2 Coy and thus unable to re-enforce their troops in Papua New Guinea. 2/2 Coy was reinforced by 2/4 Coy (Lancer Force) on 20 Sep 1942 when HMAS Voyager landed at Betano – only to be destroyed after unloading troops and supplies. The evacuation of 2/2 Coy and Portuguese civilians to Australia was conducted in December 1942. Lancer Force was withdrawn from Timor in January 1943. A small intelligence collection and reporting team, S Force, and a small detachment of Z Special Force, were the only Australian presence left in Timor. All Australians were evacuated from Timor by the end of February 1943. The Japanese remained in control of Timor until their surrender on 15 August 1945.

The Allied troops’ guerrilla campaign against the Japanese resulted in the loss of 40 000 to 70 000 Timorese lives. There was initial wide support for the Allied troops as the locals thought that the Australians would also help them fight against the Portuguese at the end of the war. The Allied forces relied on the locals for food (which was purchased with silver, air dropped from Australia) and portage as well as local intelligence. The Japanese managed to gain support from the Timorese against the Australians with anti-white propaganda. However this was hard to reconcile with the Japanese bombing of numerous towns, including Bobanaro and Ainaro. There was a large number of Timorese from the Dutch occupied West Timor used by the Japanese to harass the Australians. In September 1942, Sparrow Force started arming the local Timorese to conduct operations against the Japanese. This lead to battles between Japanese armed and Australian armed Timorese along old tribal rivalries.

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1945 to 1975

 While the neighbouring Dutch East Indies (including West Timor) successfully fought the Dutch for independence and became the nation of Indonesia on 17 August 1945 (internationally recognised on 27 December 1949), East Timor remained in the hands of the Portuguese. It was declared an “overseas province” of Portugal under the 1952 Portuguese constitution. 

The United Nations General Assembly placed East Timor on the international agenda in 1960, when it added the territory to its list of Non-Self-Governing Territories.

On 25 April1974, a cartel of left-leaning generals overthrew the Portuguese dictator Marcelo Caetano in Lisbon (the Carnation Revolution). The new regime made it known that it would free the remaining scraps of Portugal's once-extensive colonial empire: Angola, Mozambique, Guinea-Bassau, and East Timor.


This new Portuguese government allowed the creation of local political parties for the first time. The three main East Timorese political parties that emerged were:


 These parties fought a referendum on Timor’s future on 13 March 1975


Election and Coup. The UDT started with the most support but the local population was swayed by the socialist tendencies of the ASDT. Both parties then formed a coalition and from this alliance the FRETILIN (Frente Revolucionária de Timor-Leste Independente - Revolutionary Front for an Independent East Timor) was formed.  FRETLIN won 55% of the March 1975 vote, followed closely by UDT. APODETI had very little support despite reportedly generous financial backing from Indonesia.


As APODETI was now a weak ally, Indonesia sought to undermine the FRETLIN coalition by luring certain UDT leaders away. UDT then withdrew from the coalition out of fear of the communist elements of the ASDT, demanding that all communists be removed from the island. On the night of 10th August 1975, UDT staged a coup in the capital Dili, FRETILIN retaliated and caused the flight of UDT forces, including APODETI loyalists, to West Timor. Depending on the source, these events are also said to be a FRETLIN coup, an Indonesian backed coup, or direct action by Indonesian intelligence agents (reportedly from BAKIN or KOPASSUS) in Dili.


Prior to the coup, Portugal had been gradually reducing its civil and military personnel in East Timor. The governing Portuguese administration departed East Timor for Artauro Island (just off the coast of Dili but still part of East Timor) on 26 August. The Portuguese plan of decolonisation was never completed and no handover took place. Thus FRETILIN, who had won the election as well as the coup, was forced to set up its own administration and security presence throughout the country. FRETLIN declared itself the legitimate government of East Timor on 28 November 1975. On 29 November, APODETI and UDT proclaimed independence and simultaneous integration with the Republic of Indonesia (the Balibo Declaration – claimed to have been drafted by Indonesia and signed in Bali).

Operation Komodo. During 1974, ABRI (Indonesian Armed Forces and Police) conducted Operation Komodo – an attempt to undermine any independence for East Timor. It also included posturing near the East Timor/Indonesia border. Major General Leonardus Benjamin Murdani (Benny) Murdani – one of the few Catholic generals in ABRI, commanded the operation. During 1975 Indonesia switched Operation Komodo to a direct military solution. Troops infiltrated border regions attacking civilians and destroying crops, attempting to create the illusion that civil war continued and that anarchy prevailed. This chaos would justify an Indonesian invasion to restore order.

As part of the invasion, on 16th October 1975, five journalists died (either caught in cross-fire according to Indonesian accounts or murdered in cold blood according to Greg Shackleton's wife Shirly) in the town of Balibo:

• two Australians:
- Greg Shackleton, 27 years old, and
- Tony Stewart, 21 years;

• two British:
- Malcom Renie, 28 years old, and
- Brian Peters, 29 years old;

• one New-Zealander:
- Gary Cunningham, 27 years old.

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Under Indonesia


Between 1975 and 1999 between 100 000 and 200 000 (Amnesty International and Indonesian Government figures) people were killed in East Timor by military clashes. FALINTIL claims that it has killed “thousands” of Indonesian soldiers.


In December 1975 the Indonesian army invaded the town of Batugadé. The East Timorese resisted this invasion. On 7 December 1975 the Indonesian army landed in Dili, one day after US President Gerald Ford and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger departed from a summit meeting in Jakarta. The invasion commenced with a naval bombardment, followed by paratroopers and finally beach landings. Civilians were killed, shops looted, women raped and public executions took place on the wharf. On 10 December 1975 the town of Baucau was captured, followed by Liquica and Maubara, where further mass killings of civilians reportedly took place. One estimation (perhaps overstated) is that within four months up to 100, 000 people were killed. A Portuguese source claims that 44% of the pre-occupation population was killed between the invasion and 1981.


A provisional Timorese government was immediately established, consisting of APODETI ministers. A petition was signed by 28 conscripted delegates asking President Suharto to grant East Timor integration with Indonesia. On 17 July 1976 Suharto signed the Bill of Integration and declared East Timor to be Indonesia’s 27th province.


The FRETILIN army, FALINTIL, originally controlled 80% of the country but were forced to seek refuge in the mountains. By 1976 35 000 Indonesian soldiers, had moved into East Timor, with a further 10 000 in West Timor. FALINTIL is claimed to have numbered 20 000, of which only 2 500 were regular troops.


It is claimed that Indonesia used napalm bombs to destroy mountain villages - humans, animals, houses and crops. Resistance slowly began to waver and by 1978 FALINTIL was presumed to be broken. On 31 December 1978 its President and military commander Nicolau Lobato was shot and killed by Indonesian troops. Thereafter Xanana Gusmao found himself responsible for reorganising the resistance.


Anti-Indonesian sources claim that camps were established for the indoctrination of the Timorese and by 1980 there were no less than 150 such camps in East Timor (a 1979 report by the Australian Council for Overseas Aid said there were 318 921 ‘displaced persons’ in 15 camps). Villagers from throughout the country were placed in these camps and huge numbers of people died from starvation and disease.


Those that survived these camps were resettled usually away from their traditional villages. They continued to be guarded and politically educated by the Indonesian army. Since universal education within Indonesia is conducted in Bahasa Indonesia, as was a majority of the trade, the use of traditional languages declined and was discouraged by Indonesia. 

The Indonesian government claims that it has spent a disproportionate amount of money to attempt to improve East Timor from the situation that it was left in under the Portuguese. For example (using Indonesian figures from 1995):

·        47 elementary schools, two middle schools, one high school and no colleges existed when the Portuguese left versus 579 elementary schools, 90 middle schools, 39 high schools and three colleges under the Indonesian rule;

·        10 hospitals and 197 village health centers staffed by 104 doctors, six specialists and 14 dentists, assisted by more than 1,500 paramedics versus two hospitals and 14 clinics with a total of three doctors and two dentists; and

·        3,800 kilometers of roads built, including 428 kilometers of paved highways and 18 bridges versus 20 kilometers of paved roads under the Portuguese.


It has been alleged that the Indonesian military systematically and deliberately made use of torture, rape and the killing of innocent civilians as instruments of oppression and cultural change. In 1981 approximately 500 civilians were killed on mass at the shrine of St Antonio near Lacluta and in 1983 up to 300 villagers were killed near Viqueque.  Allegations of inhumanity during the Indonesian era include: the cutting off of heads for public display; dragging bodies behind vehicles; burning bodies publicly - dead or alive; pushing people out of helicopters and the rape of women in front of their husbands and children. Thousands of Timorese, including children, are reported to have been forced to march as human chains or barriers in the hunt for FALINTIL. 

Two territorial battalions of Timorese were formed within the Indonesian army (744 and 745 Territorial Infantry Battalions). Neighbourhood watch programs, common throughout Indonesia (Hansip – Tahanan Sipil: Civil Defence), were also formed. It is claimed that in the 1990's Indonesia recruited Timorese youth's to act as their death squads. In 1996 the Gardapaksi youth organisation was formed, which has been claimed to have trained closely with Kopassus (Korps Pasukan Khusus: Indonesian Army Special Forces).


Some maintain that there was a deliberate plan by the Indonesian government and Military to destroy the Timorese Culture. Reportedly people were forced to engage in secret anti-Timorese activities through fear of torture and family reprisal.


Santa Cruz Massacre. On the evening of 27th October 1991, at a church service in the Church of St.Antonio de Motael, 18 year old Sebastio Gomes Rangel  was shot and killed by ABRI soldiers. One other Timorese was also killed during that evening. At a memorial mass in Dili on 12thNovember 1991, as the procession moved to the Santa Cruz cemetery, some in the crowd carried pro-independence flags and banners.  During this march, seven Western journalists, including US citizens Allan Nairn and Amy Goodman, witnessed Indonesian soldiers open fire on hundreds of unarmed demonstrators at the cemetery. A British photographer actually captured the rampage on video. Nairn and Goodman, who had tried to place themselves between the soldiers and the people, were threatened at gunpoint and beaten.  Many of the wounded were reportedly taken away on military vehicles and killed.  Initial eyewitness accounts claimed at least 100 people were killed; subsequent investigation by an East Timorese organization (Peace Is Possible in East Timor) has identified 271 victims by name. It is also estimated that 382 people were wounded and 250 disappeared. An Indonesian enquiry found that 19 people were killed and that the incident was in response to rioting by the mourners.


The Santa Cruz (also called the Dili) massacre was condemned by Europe and America and refocused world attention on East Timor. The award of the Nobel Award for Peace to Carlos Belo and Jose Ramos Horta in 1996 also kept East Timor in the spotlight. 

When Indonesian president Suharto surprisingly stepped down and B.J. Habibie assumed power, a plan to give the Timorese a choice of greater Autonomy within Indonesia was created. The United Nations formed UNAMET (United Nations  Assistance Mission to East Timor) to conduct the referendum.  

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Referendum and After

On 30 August 1999 a UN administered ballot resulted in a 78.5% vote by an estimated 98.6% of the eligible population against greater autonomy within Indonesia. As a result, the Indonesian military and pro-Indonesia militias engulfed East Timor in violence. Hundreds of East Timorese were killed. Estimates state that 75% of the population were again displaced either into the mountains or to West Timor. Those in the mountains faced starvation and those that fled into West Timor (estimated at 200, 000) were forcibly held in squalid refugee camps. Widespread looting and destruction of property occurred throughout the country, including the destruction of in excess of 50% of homes in Dili. It was reported by International newspapers that 145 people were killed in Dili within 48 hours of the ballot declaration. 

Suai Massacre. On September 6th 1999, up to 200 people were killed in the Suai church. Laksaur Militia killed parish priest, Father Hilario, and other sheltering in the church grounds. The investigation into the instigators of this is currently underway.  

FALINTIL. With prescient strategic foresight, under the leadership of Taur Matan Ruak (now commander of the East Timor Defence Force) FALINTIL troops remained in their three cantonments – where they had gathered under a cease-fire agreement with the Indonesian military (broken by Indonesia in an attempt to entice FALINTIL out and thus continue to claim a civil war was occurring). Some human-rights groups are quick to mention that FALINTIL, while seemingly not as vicious as the integrationist militias, is not exactly angelic. Some evidence shows that FALINTIL has been responsible for ambush-style attacks on militiamen and TNI soldiers in which civilians were killed.


INTERFET. On 15 September 1999 the UN Security Council authorised a multi-national peace enforcement mission in East Timor (INTERFET), to restore peace and security and to facilitate humanitarian relief efforts. 7000 troops led by Australia secured East Timor, with the exception of the Oecusse enclave – which was secured in mid-October 1999. International relief efforts were put in place and displaced people were permitted to return to their communities. Indonesian forces were withdrawn from East Timor. On 20 October 1999 the Indonesian Parliament resolved to formally ratify East Timor’s separation from Indonesia allowing the UN Security Council to approve the establishment of a UN Transitional Administration in East Timor (UNTAET). 

UNTAET. UNTAET’s principal role is to facilitate the transition of East Timor to independence. It is responsible for the administration of East Timor including the exercise of all legislative and executive authority, the administration of justice and the organising of elections. In February 2000 INTERFET formally handed over administration to UNTAET. Further information on UNTAET can be found here.


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