East Timorese

Alternative names: various Tribal and clan names
Location: Eastern half of Timor Island, between Indonesia and Australia
Population: 522,500 (1979)
% of population: c. 90% (est.)
Religion: Catholic, indigenous animist beliefs
Language: Timorese, Tetum, Portuguese

East Timor is the eastern half of the island of Timor, part of the Lesser Sundras archipelago to the east of Java. The Timorese-speaking Atoni are believed to have been the original inhabitants of the island and today occupy most of the western half of Timor. There have been successive waves of migration including the other main group, the Tetum-speaking Belu who live in the south and east. The population of East Timor in 1970 was 610,541; nearly all indigenous except for a few Chinese traders and expatriate Portuguese and soldiers. Today the Portuguese have gone, to be replaced by Indonesian administrators and troops (who according to a recent estimate numbered at least 15,000).

Colonial rule

Portuguese traders landed in Timor in about 1520 and by the end of the century the territory was Portuguese and a thriving sandalwood industry was under way. Jesuit missionaries followed and as a result many Timorese today are Catholics. In 1859, after two centuries of attempting to gain control of Timor and the surrounding islands, the Dutch finally gained control of the western half of Timor which was incorporated into the Dutch East Indies. The present boundaries between the two areas were settled in the Luso-Hollandesa treaty of 1904. During World War II, Timor was occupied by Japanese troops and over 40,000 Timorese died in the conflict. The Dutch continued their rule in West Timor until Indonesian independence was granted in 1949; the Portuguese continued to occupy East Timor and an enclave in West Timor known as Oecusse Ambeno. As a result, the two halves of the island developed along totally different lines, the languages of administration were different and the economies, although undeveloped and peripheral to the ruling power, were uninte-grated.

Portuguese colonial rule continued through the next two decades, becoming more oppressive under the Salazar dictatorship. Timor was a minor part of the huge Portuguese Empire, mainly in Africa, which was slowly disintegrating as a result of colonial wars. In April 1974 the Armed Forces Movement took control in Portugal and brought to an end the country’s colonial policy which had become an expensive anachronism to one of the poorest European countries. However the Portuguese government had underestimated the strength of feeling within Timor. Political parties had existed before 1974, but in the period following the coup in Portugal three main parties emerged; the Uni,ão Democrática Timorense (UDT) which wanted a certain amount of continued Portuguese control; the Associação Popular Democrática Timorense (APODETI); and Frente Revolucionçria do Timor Leste Independente (FRETILIN), which advocated complete independence. During this time there was in East Timor far more freedom for parties to organize and campaign than in neighbouring West Timor or Indonesia itself. The Portuguese government, led by the Armed Forces Movement, had as its aim to found a transitional government, broadly reflecting the will of the Timorese people pending a referendum on independence or integration with Indonesia, and free from outside coercion. In local elections FRETILIN collected the vast majority of the votes and in January 1975 formed a coalition with the UDT. In mid-1975 it was announced by the Portuguese administration that elections would take place in October 1976 and that complete independence would be granted within two years.

In the meantime Indonesia, who maintained that East Timor should integrate with West Timor and thus Indonesia, launched “Operation Komodo” in order to achieve this aim. At first it tried propaganda, then persuasion and bribery as in April 1975, when the leaders of all Timorese parties were invited to Jakarta, FRETILIN refused to go along with these overtures, but the UDT was more pliable, and in August 1975 attempted a takeover when it seized the main installations in East Timor’s two major urban centres of Dili and Bacau. This triggered a civil war lasting about six weeks in which 2,000 died. The UDT and APODETI leaders were forced into Indonesian Timor while the Portuguese government removed itself to a small offshore island. FRETILIN emerged victorious from the civil war and became the defacto government.

The achievements of the government over the next three months were impressive; agricultural cooperatives were formed, literacy campaigns were established in rural areas, and an emphasis placed on reviving Timorese culture. On November 28, 1975, FRETILIN declared the Democratic Republic of East Timor. However the Portuguese did not recognize the new government and in early December 1975 Indonesia invaded East Timor, thereby preventing any further advancement on the independence issue.

The Indonesian occupation

The invasion was part of “Operation Komodo” and was apparently part of a long-term Indonesian plan to gain control over the eastern part of the island. However the plan had been given concrete form after the events of 1974 and there is evidence that

1 For example, in September 1974, President Suharto of Indonesia and Prime Minister Gough Whitlam of Australia had both agreed that “an independent East Timor would be an unviable state and a potential threat to the area”. In addition Australia was at this time in a constitutional crisis with the Whitlam government dismissed and new elections taking place which resulted in the election of a conservative coalition. Subsequently it apparently covered up the deaths of two Australian TV teams shot by the Indonesian military near the border. On the US side, President Ford and Henry Kissinger had been visiting Indonesia and left Jakarta only a few hours before the invasion started.

both Indonesia’s main military backer, the USA, and the regional power, Australia, knew and approved of Indonesian intensions. Military incursions into East Timor had begun in September, but a full-scale military invasion was launched on December 7. Eyewitnesses of the first hours of the invasion reported widespread indiscriminate killings, including that of a group of Chinese who had come to welcome the Indonesians.

Within days the UN General Assembly and the Security Council had passed resolutions calling on Indonesia “to withdraw without delay its forces from the territory in order to enable the people of the territory freely to exercise their right to self-determination and independence” This and other resolutions since have been ignored by Indonesia, which continues to occupy East Timor and, on May 31, 1976, staged an “Act of Self-Determination” and on July 17, declared East Timor to be the 27th Province of Indonesia.

The loss of life as a result of the Indonesian occupation has been great. It is not possible to calculate numbers accurately, in part because of the remoteness of the region, but much more as a result of the deliberate attempts by the Indonesian government to exclude foreign journalists, medical teams and other independent observers, including the Red Cross. The minimum credible estimate is 100,000 dead — 15% of the pre-invasion population — and some accounts give higher figures of perhaps one third of the population. The deaths were the result of military killings, injuries, famine, exposure and disease. In addition there were many allegations of torture and political murder of Timorese by Indonesians both at the time of the invasion and later. Some observers have described the situation as “genocidal”.

At present the Indonesian army appears to be in control of almost all the island, except for small pockets of FRETILIN fighters in the east of the island. FRETILIN itself continues to exist, whether in the jungles or in exile, but it is unlikely that militarily it could be much more than an irritation to the Indonesian military, which has at least 15,000 troops in East Timor. Instead new opposition groups, some of them linked to the Church, are beginning to emerge. Well attested accounts of imprisonment and torture have continued to come from East Timor. One human rights organization estimated that one Timorese out of 125 had been arrested, tortured or assassinated in 1985 and 1986. In addition, by promoting “integration” with Indonesia, the minority rights of the Timorese were ignored. Timorese are said to be second-class citizens compared to the Indonesian elite that dominates the economy. According to one informant, only one educational institution in the capital (Dili) taught in Portuguese rather than Indonesian. East Timorese must carry travel passes even to go to neighbouring villages. Access to the islands has been restricted to outsiders for many years; however in early 1989 some foreign tourists and others were allowed to enter East Timor, albeit under heavy restrictions.

In international law the UN continues to refuse recognition to the Indonesian occupation and continues to call for an independent referendum on self-determination for the people of East Timor. Portugal has led the movement to refuse recognition but the Resolution has to be reaffirmed annually and each year the numbers voting against or abstaining increases. Some nations have recognized the Indonesian annexation and in September 1988 Indonesia and Australia reached an agreement over the “Timor Gap”, an oil-rich area in the seas south of East Timor.

(See also )