What Should I Know About East Timor?

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  • Written By: Brendan McGuigan
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 04 October 2019
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East Timor, also known as Timor-Leste, is a small country on the eastern half of the island of Timor, the other half of which is a part of Indonesia. The country covers only 5,700 square miles (15,000 sq. km), making it just larger than the state of Connecticut. Until recently it was a part of Indonesia as a whole, and was the first new country of the 21st century.

The island was first colonized by a European power in the middle of the 16th century, when the Portuguese settled there. It continued to be held as a trading post by the Portuguese until the mid 19th century, when fights with the Dutch became too much to deal with. A treaty was signed that gave the western half of the island to the Dutch, who eventually lost it to Indonesian independence after World War II.

Portugal retained control of the eastern half of the island after World War II, but spent very little energy or money on supporting East Timor. As a result, East Timor languished somewhat, with low levels of education and infrastructure development. Meanwhile, Indonesia made it clear that they had no interest in East Timor, stating that their only colonial interest in the region was that of Dutch Papua (West Irian).


When the Carnation Revolution occurred in Portugal in 1974, all of the remaining Portuguese colonies began the road to independence. This included the small region of East Timor. A governor was appointed who set about to putting things in place to facilitate open elections. Three major parties sprang up, one being the left-leaning Revolutionary Front of Independent East Timor, which was seen by many as a Marxist group. Indonesia saw the prospect of a left-leaning group in the middle of its territories as very undesirable, and both Australia and the United States seemed to support this view.

In late 1975 East Timor declared independence. Nine days later Indonesia invaded, using almost exclusively United States military equipment. The invasion was brutal, with anywhere from 50,000 to 200,000 people killed, and reports of mass graves and rapes surfacing. The territory was annexed by Indonesia, although it was never officially recognized by the United Nations.

For the next twenty-five years an independence movement continued to rage in East Timor. The Indonesian government responded with force throughout, and estimates of the total deaths during this era range from 100,000 to 200,000 — from 10% to 25% of the total population. By the 1990s, thanks in no small part to dedicated activists promoting the cause of East Timor globally, public support around the world for East Timorese independence had grown immensely. Eventually the UN and a number of nations militarily supported a liberation effort, eventually leading to the independence of East Timor, in the middle of 2002.

The situation in East Timor remains fairly unstable, and it is recommended that anyone planning on visiting check first with the State Department on the latest security updates. If you do visit, it is a good idea to stay away from protests or demonstrations. Tourist infrastructure in East Timor remains minimal, but there are beautiful beaches and rural settings for those willing to rough it a bit. Flying into East Timor is also tricky, but if you time it right you can find a flight from Australia or Bali into the capital of Dili.


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