East Timor: The Path of Democracy for the World's Newest Nation

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East Timor: The Path of Democracy for the World's Newest Nation

The Conflict

In 1999 East Timor erupted in bloodshed following a vote for independence. East Timor had been ruled by Indonesia, and had voted in support of independence. Anti-independence militias attacked the people of East Timor.


  • During the Cold War, the West supported Indonesia's takeover of East Timor because of its emerging socialist regime.
  • In 1999 the people of East Timor sought, campaigned for and won an election that would grant them independence from Indonesia.


• Indonesia is predominately Muslim. East Timor is predominately Catholic. The rebels who attacked the East Timorese were Muslims who did not want to see East Timor become independent from Indonesia. There has been some suggestions that the Indonesian army participated in or encouraged the killing.

In August 1999, the people of East Timor went to the polls to vote for their independence. After years of military occupation by Indonesia, the whole world watched what was to be a triumph of democracy for the eastern section of a small island four hundred miles north of Australia. The event became an international affair. To insure that the referendum was free and fair, a United Nations (U.N.) observer team registered voters and made sure polling stations were not tampered with. Members of the media from all over the world descended on East Timor to report the good news and more than seventy-five percent of the people of East Timor cast a ballot for independence. Then, in what seemed a bizarre turn of events, East Timor erupted in violence. A group of anti-independence militias attacked the people of East Timor, set fire to their homes, looted cities, and wiped out entire villages. The militias then turned their weapons on the outside media and the U.N. observers, forcing them to flee as well. The world was shocked by the chaos and devastation that followed. Images of cities and villages on fire, families fleeing violence and slaughter, and hundreds of thousands of refugees trapped in West Timor caught the attention of the world.

According to Seth Mydans in the October 31, 1999 edition of the New York Times, in the twenty-five years leading up to the referendum, it is estimated that over two hundred thousand died because of Indonesia's occupation. Yet, for many years, most of this bloodshed went unnoticed. Although painfully familiar to people in Australia and Indonesia, this tragedy never seemed to make it into international headlines. Only bits and pieces of horrendous stories about torture and unlawful imprisonment occasionally trickled out. Then in 1991, East Timor was thrust onto the world's stage. Under the watchful eye of Western reporters, members of the Indonesian Army massacred Timorese civilians in capital city of Dili. However, soon after this event, the problems within East Timor and its relations with Indonesia again lost international attention. The people of East Timor often complained that they were "forgotten by the world." In similar cases, like China's relationship with Tibet and Russia's breakaway republic of Chechnya, the world watched the situation unfold slowly and tragically. This is not the case with East Timor. The international community only began to take notice again in 1999 and even then, the events were described by one reporter covering the story as "news from nowhere."

Although East Timor spent most of the time out of the international spotlight, it felt the presence of the world for years. For centuries, international politics—with its colonial history, world wars, Cold War, and growing emphasis on human rights—influenced life the eastern part of the island. East Timor's economic development and political stability were shaped by events in other countries. Overall, the situation has proven tragic for all parties involved. In addition to the cost of human life, this internal war has destroyed the economy, scarred social relations between Muslims and Catholics, and scattered people throughout the island, creating a serious refugee problem. Nor has this been a success story for Indonesia as approximately twenty thousand military personnel died fighting for control of the province. Now, in a recent turn of events, East Timor's problems are relevant to the rest of the world. Recent evidence of years of Indonesia's military brutality on the people of East Timor now stains Indonesia's international image of peace, prosperity, and development.

Historical Background

The Geography and People of East Timor

East Timor is situated in the eastern portion of an island between Indonesia and Australia over an area that is about 5714 square miles (a little larger than the U.S. state of Connecticut and a little smaller than Kuwait). The terrain of East Timor is dramatic, with high mountain ranges dropping down to large plains that reach to the sea. The Sea of Timor, located between the Island and Australia, holds vast oil reserves. The economy is largely based on agriculture. Before the Portuguese colonized East Timor, most people were farmers with a handful of isolated fishing communities near coastal areas. The majority of East Timorese live in isolation, far from towns and foreign influences. Despite this, the island of East Timor is not secluded. Even before the Europeans arrived, many maritime explorers from China and India visited the island.

Today, diverse ethnicity, language, religion, and history create a patchwork quilt of people living in East Timor. Most observers identify two primary ethnic groups, the Belu (descendants of Malays who are predominantly in the southern portion) and the Atoni (concentrated in the central highlands). There are also several smaller ethnic groups, like the decedents of African slaves brought by the Portuguese. East Timor is home to a kaleidoscope of culture with at least eleven different languages including Tetum, Timorese or Vaiqueno, Portuguese and Indonesian. The terrain, which isolates many of Timor's residents from each other, maintains the diversity of the population. At the same time, the presence of India, China, Indonesia, the Dutch, and Portuguese contributed to the society as foreign influences exposed the people to a rich variety of religions and cultural practices. In 1950 the population of East Timor was approximately 440,000; at present there are more than eight hundred thousand people living in East Timor. Although there is diversity in language and ethnicity, it estimated that over ninety percent of the East Timorese are now Catholic.


The contemporary story of East Timor begins when traders from Portugal landed on the Island of Timor around 1515. The territory became a colony of Portugal in the sixteenth century. At the same time, the Dutch, another colonial power, controlled parts of the island. Then, in the 1600s, as each European power wanted to expand its control over the sandalwood trade, a dispute arouse between the Portuguese and the Dutch. For over two hundred years, the two powers fought for control of the island. Then in 1859 they reached a compromise, the European countries divided the island in half with the Dutch controlling the western portion and the Portuguese directing the eastern section. This relationship was negotiated by the International Court of Justice and eventually became legal and binding in 1914. Since that time, there have been two Timors—East Timor with a Catholic Portuguese tradition and West Timor with a connection to the Protestant Netherlands.

In the early days of colonialism, relations were calm as the native people harvested sandalwood and exchanged it with traders. Aside from the presence of the missionary Roman Catholic church, Portugal treated East Timor with reserve. However, at the turn of the twentieth century the situation in East Timor began to change. In 1920 an uprising in East Timor gave one indication that its people wanted to be free from rule by an outside power. The Portuguese military forces were better equipped and easily squashed the insurrection—silencing dissent for several decades. This early rebellion provides a glimpse of the commitment that the people of East Timor have to their freedom.

World War II and Cold War Politics

East Timor was swept up into international events during the 1940s when the island became a battleground in the Pacific Theatre of World War II. The Western Allies looked at East Timor as a strategic point from which to block the Axis powers (Germany, Japan, and Italy). Australia, aligned with the Allies (the United States, England, France, and the USSR), set up a pre-emptive military post on the island. In response, the Japanese invaded East Timor in February of 1942, successfully took over, and banished the Allies. According to James Dunn, an Australian consul, in his book Timor—A People Betrayed, the three years of Japanese control that followed resulted in the death of more than sixty thousand East Timorese by Allied bombings, famine, and Japan's brutal occupation. After the war, the Japanese left and Portugal returned to administer the eastern portion of the island. For the next two decades, Portugal emphasized economic development. The Catholic church became key to converting the people to Catholicism and educating the East Timorese by teaching both the native Tetum language and Portuguese. Despite the efforts of the colonial power, economic development was slow and by 1974, eighty percent of the population of East Timor still depended on subsistence farming and lived in rural areas, according to Matthew Jardine's book East Timor: Genocide in Paradise.

In 1974 political changes in Portugal brought a new government to power that gave Angola and Mozambique their independence. With these developments, the door opened for discussion about the status of East Timor. The Portuguese appeared to support the idea of granting East Timor its independence. With high expectation of autonomy, several local political parties emerged and began the process of forming a government. One party, the Association of Timorese Social Democrats (ASDT), strongly advocated self-rule and wanted an independent East Timor to adopt a socialist form of government. Later, this same political party became FRETILIN (The Revolutionary Front for an Independent East Timor), an advocate of Marxist theory that actively campaigned for the redistribution of land and wealth. After a small-scale civil war with a competing political party, FRETILIN declared East Timor an independent country on November 28, 1975. Dunn wrote in Timor—A People Betrayed that the new government "clearly enjoyed widespread support or cooperation from the people … leaders of the victorious party were welcomed." Despite the declaration of independence, many countries did not recognize the new government and rejected East Timor as an independent country. The period of self-rule was brief and it would be decades before a government controlled by the citizens of East Timorese government would again gain control.

The Invasion

Indonesia, East Timor's northern neighbor, had its own ideas about the island and wanted to control the entire territory. When the Republic of Indonesia (once a colony itself) became independent from the Dutch, it absorbed West Timor into its country and had an eye on doing the same with East Timor. Again, international politics changed the path of history in East Timor. During this time, the United States and the Soviet Union were still engaged in the Cold War. The pro-socialist party FRETILIN and East Timor's declaration of independence caught the attention of the United States and Australia who were concerned that the new country would be Communist. The Unites States had fought Communist governments in Korea and Vietnam and the support for a pro-socialist party triggered great concern when separatists in East Timor adopted a pro-Marxist platform. American officials were worried that East Timor was part of a Communist wave sweeping over Asia and Indochina. At the time, the leader of the Indonesian government, General Suharto, came to power by defeating a formidable Communist party known as the PKI (Indonesian Communist Party). With General Suharto, the United States found a natural ally to help contain the spread of communism in Southeast Asia. In early December 1975, U.S. president Gerald Ford accompanied by Secretary of State Henry Kissinger traveled to Jakarta, the capital of Indonesia, to meet with General Suharto. Reports indicate that the U.S. delegation assured the Indonesian government of their support in integrating East Timor into Indonesia.

On December 7, 1975, only days after the departure of the American delegation, Indonesia invaded East Timor. Naval ships and warplanes brought Indonesian troops to the newly formed country. One witness, a Catholic bishop, described the events of December 8 in the Tapol Bulletin: "The soldiers who landed started killing everyone they could find. There were many dead bodies on the streets—all we could see were the soldiers killing, killing, killing." The assault was successful as the new government collapsed and hundreds of thousands of people fled to the mountains to escape the killing, rape, and torture. Less than two weeks after East Timor's declaration of independence, President Suharto of Indonesia annexed the territory and proclaimed East Timor Indonesia's twenty-seventh province. While the United States was celebrating two hundred years of independence in July 1976, East Timor lost its hope for autonomy. According to a history on Indonesian government's website, the invasion was intended to "end to the bloodshed and instability that marked the years of civil war and political strife following the precipitous Portuguese abandonment of their colony."

Indonesia began its rule over East Timor by relocating many people from their mountainous homes to live in coastal villages. In an effort to promote economic development, Indonesia built many roads and schools. They government also implemented several integration policies designed to create a less diverse society. For example, Indonesia declared Bahasa Indonesian the national language and outlawed Portuguese. According to Peter Carey in an article written for Current Studies, an Indonesian official proclaimed years later that, "We have done more for East Timor in twenty years than the Portuguese did in four-and-a-half centuries" However, the people of East Timor were willing to fight for their independence and began an internal struggle against the Indonesian presence. In the five years following the invasion, the Timorese formed guerrilla organizations and launched constant attacks against the external security forces. Then, in 1979, a massive famine spread over East Timor and hundreds of thousands of people starved to death. Estimates are that one hundred thousand people were killed during the invasion and approximately forty percent of the population died between 1975 and 1980 from war-related famine. Although many Western countries did not blink an eye as Indonesia captured East Timor, the United Nations was opposed to these actions and called on Indonesia to withdraw from East Timor. The U.N. Security Council passed Resolution 384 (1975) declaring that the organization was "Gravely concerned at the loss of life and conscious of the urgent need to avoid further bloodshed in East Timor…" and, "[c]alls upon the Government of Indonesia to withdraw without delay all its forces from the Territory."

The Resistance: Guerrilla Warfare in East Timor

The occupation presented quite a nuisance to Indonesia and the problems in East Timor were commonly referred to as "a pebble in Indonesia's shoe." Under the leadership of FRETILIN, the pro-socialist political party, FALINTIL (Forcas Armadas de Libertacao Nacional de Timor Leste) emerged to confront the Indonesian military. Hundreds of young men went to the mountains to join the resistance. The Timorese were determined in their quest for their own country and "Pátria ou Morte!" (Fatherland or Death!) became the anthem of the people of East Timor. One rebel, Jose Xanana Gusmao, organized the Revolutionary Council of National Resistance to bring together several groups that were fighting the Indonesians separately. Another urban-based group was organized by students to fight an intifada (rebellion) on the streets of the capital city. The result was a network of guerrilla fighters that offered a powerful force against the military presence. In response, the Indonesia government stationed between twenty-and forty-thousand troops to enforce its rule. The first several years of the resistance movement were marginally successful. The Indonesian military, a well-equipped organization, effectively dominated the guerrillas and isolated many of the fighters in the mountains. During the 1980s, a stalemate was reached as the guerrilla forces controlled portions of the east and southeast with sporadic ambushes against the Indonesian troops.

During this time, the events in East Timor caught the eye of the Vatican in Rome. Traditionally, the Catholic church held a position of power under the Portuguese government. However, the predominantly Muslim Indonesia government no longer welcomed it. The Vatican also took offense at the policies rejecting the use of the Portuguese and Tetum languages and attempts to convert the people of East Timor into Muslim Indonesians. The church in the province—once an extension of the colonial power—had gone native: it now associated with the people rather than the government. During the invasion in 1975, many Catholic priests fled to the mountains with the people and began protesting against the treatment of the people of East Timor. One leading religious figure, Bishop Carlos Filipe Ximenes Belo, wrote in letter to the United Nations Secretary General "We are dying as a people and a nation." In October of 1989, Pope John Paul II traveled to East Timor and in his sermon expressed concern that "those who have responsibility for life in East Timor will act with wisdom and goodwill towards all." However, rather than creating peace, the Pope's visit increased tensions and immediately following a papal mass, anti-Indonesia demonstrations broke out and security forces clashed with student protestors.

The Santa Cruz Massacre

With support of the Vatican, the United Nations, and an increasing international presence in East Timor, the rebel forces within the country began to stir. Looking back, one event in particular revealed that serious problems were brewing in East Timor. In October 1991, a crowd of people gathered at the Santa Cruz Cemetery in Dili, for a funeral of a teenage boy who had died fighting the Indonesian forces. Reports indicate that as mourners placed flowers at the gravesite, several anti-Indonesia protests broke out in the crowd. Eventually, the Indonesia militias opened fire on the crowd. One source reported that 271 were killed, 382 wounded, and 250 "disappeared" after the incident. The Santa Cruz Massacre, perhaps more than any other, focused attention on the conflict in East Timor. Several members of the international media, including two American reporters, Alain Nairn and Ami Goodman, were injured in the violence. In addition, two British journalists, Max Stahl and Steve Cox, filmed the bloodbath and their video played all over the world. The Santa Cruz Massacre brought images of Indonesia forces killing women and children to the world. The event changed the face that East Timor and Indonesia presented to the world. Peter Carey, author of several books on East Timor, writes, "It was impossible, given this visual evidence, for the Indonesian authorities to deny that killings had taken place or that the Indonesian army had not been involved." This event put East Timor on the world's stage. In response to the brutality, several Western governments including Canada and Denmark stopped sending aid to Indonesia and the U.S. Congress placed a temporary ban on the sales of arms and small weapons to the country.

The 1990s were a difficult time for the people of East Timor as the decade began and ended with violence. In 1995, violence broke out between Muslim settlers and the Catholic East Timorese youth. Once again, the world was reminded of East Timor when the Noble Peace Prize was awarded to José Ramos-Horta, Vice President of the National Council of Timorese Resistance and Bishop Belo for their work towards peace in East Timor. In 1997 the Asian financial crises and economic turmoil shook the region and destabilized the government in Indonesia. Thousands of Indonesians protested for political reforms. In May 1998, Indonesia's President Suharto resigned under intense political pressure. With these developments, optimism for change in the twenty-seventh province increased. Again, students in Dili demonstrated against Indonesia and the Indonesian military clashed with the protestors. In the first few weeks of 1999, Indonesia's new President Habibie, faced with problems in his own country, hinted that the solution for East Timor might in fact be independence.

The Referendum

For years, the United Nations tried to negotiate a resolution to the conflict in East Timor urging Indonesia to 'take the shoe off' and release the pebble. Then, with violence spiraling the country into chaos, the new leadership in Indonesian government did a remarkable about face. In June 1998, the United Nations successfully negotiated an agreement from Indonesia that it would allow a "popular consultation" to determine whether the people of East Timor wanted to be independent of Indonesia. In January 1999, President Habibie agreed to allow a vote on independence. Six months later, in June 1999, the United Nations established the United Nations Mission in East Timor (UNAMET) to oversee a referendum on independence. In the days leading up to the referendum, the city of Dili came alive with pro-independence parades and chants of 'Viva Timor Leste!' ('Long live East Timor!'). At the same time, international concern grew when Tito Batista (a top pro-Indonesian leader) threatened to initiate a guerrilla war if the referendum supported the separatists. Out of eight hundred thousand citizens of East Timor, UNAMET registered 450,000 voters. According to the Wall Street Journal, on August 30, 1999, the referendum on independence was held throughout East Timor, ninety-eight percent turned out for the referendum and a powerful and determined 78.5 percent of voters declared their desire to be released from Indonesia's rule.

The results of the referendum were made public on September 4 and the response was instantaneous. Within hours after the official announcement on independence, East Timor was set ablaze by the pro-Indonesian militia forces. The rampage erupted with murder, arson, destruction of property, and forced deportations. Again, the world took notice. Many news organizations including the BBC and CNN broadcasted images of terrorized people with their homes set on fire, being shot at, and once again fleeing to the mountains for protection. Reports of attacks on refugees seeking asylum in churches also shocked the world. Eventually the militias turned their weapons on U.N. personnel and the international media who fled to Australia. Catholic priests and nuns were specifically targeted and Bishop Belo and many of his followers were emergency evacuated by air to Australia. The bloodshed forced six hundred thousand people to flee their homes and 130,000 actually fled into Indonesia-controlled West Timor. Once in West Timor, the carnage did not end, many were crowded into refugee camps where the militias attacked them once again. In addition, hundreds of thousands of people fled to the mountains hoping to secure shelter in areas controlled by the guerrilla organization FALINTIL. Conservative reports indicate that at least seven thousand people died in the first few days after the announcement.

The United Nations, as well as the rest of the world, was taken back by the level and intensity of violence. In a statement to reporters, Secretary General Kofi Annan replied, "If any of us had an inkling that it was going to be this chaotic, I don't think anyone would have gone forward." Although the Indonesia government claimed that its military could quell the violence, many accusations began to surface that the military was actually backing the militias. As reported in the New York Times, in response to these fears, U.S. Secretary of State Madeline Albright, sternly warned, "The government and armed forces of Indonesia should understand that what happens in West Timor and to East Timorese living elsewhere in Indonesia is as important to the United States as what happens in East Timor itself." The United States and other countries also threatened to implement military and economic sanctions. The outside influence convinced the government in Jakarta to allow a multinational peacekeeping force into East Timor to restore order.

In response to international calls to end the violence, the United Nations created a peacekeeping mission to bring peace and order back to East Timor and assist UNAMET in promoting the successful transition to independence. Australia headed up the International Force for East Timor (Interfet) and a delegation of 9,150 military personnel and 1,640 police officers entered East Timor on September 20, 1999, reported the New York Times. As Newsweek stated, the operation was authorized to use "all necessary measures" to "restore peace and security" and provide disaster relief. This mission changed U.N. policy as traditional peace-keepers who are usually only armed with binoculars and walkie-talkies were now authorized to carry weapons.

Although most of the responsibility for East Timor now lay with the international community, events within Indonesia continued to influence the situation. In October 1999, President Habibie was given a vote of no confidence in the Indonesian Assembly and Abdurrahman Wahid, a Muslim cleric, became Indonesia's fourth president. With a change in political administration came another change in the policy towards East Timor. Twenty-five years after the invasion, Indonesia's assembly reversed the 1975 decree annexing East Timor and recognized the 1999 referendum in favor of independence. Indonesia officially relinquished political control of East Timor to the United Nations and in early November, the last of over twenty-five thousand Indonesian military forces (TNI) left East Timor. After the military withdrew, thousands of East Timorese gathered in the streets of Dili to celebrate the end of foreign rule. The United Nations then created the United Nations Transitional Administration in East Timor (UNTAET) to administer the country and set up a government.

Recent History and the Future

In a historic move, on February 29, 2000, President Wahid traveled to East Timor's capital and apologized to the people of East Timor for twenty-five years of bloodshed and past abuses. He expressed Indonesia's commitment to rebuilding peaceful relations and declared, "I would like to apologize for the things that have happened in the past … for the victims, to the families of Santa Cruz, and those friends who are buried here in the military cemetery." The President of Portugal, Jorge Sampaio is now working to establish good relations with Indonesia and assist East Timor in its quest for autonomous peace and stability. An investigation was carried out in early 2000 formally examining the Indonesian military and its role in the violence in East Timor. In addition to his formal apology, President Wahid held several trials to determine whether members of the Indonesian military were responsible for the violence that occurred after the referendum. In shocking testimony, several Indonesian soldiers admitted to killing civilians in East Timor. The United Nations is still investigating the relationship between the Indonesian military, the militias, and the violence after the referendum. One chief military leader, a soft-spoken man named General Wiranto, is accused of organizing the militia violence that erupted in August of 1999. Six other high-ranking Indonesian generals are also under investigation for violation of human rights in East Timor.

East Timor: Finding a Path To Democracy?

Even with its independence, East Timor is still not stable. Almost half of the people that fled East Timor after the referendum remain in refugee camps in West Timor. Despite the international presence, peace and order have been difficult to establish. In October of 1999, there were border clashes between U.N. peacekeepers, Indonesian policemen, and anti-independence militias. The frequent fighting on the West Timor border indicates that, although the Indonesia military forces are gone, the militias are still on the island and are prepared to fight. In addition, the economy of the country is in shambles. Most of the country's infrastructure was destroyed in the fighting, leaving roads and communications systems unusable. The United Nations currently administers the country and is working towards reopening schools, providing health services, establishing economic institutions, and forming government agencies. To secure these goals, UNTAET plans to administer the country until late 2001. Japan and Portugal are financially supporting East Timor's effort to reestablish its economy. However, after domination by Portugal for over three hundred years, followed by three decades of intimidation by Indonesia, the people of East Timor are wary of outside assistance that may mask yet another threat to their independence and self-determination.

Former rebel Jose Xanana Gusmao, after serving twenty years in a jail in Jakarta as a political prisoner, is now president of East Timor. In a recent speech, he told his fellow East Timorese that both the country and people of East Timor were starting from zero. In a recent article in Foreign Affairs, James Traub explains: "East Timor lacks the most basic necessities: not just doctors, dentists, accountants, lawyers, and police, but also tables, chairs, pots, and pans. Even in Dili, the capital, stop signs, traffic signals, and streetlights are nowhere to be found." With high unemployment, many are left with little to do and within Dili and there have been several instances of gang violence. Another issue facing the country is the role that FRETILIN will play in the government. It remains to be seen how a rebel organization, trained in guerrilla warfare, can adapt to the day-to-day governing of a country. East Timor is beginning a long journey toward peace. Recently reports of violence by youth gangs and former independence fighters reveal how a society that was militarized for so long, must now learn how to live in peace.

The problems of East Timor have affected both the political and economic stability of Indonesia. What was once viewed as an insignificant pebble might destabilize the entire country. The scar of East Timor may hurt Indonesia as it recovers from a national banking scandal and economic turmoil. In light of the evidence of brutality, many international financial organizations and countries have threatened to end trade relations and economic support. Indonesia must now also mend its relations with the rest of the world as an international backlash may cripple its recovering economy. Many fear that the military, still an important component in the Indonesian government, will retaliate against the new Wahid government. In addition, Indonesia may also find other provinces like Aceh and West Papua following East Timor's lead and attempting to break free from external rule. Indonesia is also undergoing its own transition to democracy and observers still fear that the world's fourth most populous country may revert to an authoritarian government controlled by the military.

In the new international era that promotes human rights, the international community wanted to believe that the Indonesian government was promoting economic and political development in East Timor. The United States as well as other countries accepted Indonesia's claims that the military was not involved in the violence after the referendum. One U.S. diplomat explained that "The U.S. had a deep and desperate desire to believe that the military would solve the problem," then, "that became a deep refusal to see that the military was the problem." However, a few months later, investigations by the United Nations revealed horrific evidence that has devastated the belief in the Indonesian government. In many ways, the situation in East Timor resembles other ethnic-based violence and efforts to escape the remnants of colonial rule. In Chechnya, we find a similar situation as the Muslim Chechens are fighting for independence from Russia. Kosovo presents another example where ethnic and religious conflicts lead to chaos and international involvement. At the same time, both East Timor and Kosovo reveal that the international community is responding to violence and brutality in other countries and is willing to commit resources to relieve human suffering and promote democracy.

East Timor serves as a test case for the United Nations and the success or failure of UNTAET will influence future peacekeeping and nation-building missions. This is the first time the organization has undertaken the task of building a country and an economic system from scratch. East Timor has no history of self-rule, democratic institutions, or popular participation in governing. Although, the United Nations has committed one billion dollars and almost nine thousand troops to East Timor, they continue to face groups of internal terrorists and militias roaming the country killing civilians. Although, international involvement increases the chance for stability it is still difficult to tell who are the "goods" guys and who are the "bad" guys and, the warring factions remain difficult to locate. East Timor continues to present challenge for the United Nations and the international community.


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1515 Portuguese land on East Timor; later, East Timor becomes a Portuguese colony.

1600s The Portuguese and Dutch fight for control of the island.

1859 The Portuguese and the Dutch divide the island in half.

1914 The division of the island is made legal by the International Court of Justice.

1920 An uprising in East Timor is suppressed. More than three hundred thousand are estimated to have died.

1942 Japan invades East Timor. After World War II the Portuguese return.

1975 FRETILIN, a rebel group, declares independence. Indonesia invades and subdues East Timor.

1979 Massive famine hits East Timor.

1980 FALINTIL and other rebel groups fight the Indonesians and control parts of the country.

1991 The Indonesian army massacres Timorese civilians in Dili, in the Santa Cruz Massacre.

1997 The Asian financial crisis causes economic turmoil.

1998 Indonesian president Suharto resigns.

1999 Indonesian president Habibie agrees to hold referendum on independence. East Timorese votes for independence from Indonesia. Violence follows, as militias attack people and loot cities.


1921- Suharto, the former president of Indonesia, ruled through a military regime for three decades. His long reign provided stability, which allowed Indonesia to prosper economically. However, military violence, nepotism, and unequal distribution of wealth contributed to his downfall in 1998.

Suharto was born June 8, 1921, on Java, then a Dutch colony. After graduating from high school, he fought first for the Dutch, then for the Japanese. After World War II, he joined the struggle for Indonesian independence. Indonesian independence was granted in 1950. By 1963 Suharto was a Major General. As head of strategic command, he is suspected of directing the massacre of hundreds of thousands of suspected leftists. On March 12, 1966, Suharto seized control of the government, and in March 1967 was sworn in as president.

He relied heavily on American-educated economists, and by the time Indonesia forcibly annexed East Timor in 1976, the economy was expanding steadily. By restricting civil rights and dissent, Suharto ran unopposed in six elections. His family and close friends controlled the economy and amassed personal fortunes. By the time economic crises swept Asia in the late 1990s, most Indonesians, including the military, no longer supported him. Amid civil unrest, he resigned May 21,1998.

Suharto, like many Javanese, uses only one name.

Xanana Gusmao

1946- Xanana Gusmao is a poet, revolutionary, and the de-facto leader of the East Timorese. He is considered the national hero and few doubt he would be elected president of the new country if he runs in the 2001 elections.

Gusmao was born in 1946, outside the East Timor capital of Dili. As a teenager, Gusmao ran away from the Catholic seminary he had been attending. He taught Portuguese and worked as a civil servant in Dili, where he faced racial discrimination by the Portuguese colonialists. In 1974 Gusmao became a journalist, and reported on the transitions of that year: the Portuguese left after five hundred years of occupation and Indonesian troops quickly invaded and began a campaign of terror. By 1981 Gusmao was the head of the resistance to Indonesia rule, and the most wanted man in Indonesia.

Gusmao eluded capture until 1992. While imprisoned, his letters, reports, and poetry drew international attention to the plight of East Timor. In 1998, after the East Timorese voted for independence in a referendum, militias ravaged East Timor for weeks. When Gusmao was released in October 1999, Dili was in ruins. However, Gusmao has begun to organize the East Timorese to begin rebuilding their country.

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East Timor: The Path of Democracy for the World's Newest Nation

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