Portuguese and Dutch traders made the first western contact with East Timor in the early 16th century. Sandalwood and spice traders, as well as missionaries, maintained sporadic contact with the island until 1642, when the Portuguese moved into Timor in strength. The Portuguese and the Dutch, based at the western end of the island in Kupang, battled for influence until the present-day borders were agreed to by the colonial powers in 1915. Imperial Japan occupied East Timor from 1942-45. The territory of the Dutch East Indies, including West Timor, gained independence as the Republic of Indonesia in 1949.
Following a military coup in Lisbon in April 1974, Portugal began a rapid and disorganized decolonization process in most of its overseas territories, including East Timor. Political tensions--exacerbated by Indonesian involvement--heated up, and on August 11, 1975, the Timorese Democratic Union Party (UDT) launched a coup d'état in Dili. The putsch was followed by a brief but bloody civil war in which the Revolutionary Front for an Independent East Timor (FRETILIN) pushed UDT forces into Indonesian West Timor. Shortly after the FRETILIN victory in late September, Indonesian forces began incursions into East Timor. On October 16, five journalists from Australia, Britain, and New Zealand were murdered in the East Timorese town of Balibo shortly after they had filmed regular Indonesian army troops invading East Timorese territory. On November 28, FRETILIN declared East Timor an independent state, and Indonesia responded by launching a fullscale military invasion on December 7. On December 22, 1975 the UN Security Council called on Indonesia to withdraw its troops from East Timor.
Declaring a provisional government made up of Timorese allies on January 13, 1976, the Indonesian Government said it was acting to forestall civil strife in East Timor and to prevent the consolidation of power by the FRETILIN party. The Indonesians claimed that FRETILIN was communist in nature, while the party's leadership described itself as social democratic. Coming on the heels of the communist victories in Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos, the Indonesian claims were accepted by many in the West. Major powers also had little incentive to confront Indonesia over a territory seen as peripheral to their security interests. Nonetheless, the widespread popular support shown for the guerilla resistance launched by the Timorese made clear that the Indonesian occupation was not welcome. The Timorese were not permitted to determine their own political fate via a free vote, and the Indonesian occupation was never recognized by the United Nations.
The Indonesian occupation was characterized by an attempted "hearts-and-minds" campaign of economic development assistance, coupled with a contrasting program of brutal military repression. Estimates of the number of Timorese who lost their lives to violence and hunger during the Indonesian occupation range from 100,000 to 250,000. On January 27, 1999, Indonesian President B.J. Habibie pronounced his government's desire to hold a referendum in which the people of East Timor would chose between autonomy within Indonesia and independence. Under an agreement among the United Nations, Portugal, and Indonesia, the referendum was held on August 30, 1999. When the results were announced on September 4--78% voted for independence with a 98.6% turnout--Timorese militias organized and supported by the Indonesian military commenced a largescale campaign of retribution. While pro-independence FALINTIL guerillas remained cantoned in UN-supervised camps, the militia killed approximately 1,200 Timorese, burned 75% of the country's homes, and forcibly pushed 300,000 people into West Timor as refugees. On September 20, 1999 Australian-led peacekeeping troops of the International Force for East Timor deployed to the country, bringing the violence to an end.
East Timor became a fully independent republic on May 20, 2002, following approximately 2-1/2 years under the authority of the UN Transitional Administration in East Timor (UNTAET). The country has a parliamentary form of government with its first parliament formed from the 88-member Constituent Assembly chosen in free and fair, UN-supervised elections in August 2001. The 29-member Cabinet is dominated by the FRETILIN Party, which won the majority of Assembly seats. Mari Alkatiri, FRETILIN's Secretary General, is Prime Minister and Head of Government, and Xanana Gusmao--elected in free and fair elections on April 14, 2002--is President and Head of State.
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