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History of Timor-Leste

It seems people have been living on the island of Timor for tens of thousands of years and these earliest people seemed to have an incredibly advanced fishing system as they were capable of catching deep water fish earlier than anyone else in the world. Later additional migrations of people arrived to the island, the next coming in about 3000 BC with the Melanesians and later a third wave of people that were the ancestors of the Malays.

During the time of these early people and later the island was somewhat isolated as travel to and from was generally limited to trade with neighboring islands. This was just a single link in a larger trade network that could slowly ship goods from island to island making its way to or from Timor, however the Timorese didn't truly have contact with anyone outside their nearby islands for millennia.

In the 1500s the Europeans attempted to control the Indian Ocean and Far Eastern trade routes so arrived to Timor. Upon these first European arrivals, the Portuguese, the Wehali chiefs were the most powerful, although the island had numerous groups.

In 1556 Portuguese missionaries arrived to Timor and over the centuries numerous locals converted to Catholicism. Despite these missionaries, the Portuguese never made a strong attempt to colonize the island as it wasn't in a position to greatly assist their goals; due to this the Portuguese presence was small and focused on missionaries.

In 1702 the island became an official Portuguese colony and the Portuguese government sent representatives to the island. However this move was met with resistance by both the local people as well as many of the missionaries. Essentially, Timor was Portugal's version of Britain's Australia: it was a place of exile for criminals.

Despite being made an official colony, Timor did little to accomplish Portugal's goals and remained forgotten until the late 1800s when the sandalwood and coffee industries began to grow significantly. It was also during this time that the Dutch began to seek into the territory as they held most of modern day Indonesia as the "Dutch East Indies." This led to a formal separation of Timor Island in 1859 to the Portuguese and Dutch halves, which forms today's border of Timor-Leste (East Timor).

During World War II the Japanese took numerous islands in the island chains that are now Indonesia and with a fear that they would take Timor, the Australians and Dutch took the island in 1941. The Japanese took it the following year, leading to a massive guerilla war on the island for the next year until the Australians and Dutch again took the island in 1943. These battles led to the loss of tens of thousands of lives.

After the war Timor again fell into the hands of Portugal, who continued to see little benefit from the island. This eventually led to chaos and differences in opinion on the island's fate in the mid-1970s. This began with the first elections in the region, which showed great division among the people regarding independence, remaining a colony of Portugal, or joining Indonesia. This led to a declaration of independence by the Timorese in 1975; however this came without Portuguese support. This led to an invasion from Indonesia the same year.

The Indonesians ruled directly and strongly, something the people rejected and had rejected earlier under Portuguese control. This strong rule led to the death of nearly 100,000 people in the early years as the military took over town after town, killing protesters and burning many towns to the ground. However, the Indonesians also gave the region a number of great improvements, including improved education, healthcare, and infrastructure.

The occupation of Timor-Leste ended in 1976 as Indonesia made the island a part of their country, an act that was never recognized by numerous international groups or the United Nations. This rule continued through the 1980s when the Indonesians felt they had stabilized the region enough to open it to tourism. However the violence had not ended and in 1991 the Indonesian government opened fire on a group of protesters, leading to more international support and another push for independence.

In the 1990s the mostly Catholic population, under the guidance of numerous priests and nuns, including Bishop Carlos Filipe Ximenes Belo and Jose Ramos-Horta, led a peaceful movement for independence. In 1998 Indonesia had a change in leadership and hope was renewed by independence activists. In that year a referendum was held and the people overwhelmingly choice independence. However the Indonesians reacted with violence and the destruction of much of the region. This only led to greater international support, especially among Australia and numerous Catholic countries that viewed this as religious persecution. This led to United Nations peacekeeping forces landing in 1999.

In 2002 Timor-Leste gained independence. In 2006 violence erupted in the country when a protest in support of deserting soldiers was fought. This violence has mostly ended, but there are still a large number of arguments between the people and the government. Additionally, the government has not made many close international allies as they argue with Australia over maritime boundaries and relations with Indonesia are still cool.

This page was last updated: July, 2012