The old colony that became a liberal cause

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The Independent Online
TIMOR'S HISTORY of oppression and neglect begins in the early 16th century when Portuguese navigators first settled on the island and began to exploit its only natural resources, sandalwood and coffee.

After two centuries of intermittent conflict, the Portuguese established themselves on the eastern side of the island; the western part, along with the rest of what is now Indonesia, was controlled by the Dutch, and East Timor has always had a distinct culture - Portuguese speaking and strongly Roman Catholic.

There were several uprisings during the early 20th century but the colonists generally adopted a policy of benevolent neglect. The territory saw bitter fighting between Japanese and Australian troops during the Second World War in which Timorese fought bravely beside the allies. After the Australians were evacuated, many of their native comrades suffered brutal retribution at the hands of the Imperial Army.

After a coup in Lisbon in 1975, the Portuguese government rapidly decolonised. In East Timor, several political parties sprang up, but the Indonesian military fomented a brief civil war which was won by the most popular party, Fretilin. In December 1975, with the passive approval of Britain, Australia and the US, the Indonesians launched a brutal invasion.

Fretilin continued to fight, and as many as 200,000 Timorese were killed or died of hunger and disease. The Indonesians eventually gained the upper hand, assisted by armsimported from the West. The guerrillas survive in the hills to this day.

A 1991 massacre of demonstrators in the capital, Dili, which was secretly filmed by a British cameraman, re-awoke international concern about East Timor. In 1997, the territory's Bishop, Carlos Belo, and its exiled Foreign Minister, Jose Ramos Horta, were jointly awarded the Nobel peace prize.

After the fall of President Suharto last year, hopes for independence rose and, in January this year, his successor, B J Habibie, surprised the world by announcing that East Timor could have independence.

Portugal and Indonesia agreed the terms of a referendum in the UN, but trouble quickly unfolded on the ground as pro-Jakarta militias, openly backed by the army, began intimidation of independence supporters. The referendum was twice postponed by the UN. Finally, next Monday, 30 August, was settled upon.