The Asian island nation of East Timor lies in the southeastern portion of the Indonesian archipelago, 400 miles north of Australia. With a population of about 1.1 million, it covers an area of just 5,700 square miles, consisting of the eastern half of the island of Timor as well as several smaller islands.
Having finally gained its formal independence in 2002, East Timor is one of the newest countries in the world. But it is also one of the most miserable countries in the world.
East Timor ranks near the bottom of the United Nations human development index, with a literacy rate of barely 50%, and an unemployment rate among adult males of 40%. There is minimal civil order, with the government largely ineffectual. The police are seen as corrupt, and in some areas little different from the other armed gangs that wreak havoc amongst the chaos. Some gangs take on the trappings of martial arts warriors; others are of a more religious flavor, including one sect convinced one of its young boy members is the son of Christ. (Christ’s brother is allegedly a member of another armed sect.)
So what has brought East Timor to this pitiful state?
Though the tiny nation itself is one that the overwhelming majority of Americans have likely never heard of, its story is something of a familiar one. East Timor has spent centuries as the victim of European empires, American Cold War realpolitik, and regional Third World dictators. The country has suffered through genocide, massive displacement of its population, and the destruction of much of its infrastructure.
The Portuguese were the first Europeans to arrive on the island of Timor, quickly conquering it in the 1600s and setting up a trading post. They were soon followed by the Dutch. The two imperial powers had a falling out and fought over the island, ultimately splitting it, with Portugal claiming the eastern half.
Portugal held onto East Timor into the 1970s, except for an interlude during World War II when it was taken by the Japanese, a war during which up to 60,000 East Timorese were killed.
In 1974 a revolution in Portugal led to a government with little interest in attempting to hold onto its overseas possessions any longer, most European nations having already gotten out of the empire game.
Portugal withdrew in 1975. Indonesia, a comparatively massive country that had gained its independence from the Dutch decades earlier, and of which the western half of Timor was a part, was not happy about the prospects of an independent East Timor on its border. Their attempts to foment trouble within East Timor led to a brief civil war upon the departure of Portugal, but order was soon restored and East Timor declared itself an independent nation in November.
In December, Indonesia, a repressive military dictatorship, moved into East Timor with thinly veiled support from its ally the United States. This was the end of the eye blink independence of East Timor. Claiming they were fighting “Communism,” since they knew this would give them carte blanche in the eyes of the U.S. to do as they pleased, Indonesian forces proceeded to commit genocide-literally, not as a matter of political hyperbole. Roughly 200,000 East Timorese are believed to have been massacred directly, or have died in the famine that soon gripped their devastated land.
Through the remainder of the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s, Indonesia remained in control. Various guerrilla groups were formed over the years in East Timor, some to fight the Indonesian occupation, some organized by Indonesia and allied with the occupation, some opportunistically switching sides back and forth, and some simply apolitical organized criminal gangs. The violence of terrorism, government repression, and civil war ebbed and flowed over the years, as the cumulative death toll, and general misery of the East Timorese, continued to mount.
One of the worst flare ups occurred in 1999. Under international pressure, Indonesia agreed to a referendum to decide East Timor’s future, strongly advising the East Timorese to vote for a form of limited autonomy within Indonesia. The vote came out “wrong,” with 78% of voters opting instead for independence, so the Indonesian military and its allies in the militias within East Timor instituted a new reign of terror, murdering approximately 1,000 people, targeting especially any East Timorese prominent in the fight for independence. An estimated 25% of the population fled to the other side of Timor or elsewhere to avoid another genocide.
A semblance of order was eventually restored with the help of international peacekeeping forces.
East Timor made its next stab at independence in 2002, and this time it has, so far, held. The Indonesian regime at the time did not have the taste for blood that earlier regimes had, and in fact made at least some moves toward bringing to justice some of the Indonesians who’d perpetrated the 1999 atrocities.
Independence and the reduction of meddling and terror from Indonesia did not magically make East Timor’s troubles go away. Since 2002 it has limped along in a state of semi-anarchy, with its various militias still wielding considerable power and periodically fighting amongst themselves. The weak, corrupt government has had to contend with everything from presidential assassination attempts, to Amnesty International criticisms of its rule.
One can only hope for a better future for the people of East Timor.
Ishaan Tharoor, “Why East Timor Has Declared War on Ninjas.” Time.com.
“Timeline: East Timor.” BBC.