The Portuguese discovered Timor in 1512 and soon settled, while traders from the Netherlands first arrived in 1613. After many years of rivalry the two nations made a series of agreements which established the boundaries of Timor, the latest in 1914. The western part became Dutch Timor, while the eastern part remained Portuguese Timor.

Oe-cussi traditional architecture. © Narve Rio.
Oe-cussi traditional architecture. © Narve Rio.

The Portuguese authority was constantly challenged by local rulers, supported by traders and missionaries, who wanted the Europeans to leave.

Between 1893 and 1912 there were several bloody clashes. After WW1 East Timor was neglected by the Portuguese and became an economically poor colony, only of interest to the rulers because of the high quality coffee that was exported from here. Australia sent a small military force in 1941 in an attempt to reduce the Japanese influence on the island, something they were able to do with the support of locals. The Japanese took revenge by burning down villages and killing thousands of people. Other East Timorese rebelled against the Portuguese and this also led to several massacres, as many as 60.000 people may have been killed on Timor during the second world war.

Coffee farmers above Nunturi, Liquica
Coffee farmers above Nunturi, Liquica. © Narve Rio.

The Portuguese decided in 1974 to get rid of their colony as quickly as possible. This made way for three political organizations; the left wing Fretilin who wanted to liberate East Timor right away, UDT (Uniao Democratica Timorense) who wanted a transition to independence under surveillance of Portugal, and Apodeti which was a small minority who wanted integration with Indonesia. In 1975 Indonesia declared that they could not accept a government that consisted of any members of Fretilin, and the alliance between UDT and Fretilin broke apart. UDT feared that Fretilin should state a coup and therefore took control themselves in a coup 11th of August 1975. The civil war that followed forced the remaining Portuguese to leave, and brought Indonesian troops to the border. Fretilin soon gained control over most of the land, and on the 28th of November 1975 they declared East Timor’s independence, while both UDT and Apodeti declared integration with Indonesia. Portugal did not accept any of the statements, but was now completely put on the sideline of this conflict.

The Indonesian invasion started 7th of December 1975, silently accepted by both USA and Australia, who probably had knowledge of the plans beforehand. The invasion was “by chance” started the day after the American president made a visit to Jakarta. The badly equipped Fretilin soldiers did not have enough resources to stop the invasion forces, and they soon lost control over Dili and other important cities, many escaped to the mountains where they started to fight a guerilla war. East Timor was integrated into Indonesia as the 27th province in July 1976, this has never been ratified by the UN, and Australia is one of the very few nations that accepted the Indonesian claim. As a consequence of the invasion as many as 200.000 people may have died, some of the war, others of the diseases and famine that followed, and also many have been killed during the guerilla war that were going on for many years.

Passabe, Oe-cussi, woman with traditional medicinal plants
Passabe, Oe-cussi, woman with traditional medicinal plants. © Narve Rio.

The integration was done under strict rule, but at the same time large resources were used on the new province in form of several development projects. Compared to the Portuguese neglect the Indonesian government spent large amounts of money to build a health system, schools and communication. The province even got it’s own university. The guerilla war slowly faded, but never ended completely. The Indonesians started to feel safe and opened for tourism in 1989, but 12th of November 1991 more than 1.000 Timorese gathered in Dili to remember a newly dead independence leader. It developed into a protest and Indonesian soldiers opened fire into the crowd, the number of dead is still uncertain. This started a new wave of riots in the 1990’s, but not even the Nobel Peace Price that was awarded to bishop Belo and Jose Ramos-Horta made the Indonesian government change their attitude regarding the East Timor problem.

The dramatic fall of president Suharto in 1998 finally led to some welcome changes for the troubled province, the new president Habibie promised a reduction of troops on the island and to grant East Timor some autonomy. Indonesia and Portugal agreed in July 1999 that an election should be held regarding independence for East Timor. After several delays this was held the 30th of August the same year, and a convincing majority of 78.5% East Timorese voted for independence. An incredible 98.6% of all registered voters came to cast their vote, many came from far away and risked their lives by appearing from their hideouts in the mountains.

Atauro island just north of Dili
Atauro island just north of Dili. © Narve Rio.

The result led to total anarchy on East Timor, where civil Indonesia-friendly militias, probably supported by groups inside the army, killed thousands and burnt down villages, even churches where people had taken refuge. Indonesia dragged their feet, but eventually accepted an intervening UN force, who arrived in September 1999, led by Australia. The inevitable process against full independence could again continue, and on the 20th of May 2002 East Timor’s new president Xanana Gusmao was inaugurated, shortly after the handover of power by United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan. The future is not entirely bright, the worlds newest country has to normalize the relations to it’s closest neighbor, and the healing of old wounds has to go on. This is also considered to be the poorest country in Asia, and will need generous support in the coming years.

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Bjørn Grøtting

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Photographer based in Norway. See a collection of my best photos in the portfolio. Licensing of images is done through Photoshelter or alamy.
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