A Brief History of Timor Leste
When people asked me where I have been in South East Asia, I often get blank stares whenever I mentioned my travel experience in East Timor or as it is known in the country, Timor Leste. This is understandable as the country itself is pretty much unknown to most people due to how relatively new it is, only gaining independence in 2002 from Indonesia.
Timor Leste is lodged in between Indonesian West Timor and Papua which in turn put the country inside the South East Asia bloc. The country itself only see a little over 60,000 tourists per year, which in comparison to its neighbors Indonesia, gaining over 1.32 million arrivals annually, Timor-Leste is barely in anyone's list of country people plan to visit when they are in South East Asia.
Due to that fact and my curiosity of how the country came to be, I decided to embark on a journey to find out the story behind Timor Leste, how it came to be, why it is so poor and how its future is looking. Here is a brief story of Timor Leste.
The Ancient Kingdoms of Timor
Even though, Timor-Leste as a country that we know didn't come into existent until the Portuguese colonized it in the 16th century, the island back in the days were populated by around 60 small kingdoms that strived on the trade of sandalwood with foreign merchants from China and India. Due to the abundance of sandalwood, the island attracted the European explorers which led to the Portuguese colonizing the island.
The Portuguese Era
Pousadas are a common Portuguese style buildings scattered around Timor-Leste. They were built by the Portuguese for the Portuguese and are often on top of a hill overlooking the city and isolated from the poor, a typical colonial thing to do. Thankfully, the Portuguese left and the houses are being turned into guest houses for tourists.
During the colonial era in the 17th century, the island saw 2 European powers, the Portuguese and the Dutch, competing for control over the island without any yielding result until they decided to split the island into 2 with the Portuguese controlling the eastern part of Timor island, and the Dutch controlling western half and the rest of Indonesia.
Under the Portuguese rule, Timor-Leste was neglected and exploited. It had seen no investment or development of any kind from the Portuguese except where it mattered to them, the Sandalwood and coffee exports. It got even worst in the early 19th century when Portugal's economy took a dive and the colonies were taxed heavily to support the faltering economy. And then, World War 2 came around.
Timor-Leste During World War 2
The Timorese and the Allied forces ran into the mountains and form a resistance force to try to stop the Japanese forces to no avail.
Like most South East Asian countries during that time, the Japanese took control away from the European powers as Timor-Leste was integrated into the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere under the Japanese Empire rule. The East Timorese did not go without a fight though as they ran into the mountains, allying themselves with the Portuguese and the allies for the first time and launched guerrilla warfare against the Japanese.
It was unsuccessful however and the Japanese eventually drove the allies off the island. After the war, the Japanese surrendered its occupied territories and the Portuguese sieged the opportunity to reinstate its control over Timor-Leste again.
Timor-Lest Short Lived First Indepedence
The Portuguese was met with major resistance from the East Timorese people which led to a military coup in 1975, the Portuguese eventually abandoning its colonies and began the establishment of political parties by the people in Timor Leste for the first time.
During the political turmoil that came after, The FRETILIN, which is a pro-independent political party, resisted a coup attempt by the pro-Portuguese party (UDT) and made a unilateral declaration of independence making the country fully independent for the first time.
The joy of independent Timor-Leste was short lived though as the Red Scare swept over the western world.
The Indonesian Invasion
The fear of communism swept over the western world as the US admitted defeat during the Vietnam War and evacuated its last troops from Saigon, giving ways to communism in South East Asia. The western world was in panic mode and while Timor-Leste was celebrating its independent, Indonesia had a different plan for the country.
Indonesia after seeing the coup, saw the opportunity to annex Timor Leste into Indonesia as a 27th province. Using the fear of communism to its advantage, Indonesia influenced the western world, gained its support, receiving military equipment from the US and decided to move its troops towards the border and began planning for an invasion under the pretext of anti-colonialism. Timor-Leste saw it coming and issued multiple messages to the US for support, all of which were ignored.
1975 was the year Timor Leste both gained and lost independence to the Portuguese and Indonesian respectively.
Right before the invasion, the Indonesian president Suharto convinced the US president Ford to understand the purpose of the Operation Komodo and to not take action, in which Ford replied "We will understand and not press you on the issue. We understand the problem and the intentions you have.". The next day, in the peaceful morning of the 7th December 1975, the invasion began, the largest military operation ever carried out by the Indonesian to date.
The Indonesian troops began their invasion from the west, taking control over the radio tower, severing communication to the outside world and by noon, the Indonesian troops overthrown the FRETILIN government and were able to take control of Dili, the capital city of Timor-Leste. They then took control of Baucau, the second biggest city the next day.
The UN condemned the move but did absolutely nothing to help the East Timorese people, while the Australians believed that Timor-Leste can not govern themselves and was better off being part of Indonesia. Everyone turned blind eyes towards the annexation and Timor-Leste became part of Indonesia for the next 26 years.
The Indonesian Occupation
Indonesia ruled Timor-Leste with violence and brutality. According to Indonesia official statistic, Timor Leste had 653,211 people in 1974 and the number dropped dramatically to 498,433 people in 1975. Timor-Leste had lost over 23% of its population during the first year of Indonesia occupation alone.
The East Timorese people didn't give up so easily though as they ran for the hills and started arming themselves for resistance. To counter the that, the Indonesian troops launched the "Encirclement and Annihilation" campaign that annihilated the resistance camps left and right. Though the resistance efforts were proved unfruitful against the Indonesian army, the ideology thrived and inspired a militant named Xanana Gusmão to begin a process of organizing a resistance network which laid a groundwork for the turning point of Timor Leste.
The Turning Point
The fight for independence with Indonesia went on for many years with Indonesian troops committing countless atrocities while the world turned blind eyes. It was not until 1991 when the world started to realize what was happening in Timor Leste.
During a UN visit in October 1991 which was canceled later on due to Indonesian objection, the Timorese people took the advantage of foreign press presence in the city with a demonstration in Dili. The demonstration turned violent and while the cameras were rolling, the Dili Massacre occurred as the protestors were stabbed and gunned down while being enclosed inside the Santa Cruz cemetery. Over 250 people were killed that day.
After the massacre was caught on tape, the videos were smuggled out to Australia and broadcasted around the world. In horror, the world reacted and united together to come to East Timorese aid, with activists organizing protests everywhere. The US, Australia, and Portugal condemned Indonesia which led to the resignation of Indonesian President Suharto and a winning vote for Xanana Gusmão as the first president of the newly independent Democratic Republic of East Timor in 2002.
The Future is Still Grey But..
Even though the fight for independence for East Timorese people were long and brutal, there are many fights still ahead of them. As I was talking to the East Timorese people, they still expressed grave concern over the country's future.
In 2007, after Xanana Gusmão declined another presidential term, and an election was held, José Ramos-Horta was elected while his opponents formed a coalition and called the election a sham. Violence ensued with an attempt assassination of the elected president and the country were without a leader until now.
As I was traveling around the country, I witnessed people living under extreme poverty, garbages everywhere, and simple infrastructure like roads not being maintained and left for the locals to make the best out of it.
"We haven't had any ruling government in years. In fact, we just had 2 elections in the past year alone!", a very friendly East Timorese woman told me when I asked her what she thinks about her government.
As a tourist, I was curious as to why the government is not investing in tourism since Timor Leste has proven to be one of the best places to go diving, snorkeling and witness wonderful marine life without having to deal with tourists. The mountains of Timor Leste are also begging for adventurers to climb.
I then proceeded to ask her why and she simply said, "It's not their priority right now". "What could possibly be their priority?" I asked curiously and naively and she said "To established stability which may or may not come anytime soon".
Even though, there is still a long way to go, the potentials for Timor-Leste to become a big travel destination are there.
For a person living in a country with an established economy, we may take stability for granted but when it comes to a newly created country like Timor-Leste, unfortunately, stability and prosperity do not come bundled with independence. Timor-Leste still have a long way to go to become self-reliant and become a tourist destination but the potentials are there and when the stability is finally established, one can only hope, prosperity shall follow.
Further Reading for Timor Leste
I hope you found this travel guide useful. If you are looking for more articles about Timor Leste, here is a selection of articles to help you plan your trip:
- Looking for a complete itinerary and travel guide for Timor Leste? 10 Days Itinerary to Timor Leste.
- Dili is the capital city where you will probably begin your journey into one of the least traveled countries in Asia. To help you get acquainted with Timor Leste, check out our one day travel guide on things to do in Dili.
- Atauro Island is the best place to go snorkeling in Timor Leste. There are not many information out there so here’s a quick guide on how to get to Atauro Island from Dili.
- Once you got to Atauro island, be sure to check out our travel guide on things to do on Atauro Island.
- Looking to go off the beaten path in Timor Leste? Baucau is a great place to break your trip toward Jaco Island. Here’s a quick guide on things to do in Baucau.
- Done with the beaches in Timor Leste? Why not explore the untouched mountain region of Timor Leste? Here’s a complete travel guide on things to do, where to stay and how to get to Maubisse.
- Timor Leste is not the easiest country to travel in. I struggled to stay calm as I made my way to Baucau on a public bus in mid-summer. Here’s my story on real adventure and whether if it was worth it.
- For all articles about Timor Leste, visit Timor Leste Travel Guide page.
- Looking for more travel guides for the Southeast Asia? You can find more on my Southeast Asia Travel Guide page.
- For more of my travel guides, visit my Destinations page.
Have you ever wanted to visit Timor-Leste? If so, let me know why or why not in the comments below.
The Solo Traveler’s Journal is a series of posts by Pete Rojwongsuriya, the founder of BucketListly Blog where we will follow his solo journey around the world as he experiences different cultures, people, and historical locations one country at a time.
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