Indonesia resources links maps acronyms instant books  

Go back to Instant Indonesia
The island of Timor is divided in two, with the western part belonging to Indonesia, while the eastern part - East Timor - has been under war-like conditions ever since 1975. It is my intention to describe, in a few words, the history of the small isolated island, and to present a few thoughts on the reason to the brutal conflict that has been going on since 1975 and up until the fall of Suharto.

From early on, East Timor was part of the great Chinese trade network, producing mainly sandalwood. But the island was never very important, more like a stopover to bigger hunting grounds. The strong Portugese fleet arrived to the island in the fourtennth century and had a fortress in Kupang from were they controlled their trade.
   The Dutch, in the form of VOC (Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie) invaded and, after years of fighting, forced the Portugese to move to the more insignificant eastern part of Timor in 1749.
   The production and export of sandalwood was slowly coming to and end, and the Portugese colony was more or less left alone. During this time, the little backwater colony developed its own way of life, its own culture, and a strong catholic belief. This was off course in opposite to the muslim neighbour Indonesia, of which the East Timorese people had little in common.
   All was quiet until april 25 1974, when the Armed Forces Movement Coup in Lisbon overthrows the Caetano regime. As the Governor of East Timor issued a proclamation for the establishment of political parties, three main forces are created in May that year: Uniao Democratica Timorense (Timorese Democratic Union, UDT), Associacao Social Democratica Timor (Timorese Social Democratic Association, ASDT), and, Associacao Popular Democratica Timorense (Timorese Popular Democratic Association, Apodeti).
   UDT strived for a gradual independence, ASDT, who in September 1974 chanced its name to Frente Revolucionara do Timor Leste Independente (Revolutionary Front of Independent East Timor, Fretilin) wanted immediate independence, and Apodeti, the smallest of the three, favoured incorporation with Indonesia.
   Fighting among them finally gave Fretilin the upper hand, and the possibility of a leftist state in East Timor was imminent. So, on December 7 1975, Indonesian forces invades East Timor. The rest is a story of war, torture, suppression, famine and political stupidity of which you can find other sources to read.

The Timorese side
There is always a reason to fight back when an oppressor is trying to rule your life, so also for the people of East Timor. But speaking strictly political, the big thing here is the fact that East Timor was on its way to a democratic solution after almost 400 years of colonial regime. The new socialist government in Portugal, under Mario Soares, wanted to abolish colonialism, and liberate the people in East Timor, Macau and Angola.
   They gave the people in East Timor a promise of an election that was to take place in 1976, and in it the people could decide for themself whether they wanted to be a part of Indonesia or be a independent nation. Therefore, politically (and morally), the Indonesian invasion was in breech with the (Western) democratic rules. But it is an empirical fact that Indonesia never has embraced the democratic ideals as the West has. (No values intended here, just a personal impression of the situation as I see it.)
   Other reasons for the struggle, on a Timorese point of view, is the fact that East Timor has evolved in a totally different historical and cultural context, than has their giant neighbour Indonesia. Religion, culture, politics, etc has more often emmanated from the colonial master Portugal rather than the geographically closer Indonesia.

The Indonesian side
The Indonesian state has ever since 1965 been scared of a communist take-over, or at least an infiltration of communist thoughts among the people and power structures like the army and police. Being a left oriented organisation, Fretilin stood as a threat to the conservative stability Suharto had achieved since his take-over in 1965. Being a military man, he reacted the only way they seem to be able to react - with brute force. Both the West and the Eastern block (remember, there was still a Cold War going on at the time) looked the other way, while Suharto's troops subdued the eastern part of Timor.
   Internationally, this was a problem. On the one hand, the western powers saw the invasion as a mean to uphold stability in the region, which was far more important than the ca.150.000 people that died because of the war, starvation, etc.
   On the other hand, the fact that many people died, aroused the public opinion in the west and forced the governments to react in some way. This dual force made way for some strange situations. For example, here in Sweden, the Social Democratic Party approved exportation of arms to the Indonesian army, while the social democratic union - LO - financially supported a Fretilin radiostation in Darwin, Australia.

Today, in the summer of 1999, there is hope of a longed for solution to the conflict on East Timor. When Suharto stepped down, it opened a possibility for a change in Indonesia which includes a more democratic political life, a less nepotistic economy and a not-so controlled media, as the New Order seemingly is on the verge of oblivion. But of course, knowing Indonesian history, there is a great risk of a counter reaction from the powers that had so much political power, economical wealth and social prestige only yesterday.

Population Geography Politics Economy Religion East Timor