East Timor - Political background



East Timor was a Portuguese colony for over 400 years, until decolonization in 1975. Factional conflict took place in 1975 between the Timorese Democratic Union and a leftist group called the Revolutionary Front for an Independent East Timor, known by its Portuguese acronym, Fretilin. Indonesia invaded and took over East Timor in 1976 with the tacit approval of the United States.

Indonesia's dominion over East Timor was officially recognized only by Australia, but it was accepted by the United Nations (UN) and the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN). During the years of Indonesian occupation, an estimated 200,000 East Timorese were killed or died from war-related starvation and disease. East Timor became one of the most impoverished places in the world. A neocolonial administration was set up and run by Indonesians. An occupying army was brought in to suppress proindependence guerrilla actions, particularly by Falintil (National Liberation Forces of East Timor), Fretilin's armed wing. Falintil was led by Xanana Gusmao for 10 years, up to his arrest and imprisonment in Indonesia in 1992. In 1991, Indonesian troops fired on a pro-independence demonstration in Dili, killing over 200 people. East Timor gained international attention when the 1996 Nobel Peace Prize was shared by East Timor's Bishop Calos Ximenes Belo and exiled human rights activist Jose Ramos-Horta.

Following the fall of the Suharto regime in Indonesia in 1998, a UN-sponsored referendum on East Timor's independence was held on 30 August 1999. Despite intimidation by pro-Indonesia militias trained and funded by the Indonesian military, voter turnout was 98% and nearly 80% cast their ballots in favor of complete independence. Following the vote, pro-Indonesia militias went on a rampage throughout the country, killing an estimated 1,000 persons, looting systematically, and completely destroying 70% of homes and infrastructure. Tens of thousands of East Timorese were forcibly deported across the border into still-Indonesian West Timor, and tens of thousands fled as refugees. On 15 September 1999, the UN Security Council authorized a UN peacekeeping force; an Australian force arrived on 20 September and a multinational peacekeeping force arrived in February 2000.

The UN Transitional Administration in East Timor (UNTAET) was set up to facilitate the shift to complete independence by 2002, working with a National Consultative Council of East Timorese political leaders. Under UN mandate, a civil service, the East Timor Transitional Authority (ETTA), was set up. UNTAET established a legal system, as well as addressed economic necessities such as basic infrastructure repair and relief aid distribution.

Independence arrived officially on 20 May 2002; with it, the number of UN peacekeeping troops declined from 8,000 to 5,000.

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