A History of East Timor’s Independence, 20 Years On

Last August marked 20 years since the momentous referendum vote which resulted in East Timor’s independence from Indonesia. But how did we get here, two decades later?

To begin with,  Portugal used to trade with Timor hundreds of years ago and during the middle of the 16th century, they colonised the nation. The Fretilin (Revolutionary Front for Independent East Timor) – a major left-wing party in East Timor –  soon gained territory of the nation during a brief civil war and in 1975 declared East Timor Independent.

Only nine days later, an aggressive Indonesia invaded the colony, leading to the loss of hundreds of thousands of lives as a result of the direct conflict.  The Fretilin Party fought with great resistance against the Indonesians as many opposed the takeover of control. East Timor suffered 24 years of disease, famine and terrible conflict at the hands of the Indonesian military and colonial rule.  The East Timorese were against Indonesian rule as Portugal’s colonial impact meant that most of the population were Catholics who spoke Tetun – their own language – and were therefore culturally dissimilar to the rest of Indonesia. A quarter of a million lives were lost as civilians fought Indonesia’s occupation and annexation.

After mass bloodshed, there was mounting pressure from international countries for the violence to end. At the beginning of the resistance, many took a blind eye to appease Indonesia and did not interfere. However, The Economist Reports that declassified documents from America reveal Australia and America’s western governments were, in fact, aware of Indonesia’s cruel aims and failed to act until the matters worsened.

Soon, a referendum was authorised. The UN-backed referendum saw the Southeast Asian nation granted independence but at a bloody cost. On the 30th August 1999, a whopping 78.5% of people voted in favour of independence from Indonesia. East Timor came back to its pre-annexation status of autonomy, but became a territory under UN supervision with no government.

However, following the referendum result, there was great bloodshed for three weeks. Anti Independence Timorese militia who were supported by the Indonesian military began to attack. The country’s infrastructure was destroyed and hundreds and thousands of civilians were forced out of their homes, whilst some fled to escape and became refugees. the fight for independence was a resilient one fought by the natives of East Timor. Following this horrendous timeline of events, the nation became devasted and exhausted at heart.

An Australian-led UN peacekeeping force was deployed to stop the violence, and in August 2001 East Timor held its first democratic elections to establish an autonomous government.

A year later in 2002, full sovereignty was established and, the former opposition leader of CNRT was elected President at the time. The country then unveiled a new national flag, with the yellow symbolising the people’s fight for independence, the red expressing the people’s suffering which was endured for such a long time, the black signifying colonial repression of the country whilst the star symbolised hope for the future. This flag gave the people something to believe in and allowed them to become part of a strong community who fought for their country.

Last month on the 30th, people came together in the country’s capital Dilli to celebrate the landmark ruling that led to the independence of East Timor. Celebrations are expected to last until the end of September for the people who paid a big price for freedom.