A Timor Primer

Immediately after East Timor voted for independence from Indonesia on Aug. 30, militia groups supported by Indonesian armed forces began attacking pro-independence groups. They then expanded the terror to all East Timorese, killing and destroying indiscriminately. What is the back story to the current events?

The mountainous island of Timor, which is twice the size of New Jersey, lies in the eastern third of the 4,000-mile-long Indonesian archipelago, about 300 miles from northern Australia. (Click here for map of Timor.) The native Timorese (and most Indonesians) are descendents of Malay people who emigrated from China about 4,500 years ago. Isolated from one another by mountains, Timor settlements have developed at least a dozen distinct languages and religions over the ages.

The Portuguese landed on Timor in 1520, declaring it a colony. A century later the Netherlands established a competing claim on the island, and for the next 200 years the two colonial powers produced crops for burgeoning trade in the East Indies. By the 1800s, the Dutch controlled most of present-day Indonesia, while the Portuguese had little besides their claim on Timor. The two empires agreed to divide the island, with the Portuguese ruling the eastern half and the Dutch the western.

During World War II, the Japanese seized most of the Netherlands’ island holdings. When the Japanese retreated in 1945, the colonies declared independence. West Timor became part of the new United States of Indonesia, while East Timor remained a Portuguese colony.

Portugal’s control of East Timor declined over the next three decades, as the population agitated for independence. In 1974, Portugal granted limited self-rule in East Timor. The next year, the elected leaders seceded and established the Democratic Republic of East Timor. Days later, Indonesia took the territory by bloody force and declared it its 27th province. A guerrilla force has battled the Indonesians from the mountains ever since.

Today, East and West Timor remain quite similar. While Indonesia’s population is nearly 90 percent Muslim, the Timorese are predominantly Roman Catholic–a vestige of Portuguese missions. Bahasa Indonesia, the nation’s official tongue, is the language of business in both Timors, but most Timorese continue to speak traditional dialects. And though over half of the Indonesian GDP comes from the service sector, both East and West Timor’s economies remain firmly rooted in agriculture.