See a separate post on this blog concerning Fretilin and Falantil at http://gentleseas.blogspot.hk/2009/06/east-timor-history-fretilins-rebel.html .
Sparrow Force serves as an example of the subjectivity of history. The effects of Sparrow Force’s activities were more complex than most Australians and East Timorese realise and not all positive. Sparrow Force was sometimes unpopular with many East Timorese - yet after the war and in general Sparrow Force was probably admired by East Timorese. A lasting feeling of partnership, even though based on generalisations, is still valid, but still complex.
History is built on generalisations and feelings. It is built on constant rewriting due to such elements as: new evidence appearing, changing religious outlooks, to sell books and due to bilateral politics. Therefore there is never One History that is set in stone.
Few East Timorese people are alive today who lived during World War Two. Food shortages, disease and fighting were worse then. Furthemore few East Timorese could write at the time of Would War Two and literacy is still low. This means that most of East Timor’s history has been written by others - such as the Portugese, Dutch, English, Australians, Americans and Indonesians.
With internet sources at hand (mainly Wikipedia) as well as An Atlas of Australian Military History written by my father, I’m writing a very brief history of East Timor. I write as I see it, as a geographical novice - I’ve never been to East Timor, but I have had many experiences in the wider region that have shaped my views of history, strategy and politics.
Early (Pre-colonial) History - Waves of Migration.
Standing on the Fatunaba Hills you can look out over Dili across the sea to Atauro Island. You might feel elated - you can see so far.
If you have brought a map that includes Timor and the nearby islands of the Lesser Sundas, Western Dayas and the Letis it will become apparent that the islands could have served as stepping stones through history for people moving towards Timor. Some may have been moving all their lives, to find their own land, to escape enemies or just to find enough food.The island of Timor was populated as part of the human migrations that have shaped Australasia more generally. It is believed that survivors from three waves of migration still live in the country.
- A second migration brought Melanesians. The earlier Vedo-Australoid peoples withdrew at this time to the mountainous interior.
- finally, proto-Malays arrived from south China and north Indochina. Hakka traders are among those descended from this final group.“
Local “Timorese origin” history tells of ancestors that sailed around the eastern end of Timor arriving on land in the south [and of] Timorese ancestors journeying from the Malay Peninsula or the Minangkabau Highlands of Sumatra.”
The Timorese were not seafarers, yet canoes or rafts may have been needed to travel between islands unless drops in the sea level during Ice Ages allowed Timor’s eventual inhabitants to walk there - across land bridges rather they were land focussed peoples who did not make contact with other islands and peoples by sea.
Trading and Colonial History of East Timor
Prehistory now gives way to the written records generated by the European explorers and colonisers.
Timor was incorporated into the Arab, Chinese and Indian trading networks of the 1300s as an exporter of aromatic sandalwood, slaves and beeswax. From traders Timorese imported metal goods, silks, and rice.
Also in the 1300s, the cultural and economic rise of Europe, known as the Renaissance, started in what are now Italy, Spain and Portugal. The three countries gradually built up their naval and miltary power over 250 years permitting them to eventually sail around the world and conquer territories, like Timor, hitherto unknown in Europe.
1400s - time of the Wehali of Timor
The most recent major kingdoms in Timor are the best documented. By the 1400s in Timor the Wehali tribe were the most powerful. Wehali (a people, kingdom and vague area) is centred on the village of Laran, which sits in a fertile plain on the southern coast of Central Timor, now in Indonesia. The area is well suited to varied agriculture. According to oral tradition Wehali was the first land that appeared from the waters which once covered the earth, marking the centre of the world as Timorese saw it. Other traditions mention a migration from Chinese White Malacca in ancient times.
Wehali belongs to the Tetun-speaking area, which is also known as Belu. The southern Tetun have a matrilineal system. At the apex of the political system stood a "great lord" (Nai Bot) who held the title of Maromak Oan ("son of God"). His task was ritually passive, in a symbolic sense "female" and he kept an executive "male" regent or assistant by his side, the (Wehali) Liurai or King ("surpassing the land"). Wehali is often mentioned with its sister tribal area Wewiku. Others Liurais and lower rank chiefs in Timor regularly paid the Wehali Liurai tribute often some valuable commodity or at least a pledge of loyalty.
Outside Belu were two further Liurais who were independent of Wehali but kept certain ties with it, namely Sonbai in West Timor and Likusaen (Liquica) in East Timor.
The Wehali were powerful by local stadards yet their power over other tribes was not strong enough. Timor’s systems of power were very decentralised making it an easy target for cultural and military invasions by foreigners.
Timor and European Trade System
Today oil, gas and coal are commodities that dominate sea trade but 500 years ago for much of Asia it was spices. Europeans considered spices were as valuable as gold because they usually had to be carried to Europe across the Indian Ocean, overland through South Asia and the Middle East then across the Mediterranean to Venice. Venice had become powerful by setting itself up as the only European spice trading port allowing it to onsell spices to the rest of Europe at great profit.
Rising Spain and Portugal were unhappy with the Venetian spice monopoly and overland markups so they sought to use their newly developed long range naval power to find spice areas in the East Indies, conquer them, then ship the spices home directly by sea.
The spices including nutmeg, cloves and mace were used as active preservatives for food or to disguise the taste of poorly preserved foods.The Spanish and Portugese launched expeditions that found their way to Timor - exploration not for science but for profit.
The first Europeans to arrive in the East Indies region were Portuguese in 1515 though they may not have visited Timor.
1500s - European Contact Begins
Portuguese traders and priests reached the coast of Timor, near the coast of Oecussi (now an East Timorese enclave in West Timor) around 1515. Portugese-Spanish Captain Ferdinand Magellan was killed on Cebu Island in the Philippines in 1521. His expedition, however, continued on into the East Indies and in 1522 landed in Timor. Early European explorers report that the island had a number of small chiefdoms with Wehali (as was recounted before) being the most powerful.
Arab, Indian and Chinese traders were already trading with indigenous Timorese including taking slaves. This implies that force or coersion existed. Life was often harsh. The Portugese were equally likely to use violence and take slaves because there was great competition to seize coastal trading posts before other European nations (Spain, then the Dutch, then English) became aware of what was valuable. The Portugese also brought energetic and sincere Catholic missionaries who attempted to “save souls”, as well as to make Timorese less vulnerable to Islam or other national faiths.
For Timorese to resist the armed and religious incursions of the Spanish and Portugese would have required a tighter feudal system, modern weapons and support from outside powers (European or Muslim). None of these defences were available. For people unused to “modern” fighting the muskets and small cannon available to the Spanish and Portugese would have been terrifying.
mid 1500s until the 1800s
Coastal areas of Timor underwent relatively rapid change from the mid 1500s until the 1800s. Dominican friars established a permanent presence on the island in 1556. In the 1600s the animist Wehali king had friendly relations with the Muslim kingdom of Makassar, The Wehali king position was reduced by invasions by the Portuguese in 1642 and 1665 that devestated much of Timor. By 1665 the Wehali Kingdom appears to have been controlled by the Portuguese.
In 1702 the territory officially became a Portuguese colony, known as Portuguese Timor, when Lisbon sent its first governor, António Coelho Guerreiro, with Lifau as its capital. Lifau is in East Timor’s Oecussi-Ambeno enclave oddly situated in West Timor. Portuguese administrators and farmers ruled coastal regions in cooperation with local leaders, but had very little influence in the mountainous interior. Dominican friars, the occasional Dutch raid, and the Timorese themselves competed with Portuguese merchants. The control of colonial administrators was largely restricted to the Dili area, and they had to rely on traditional tribal chieftains for control and influence.
The Portuguese grip over western Timor receded greatly after 1749, and the Dutch East India Company, which had hitherto been confined to Kupang in western Timor, expanded its sphere of power over large parts of the island.
During the 1750s the Wehali approached the Dutch East India Company and in 1756 the Wehali Liurai (King) Jacinto Correia signed a contract with the Dutch diplomat Johannes Andreas Paravicini. According to this contract the Wehali King was the overlord over a large number of Timorese kingdoms. The Dutch hoped that the contract would automatically include most of East Timor in their sphere of power, but the ritual rather than executive authority of Wehali was insufficient for this.
Over the next century the Wehali attempted to make either the Dutch or Portuguese their protectors but these two colonial powers did not want a united Timorese people. The powers continued to divide Timorese and rule for trade.
Portugese Timor's capital was moved to Dili in 1767, due to attacks from the Dutch, had been colonising the rest of the island and the surrounding archipelago that is now Indonesia. The Portugese then established several more trading posts within Eastern Timor along the coast from Dili.
The Portuguese introduced maize as a food crop and coffee, sugar cane, cocoa, rubber and cotton as export crops. Timorese systems of tax and labour control were preserved, through which taxes were paid through their labour and a portion of the coffee and sandalwood crop. The Portuguese introduced mercenaries into Timor communities and Timor chiefs hired Portuguese soldiers for wars against neighbouring tribes. With the use of the Portuguese musket, Timorese men became deer hunters and suppliers of deer horn and hide for export.
1800s to mid 1900s - Time of neglect
For the Portuguese, East Timor remained little more than a neglected collection of trading posts until the late 1800s. The border between Portuguese Timor and the Dutch East Indies was formally decided in 1859 with the Treaty of Lisbon.
Investment in infrastructure, health, and education was minimal. East Timor remained largely underdeveloped with an economy based on barter. The Portugese made large profits from exports of sandalwood but eventually overexploited this resource. As sandalwood became almost extinct the Portuguese in 1815 introduced coffee plantations, along with sugar cane and cotton. In places where Portuguese rule was asserted, it tended to be brutal and exploitive.
In 1900, a series of Timorese rebellions against the Portuguese occupation began, including the revolt of in Manufahi led by Dom Boaventura. After 12 years of fighting the Portuguese, Boaventura’s forces were finally crushed by troops in 1912.
Up until 1900s the activities of Europeans did not radically change the lives of the majority of East Timorese who lived in the mountains [including the Aileu District?]. They still led a subsistence, village lifestyle with belief in many gods and spirits.
On the coast especially in the Dili area trade, Christianity and racial intermixing gradually changed the lives of East Timorese much more than inland.
In 1913, the Portuguese and Dutch concluded another agreement splitting the island between them.
The definitive border was drawn up and agreed at the Hague (in the Netherlands) in 1916, and it remains the international boundary between the modern states of East Timor and Indonesia.Prior to World War II, the capital, Dili, had no electricity or town water supply and there were few roads.
East Timor in World War Two
Japan started World War II in the Pacific with its attacks not only on Pearl Harbour, but simultaneously on US bases in the Philippines and on British Malaya. From early December 1941 the Australian Government optimistically sent tiny forces of mainly light infantry to the the small islands to Australia's north including Rabaul, Ambon and Timor. These were supposed to act as a buffer or holding forces to hinder or even stop the Japanese forces.
The occupation of Timor by some Japanese forces was likely sooner later but the Australian-Dutch landing meant that the Japanese invaded the island with larger forces and subjected it to a more severe occupation than otherwise.
Overall the Australian defensive campaigns in Rabaul, Ambon and Timor were failures. Contrary to popular opinion the Australian/East Timorese/Dutch effort did not "save Australia" although Australians were (and are) very appreciative of East Timorese help during the war. It was actually huge US military forces that did most to save Australia at the Battle of the Coral Sea and at Guadalcanal by preventing Japan from establishing staging posts from which to blockade, bomb or invade Australia. These latter two battles occurred in 1942 and lead to around 8,000 Americans dying, a long way from home.
The total Dutch and Australian ("Sparrow") forces sent to defend Timor and act as a forward defence of Australia in December 1941 always numbered less than 2,000 men. In just four days (20 to 23 Feb 1942) the Japanese destroyed the main Australian and Dutch forces in Dutch (West) Timor. Australian-Dutch forces were too small, supported by too few aircraft, ships (no tanks) and were too inexperienced (compared to the Japanese). Everything the Allies lacked the Japanese possessed including paratroops.
In East Timor the Japanese stepped ashore in Dili unapposed by the neutral Portugese administration (in February 1942). After the Dutch and Australians surrendered in West Timor on 23 February 1942 the fight against the Japanese relied on “Sparrow Force” of around 150 to 300 Australians and on East Timorese. Most of the action occurred to the south of Dili including the Aileu District.
The Portugese, while officially neutral, often chose to help the Australians. Timorese (termed “native carriers”) assisted by transporting supplies and providing the Australian with a large-scale intelligence screen (including information on Japnese movements and the best places to ambush them).
For much of its early existence Sparrow force successfully fought the Japanese even though up to 90% of Sparrow Force had malaria.
From July 1942 the Japanese sharply increased the forces from 1,500 to 12,000 fighting Sparrow Force and remaining Dutch. This placed pressure on Sparrow Force.
Along with increased troop numbers the Japanese used some West Timorese to persuade a significant number of East Timorese to stop helping the Australians. The Japanese had some success (using "Pan-Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere propaganda) in lumping the Australians in with the "white" Dutch and Portugese colonial overlords. Excellent intelligence from East Timorese about Japanese movements began to dry up.
Growing Timorese impatience or even hostility to Sparrow Forces activities was also due to starvation. Most Timorese reliant on bare subsistence farming, were starving due to the disruption of continual fighting and also the enforced need to feed the Australian and Japanese troops fighting around their villages.
Finally the American-Australian military leadership in Australia decided that Japanese pressure was too great for the outnumbered Sparrow Force to remain. Fighting the Japanese in Timor was no longer "defending Timor" it was just about tying up larger Japanese forces. However the cost in naval resupply resources and infantry was too high.
By February 1943 the last Australians were withdrawn from Timor to Fremantle. The Timorese were left to the Japanese.
Events in Timor did little to influence the broad course of the war yet the Australians with much East Timorese help tied down or eliminated many Japanese troops that Japan sorely needed elsewhere. For example the Australian 2/2nd Independent Company (of Sparrow Force) suffered 40 killed or seriously wounded while inflicting more than 1,500 casualties on the Japanese. The Japanese remained in East Timor until September 1945.
By the end of the war, East Timor was destroyed. Some 60,000 East Timorese lost their lives as a result of the Japanese occupation and the efforts of the Timorese to resist the invaders and help the Australian troops. The economy was shattered. Most of the plantations of coffee, cocoa and rubber had been abandoned.
The Timorese and the Portuguese tried to help the country recover. But development was slow. The average annual growth rate between 1953 and 1962 was just 2%. On 14 December 1960, the United Nations declared East Timor a non-self governing territory under Portuguese administration. It was only then that Portugal tried seriously and systematically to develop East Timor through three successive five-year plans.
Portugal governed East Timor with a combination of direct and indirect rule, managing the population as a whole through the traditional power structures rather than by using colonial civil servants. This left traditional East Timorese society almost untouched.
East Timorese Civil War
In 1974, the transition to democracy in Portugal had an impact on all its colonies and for the first time, the East Timorese were given freedom to form their own political parties. In 1974, following a series of changing political alliances, the Timorese Democratic Union (UDT) and the Revolutionary Front for the Independence of East Timor (Frente Revolucionara do Timor Leste Independente (Fretilin)) formed a coalition in preparation for independence.
The details of the UDT-Fretilin alliance cross personal and political issues - like most things in East Timorese elites matters. In May 1974, Jose Ramos-Horta, who, like Xanana Gusmao, was then a member of Fretilin, had family ties with the Carrascalao's [see last para first page here] and forged a fragile union of UDT and Fretilin under the umbrella, ASDT which collapsed as the UDT realised that Fretilin,would outstrip them due to their large Maubere (ethnic and political) base.
The UDT staged the August 11, 1975 coup attempt, with the tacit approval of the remaining Portuguese and police who ordered the military confined to barracks whilst the UDT elements killed what Fretilin executives who remained in Dili. Meanwhile the bulk of Fretilin were in the mountains, introducing their policies to the East Timorese rural areas.
Rogerio Lobato (who has had a long and active career), brother of Nicolau, led the troops out of the barracks opposing the coup and within 3 weeks, the coup had been put down by troops supporting Fretilin. At that stage Fretilin sought to hand back control to the Portuguese. Fretilin wanted to go to an election as they knew they had overwhelming support from the East Timorese non-elites (aka masses).
Meanwhile the routed UDT elements sought support from the Indonesians who were already carrying out intimidating incursions at the border (including in and near Balibo).
Faced with the refusal of Portugese governors to resume control and imminent Indonesian invasion. On November 28, 1975, Fretilin declared East Timor as the República Democrática de Timor Leste (RDTL) (Democratic Republic of East Timor). RDTL was recognized just by a few countries, mainly former Portuguese colonies, and was short-lived. Ten days later on December 7, 1975 Indonesian troops invaded.
During 1975 clashes between the two main East Timorese contenders (UDT and Fretilin) resulting in more than 2,000 deaths. For such a small country/population so many deaths suggest a "civil war" description. Then came the Indonesians - who did worse.
The Indonesian occupation
Approximately 60,000 people lost their lives in the early years of Indonesian annexation - contributing to a total of about 200,000 deaths for the whole period of their administration.
In an effort to stamp greater control over its dissident new province - whose seizure was condemned by the United Nations - Indonesia invested considerable sums in East Timor leading to more rapid economic growth which averaged 6% per year over the period 1983-1997.
Unlike the Portuguese the Indonesians favoured strong, direct rule, which was never accepted by the East Timorese people who were determined to preserve their culture and national identity.
In 1991, the Indonesian military gave permission for a parliamentary delegation from Portugal. The visit was cancelled at the last minute. Immediately, the Indonesian military went on the attack. A young student, Sebastião Gomes, was killed and many others were arrested. On November 12, 1991 thousands of East Timorese marched towards the Santa Cruz cemetery to mourn for Sebastião Gomes. The Indonesian Army opened fire and killed more than 200 people. The Dili or Santa Cruz Massacre marked a turning point in the brutal occupation of East Timor as the shocking images were beamed around the world.
Individuals and organizations started to put increasing pressure on their governments and on international organizations on behalf of East Timor. The imprisonment of resistance leader Xanana Gusmão in 1992 also put the spotlight on the human rights situation.
Indonesia found itself in an increasingly isolated position which worsened in October 1996 when the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to two Timorese leaders, Bishop Ximenes Belo and José Ramos Horta, adding to the growing assertiveness of the independence movement. Then in 1997 and 1998, Suharto's New Order was shaken by a severe economic crisis, leading to widespread demands for political change. Suharto was forced to resign and was replaced by his vice-president, Dr. Habibie.
President Habibie was unwilling to maintain the 'burden' of such an expensive province and in January 1999 offered East Timor "wide-ranging autonomy". Should the Timorese reject this then Indonesia would be prepared to 'let East Timor go'. An agreement on a popular consultation in Timor-Leste was finally reached in May 1999 under the auspices of UN Secretary-General Kofi Anan.
A referendum for freedom
The UN started to prepare for the referendum by setting up the United Nations Assistance Mission for East Timor, UNAMET. On June 3, 1999 the UN raised its flag on the soil of East Timor. In September 1999 the people of East Timor voted overwhelmingly - 78% - in favour of independence from Indonesia. The pro-Indonesian integration militia gangs and the Indonesian armed forces responded with extraordinary brutality, rampaging and plundering across the country. As a result, one-third of the population were forced to resettle in refugee camps in West Timor and neighbouring islands. Another one-third looked for refuge in the mountains of East Timor. Between 1,000 and 2,000 people are reported to have died in the violence.
The UN Security Council authorized a multinational force (INTERFET) under the unified command structure of a member state, Australia, to restore peace and security. The UN also launched a large-scale humanitarian operation including food supplies and other basic services.On October 25 1999, the UN Security Council established the United Nations Transitional Administration in East Timor (UNTAET) as an integrated, multidimensional peacekeeping operation responsible for the administration of East Timor during its transition to independence.
On August 30, 2001, East Timor had its first free elections - for representatives who were charged with writing a new Constitution. This was agreed on March 24, 2002. On May 20th, East Timor became the world's newest democracy and the first new country of the third millennium. The celebrations took place at Taci Tolou just outside Dili, a former mass grave site, and were attended by dignitaries including United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan, former President of the United States Bill Clinton and perhaps most significantly, President Megawati of Indonesia. Click here for pictures of the celebrations.
At midnight on May 19th, the new flag of East Timor was raised, the new national anthem was sung and East Timor's long fight for freedom was finally over.
14 April 2002 marked the first presidential election with former resistance fighter, Xanana Gusmao winning the majority of the votes.
On 20 May 2002, East Timor celebrated its independence following hundreds of years of struggle with UNTAET transferring sovereignty to the first elected Parliament and Government of East Timor.
Mari Alkatiri was Secretary-General of the Fretilin Party, which had received a large majority of the vote in Parliamentary elections in August 2001. Alkatiri was chosen as the first Prime Minister of East Timor.This is just the beginning of this history. I will add more and change parts as time permits. History is always changing like everything we think and do.