East Timor Declares Independence but Is Annexed by Indonesia Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

In the wake of revolutionary ferment leading to the establishment of a “People’s Republic of East Timor,” Indonesia invaded and subsequently annexed the former Portuguese colony.

Summary of Event

In the last half of the fifteenth century, European monarchs increased their authority and their resources well beyond the medieval model. For some, this meant interference with their neighbors; for others, the alternative was expansion outside Europe. Portugal was one of those countries that followed the path of overseas expansion. In short order, the Portuguese laid the foundations for a trading empire that reached to the mouth of the Pearl River in China, but the creation and maintenance of such an enterprise proved costly. In time, the size of the empire and the resources available to the Portuguese proved synergistically imbalanced. East Timor;Indonesian annexation Indonesia;annexation of East Timor [kw]East Timor Declares Independence but Is Annexed by Indonesia (Dec. 8, 1975) [kw]Independence but Is Annexed by Indonesia, East Timor Declares (Dec. 8, 1975) [kw]Annexed by Indonesia, East Timor Declares Independence but Is (Dec. 8, 1975) [kw]Indonesia, East Timor Declares Independence but Is Annexed by (Dec. 8, 1975) East Timor;Indonesian annexation Indonesia;annexation of East Timor [g]Southeast Asia;Dec. 8, 1975: East Timor Declares Independence but Is Annexed by Indonesia[02170] [g]East Timor;Dec. 8, 1975: East Timor Declares Independence but Is Annexed by Indonesia[02170] [c]Terrorism, atrocities, and war crimes;Dec. 8, 1975: East Timor Declares Independence but Is Annexed by Indonesia[02170] [c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Dec. 8, 1975: East Timor Declares Independence but Is Annexed by Indonesia[02170] [c]Expansion and land acquisition;Dec. 8, 1975: East Timor Declares Independence but Is Annexed by Indonesia[02170] Lemos Pires, Mario Suharto Araújo, Arnaldo Dos Reis Carrascaloã, Mário Viegas Amaral, Francisco Xavier Do Lobato, Nicolau Murdani, Benny Malik, Adam Gusmão, José Alexandre

Unable and unwilling to continue the struggle, the Portuguese retained only a limited portion of their trading empire in Asia. Least among the portions of this first Portuguese empire was the eastern half of the island of Timor. Portuguese traders were attracted to the island as a source of sandalwood, a vital ingredient in the China trade. Not surprisingly, the Dutch traders who followed the Portuguese to Asia attempted to capture the Timorese sandalwood market. The “war” for control of the island continued with few interruptions until 1859, when a treaty defined Dutch and Portuguese territory. (West Timor became part of an independent Indonesia in December, 1949.)

Portugal was determined to retain its empire despite the considerable anticolonial sentiment that emerged in the post-World War II years. As the various colonial empires began to unravel, Portugal stood increasingly alone in its desire to preserve the imperial remnants of its earlier days of glory. Therefore, Portugal invested considerable money and human resources in fighting independence movements in Angola, Mozambique, Portuguese Guinea (Guinea-Bissau), and São Tomé and Príncipe. These colonial wars served to radicalize portions of the Portuguese military and led to the overthrow of the government on April 25, 1974, by the Armed Forces Movement Armed Forces Movement (Portugal) (Movimento das Forças Armadas).

The leader of the “Junta of National Salvation,” General António de Spínola, Spínola, António de was quick to announce that the solution to the problem of the “overseas territories” was political, not military. Cease-fire agreements were soon in place, and Guinea-Bissau, Mozambique, São Tomé and Príncipe, Cape Verde, and Angola were quickly proclaimed independent states.

The success of the Armed Forces Movement dramatically affected the future of East Timor. Portugal’s bitter campaign to preserve its colonial heritage severely damaged the Portuguese economy. It was obvious, therefore, that Portugal had to dissolve that liability and imitate the postcolonial behavior of its European neighbors. Nevertheless, the new regime was aware of the potential effect of colonial divestiture on a people suddenly plunged into the unknown waters of political democracy. Moreover, although the independence movements in the African colonies were pervasive and vocal, such was not the case elsewhere. A certain amount of anti-Portuguese feeling existed in East Timor, but there were few political activists agitating for an end to colonial status. East Timor was geographically remote from Portugal, and its relative tranquility required only a minimal Portuguese presence.

What the Portuguese failed to appreciate, however, was that many Timorese were already infected with the independence virus. In consequence, the colonial administration was soon presented with three political movements, which served to represent the three plausible options facing East Timor. Political parties;East Timor

The União Democrática de Timor (Timorese Democratic Union, Timorese Democratic Union or UDT) advocated some continuation of colonial status leading to eventual independence. The UDT, generally speaking, was a party of those who wished to preserve their position within Timorese society. The Associação Popular Democrática de Timor (Timorese Popular Democratic Association, Timorese Popular Democratic Association known as APODETI), on the other hand, proposed some type of union with Indonesia. The party insisted that East Timor was neither economically viable nor politically developed enough to survive independence. APODETI attracted little support and was the smallest of the three parties to emerge by May, 1974. The largest of the three parties was the Frente Revolucionária de Timor-Leste Independente (Revolutionary Front of Independent East Timor, Revolutionary Front of Independent East Timor known as FRETILIN), which called for the right to independence, a foreign policy of nonalignment, and good neighborliness and noninterference.

The emergence of the three parties disconcerted the government in Lisbon. Lisbon obviously expected the status quo to obtain in East Timor; it had little inclination to mediate a Timorese dispute. Moreover, inasmuch as the dispute involved disagreement over both ends and means, compromise appeared impossible. Lisbon was also unwilling to act insofar as each of the parties involved was, at the time, unrepresentative of the majority of the Timorese. Still, negotiations produced a basis for a new constitution and a timetable for independence. Suddenly, the UDT launched a coup (August 11, 1975) that caused Mario Lemos Pires, the Portuguese governor, to leave the capital of Dili. The ensuing civil war saw the defeat of the UDT, the emergence of FRETILIN as the de facto government, and the creation of the Democratic Republic of East Timor on November 28, 1975.

In retrospect, it is obvious that the Democratic Republic of East Timor was another instance of the danger of implementing a program of socioeconomic reconstruction when the immediate neighbor is in a postrevolutionary phase. The Indonesian struggle for independence had brought Sukarno to power as first constitutional president and later dictator. Sukarno, however, had derived much of his power from the Indonesian Communist Party (Partai Komunis Indonesia, or PKI), a situation that provoked discontent among the officer corps of the Indonesian army. In consequence, a military junta mounted a coup in 1965. (This coup was greeted with enthusiasm by the United States and Australia, which later chose to ignore developments in East Timor.)

The new Indonesian government of President Suharto was understandably wary of the establishment of a potentially democratic, nonaligned nation near its borders. Although FRETILIN was formally a noncommunist group, the possibility existed that, in pursuit of the necessary funds to alleviate the effects of Portuguese colonialism, the Timorese might become an “Asian Cuba.”

A further factor influencing Indonesia was the probability that the West Timorese would wish to join their cousins across the border in a united Timor. In that likely event, the Indonesian government would undoubtedly face similar demands from other minorities within the republic. In consequence, in the early hours of December 8, 1975, significant elements of the Indonesian armed forces assaulted Dili. The FRETILIN forces, assisted by a number of previously nonpolitical Timorese, evacuated the towns to pursue a guerrilla resistance campaign.

In 1974, East Timor was heavily dependent on subsistence agriculture and a tenuous transportation infrastructure and was prey to a host of tropical ailments. Thus, the effects of war on East Timor were excessive, and the human suffering on the individual level was intense. It was estimated that in excess of 10 percent of the population died of causes directly attributable to the Indonesian invasion and the immediate aftermath. Many of the deaths were at the hands of the Indonesian army, but the largest group died of famine and disease.

It is impossible to state with any degree of certainty the exact number of East Timorese who fell victim to the war. Allegations of extraordinary atrocities existed on both sides, but independently verifiable proof was difficult to obtain. Access to East Timor was severely restricted before and after the invasion, and subsequent reports were sometimes affected by political bias.


For nine days in 1975, East Timor was an independent state. Governor Mario Lemos Pires continued to assert his authority, but the governing of East Timor was left to FRETILIN. Although FRETILIN could govern, it could not secure victory over the Indonesian invaders. On July 17, 1976, President Suharto signed a bill unanimously passed by the Indonesian parliament incorporating East Timor as Indonesia’s twenty-seventh province. Despite protests around the world and successive United Nations resolutions, Indonesia continued to absorb the formerly independent nation.

The word “genocide” seems inexorably linked to East Timor. The apparent decimation of its population by the Indonesian military, the deportation of Timorese to remote Indonesian islands, the creation of “resettlement camps” for the purpose of removing people from their traditional villages, and the forced sterilization of men and women appeared to indicate an intent to eradicate the indigenous inhabitants of East Timor. President Suharto seemed to view East Timor as a partial solution for the massive overpopulation of Java and Bali. Still, although the facts of Timorese genocide seem obvious, the word must be used with caution.

War often reveals the human animal at its altruistic, self-sacrificing best. Unfortunately, war is also capable of exposing the barbarian lurking beneath civilization’s thin veneer. Guerrilla war, whether of the partisan or insurgent variety, produces barbarism in the extreme. Guerrilla warfare is direct, personal, and intense in its application. On both sides, but particularly with respect to the guerrilla, death is frequently meted out indiscriminately and savagely. In consequence, those fighting guerrilla forces are normally driven to respond similarly.

There is no doubt the Indonesian army was guilty of atrocious violations of human rights—the testimony was too persuasive and recurring to admit otherwise. Nevertheless, such violations are a common feature of guerrilla wars, and although deplorable, they do not indicate genocide per se. Still, the Indonesian government’s actions in East Timor were in violation of every international charter in existence concerning human rights.

The invasion and occupation of East Timor continued to plague the Indonesian government. It remained a constant barrier to Suharto’s ambition to be the political leader of the Third World. East Timor was also a destabilizing precedent with regard to international law. Most colonial boundaries are artificial in that they fail to reflect ethnography or even topography. Therefore, any abandonment of the sanctity of established boundaries only serves disorder and injustice.

In the late 1990’s, the international community increased efforts to bring the East Timor question to a resolution, and agreement was reached with Indonesia in 1999 to hold a popular consultation of the territory’s future status as an autonomous region within Indonesia. Voters overwhelming rejected this status, and, under U.N. supervision, East Timor began to prepare for independence. Indonesian military forces and pro-Indonesian militias in East Timor mounted armed opposition, leading to international military intervention to stop the bloodshed. In due course, East Timor achieved independence in 2002, formally ending its restive status as an Indonesian-occupied territory and 450 years of foreign rule. East Timor;Indonesian annexation Indonesia;annexation of East Timor

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Budiardjo, Carmel, and Soei Liong Liem. The War Against East Timor. London: Zed Books, 1984. An analysis of the military and political strategy adopted by the Indonesians and the response by those resisting the occupation of East Timor. Extensive testimony is introduced to substantiate reports of atrocities committed by the Indonesian authorities. Of particular interest are edited versions of what purport to be captured Indonesian documents designed to instruct Indonesian troops with respect to the insurgency.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Dunn, James. Timor: A People Betrayed. Milton, Qld.: Jacaranda Press, 1983. The author served as a defense analyst for Australian intelligence, as Australian consul to East Timor (1962-1964), and as director of the Australian Relief Agency—East Timor, 1975. His extensive research and personal contacts make this work essential for any investigation of this topic.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hastings, Peter. “The Timor Problem.” Australian Outlook 29 (April-December, 1975): 18-33, 180-196, 323-334. An exhaustive survey of Australia’s involvement with East Timor from 1903 to the eve of the Indonesian invasion.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hill, Helen. The Timor Story. Melbourne, Vic.: Timor Information Service, 1975. Essential background material regarding events in East Timor and subsequent Australian reaction. This work is one of the foundations of research on the subject.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Jolliffe, Jill. East Timor: Nationalism and Colonialism. St. Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 1978. The author is a journalist and political activist whose exposure to the situation in East Timor led to a lengthy involvement with the struggle for Timorese independence. This work was the first account, in any language, of the development and fate of the independence movement in East Timor.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Nevins, Joseph. A Not-So-Distant Horror: Mass Violence in East Timor. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2005. Recounts the history of the bloody turmoil in the country, from 1975 to the brutal massacre following the 1999 vote for independence.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ormeling, Ferdinand J. The Timor Problem: A Geographical Interpretation of an Underdeveloped Island. Groningen, Djakarta: J. B. Wolters, 1956. One of only a handful of works to focus on the environmental, economic, and ethnographic nature of East Timor.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Pinto, Constâncio, and Matthew Jardine. East Timor’s Unfinished Struggle: Inside the Timorese Resistance. Boston: South End Press, 1997. Pinto, a thirty-three-year-old Timorese man, recounts his life from age eleven, when the 1975 invasion and resistance began.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ramos-Horta, José. Funu: The Unfinished Saga of East Timor. Trenton, N.J.: The Red Sea Press, 1987. A combination of autobiography, history, and revolutionary polemic by the onetime secretary of FRETILIN. The author does not attempt to be impartial, but this work is invaluable as a commentary by a leading participant. Provides useful bibliographic references.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Retbøll, Torben, ed. East Timor, Indonesia, and the Western Democracies. Copenhagen: Documentation Department of the International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs, 1980. A document collection, selected bibliography, and list of organizations active with respect to Timorese independence. Assembled by a Danish historian.

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