It's been a long time coming. Four centuries as an unknown colonial backwater, then a quarter of a century of genocide, deliberately ignored by the great powers of the world. War, famine, death, burnings, massacres, and still this tiny people resisted, unsupported and unregarded, with only the moral certainty that they must win, they must be free, eventually.

East Timor becomes free tonight. The first independent state of the twenty-first century is born from ashes at midnight tonight, as the 19th becomes the 20th.

Guests include President Megawati Sukarnoputri, whose giant country of Indonesia bore down on the tiny colony in 1976 and tried to absorb it, little imagining the resistance its people would offer. Guests include Bill Clinton, whose ruthless country crushed freedom underfoot all across the world in the name of geopolitics and power. Guests include Prime Minister John Howard, whose craven country Australia was the only one in the world to acquiesce legally to the Indonesian dictator's bloody conquest, because they wanted a share of the oil wealth under the sea between them.

Their hosts include President Xanana Gusmão, the poet who led his people to freedom from a Jakarta prison cell after he was captured fighting. Their hosts include two Nobel Prize for Peace winners, Carlos Belo the Bishop of Dili who epitomized the conscience of his people, and José Ramos Horta who was foreign minister for the country that almost no-one wanted to know about. For 25 years their names have been those of heroes. We believed in East Timor. We marched for East Timor, wrote letters, wept, hardly dared believe it could end in freedom, against the brutal military machine of Indonesia and naked, selfish indifference of the West.

East Timor, known to its people in Tetum as Timor Lorosa'e, and in Portuguese and officially in the UN as Timor-Leste, becomes free tonight. A United Nations transitional administration ends, and the recently elected Xanana Gusmão, head of the Fretilin movement that led the fight for independence, becomes President. Mari Alkatiri becomes his prime minister. The black, red, gold, and white flag is raised. The world celebrates, at last.

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The island of Timor lies at the furthest east end of the East Indies, near New Guinea. It was inhabited by people similar to New Guineans, then several thousand years ago a new people came from the west, speaking languages we call Austronesian. Of these today the most prominent on the island is Tetum. A few hundred years ago Europeans came to the East Indies looking for spices. The Dutch, the Portuguese, and the English seized what they could, traded, warred amongst themselves, and came to arrangements. The small island of Timor was divided in two, or to be more precise in three.

Portugal took over the eastern half, plus a little enclave on the north-west coast called Oecussi, where the first capital originally was. The Netherlands ran the rest of the western half. This continued quietly until the 1940s. Japan invaded everywhere in the area, and the Timorese suffered. The Dutch colonies in the Indies formed a nation called Indonesia, which became independent after the war, and somewhat aggressive towards its neighbours. The dictator Suharto seized power in 1965 and killed a million, perhaps millions, of opponents, calling them Communists or sympathizers. He had his eyes on the tiny Portuguese remnant on his eastern fringe.

Portugal too was ruled by ageing right-wing dictators. They were fighting bloody wars to hold onto their colonies in Africa. But in the early morning of 25 April 1974 tanks moved out of barracks in Lisbon. Most shops weren't open yet; a young woman was buying flowers before starting her job at a café. A young soldier approached her and asked her if she had a cigarette. "No," she said, "but I have a carnation."

One of the oldest dictatorships in Europe fell without bloodshed to troops festooned with carnations the rejoicing population gave them. The Carnation Revolution brought peace and freedom to Angola, Mozambique, Guinea-Bissau, and after a little while to East Timor. Several pro-independence parties arose, others arose favouring union with Indonesia. The main independence party was Fretilin, the Front for the Liberation of East Timor. They would have won local elections, but in August 1975 a pro-integration party seized power in the capital Dili. Fretilin fought them and took back power; amid this, in December 1975, Indonesia invaded.

East Timor never gave in. One of the greatest genocides in the twentieth century took place, largely ignored. East Timor's small population was hugely reduced by massacres and starvation. Henry Kissinger connived at it and supplied arms to the occupiers, Gough Whitlam recognized the annexation to get at the oil, though no-one else ever did, and the East Timorese people fought a bush war against all odds for over twenty years.

Finally the cold war was over, Suharto fell from power in Indonesia, the Nobel Prizes had brought independence leaders inescapably into public view, awkward questions kept being asked about the Australian and other journalists who had been slaughtered by Indonesian forces. The new, weak governments of Indonesia retreated, and East Timor was taken over by the United Nations. In one final act of defiance, militias funded and logistically supported by Indonesian generals went on a rampage and destroyed much of the infrastructure of the country and drove huge numbers of people out as refugees into the Indonesian-owned western half of the island.

To no avail, ultimately. A referendum was held. Yes, overwhelmingly, we want independence. A timetable was set, a transitional authority set up, elections were held. Xanana Gusmão would have preferred to retire and be a farmer, but his people wanted him. Tonight at midnight he becomes the leader of the world's newest country.

East Timor has survived. East Timor is free at last.


The Timorese have been treated like mere flotsam by history. They and their island are taken up by the currents of change, battered around and into the rocks, and sent crashing down a new course; only with the creation of an independent state in Timor in 2002 did they have a chance at determining their own path. Their story, which I shall outline in brief, is a story of what can happen to a people at the edge of the international system, where the lives of humans somehow become worth less than the lives of those at the centre because they lack power. To the objective human eye, it is unjust tragedy. To the historian, it is sad normality.

Early history

Before the arrival of Europeans, the Timorese were an insular people. Their island is located at the far east of the Indonesian island chain but they were not seafarers; they made no impact on the outside world until Asian traders arrived in the fourteenth century. Then came - as they did everywhere in the world - European traders. And, as always happened, after European traders came European settlers and colonists. East Timor's separation from the west dates from this time, when the Portuguese established a state there. Portugal, though condemned to obscurity now, was the earliest and hence most long-lived of the European maritime empires, and so quite the major international player in its time. Their control of East Timor would last until 1975, long after the other European powers had given independence to their colonies.

Portugal's rule of East Timor was mild compared to what would follow. The Portuguese cared little about this remote and impoverished part of their empire and what followed was a rule of benign neglect after the Dutch, who owned the west part of the island, were discouraged from harassing it. Centuries rolled by and history stayed mercifully absent in East Timor, despite the denial of their ability to rule themselves. Then, in 1942, events which began in distant and unrelated lands brought a whirlwind of destruction to East Timor.

World War II

World War II began in 1931 when Japan invaded Manchuria, a part of northern China. The fact that the war stayed distant from the English-speaking countries for so long often blinds us to this fact, and it is natural that the focus of our memories is on Europe. And while what the Japanese did in East Timor pales in comparison to what they did in China, this does not make their crimes in the former any less worthy of our recollection. The Japanese invaded East Timor in 1942, caring not one jot for the people but merely for the strategic position of the island. Australia had committed itself to the defence of the place, and for nearly a year 2,000 Allied commandos - mostly Australians, but also Dutch, British and Americans - stayed and mounted a valiant defence.

The toll on the Timorese people was immense. As a result of a year-long battle that claimed less than 500 Allied lives and the reprisals afterwards, a staggering 40,000 - 70,000 Timorese died. Some fought with the Allies against the Japanese invaders, whereas others were press-ganged into the service of the latter; some no doubt fought willingly for the Japanese, dying as cannon fodder for the cause of Japanese fascism dressed as Asian self-determination. Eventually the Allies fled and the Timorese were left to the the Japanese, whose brutality was surpassed in the twentieth century only by Nazi Germany. When the Portuguese returned after the war the Timorese breathed a sigh of relief. And still, their independence was to be delayed for the sake of a people who had failed to defend them.

East Timor and the limits of the American dream

The next time history came to East Timor was 1975, when a sudden and unexpected revolution in Portugal brought to power left-wing officers who tired of their country's authoritarian dictatorship. Lisbon declared itself for Timorese independence, and a generation of Timorese officers drank deep of the left-wing ideology - independence and economic self-determination - held by their new, post-revolution Portuguese masters. One problem remained: Indonesia.

Indonesia extended right up to the border of East Timor, being sovereign as it was over the west part of the island. Indonesia feared that the dominant party in East Timor, Fretlin, would allow an independent state to become a bastion of Communist sympathies and a potential launching-pad for subversion against its own territory. Communism appeared to be on the march in southeast Asia at the time due to the recent defeat of the United States in the Vietnam War, and there was a widespread opinion that a Timorese state would not only be economically unviable but would further complicate the balance of power in the Pacific. For Indonesia, the situation seemed simple: why allow the Timorese a troublesome independence when they could impose unity?

There has been much dispute over the American role in the Indonesian incorporation of East Timor and the horrific occupation that ensued. I have been to the archive and I have looked at the documents and I can say with some authority that the United States knew of the imminent invasion of East Timor and the quashing of its independence, and that it did nothing to stop it. After the fall of South Vietnam, the U.S. was scrambling to shore up its friendships with other countries in the Asia-Pacific and Indonesia was a key ally. Had Gerald Ford and Henry Kissinger told Indonesian president Suharto not to invade, he would have done so anyway; and then he would have eyed Washington with suspicion and listened to them less in the future. The U.S. administration chose the option of the realist.

In doing so, it cast light on the limits of American power and American idealism. The U.S. has long declared foreign policy goals that it cannot possibly meet in practice - from a world safe for democracy to a world free of terrorism - and the people of East Timor would learn something about this real world of broken dreams and victimization by the powerful through 27 years of brutal occupation. Their occupation was condemned by the UN but supported by America, Australia and the United Kingdom, who stayed allies of Indonesia even as the military of the latter murdered some 100,000 Timorese. Legally, this was not genocide - but it was close. But while the Cold War raged on and Indonesia remained an important ally for trade and military basing rights, the fate of the Timorese was ignored.

When the Cold War was over, Indonesian hegemony gradually lost its legitimacy in the international community. The Timorese proved themselves a resilient and determined people, and the independence movement remained strong. The brutal massacre of over 250 civilians in the capital, Dili, in 1991 garnered widespread world attention on a planet that had recently witnessed so many victories against autocracy; and gradually, the Indonesians realized what must be done. In 1999 the process of deciding the future of the area was begun, and this ended in a referendum that delivered an overwhelming vote for independence.


Independence has not been easy for the Timorese. Their country, like was often said, is small, impoverished, and possibly not viable in the long term. They have been wracked by internal conflict, exacerbated by the poor economic situation which makes resources worth fighting for. But they have fought and suffered for it so much that no-one can deny them the opportunity to rule it and decide upon their own future. The international community may have to help them, but we in the developed countries owe them nothing less after the shoddy way we have treated them for a long century.

The Timorese suffered from waging a battle for a cause that was outside of history and of interest to no-one who was powerful; principles of self-determination and freedom are only observed as much as is practicable by the major powers of the world, and sometimes not even that much. Humanity's maturity has delivered self-rule to all parts of the globe and this gift came last of all to the East Timorese, some forty years after many other countries received it. Perhaps, had they wielded the gun, they would have acted no differently to the outsiders. History suggests they would not. But the actual chain of events serves as a reminder to what happens to the weak and vulnerable who remain at the edges of the concerns of the major powers; their story ought to animate us to a better defence of those who remain there today.

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