The Democratic Republic of East Timor or Timor–Leste is an island nation in Southeast Asia, consisting of the eastern half of the island of Timor, the nearby islands of Atauro and Jaco, and Oecussi–Ambeno, a political enclave of East Timor situated on the western side of the island, surrounded by West Timor.  East Timor was once the farthest of the Portuguese colonies; it lies in the longitude of 123°E and latitude of 9°S (Wikipedia, East Timor).

The Portuguese arrived in Timor in 1515 to a “loose collection of independent kingdoms with languages and cultures vastly different from those of its neighbours to the west” (Taudevin, 1999, 15).  The Portuguese established ports, in the then called Indies, to control the spice trade.  However, it was not until the 1700s after the Governor was installed in Dili that they began more efficient commercial exploitation of resources.  They made huge profits from exports of sandalwood but eventually overexploited this resource.  As sandalwood became almost extinct the Portuguese in 1815 introduced coffee, along with sugar cane and cotton (Duncan, 1999).  Duncan (1999) continues in mentioning that East Timor remained largely underdeveloped with an economy based on the barter system.

Prior to World War II, the capital, Dili, had no electricity or water supply and there were few roads.  Even so, before the Second World War the Japanese Empire considered East Timor to be of strategic importance.  When World War II started, the Australians and the Dutch, aware of Timor’s importance as a buffer zone, landed in Dili despite Portuguese protests.  The Japanese then used the presence of the Australians as a pretext for an invasion in February 1942 and stayed until September 1945 (Brahmana, 1996).

By the end of World War II, East Timor was in ruins.  Approximately 60,000 East Timorese had lost their lives because of the Japanese occupation and the efforts of the Timorese to resist the invaders and protect Australia as reported by Brahmana (1996).  The Timorese and the Portuguese tried to help the country recover.  Nevertheless, development was slow.  The average annual growth rate between 1953 and 1962 was just 2%.  Meanwhile the United Nations, through Resolution 1514 (XV) of December 14, 1960 declared East Timor a non-self governing territory under Portuguese administration (UN, 2000).  Portugal tried seriously and systematically to develop East Timor but did not achieve much success.

The transition to democracy in Portugal had a sudden impact on all its colonies.  In 1974, Portugal acknowledged the right of the colonial territories under its administration, including East Timor, to “self-determination” and withdrew from East Timor.  With the withdrawal of the Portuguese, civil war broke out between those who favoured independence and those who advocate integration with Indonesia (UNDP, 2005).

On November 28, 1975, Fretilin, the most popular political party at the time, declared independence of East Timor.  Two days later the pro-Indonesian parties also proclaimed the independence of East Timor and its integration with Indonesia (Martin, 2001).  On December 7, 1975, Indonesia launched an invasion of East Timor.  The international community subsequently adopted resolution 389 calling on Indonesia to withdraw without delay all of its forces from the territory and respect the territorial integrity of East Timor and the “people’s rights to self determination” (UN & East Timor Government, 2004).  The early years of the Indonesian rule resulted in heavy loss of life in East Timor.  Estimates of the number who died as a result of the conflict, including the famine and disease that accompanied the displacement of large parts of the population, range from tens of thousands to as many as two hundred thousand (Martin, 2001).  The fall of President Suharto in May 1988 opened the way for significant progress diplomatically and in June 1998 President Habibie announced that Indonesia was prepared to give East Timor wide-ranging autonomy (Taudevin, 1999).

On August 30, 1999, the East Timorese voted in a popular consultation and 78.5% of East Timorese voted for independence from Indonesia.  Gross violence, destruction and intimidation followed in the next days with countless East Timorese killed and many properties destroyed.  More than 200,000 fled to West Timor and the UN was forced to withdraw.  Nearly one month later United Nations peacekeepers arrived and in October 1999 the United Nations Transitional Administration in East Timor (UNTAET) officially took charge.  On May 20th 2002, East Timor became fully independent, (UNTAET & World Bank, 2000).

As a newly-independent country, Timor-Leste is still struggling to improve the lives of its people, working together with development partners including the United Nations team.  Outbreaks of gang violence in 2006, 2007, and 2008 were recorded in the capital city of Dili.  In 2008 the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) reported that during 2006 Timor-Leste, although a medium human development country, ranked at 150th position out of 177 countries.  This indicates that much has to be done to improve the health, education, and economic productivity of Timor-Leste’s people (UNDP, 2006).


From INTERNATIONAL DEVELOPMENT PAPER for Concept of Community Development by Luc Sabot

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