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History, Colonial East Timor

Fretilin, Dutch government, West Timor, penal colony, eastern section

In the 17th century the Dutch also began establishing bases on Timor, and this led to conflicts between the two European powers. The island was formally divided in a series of agreements beginning in 1859. The Portuguese kept control over the eastern section, and the Dutch government eventually controlled West Timor. Over the years, Portugal showed little interest in East Timor, making life in the neglected colony very difficult. Little money was invested in infrastructure, and illiteracy levels were high. The area became a penal colony for political prisoners who had resisted the government in Portugal. The colonial police force and the use of forced labor instigated a culture of fear in the colony.

During World War II (1939-1945) Japanese forces planned to capture Timor to use as a base for an attack on Australia. In 1942 a major Japanese force invaded Timor. The East Timorese played a significant role in assisting a small number of Australian soldiers fighting the Japanese in 13 months of guerrilla warfare. However, the Australians evacuated in 1943, and the Japanese controlled East Timor until their surrender in 1945. Up to 60,000 East Timorese were killed during the war as a result of fighting, Japanese raids on villages, and Allied bombing aimed at the Japanese invasion forces.

Indonesia declared independence after the end of the war and took over West Timor from the Dutch, but East Timor remained under Portuguese domination. However, in 1974 the government of Portugal was overthrown and the incoming regime began liberating Portugalís colonies around the world. The following year Indonesia and Portugal held talks regarding the decolonization of East Timor, and a referendum was scheduled to allow the East Timorese to decide their future.

In this period a number of independence movements gained strength. The major protagonists were the Timorese Democratic Union (Uniao Democratica Timorense, or UDT), which supported a conservative move toward independence that included retaining close ties to Portugal, and the Revolutionary Front for an Independent East Timor (Frente Revolucionaria do Timor Leste Independente, or Fretilin), which supported outright independence. Intense negotiations to settle the status of East Timor followed, but in August 1975 talks between Indonesia and Portugal failed. Civil war broke out between UDT and Fretilin, and many refugees fled into Indonesian West Timor. In November Fretilin declared unilateral independence. Despite this declaration and continuing negotiations between all parties, Indonesian forces invaded East Timor in December. In 1976 East Timor was declared an Indonesian province, a designation never recognized by the United Nations (UN).



Article key phrases:

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