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History, Independence

Fretilin, Indonesian military, West Timor, peacekeepers, independent republic

Indonesian president Suharto resigned in 1998. His successor, Bucharuddin Jusuf Habibie, sought to resolve the East Timor issue. A UN-sponsored referendum was planned, allowing the East Timorese to decide if they would become an autonomous region of Indonesia or an independent nation. Prior to the vote, armed clashes occurred between proindependence guerrillas and militia forces. The militia claimed simply to be patriots fighting for Indonesia but actually had roots going back prior to the 1975 Indonesian invasion. Many of the militia leaders had been members of civilian guards often linked to procolonial, and later pro-Indonesian, forces. These groups had a long history of antagonism against Fretilin and were believed to be afraid of retribution if independence was achieved.

The vote was successfully held in August 1999, and autonomy within Indonesia was overwhelmingly rejected in favor of complete independence. Violence between independence supporters and the militia, allegedly backed by Indonesian military, increased significantly immediately after the vote. The international community called for Indonesia to uphold the vote, end its support for the militia, and withdraw its troops. Weeks of violence passed before a UN force under Australian leadership was able to enter East Timor and restore a degree of calm. During this period thousands of East Timorese disappeared. Many fled to refugee camps throughout West Timor, but unknown numbers were killed by the militia and Indonesian troops. Dili and other towns were razed, the infrastructure of East Timor was almost totally destroyed, and thousands of people hid in the mountains with only very basic supplies, if any.

In October 1999 the Indonesian government ratified the results of the August referendum and repealed the 1976 legislation that had annexed East Timor. The Indonesian forces eventually withdrew, and a UN mission was established to help rebuild East Timor and to administer its transition to independence.

In August 2001 East Timor held its first democratic elections, with 16 political parties participating. The elections established an 88-member constituent assembly that was responsible for drafting and adopting East Timor’s first constitution. Fretilin, the party most directly associated with East Timor’s independence struggle, won 55 seats in the assembly, giving it a simple majority. In March 2002 the assembly approved East Timor’s constitution, which provided for a republic with a president as head of state and a prime minister as head of government. In another preparatory step toward full independence, East Timor held its first, direct presidential elections in April. Former resistance leader Xanana Gusmao, who after the 1999 referendum was freed by the Indonesian government and allowed to return to East Timor, was elected to the post with an overwhelming majority.

Amid jubilant crowds of East Timorese celebrating a hard-won independence, East Timor became a fully independent republic—and the world’s newest nation—at the stroke of midnight on May 20, 2002. Although nearly three years of UN governance formally came to an end, UN peacekeepers and civilian police remain in East Timor as part of a new UN mission to help maintain the country’s external and internal security. In September East Timor became a member of the United Nations.

Article key phrases:

Fretilin, Indonesian military, West Timor, peacekeepers, independent republic, stroke of midnight, Indonesian government, simple majority, unknown numbers, democratic elections, Dili, militia, independent nation, refugee camps, autonomy, internal security, political parties, patriots, mountains, roots, referendum, prime minister, independence, head of state, successor, United Nations, international community, transition, towns, seats, republic, head of government, force, vote, legislation, party, results, mission, groups, governance, member, years, post, thousands of people


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