Sputnik Escalates the Cold War
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East Timor

The island of Timor is located at the southeastern edge of the Indonesian archipelago. East Timor became a Portuguese colony in the sixteenth century, while the western portion of the island was controlled by the Dutch. During World War II, East Timor was occupied first by Australia and then by Japan. After the Japanese surrender in August 1945, the Portuguese returned to East Timor. But when the Portuguese dictatorship was overthrown in the April 1974 Carnation Revolution, the new military rulers were determined to grant independence to Portugal's colonial possessions, including East Timor. That set the stage for a brief power struggle over who would rule a newly independent East Timor.

The local independence movement was badly split, and the pro-Portuguese conservative Timor Democratic Union (UDT) staged a coup on 11 August 1975, allegedly to preempt a communist takeover. The Left-leaning Revolutionary Front for an Independent East Timor (best known under the name Fretilin, derived from its Portuguese abbreviation) proved ultimately victorious and soon controlled most of East Timor. Because the Portuguese had left the island, Fretilin proclaimed independence on 28 November 1975. The new state was not officially recognized by the United Nations (UN), which still regarded Portugal as the administering power.

Fearing a potentially communist regime in the region, Indonesia sent military forces (Operation komodo) to occupy East Timor on 7 December 1975. Recently released documents show that U.S. President Gerald Ford and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger had given a green light for the invasion during their visit to Jakarta, Indonesia, the day before. The Indonesian Army encountered fierce and prolonged Fretilin resistance, which was finally broken with brute force. By 1979, official Indonesian figures reported 372,921 civilians in refugee camps, while at least 100,000 people of a population of some 680,000 Timorese had been killed since the beginning of the invasion. The UN Security Council deplored and denounced the situation, calling upon Indonesia to withdraw its troops, but failed to formally condemn the invasion in a December 1975 resolution. While the UN never recognized Indonesian sovereignty, several Arab and Asian states recognized the occupation.

In the years following the invasion, the United States, Canada, Japan, and Australia were among powers recognizing de facto Indonesian sovereignty. Australia granted de jure recognition in February 1979 when it opened negotiations for the exploration of oil fields off the Timorese coast. Washington regarded Indonesian dictator General Suharto as a bulwark against Soviet influence in Southeast Asia. Furthermore, the Ombai-Wetar Straits off the coast of East Timor permitted undetected submarine passage between the Pacific and Indian Oceans, an important element in U.S. Navy strategy. Lacking international support, the Timorese resistance movement, led by Xanana Gusmao, had little prospect of winning independence, even after its international spokesmen, José Ramos-Horta and Bishop Belo, were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1996.

Subsequent to Suharto's resignation in May 1998, his successor B. J. Habibie surprisingly offered to stage a referendum on the future of East Timor. The vote went ahead on 30 August 1999, and 78.5 percent opted for independence. Only hours after the vote had been tallied, however, pro-Indonesian militias began to engage in violence and looting. After a UN fact-finding mission concluded that the violence had been orchestrated by the Indonesian Army, international pressure persuaded Habibie to accept a UN peacekeeping force; it arrived on 20 September 1999. East Timor was placed under UN supervision and finally achieved independence on 20 May 2002.

Jan Martin Lemnitzer


Further Reading
Taylor, John. East Timor: The Price of Freedom. London: Zed, 2000.
 

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