This Week in History

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This Week in History
20 May 2002: East Timor becomes an independent country

  Mugdha Chaturvedi

On 20 May 2002, East Timor emerged as an independent country after its struggle against the Indonesian occupation. Earlier, it was under the Portuguese rule until 1975.

1500-1975: From Portugal to Independence 
The Portuguese entered Timor as traders and were followed by the Dutch in the early 1500s. A conflict between the Dutch and the Portuguese led to the division of Timor into two - East Timor and West Timor, and rule by the Dutch and the Portuguese, respectively. The Portuguese introduced economic development measures; Sandalwood forests of East Timor became the focus of economic activities. 

During World War II, Japan aimed to establish its rule in East Timor but faced high opposition from the locals. In 1974, following a change in government in Portugal, Lisbon initiated a process of decolonization and left East Timor in 1975. After a brief Civil War, the left-wing Fretilin in East Timor declared independence.   

1976: East Timor becomes a part of Indonesia
In 1976, Indonesia intervened militarily, taking control of East Timor and making it the 27th province. The UN refused to recognize Indonesia's above action and called for a rollback of Indonesian forces from East Timor.

In 1982, following a UN request, a dialogue started between Indonesia and Portugal, which led to Indonesia claiming limited autonomy over East Timor in 1998. On 5 May 1999, Portugal and Indonesia signed an agreement at New York on transferring East Timor's authority to the United Nations. 

1999: The Road to Referendum
Following the 1999 agreement, the United Nations Mission in East Timor (UNAMET) was created under UNSC Resolution 1246. Meanwhile, inside East Timor, the pro-Indonesian groups started to target the civilians. On the other side, Fantili, the armed wing of the Fretilin party, attacked the Indonesian forces using guerilla warfare.

In September 1999, the UN created the International Force in East Timor (INTERFET) to ensure peace and order in East Timor and help the UNAMET in carrying out its on-ground missions. 

From Referendum to an independent East Timor and first President
On 25 October 1999, the UN Security Council resolution 1272 established the United Nations Transnational Administration in East Timor (UNTAET) to administer East Timor. The UNTAET was made responsible for maintaining law and order in East Timor and creating indigenous political, civil, and social services. 

On 30 August 2001, in another vote, 91 per cent turned out to elect members to draft a new Constitution for East Timor. The Constitution came into force on 22 March 2001; the first Presidential elections were held on 14 April 2001, resulting in Xanana Gusmão becoming the first President of independent East Timor. On 20 May 2001, the first government was sworn in East Timor.

East Timor after independence
Timor Leste, as it is now known, joined the UN in 2002 and received observer status in ASEAN in 2017.

Internally, East Timor faces challenges. Approximately 50 per cent of the children are stunted by malnutrition, and there is a lack of basic education and sanitation facilities. Many infrastructure projects have been completed using poor-quality materials. Political disputes continue on issues related to power-sharing and cabinet appointments.


About the Author

Mugdha Chaturvedi is a postgraduate student at Pandit Deendayal Energy University and a Research intern at NIAS.

In the Series:
21 May 1991: LTTE human bomb assassinates Rajiv Gandhi
30 April 1975: Saigon falls to North Vietnam troops, leading to the reunification of Vietnam
21 April 1526: The First Battle of Panipat leads to the emergence of the Mughal Empire in India
17 April 1895: The Treaty of Shimonoseki ends the first Sino-Japan War (1894-95)
17 April 1975: Khmer Rouge captures Phnom Penh in Cambodia, establishing the Pol Pot regime
16 April 1917: Lenin issues “April Theses”
04 April 1968: Martin Luther King Jr assassinated
18 March 2014: Russia annexes Crimea
14 March 1879: Albert Einstein born in Germany
14 March 1849: The Sikh Army surrenders to the British
12 March 1918: Lenin shifts the capital to Moscow
11 March 1985: Mikhail Gorbachev becomes the General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union

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