At least three waves of migration are thought to have left descendants in East Timor. Anthropologists classify the earliest as Veddo-Australoids, who came from the north and west at least 42,000 years ago. Melanesians arrived in a second migration about 3000 BC. The previous Veddo-Australoid peoples retreated to the mountainous interior at this period. Finally, proto-Malays from south China and north Indochina came. Among those descending from this last generation are Hakka merchants. Timorese origin stories speak of ancestors who sailed around Timor’s eastern end before landing in the south. Some legends tell of Timorese forefathers traveling from the Malay Peninsula or the Sumatran Minangkabau highlands. Austronesians came to Timor and are believed to have contributed to the island’s agricultural growth. Finally, Proto-Malays came from southern China and northern Indochina. Prior to European colonization, Timor was a part of Chinese and Indian trade networks, and it was an exporter of fragrant sandalwood, slaves, honey, and wax in the 14th century. Timor’s relative abundance of sandalwood drew European explorers to the island in the early 16th century. European explorers claimed that the island had a number of minor chiefdoms or princedoms at the time.
In Timor and Maluku, the Portuguese built outposts. Effective European possession of a small portion of the land started in 1769, with the establishment of the city of Dili and the declaration of the colony of Portuguese Timor. The Permanent Court of Arbitration of 1914 established a definite border between the Dutch-colonised western half of the island and the Portuguese-colonised eastern half of the island, which remains the international boundary between the successor nations East Timor and Indonesia. East Timor was nothing more than a neglected trade station for the Portuguese until the late nineteenth century, with little investment in infrastructure, health, and education. Sandalwood was the primary export crop until the mid-nineteenth century, when coffee exports became important. Portuguese control was largely negligent but exploitative when it occurred, as was frequently the case.
A failing home economy led the Portuguese to take more money from its colonies at the turn of the twentieth century, which was greeted with East Timorese opposition. The Japanese seized Dili during WWII, and the rugged interior became the site of a guerilla war known as the Battle of Timor. The battle was fought by Allied troops and East Timorese volunteers against the Japanese and resulted in the deaths of between 40,000 and 70,000 East Timorese. The Japanese ultimately drove away the remaining Australian and Allied troops. However, when World War II ended and the Japanese surrendered, Portuguese authority was restored.
Following the 1974 Portuguese revolution, Portugal essentially abandoned its colony on Timor, and civil war broke out in 1975 between East Timorese political groups.
The Revolutionary Front for an Independent East Timor (Frente Revolucionária de Timor-Leste Independente, Fretilin) withstood a coup attempt by the Timorese Democratic Union (Unio Democrática Timorense, UDT) and proclaimed independence unilaterally on November 28, 1975. Fearing the establishment of a communist state inside the Indonesian archipelago, the Indonesian military invaded East Timor in December 1975, backed by Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States. On July 17, 1976, Indonesia proclaimed East Timor its 27th province (Timor Timur). The invasion was rejected by the UN Security Council, and the region’s nominal position in the UN remained “non-self-governing territory under Portuguese administration.”
The occupation of East Timor by Indonesia was characterized by violence and cruelty. In the years 1974–1999, a comprehensive statistical study produced for the Commission for Reception, Truth, and Reconciliation in East Timor indicated a minimum limit of 102,800 conflict-related fatalities, including roughly 18,600 murders and 84,200 “excess” deaths from starvation and disease. From 1975 until 1999, the East Timorese guerrilla force (Forças Armadas da Libertaço Nacional de Timor-Leste, Falintil) waged a war against Indonesian troops.
The Dili Massacre in 1991 was a watershed moment for the worldwide independence movement, and an East Timor solidarity movement developed in Portugal, Australia, and other Western nations.
Following Indonesian President Suharto’s retirement, a UN-sponsored deal between Indonesia and Portugal allowed for a UN-supervised public vote in August 1999. A clear vote for independence was greeted with a punishing campaign of violence by pro-integration militias in East Timor, backed by sections of the Indonesian military. With Indonesian approval, a multinational peacekeeping force headed by Australia was deployed until order was restored. The United Nations Transitional Government in East Timor took over the administration of East Timor in late 1999. (UNTAET). With the handover of military leadership to the UN in February 2000, the INTERFET mission came to a conclusion.
East Timorese voted in their first UN-organized election to elect members of the Constituent Assembly on August 30, 2001. The Constitution was adopted by the Constituent Assembly on March 22, 2002. Over 205,000 refugees had returned by May 2002. The Democratic Republic of East Timor’s Constitution went into effect on May 20, 2002, and the UN recognized East Timor’s independence. The Constituent Assembly was renamed the National Parliament, and the country’s first President, Xanana Gusmo, was sworn in. East Timor was renamed Timor-Leste and accepted to the United Nations as a member state on September 27, 2002.
Gusmo rejected another presidential term the next year, and there were fresh episodes of violence in the run-up to the April 2007 presidential elections. In the May 2007 election, José Ramos-Horta was elected President, whereas Gusmo campaigned in the legislative elections and was elected Prime Minister. Ramos-Horta was severely wounded in a February 2008 assassination attempt. Prime Minister Gusmo was also targeted by gunshots but escaped unhurt. Australian troops were promptly sent to assist in maintaining order. When instability and factional violence caused 15% of the population (155,000 people) to leave their homes in 2006, the UN deployed in security troops to restore order. The UN turned over operational authority of the police force to East Timor authorities in March 2011. On December 31, 2012, the United Nations concluded its peacekeeping operation.