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Summary Article: East Timor
From The Hutchinson Unabridged Encyclopedia with Atlas and Weather Guide

Country in southeast Asia, on the island of Timor in the Malay Archipelago.

Government The 2002 constitution was modelled on that of Portugal and provides for a democratic parliamentary political system with a non-executive presidency. The president is elected by popular vote for a five-year term, renewable once. The president has some veto powers, but has a largely symbolic role. The legislature, the National Parliament, has 65 members elected by popular vote, using party list proportional representation, for five-year terms. Parties are required to have women candidates in at least every third position on their list. The first parliament, however, had (exceptionally) 88 members: 13 members represented the country's 13 districts; the remaining 75 were allocated to political parties based on a nationwide proportional representation system. The leader of the majority party or coalition in parliament is appointed prime minister by the president and presides over a cabinet of ministers.

History Portuguese traders first landed in Timor in 1520 looking for the sandalwood tree and established a colony in 1702. Roman Catholicism spread to become the main religion. In 1859 Dutch settlers landed and the island was divided in two: the Dutch secured control of West Timor (which later became part of Indonesia), and the Portuguese retained East Timor. The Japanese occupied the island 1941–45, and around 50,000 Timorese died in guerrilla struggles, alongside Allied forces, against Japanese rule.

Portuguese withdrawal In 1974 freedom fighter Nicolau Lobato formed the Timorese Social Democratic Association, later the left-wing Frente Revolucionária do Timor Leste Independente (Fretilin; Revolutionary Front of an Independent East Timor), to fight for independence from Portuguese rule. Civil war broke out a year later and Fretilin – in conjunction with their guerrilla army the Falintil – occupied the capital, Dili and declared independence in November 1975. Portugal withdrew, and East Timor was left with a literacy rate of under 10% and no infrastructure. However troops from neighbouring Indonesia invaded the territory nine days later. Indonesia declared East Timor, as Timor Timur, the 27th province of Indonesia in July 1976. The annexation was not recognized by the United Nations (UN), who called for Indonesian withdrawal.

Indonesian rule The war, followed by a military crackdown and widespread famine, caused more than 100,000 deaths. Starvation was alleviated by the mid-1980s, and the Indonesian government built schools, roads, and hospitals. However, Fretilin guerrillas remained active, and in November 1991 Indonesian troops fired on pro-independence demonstrators killing 50, and in the ensuing clashes between 100 and 200 unarmed protesters died. More than 1,000 Fretilin fighters surrendered in November 1992 following the capture of the Falintil leader Xanana Gusmão. In 1996 the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded jointly to Carlos Belo, Bishop of Dili and José Ramos-Horta, an exiled spokesperson for Fretilin, for their persistent denunciation of human-rights violations by Indonesian soldiers in East Timor. The campaign for independence was renewed in 1998 after President Suharto of Indonesia stepped down, and in July 1998 Indonesia withdrew 400 troops.

Referendum sparks violence The release of Xanana Gusmão from prison in Jakarta, Indonesia, in February 1999 was the first concrete sign of change. In April, the rival groups East Timor agreed a ceasefire, and peace talks began in June. This was followed by a UN-sanctioned referendum in August, offering East Timorese voters the choice between ‘special autonomy’ within Indonesia or independence. As part of the referendum campaign the flag of the East Timorese resistance was legally flown for the first time in 23 years. The UN announced the results of the referendum on 4 September. Almost 350,000 of East Timor's 450,000 voters – nearly 80% – voted to reject the offer of special autonomy. Armed gangs opposed to the vote for independence embarked on a rampage through the territory, surrounding Dili, killing citizens, and destroying property. UN staff, who had supervised the referendum, began evacuating regional offices. Despite the imposition of martial law, pro-Indonesian groups continued to run through Dili unchecked. The upsurge in violence prompted calls for the early deployment of an international peacekeeping force to prevent a slide into anarchy. Indonesian president Bacharuddin Habibie agreed to allow foreign peacekeepers into East Timor, but reports continued to emerge of murder and starvation. Up to 300,000 East Timorese had left their homes to escape attacks.

International intervention Australian, British, and New Zealand warships set sail for East Timor in September 1999, beginning the biggest military operation to be launched in the area since World War II. The first troops of an Australian-led UN force, the International Force in East Timor (INTERFET), landed in East Timor on 20 September, but anti-independence militias stepped up their opposition. In late September, INTERFET troops took the centre of Dili, and by the end of the month an estimated 20,000 displaced East Timorese had returned to the city. As more atrocities by militias came to light, Indonesia agreed for the UN to speed up its civilian takeover of the territory, but flatly ruled out proposals for a UN probe into human rights abuses. It was estimated by the UN in January 2000 that around 630 people had been murdered in East Timor between January and October 1999. Gusmão and Belo returned to East Timor in October, but about 250,000 other refugees were in refugee camps in West Timor or hiding in the hills. Under international pressure, the Indonesian government said it would allow them back, and President Habibie told the army to pursue democratic reforms. In November, a new Indonesian government under Abdurrahman Wahid agreed unanimously to let the province of East Timor become independent. The UN Security Council responded by voting to commit 11,000 peacekeepers to the territory.

Transitional government In early 2000 President Wahid visited East Timor for the first time since the 1999 referendum and apologized to the victims of the atrocities. INTERFET was replaced by the UN Transitional Administration for East Timor (UNTAET), and Wahid signed a memorandum of understanding with UNTAET, providing for the resumption of cross-border trade and transport links between East Timor and Indonesia. In December 2000 the first indictments for crimes against humanity were announced by UNTAET, and 11 people were charged with the execution of civilians in September 1999. The return of refugees from West Timor was slow. Around 150,000 remained in camps at the end of January 2000, despite around 700 refugees, including 300 children, having died from disease in the camps since September 1999. UN aid workers complained of continuing violence in refugee camps in late August, and suspended UN operations there.

Towards independence In February 2001 the UN extended the mandate of UNTAET until 31st January 2002, due to continuing security problems. In the same month the East Timor Defence Force was established, and drew its first batch of 650 recruits from former Falintil troops, who were trained by the Australian and Portuguese armies. In late March 2001, Gusmão, now the head of the East Timor National Council (ETNC) – the interim legislature appointed by UNTAET – resigned, complaining of political infighting. Manuel Carrascalao was then elected by ETNC as its new president, defeating the UN-nominated Ramos-Horta, who became foreign minister. In July 2001, after a year of negotiations, Australia bowed to East Timor's demands and agreed to give the state 90% of revenues from oil and gas reserves in the Timor Sea.

Democratic elections and formal independence East Timor held its first democratic elections on 30 August 2001, drawing a turnout of 91%. Fretilin won 55 of the 88 seats in East Timor's constituent assembly with 57% of the vote. Mari Alkatiri, the secretary-general of Fretilin, who unusually was a Muslim in an overwhelmingly Roman Catholic country, became chief minister. Presidential elections followed in April 2002, and were won by a landslide margin by Xanana Gusmão. In early 2002 East Timor and Indonesia signed two agreements aimed at easing relations, and the constituent assembly approved a draft constitution. On 20 May 2002 East Timor celebrated its formal independence and the UN Security Council replaced UNTAET with the UN Mission of Support for East Timor (UNMISET).

The newly independent country faced continuing violence from those who had opposed independence, but Gusmão worked hard for reconciliation.

In June 2006 Jose Ramos Horta, who had been foreign minister since independence, replaced Mari Alkatiri of Fretilin as prime minister. This followed Alkatiri's forced resignation after 40 people died in riots in Dili in April 2006 in support of striking soldiers who had sacked by the prime minister. Foreign troops, led by Australia, were needed to restore order. A UN peacekeeping mission was set up in August 2006 and the UN maintained operational control over the police forces until 2011. The UN peacekeeping mission, supported by Australian troops, continued until December 2012.

Ramos-Horta becomes president Gusmão decided not to contest the presidential elections of May 2007, preferring instead to seek to become prime minister. The presidential elections were won by Ramos-Horta, standing as an independent, who won 69% of the run-off round vote, finishing ahead of Francisco Guterres of Fretilin.

The parliamentary elections, held in June 2007, produced an inconclusive result, with Fretilin finishing first, followed by the National Congress for Timorese Reconstruction (CNRT), which Gusmão had recently formed, having broken with Fretilin. Gusmão became prime minister in August 2007, heading a coalition government. This led to violent protests by supporters of Fretilin, led by Alkatiri who was then in opposition.

In February 2008 rebel soldiers launched assassination attempts on the president and prime minister. Both survived, although Ramos-Horta suffered serious gunshot wounds. and a state of emergency was imposed briefly. Ramos-Horta stood for the presidency in 2012, but he finished third behind Francisco ‘Lu-Olo’ Guterres, the president of Fretilin, and Taur Matan Ruak, a former soldier who had been the last commander of the Falintil insurgent army (in 1999) and had then served in the East Timor army from 2002. Ruak won the run-off round and became president in May 2012.

Fretilin's Araujo becomes prime minister Gusmão's CNRT finished ahead of Fretilin in the July 2012 parliamentary elections and the coalition government continued. Gusmão remained as prime minister until February 2015, when he made way for the opposition Fretilin's Rui de Araujo, heading a national unity government.

Backed by both Fretilin and the CNRT, and pledging increased spending on health and education, Francisco Guterres won the March 2017 presidential elections, with 57% of the first-round vote. He became president in May 2017.

Alkatiri returns as prime minister Parliamentary elections held in July 2017 brought an inconclusive result. Support for the CNRT fell by 7% (to 29% and it finished with only 22 (down 8) of the 65 seats, finishing behind Fretilin, which won 23 seats with 30% of the vote. The People's Liberation Party (PLP), which had been formed in 2015 by President Taur Matan Ruak, entered parliament with 8 seats and 11% of the vote.

In September 2017 East Timor reached agreement with Australia on the country's disputed maritime border. This promised to enable a stalled US$40 billion offshore gas project to go ahead.

Also in September 2017, 67-year-old Fretilin leader Mari Alkatiri became prime minister again, at the head of a coalition government with the Democratic Party (which had 7 seats). His government's priorities were to secure East Timor's accession to the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), for which talks had been ongoing since independence, and improving the country's education and health services and ailing oil-dependent economy. However, this new government was unable to get its policy programme passed and in January 2018 President Guterres dissolved parliament and called fresh elections.

© RM, 2018. All rights reserved.

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