Companion to East Timor - Before the Invasion

Before the Invasion

Human settlement has occurred on East Timor for thousands of years as a result of waves of migration from Melanesia, continental Asia, and the islands to the west.


Jacques Descloitres, MODIS Land Rapid Response Team, NASA/GSFC, 07-07-2002.

Chinese navigation texts from the 13th century onwards refer to Timor. Most of the western part of Timor eventually came under the control of the Netherlands, while Portugal claimed the eastern part.

Read an excerpt from William Dampier's voyage in 1699 here. Read an excerpt from Anna Forbes' travels in the 1880s here.

Portgugal imposed a head tax in 1908 on all men aged 18 to 60, compelling them to work and produce above their subsistence needs in order to pay it. This led to rebellions. For much of the 20th century, Portugal was ruled by Western Europe's most enduring authoritarian system, the fascist Estado Novo of Antonio Salazar.

Australia, East Timor's large southern neighbour, had not shown any serious interest in it before World War II. However, after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour on 7 December 1941, Australian, Dutch and British troops invaded East Timor, thereby violating Portuguese neutrality. It was only then that Japan decided to deploy its own troops there. The war resulted in the deaths of as many as 60,000 East Timorese, who never received war reparations for their suffering in this conflict. After the war, East Timor remained extremely isolated from the neighbouring islands.

Read an excerpt from Frank Clune's travels here. Read an excerpt from J. Gert Vondra's travels here. Read an excerpt from John Cockcroft's travels here. Read Jean Berlie's article on East Timor's legal history here.

In 1968, Salazar was incapacitated by a stroke. He was succeeded by Marcello Caetano, who proved unable to alleviate Portugal's economic problems or to win its wars with liberation movements in its African colonies. On 25 April 1974, a group of military officers known as the Armed Forces Movement deposed Caetano in what would be known as the Carnation Revolution. They disbanded the paramilitary forces, eliminated censorship, abolished the secret police, and issued a decree that committed Portugal to a decolonisation process.

Political organizations in East Timor were able to come out into the open after the revolution. On 11 May 1974, the Uniao Democratica Timorense (UDT) or Timorese Democratic Union was the first political party to be formed. It was followed on 20 May by the Associacao Social Democratica Timorense (ASDT) or Timorese Social Democratic Association. The third organisation was the Associacao para Integracao de Timor na Indonesia (APODETI) or the Association for the Integration of Timor into Indonesia. It later changed its name to the electorally acceptable Associacao Popular Democratica Timorense (also shortened to APODETI) or the Timorese Popular Democratic Association. ASDT renamed itself the Revolutionary Front for an Independent East Timor, FRETILIN (Frente Revolucionaria de Timor Leste Independente) on 11 September 1974.

The political inexperience of all the leaders, itself the result of years of living under Portuguese authoritarianism, was manipulated by neighboring Indonesia, whose intelligence services conducted destabilization operations against East Timor with the ultimate goal of annexation. In August 1975, Indonesia fomented a civil war between UDT and FRETILIN, hoping for a UDT victory. Instead, FRETILIN emerged victorious after a little over two weeks. Indonesia then conducted covert military operations against East Timor from September 1975 onwards. These operations grew in intensity until it launched a full-scale military invasion of East Timor on 7 December 1975.