In May 2002, after 450 years of continuous foreign occupation, East Timor became theworld’s newest independent state. However, East Timor's road to independence was long and traumatic.
The Portuguese first arrived on the island in the early 16th century and by the 1550s had occupied the eastern part. The Dutch took control of the western part, which became part of the Dutch East Indies and, after independence, Indonesia.
In 1975, the new left-wing Portuguese government relinquished all of its colonies. East Timor then enjoyed just a few days of independence, before the Indonesians annexedit as their 27th province. There was little local resistance and the international community largely acquiesced.
The main Timorese independence movement, FRETILIN (Frente Revolucionario de Este Timor Independente), which was originally formed to fight the Portuguese, now had to gear up again to combat a new and even more brutal occupier. In the savage counter-insurgency campaign that followed, the Indonesian army killed over 100,000 East Timorese.
It was not until the 1997 Asian economic crisis and the subsequent removal of veteran Indonesian President Suharto that the growing international criticism of the Indonesian campaign began to have some effect. In June 1999, President Habibie of Indonesia announced that a referendum would be held in East Timor, offering independence or autonomy within Indonesia.
The referendum was held in August 1999 and 80% opted for independence. By way of revenge, the Indonesian army, along with local militias that they had armed and financed, indulged in an orgy of destruction and killing that displaced hundreds of thousands of people and destroyed the territory’s already fragile economic base.
In October 1999, a UN transitional administration (UNTAET) was set up in East Timor, pending the conduct of national elections. The new country faced a massive reconstruction task and the government has found it difficult to deliver on many of its initial promises.
Colonial architecture, Portuguese fortresses and other remains from the 100-year-long Portuguese occupation can be found all over the country. However,many towns and villages were destroyed during the Indonesian occupation and the fighting in 1999, and these are only slowly being rebuilt. Many houses are still built on stilts in the traditional way, using local materials such as grass, bamboo, tree trunks and palm leaves