East Timor: Free at Last

East Timor becomes independent at midnight on May 19 and will now be known as Timor Lorosa’e. This ends one of the most tragic sagas in the history of colonialism. But the new country will wake up to many problems on May 20.

The World Today
4 minute READ

Keith Suter

Director of Studies, International Law Association (Australian Branch)

The most obvious problem for the world’s newest nation is its lack of preparation for independence. Under Portuguese rule for almost four centuries, East Timor was one of the world’s oldest colonies. In 1975, with Portugal and its African empire in chaos as a result of the military rebellion, it declared independence. Xavier do Amaral became president, with Jose Ramos Horta the world’s youngest foreign minister.

Suharto’s Indonesia invaded East Timor that December. Its actions had the support, if not the encouragement, of the United States and Australia. They feared that an independent country could become a communist outpost, like Cuba. The chance of this happening was minute but, as America had been driven out of Vietnam only seven months earlier, there were worries about communist expansion. In per capita terms, the resulting war was one of the twentieth century’s most destructive.

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