Timor-Leste was colonised by the Portuguese in 1520. Portugal’s tense relationship with its rival, Holland, dominated the region for the next two hundred years as the Dutch colonised the rest of the island, known as West Timor, which has been part of Indonesia since 1945. Timor-Leste essentially served as a Portuguese trade post for exporting sandalwood, coffee, sugarcane and cotton. No significant investments were made in infrastructure, education or healthcare. After Japanese forces brutally took over much of the island during World War II, efeating Dutch and Australian troops with as many as 60,000 Timorese being killed, Portuguese rule was restored in 1945. Portugal’s revolution in 1974, however, marked the beginning of its global decolonisation. Timor-Leste first declared itself independent in 1975, but Indonesia invaded shortly after. This marked the beginning of a violent 24-year occupation, during which up to 180,000 people – approximately one-third of the population – were killed or died from starvation and related illness. Under international political pressure, Indonesia agreed to allow a UN-sponsored referendum in August 1999, in which 78% of the Timorese population voted for independence.
While Timor-Leste had experienced limited socio-economic improvements during Indonesian rule, anti-independence militias, supported by the Indonesian military, systematically destroyed the country’s limited infrastructure and productive base as the forces departed: This included the destruction of 70-85% of buildings, schools and businesses, the burning of fishnets and trucks, and the killing of livestock. Up to two thousand people were killed and hundreds of thousands were displaced. After three years of UN administration, the first democratic government of independent Timor-Leste took over in May 2002. Tensions in the military complicated by other factors are cited as the causes of another flare-up of violence in 2006-07, which displaced 150,000 people from the capital, Dili. Since 2007, Timor-Leste has been peaceful; all remaining UN troops left the country in 2012.