May 202015


On this date in 2002 East Timor or Timor-Leste, officially the Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste, a country in Maritime Southeast Asia became an independent nation. It consists of the eastern half of the island of Timor, the nearby islands of Atauro and Jaco, and Oecusse, an exclave on the northwestern side of the island, within Indonesian West Timor. East Timor was colonized by Portugal in the 16th century, and was known as Portuguese Timor until Portugal’s decolonization of the country. In late 1975, East Timor declared its independence but later that year was invaded and occupied by Indonesia and was declared Indonesia’s 27th province the following year. In 1999, following the United Nations-sponsored act of self-determination, Indonesia relinquished control of the territory, and East Timor became the first new sovereign state of the 21st century on May 20, 2002.

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Descendants of at least three waves of migration are believed still to live in East Timor. The first were related to the principal Australoid indigenous groups of New Guinea and Australia, and arrived more than 40,000 years ago. Around 3,000 BCE, Austronesians migrated to Timor, and are thought to be associated with the development of agriculture on the island. Thirdly, Proto-Malays arrived from south China and north Indochina. Before European colonialism, Timor was included in Chinese and Indian trading networks, and in the 14th century was an exporter of aromatic sandalwood, slaves, honey, and wax. It was the relative abundance of sandalwood in Timor that attracted European explorers to the island in the early 16th century. During that time, European explorers reported that the island had a number of small chiefdoms or princedoms.

The Portuguese established outposts in Timor and Maluku. Effective European occupation of a small part of the territory began in 1769, when the city of Dili was founded and the colony of Portuguese Timor declared. A definitive border between the Dutch-colonized western half of the island and the Portuguese-colonized eastern half of the island was established by the Permanent Court of Arbitration of 1914, and it remains the international boundary between the successor states East Timor and Indonesia. For the Portuguese, East Timor remained little more than a neglected trading post until the late nineteenth century, with minimal investment in infrastructure, health, and education. Sandalwood remained the main export crop with coffee exports becoming significant in the mid-nineteenth century. As was often the case, Portuguese rule was generally neglectful but exploitative where it existed.

At the beginning of the twentieth century, a faltering home economy prompted the Portuguese to extract greater wealth from its colonies, which was met with East Timorese resistance. During World War II, the Japanese occupied Dili, and the mountainous interior became the scene of a guerrilla campaign, known as the Battle of Timor. Waged by Allied forces and East Timorese volunteers against the Japanese, the struggle resulted in the deaths of between 40,000 and 70,000 East Timorese. The Japanese eventually drove the last of the Australian and Allied forces out. However, following the end of World War II and Japanese surrender, Portuguese control was reinstated.


Following the 1974 Portuguese revolution, Portugal effectively abandoned its colony on Timor and civil war between East Timorese political parties broke out in 1975. The Revolutionary Front for an Independent East Timor (Frente Revolucionária de Timor-Leste Independente, Fretilin) resisted a Timorese Democratic Union (União Democrática Timorense, UDT) coup attempt, and unilaterally declared independence on November 28, 1975. Fearing a communist state within the Indonesian archipelago, the Indonesian military, with western support (notably the U.S.), launched an invasion of East Timor in December 1975. Indonesia declared East Timor its 27th province on 17 July 1976. The UN Security Council opposed the invasion and the territory’s nominal status in the UN remained as “non-self-governing territory under Portuguese administration”.

Indonesia’s occupation of East Timor was marked by violence and brutality. A detailed statistical report prepared for the Commission for Reception, Truth and Reconciliation in East Timor cited a minimum of 102,800 conflict-related deaths in the period 1974–1999, namely, approximately 18,600 killings and 84,200 “excess” deaths from hunger and illness. The East Timorese guerrilla force (Forças Armadas da Libertação Nacional de Timor-Leste, Falintil) fought a campaign against the Indonesian forces from 1975 to 1999.[citation needed] The invasion was supported by the United States.

The 1991 Dili Massacre was a turning point for the independence cause internationally, and an East Timor solidarity movement grew in Portugal, Australia, and other western countries. Following the resignation of Indonesian President Suharto, a UN-sponsored agreement between Indonesia and Portugal allowed for a UN-supervised popular referendum in August 1999. A clear vote for independence was met with a punitive campaign of violence by East Timorese pro-integration militia with the support of elements of the Indonesian military. With Indonesian permission, an Australian-led international peacekeeping force was deployed until order was restored. In late 1999, the administration of East Timor was taken over by the UN through the United Nations Transitional Administration in East Timor (UNTAET). The INTERFET deployment ended in February 2000 with the transfer of military command to the UN. By May 2002, over 205,000 refugees had returned, and East Timorese independence was formalized on 20 May 2002 with Xanana Gusmão sworn in as the country’s first President. East Timor became a member of the UN in 2002.


The following year, Gusmão declined another presidential term and in the build-up to the April 2007 presidential elections there were renewed outbreaks of violence. José Ramos-Horta was elected President in the May 2007 election. Ramos-Horta was critically injured in an attempted assassination in February 2008. Prime Minister Gusmão also faced gunfire separately but escaped unharmed. Australian reinforcements were immediately sent to help keep order. In 2006, the United Nations sent in security forces to restore order when unrest and factional fighting forced 15 percent of the population (155,000 people) to flee their homes. In March 2011, the UN handed-off operational control of the police force to the East Timor authorities. The United Nations ended its peacekeeping mission on December 31, 2012.


The food in East Timor is divided into two categories vegetarian and non vegetarian. As agriculture is the main occupation in East Timor the staple food is rice as it is cultivated widely in this country. Apart from rice the other food items cultivated include sweet potatoes, maize, cassava, taro, beans, cabbage, spinach, onions and cowpeas. The second category of food consists of poultry, pigs and goats with almost every house in East Timor having some domesticated animals. Fish is also very important.

Cooking styles are an amalgam of SE Asian and European influences. Favorite dishes include:

Budu- A sauce of tomato, mint, lime, and Spanish onion.

Ikan sabuko- A Spanish mackerel in tamarind marinade with basil and capsicum.

Tapai- A fermented rice dish. It is sweet, sour, and slightly alcoholic.

Caril – A mild chicken curry with a roasted capsicum and coconut paste.

Feijoada – A common dish of former Portuguese colonies, it is made with pork, cannellini beans and chorizo.

Here is batar daan, made with corn, mung beans, and winter squash. It makes a great side dish for ikan sabuko (pictured).


Batar Daan


1 lb fresh corn
½ lb dried mung beans
2 lb winter squash or pumpkin, peeled and diced
4 cups water
2 onions, diced
8 cloves garlic, minced
3 tablespoons olive oil
salt and pepper to taste


Soak the mung beans overnight. Drain them, place in a pot, cover with water and simmer until soft. In my experience there is no telling how long this will take – sometimes and hour or more.

Sauté the onion and garlic in olive oil over medium heat in a deep, heavy skillet until softened.

Add the water, squash, beans, and corn, increase the heat to high and bring to a boil. Reduce to a simmer and cook until the vegetables are tender, around 25 minutes. During this time the liquid should mostly reduce and thicken.

Season with salt and pepper to taste. Serve with rice.

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