East Timor, also known as Timor Leste, was a Portuguese colony from 1859 to 1975, with a brief period of Japanese occupation during World War II. Following the change of Portuguese government in the wake of the Carnation Revolution in 1974, the process of East Timor's independence began soon after Angola and Mozambique were decolonized.
Known as Portuguese Timor under Portugal's rule, East Timor declared its independence on November 28, 1975. Only days after, Indonesian forces occupied the country, declaring it as its 27th province. Indonesian occupation lasted another 25 years and caused a large number of casualties. While the official number of casualties differ widely, according to western sources, an estimated 60,000 to 100,000 people, mostly guerillas fighting for independence, were killed. In November 1991 western reporters shot images of Indonesian armed forces firing on unarmed protestors who were demanding democracy and independence.
In 1999, Indonesia agreed to let the East Timorese choose between independence and local autonomy. In the UN backed referendum, an overwhelming majority voted for independence from Indonesia. Before the international peacekeeping force could arrive, militia supported by the Indonesian military started a brutal retribution campaign, killing another 1,400 people and driving 300,000 refugees to western Timor. The peacekeeping force brought an end to the violence, and East Timor became a near model success story for the UN. However, there have been other incidents of violence which have brought back international peacekeepers and contingents from neighboring Australia.
Jose Ramos-Horta, a Nobel Peace Prize winner and former prime minister, became president following elections in May 2007 by an overwhelming majority. The first elected president of East Timor and the independence hero Xanana Gusmao was named the new prime minister in August 2007.
East Timor remains a poor nation with huge developmental problems. The vast offshore oil and gas fields in the Timor Sea may hold the future promise for the country's economy. Australia and East Timor have come to an agreement to share revenues from the exploration and sales of these reserves.
Last updated: July 8, 2010
Sources: BBC, UN Data, World Bank, International Crisis Group, CIA World Factbook.