Timor-Leste is situated on the eastern half of the island of Timor, located in the Lesser Sunda Islands of Indonesia in South East Asia. The Dutch and the Portuguese established trading bases in Timor, which was originally occupied by Australasian migrants. Conflict between the two European countries between 1642 and 1906 culminated in the establishment of present-day boundaries and shared power. Timor experienced general instability during and after World War II. Japan occupied it during the war, followed by Portugal. The 1974 coup in Portugal forced it to decolonize Timor. Efforts were now underway to stabilize the newly decolonized territory, but were unsuccessful given the feud between the major political parties. Indonesia took advantage of this situation and invaded in 1975. Backed by the United States government under the Gerald Ford administration, the Indonesian government took control of the land and in the process eliminated hundreds of thousands of Timorese through starvation and violence.
Lay of the Land: The Democratic Republic of East Timor occupies the eastern half of the island of Timor, in Indonesia’s Lesser Sunda Islands, plus the enclave of Ocussi on the northern coast of west Timor.
The island of Timor was originally settled as the result of Australasian migration from 40,000-20,000 BC. Its people came from Sri Lanka, Australia and Indonesia, as well as China and Indo-China.
The years of the Cold War were of much concern to the United States. The US government feared the spread of communism throughout Southeast Asia and viewed it as a national security threat. Thus, when Indonesia invaded East Timor in 1975, the US government—unlike others in the international community—did not object to the military action, given that the Indonesian government led by Suharto was in effect combating communism. In fact, as the years wore on, it was revealed that the administration of President Gerald Ford, which included Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, approved the invasion. While the international community protested, the US government doubled military aid to Indonesia and prevented the United Nations from taking effective action against the country. During this period, US relations with East Timor were highly influenced by its relations with Indonesia. Because the US was engaged in a Cold War against communism, foreign government had only to claim they were fighting communism to gain US support. This is what the Indonesian military did and successfully won over President Gerald Ford, who aided and approved the Indonesian invasion of East Timor in 1975. Much of the Indonesian military’s weaponry was supplied by the US. These weapons were supposedly to be used only in the act of self-defense. The brutal and violent tactics used by the Indonesian military caused an outcry from human rights organizations around the world. Human rights groups in the US were responsible for pressuring Congress into acknowledging and ultimately cutting ties with the Indonesian government over human rights abuses. The U.S. Congress contemplated cutting all aid, including World Bank loans, to Indonesia. In the face of such opposition and the possible elimination of a major source of money, the Indonesian military finally withdrew all of its forces from East Timor by the October 31, 1999. An international peacekeeping force made up of UN peacekeeping forces led by Australia was established to maintain order until power could be turned over to an independent East Timor government body.
The United States Naval Mobile Construction Battalion Forty base at Camp Lenhoff in the capital Dilli serves as a base for the navy’s Seabees. Seabees is a branch of the navy which is comprised mainly of civil engineers and personnel with other construction skills whose purpose is to provide improvements in infrastructure wherever they are based. According to the US embassy in East Timor, the Seabees purpose in East Timor is to “coordinate with the Timor-Leste Government and other international partners on infrastructure project development in order to improve essential infrastructure, service capabilities, and foster goodwill. They have completed 14 projects, including a medical clinic in Osso Huna, a market building in Baucau, and a soccer stadium in Gleno.” They have also provided improvements to the cities university.
Commerce between the US and Timor-Leste is very small. In 2009, US imports totaled $66,000 and exports $2.4 million. The largest exports were material handlings equipment ($321,000), civilian aircraft, engines, equipment and parts ($320,000), industrial machines ($191,000), telecommunications equipment ($188,000) and sports apparel and gear ($152,000).
President Obama Considers Resuming Joint-Training of Indonesian Forces Linked to Atrocities in East Timor.
President Obama has resumed talks with his Indonesian counterpart Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono concerning joint-training programs for Indonesian military units. Kopassus, one of the units in question, has been linked to war crimes. This would lift a 12-year old ban on such operations. The US will only do so if the Indonesian government is actively committed to bringing those guilty of war crimes to justice. However, will it begin training as soon as the agreements are signed or will it wait until alleged suspects are convicted. The US on its part plans on training younger soldiers who could not have, because of their age, taken part in the atrocious acts themselves.
Note: The United States established diplomatic relations with East Timor and opened Embassy Dili on May 20, 2002. Shari Villarosa served as Chargé d’Affaires ad interim May-Dec 2002.
Constancio da ConceiçãoPinto was educated in the United States and received a Masters degree in International Relations from Columbia University. According to East Timor’s embassy in the US, “he has dedicated his life and energy to the freedom and self-determination of Timor-Leste (East Timor).” Before independence, he was persecuted, jailed and tortured by the Indonesian army. He was able to escape and organize a protest that led to the Santa Cruz massacre on November 12, 1991, in which more than 200 students were brutally murdered by the Indonesian military. In 1997, he received a US Congressional Achievement Award for his work towards social, political, and economic justice in East Timor.
The impoverished nation of Timor-Leste, which only recently emerged from years of colonial rule, has a new U.S. ambassador with significant experience in the Australasian region. President Barack Obama nominated Judith R. Fergin to the post June 15, 2010. Her confirmation hearing was held on July 21, she was confirmed by the Senate August 5, and she took charge of her post September 9.
Hans G. Klemm served as the US Ambassador to East Timor from June 2007 until May 25, 2010. Klemm has worked as director of the Office of Career Development and Assignments in the Bureau of Human Resources of the State Department, and as director of the Office of Agriculture, Biotechnology and Textile Trade Affairs in the Bureau of Economic and Business Affairs.