2007 ETLJ 2 Ethnicity, Violence, & Land and Property Disputes in Timor-Leste
B.A (Hon.), LL.B / M.A. International Affairs
Norman Paterson School of International Affairs &
Faculty of Common Law, University of Ottawa
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Dili, Timor-Leste & Ottawa, Canada, 2006 ©
In the not too distant past, the world’s newest nation seemed to have a bright future. The end of 24-years of struggle against Indonesian occupation was seen to mark the end of conflict and the beginning of peacebuilding for Timor-Leste. Kofi Annan called Timor-Leste the poster-child for successful international intervention, lauding it as ‘the’ example of effective nation building, while World Bank President Paul Wolfowitz crowned the country a shining example of post-conflict development during his visit in April 2006. These views have proved prematurely optimistic.
Most foreign observers and international staff who worked (or are still working) in Timor-Leste were unaware major divisions existed within Timorese society. While some were aware of obvious political divides stemming from the brief post-Portuguese civil war in 1975, few had any inkling of an east-west divide which has become the focal point of the current crisis facing Timor-Leste.
The current outbreak of violence marks the emergence of a new round of a preexisting internal conflict, largely unknown to outsiders and buried for years under Indonesian occupation. Broadly speaking, the recent conflict is rooted deeply in large scale horizontal inequality between ethnic identities in terms of land and property access and ownership in Dili, with a significant portion of destruction and violence stemming from the failure to address this issue in the wake of the 1999 scorched earth campaign. These problems, combined with the internal schism institutionalized in the F-FDTL, East–West divisions fanned by certain politicians and the anaemic economy have all contributed to the current situation in Timor-Leste. Ultimately, violence may have been triggered by political mishandling of a delicate situation, but there are multiple important underlying causes that must be examined to properly understand the situation. This is crucial to prevent such breakdowns in the future for United Nations nation-building missions and to inform current international efforts in Timor-Leste.
Country Background 
Timor-Leste (formerly East Timor) is the world’s newest democratic country. After nearly 400 years of Portuguese colonial rule and 24 years of Indonesian military occupation, independence was formally gained in May of 2002. It is a small country, covering half the island of Timor and currently has a population of less than one million. Timor-Leste is a village-based society with over sixteen distinct language groups, characterized by dramatic geography, isolation, and diverse local cultural traditions.
The country has a violent history. After a brief civil war, Timor-Leste declared independence from Portugal on November 28th, 1975. It was invaded and occupied by Indonesian forces nine days later, under the auspices of crushing a Communist revolution at the request of one the defeated internal faction, the União Democrática Timorense (UDT). It was then incorporated into Indonesia in July 1976 as the province of Timor Timur, in violation of international law prohibiting the acquisition of territory through aggression. This move was internationally recognized only by Australia.
An extremely brutal, yet ultimately unsuccessful campaign against local resistance fighters followed over the next twenty-four years, during which the occupiers, killed, starved, sterilized, and executed between 104,000 to 183,300 Timorese citizens — out of the then 800,000 population.
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