THE SOUTH PACIFIC: The Making of Tim-Tim

The remote and primitive Portuguese fiefdom of East Timor in the Lesser Sunda islands may have been the closest thing ever to a colony that no one really wanted. Discovered by the Portuguese in the 16th century, it has been theirs by default ever since. A mountainous wilderness roughly half the size of Maryland, East Timor has 650,000 inhabitants, mainly illiterate natives. Colonial mastery, such as it was, lay in the hands of an appointed governor, several hundred Portuguese militiamen, and a handful of coffee planters.

All that began changing rapidly two years ago. The Portuguese, spurred by their anticolonial...