East Timor - language, government, economy, cities, history, tourism, people, education, religion, agriculture, climate

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East Timor

East Timor or Timor-Leste, independent republic in Southeast Asia, forming the eastern half of the island of Timor. It is bordered by the Wetar Strait to the north and the Timor Sea to the south. The western half of the island belongs to the Republic of Indonesia and is part of East Nusa Tengarra province. East Timor was a Portuguese colony from the early 16th century until 1975 and was claimed as a province of Indonesia from 1976 to 1999. In August 1999 the East Timorese population voted to become an independent nation, and the territory was subsequently placed under the administration of the United Nations (UN) as it transitioned to complete independence. It became a fully independent republic in May 2002 officially named the República Democrática de Timor-Leste (Portuguese for Democratic Republic of East Timor). The national capital is Dili, a small port city located on the northern coast.


East Timor covers 14,874 sq km (5,743 sq mi) and includes the main eastern side of Timor, the enclave of Ocussi (Ambeno) in the western portion of Timor, and some small islands. It has a mountainous terrain; Tata Mailau (2,950 m/9,679 ft), in the west, is the highest peak. Many rivers flow from the mountains through the coastal plains. The climate is hot with monsoon rains falling between December and March. Daily temperatures range from highs of 30° to 34°C (86° to 93°F) to lows of 20° to 23°C (68° to 73°F). October to December is the hottest period. In the south, the foothills of the mountains are covered in acacia and eucalyptus, but the north coast is arid, with a severe dry season.


East Timor had an estimated population of 859,700 in 1996, when it was still under Indonesian control. Following the vote for independence in August 1999, violent rampages by Indonesian militia groups forced many East Timorese to flee their homes. UN peacekeeping forces arrived to restore order later that year, and many East Timorese refugees subsequently returned. The estimated population of East Timor in 2009 was 1,131,612. Dili has a population of 49,000 (2003 estimate). Some 92 percent of the population lives in rural areas.

Many East Timorese people are descendants of the Tetum, who traditionally inhabited the south central area of the island. These people speak the Tetum language, a Malayo-Polynesian language of the Austronesian language family. Other smaller ethnic groups, many with their own languages, live in small, scattered communities.

Tetum and Portuguese are the official languages of East Timor. Only a small minority of the population speaks Portuguese, which was introduced when East Timor was a colony of Portugal. However, a variant of Tetum called Tetum Prasa incorporates many Portuguese loan words; it is widely spoken in and around Dili. Bahasa Indonesia and English are also spoken in the country. Literacy is relatively low in East Timor; only 43 percent of individuals aged 15 and older can read and write.

Roman Catholicism is the religion of about 90 percent of the population. Many East Timorese continue to follow traditional animist beliefs. Although Islam and Hinduism have significant followings in many parts of the Malay Archipelago, including Indonesia, neither religion is well established in East Timor.


East Timor is one of the least economically developed countries in the world and depends heavily on foreign aid. The infrastructure of East Timor is underdeveloped. The country’s only major road extends eastward from Dili, linking towns along the northern coast. Although natural resources are limited, East Timor has offshore natural gas and oil deposits in the Timor Sea. Under an agreement between East Timor and Australia, East Timor is to receive 90 percent of the revenues generated from these deposits beginning in 2005, with Australia receiving the remaining 10 percent. This development is expected to significantly improve the economy of East Timor.

The gross domestic product (GDP) of East Timor in 2007 was $395,400,000. In 2006 services contributed 55 percent of the GDP, industry contributed 12.8 percent, and agriculture contributed 32.2 percent.

About 73 percent of the labor force is engaged in agriculture. Commercially produced crops include coffee, coconuts, cloves, and cacao. Coffee is the country’s principal export crop. Subsistence crops include rice, maize, cassava, and sweet potatoes. Tropical fruits, including mangoes and pineapples, are also grown. Many rural people continue to practice shifting cultivation (also called swidden or slash-and-burn agriculture) and use simple tools to grow their crops. Commercial forestry is viable in some areas.

The services sector—including trade, finance, and public administration—employs about 22 percent of the labor force. Most service-sector jobs are located in Dili. The industry sector employs about 5 percent. Industries include the manufacture of textiles, the bottling of water, and the processing of coffee.

The official currency of East Timor is the U.S. dollar. The Central Bank of East Timor has the sole power of issue.


East Timor’s constitution took effect when the territory officially became independent in May 2002. It provides for a democratic republic with a president as head of state and a prime minister as head of government. All citizens aged 18 and older have the right to vote.

The president of East Timor is directly elected to serve a five-year term and may serve no more than two consecutive terms. Under the constitution, the president is the symbol of East Timorese independence and the guarantor of the smooth functioning of the republic’s democratic institutions. The president is the supreme commander of the defense forces.

The prime minister oversees the day-to-day functioning of government and chairs the Council of Ministers. The prime minister is designated by the political party or alliance of political parties with a majority in the national legislature and formally appointed by the president. Ministers are also appointed by the president, following the recommendations of the prime minister.

The legislature of East Timor is the unicameral (single-chamber) National Parliament. Members of the National Parliament are directly elected by universal suffrage to serve five-year terms of office. The first National Parliament is comprised of the 88 directly elected members of the constituent assembly, a transitional body that drafted the constitution of East Timor. The assembly automatically became the republic’s first legislature upon independence in May 2002 and as such is to serve a full term. Thereafter, the constitution provides for a National Parliament of at least 52 and no more than 65 members.

The Supreme Court of Justice is the highest court of law in East Timor. Decisions of the Supreme Court are not subject to appeal. The Supreme Court is headed by a president, who is appointed by the president of the republic to a four-year term. The National Parliament elects one member of the Supreme Court, while all other members are designated by the Superior Council for the Judiciary. This council is the organ of management and discipline of judges and is responsible for judiciary appointments, transfers, and promotions.


Timor was a destination on ancient Chinese trade routes and was particularly known for its sandalwood. The Portuguese began colonizing Timor in the early 16th century as European trade and influence expanded in the region. They exploited Timor for its forest products and spices, and made slaves of Timorese people.

Colonial East Timor

In the 17th century the Dutch also began establishing bases on Timor, and this led to conflicts between the two European powers. The island was formally divided in a series of agreements beginning in 1859. The Portuguese kept control over the eastern section, and the Dutch government eventually controlled West Timor. Over the years, Portugal showed little interest in East Timor, making life in the neglected colony very difficult. Little money was invested in infrastructure, and illiteracy levels were high. The area became a penal colony for political prisoners who had resisted the government in Portugal. The colonial police force and the use of forced labor instigated a culture of fear in the colony.

During World War II (1939-1945) Japanese forces planned to capture Timor to use as a base for an attack on Australia. In 1942 a major Japanese force invaded Timor. The East Timorese played a significant role in assisting a small number of Australian soldiers fighting the Japanese in 13 months of guerrilla warfare. However, the Australians evacuated in 1943, and the Japanese controlled East Timor until their surrender in 1945. Up to 60,000 East Timorese were killed during the war as a result of fighting, Japanese raids on villages, and Allied bombing aimed at the Japanese invasion forces.

Indonesia declared independence after the end of the war and took over West Timor from the Dutch, but East Timor remained under Portuguese domination. However, in 1974 the government of Portugal was overthrown and the incoming regime began liberating Portugal’s colonies around the world. The following year Indonesia and Portugal held talks regarding the decolonization of East Timor, and a referendum was scheduled to allow the East Timorese to decide their future.

In this period a number of independence movements gained strength. The major protagonists were the Timorese Democratic Union (Uniao Democratica Timorense, or UDT), which supported a conservative move toward independence that included retaining close ties to Portugal, and the Revolutionary Front for an Independent East Timor (Frente Revolucionária do Timor Leste Independente, or Fretilin), which supported outright independence. Intense negotiations to settle the status of East Timor followed, but in August 1975 talks between Indonesia and Portugal failed. Civil war broke out between UDT and Fretilin, and many refugees fled into Indonesian West Timor. In November Fretilin declared unilateral independence. Despite this declaration and continuing negotiations between all parties, Indonesian forces invaded East Timor in December. In 1976 East Timor was declared an Indonesian province, a designation never recognized by the United Nations (UN).

Resistance to Indonesian Rule

Organized resistance to Indonesia’s administration in East Timor grew out of existing anticolonial nationalist organizations, particularly Fretilin. Under the leadership of José Alexandre (“Xanana”) Gusmão, Fretilin mounted guerrilla attacks against the Indonesian forces, inflicting serious damage. Between 1977 and 1979 the Indonesian government resettled villagers in hamlets that were easier to control than the previous disparate rural communities. The resettlement program, which removed people from their land, caused widespread famine. As many as 100,000 Timorese died between 1975 and 1979 as a result of the civil war, the Indonesian invasion and occupation, and famine. Fretilin activist José Ramos-Horta, who fled the island after the Indonesian invasion, spent more than two decades traveling the world as a spokesman for East Timorese autonomy, representing Fretilin at the UN from 1975 to the mid-1980s. Catholic bishop Carlos Ximenes Belo used the power of the Catholic Church to defend East Timorese interests and to remain a visible proindependence figure in East Timor. In 1983 Gusmão initiated talks with the Indonesian military designed to plan the peaceful liberation of East Timor. However, violence flared, a state of emergency was declared, and resistance increased. East Timorese people were resisting not only Indonesian rule, but also the “Indonesianization” of East Timor, as the government resettled thousands of Indonesians from the crowded western areas of the archipelago in Timor.

In November 1991 a huge crowd attending the funeral of a proindependence activist marched through Dili, demonstrating in favor of independence. The Indonesian military fired on the marchers, killing between 100 and 180 mourners and arresting hundreds more. Timorese groups claimed that as many as 100 of the arrested demonstrators and other witnesses of the massacre were subsequently executed. The Dili massacre was a critical turning point in the resistance against the Indonesians, and it attracted widespread international condemnation.

Gusmão was captured by the Indonesian armed forces in 1992 and imprisoned in Jakarta. Bishop Belo and Ramos-Horta continued to push for a peaceful settlement between the Indonesian government and the East Timorese. For their nonviolent efforts at bringing peace to East Timor, Belo and Ramos-Horta were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1996.


Indonesian president Suharto resigned in 1998. His successor, Buharuddin Jusuf (“B. J.”) Habibie, sought to resolve the East Timor issue. A UN-sponsored referendum was planned, allowing the East Timorese to decide if they would become an autonomous region of Indonesia or an independent nation. Prior to the vote, armed clashes occurred between proindependence guerrillas and militia forces. The militia claimed simply to be patriots fighting for Indonesia but actually had roots going back prior to the 1975 Indonesian invasion. Many of the militia leaders had been members of civilian guards often linked to procolonial, and later pro-Indonesian, forces. These groups had a long history of antagonism against Fretilin and were believed to be afraid of retribution if independence was achieved.

The vote was successfully held in August 1999, and autonomy within Indonesia was overwhelmingly rejected in favor of complete independence. Violence between independence supporters and the militia, allegedly backed by Indonesian military, increased significantly immediately after the vote. The international community called for Indonesia to uphold the vote, end its support for the militia, and withdraw its troops. Weeks of violence passed before a UN force under Australian leadership was able to enter East Timor and restore a degree of calm. During this period thousands of East Timorese disappeared. Many fled to refugee camps throughout West Timor, but unknown numbers were killed by the militia and Indonesian troops. Dili and other towns were razed, the infrastructure of East Timor was almost totally destroyed, and thousands of people hid in the mountains with only very basic supplies, if any.

In October 1999 the Indonesian government ratified the results of the August referendum and repealed the 1976 legislation that had annexed East Timor. The Indonesian forces eventually withdrew, and a UN mission was established to help rebuild East Timor and to administer its transition to independence.

In August 2001 East Timor held its first democratic elections, with 16 political parties participating. The elections established an 88-member constituent assembly that was responsible for drafting and adopting East Timor’s first constitution. Fretilin, the party most directly associated with East Timor’s independence struggle, won 55 seats in the assembly, giving it a simple majority. In March 2002 the assembly approved East Timor’s constitution, which provided for a republic with a president as head of state and a prime minister as head of government. In another preparatory step toward full independence, East Timor held its first, direct presidential elections in April. Former resistance leader Xanana Gusmão, who after the 1999 referendum was freed by the Indonesian government and allowed to return to East Timor, was elected to the post with an overwhelming majority.

Amid jubilant crowds of East Timorese celebrating a hard-won independence, East Timor became a fully independent republic—and the world’s newest nation—at the stroke of midnight on May 20, 2002. Although nearly three years of UN governance formally came to an end, UN peacekeepers and civilian police remain in East Timor as part of a new UN mission to help maintain the country’s external and internal security. In September East Timor became a member of the United Nations.

Sporadic violence continued in the country, fueled by the slow nature of economic reform, and the peacekeeping mission was extended in response to outbreaks of rioting. The mission was extended for another year in May 2003, though the size of the peacekeeping force was cut significantly. Meanwhile, the commission dealing with human rights violations in the period 1975-1999, but specifically concerned with the violence following the August 1999 elections, continued to try those responsible for the atrocities. Many cases were dismissed, and there was concern when other participants escaped with lenient sentences. Notable among the convictions was that secured against Eurico Guterres, the former militia leader, who was found responsible for the deaths of over 1,000 people. In 2005 a Truth Commission was established.

In April 2006 more than 600 army personnel were dismissed after going on strike complaining of discrimination and demanding better employment conditions. Demonstrations followed and the violence escalated in May with the former soldiers fighting with the regular army. Thousands fled the capital, Dili, to avoid the violence. International military intervention was requested by the government (to replace the International Peacekeeping Force that left in May 2005). Armed forces, headed by Australia, were readied and deployed at the end of the month. After being blamed for instigating the disturbances, the prime minister was urged to stand down by President Gusmão. Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri resisted the calls but finally resigned at the end of June. He was replaced in early July by José Ramos-Horta, winner of the 1996 Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to win self-determination for East Timor.

Ramos-Horta was elected the second president of East Timor in May 2007. He defeated Francisco Guterres, leader of Fretilin, the party that had governed East Timor since independence. Gusmão, whom Ramos-Horta succeeded, did not seek re-election. Ramos-Horta pledged to bring stability to the troubled country, although violence broke out within hours of his swearing-in ceremony.

In the June 2007 parliamentary elections Fretilin, now under the leadership of Alkatiri, won the most seats with 21 but failed to establish a majority in the 65-seat legislature. Gusmão’s newly formed National Congress for the Reconstruction of East Timor (CNRT) took only 18 seats but managed to put together a coalition with smaller parties, known as the Alliance of the Parliament Majority, that claimed 37 seats. After much contention, Ramos-Horta named Gusmão as East Timor’s prime minister in August 2007.

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