Main languages: Tetum and Portuguese are official languages, while Indonesian and English are working languages. According to the 2015 Census, 91.8 per cent have at least some proficiency (reading, writing and /or speaking) in Tetum, compared to 62 per cent in Bahasa Indonesian, 60.7 per cent in Portuguese and 39 per cent in English.
The population is made up of a variety of ethnic groups, speaking some sixteen languages. Most (12) indigenous peoples are of Austronesian origin, while there are four including the Bunak, Fataluku and Makasae which are of predominantly Melanesian-Papuan origin. These include in terms of percentages: Tetum Prasa (30.6 per cent), Mambai (16.6 per cent), Makasae (10.5 per cent), Tetum Terik (6.1 per cent), Baikenu (5.9 per cent), Kemak (5.8 per cent), Bunak (5.5 per cent), Tokodede (4 per cent), Fataluku (3.5 per cent), Waima’a (1.8 per cent), Galoli (1.4 per cent), Naueti (1.4 per cent), Idate (1.2 per cent), Midiki (1.2 per cent) and others. In terms of numbers, the main ethnic groups (according to mother tongue) are – of Malayo-Polynesian origin: Tentum (Tentun Prasa and Tentun Terik) (432,445); Mambai (195,780); Tokodede (46,784) Galoli (16,266), Kemak (68,995), Baikeno (69,190). And of Papuan origin: Bunak (64,686), Fataluku (41,500), Makasai (123,840) (2015 Census).
Main religions: Roman Catholic 97.6 per cent, Protestant/Evangelical 2 per cent, Muslim 0.2 per cent, other 0.2 per cent.
Among the largest ethnic groups are Tetum whose language is one of the country’s two official languages (the other being Portuguese). They live mainly around Dili and on the neighbouring northern coast. The Mambai live mainly in the central mountains. Some of the other main groups are Tukudede, Galoli and the Baikeno. There are also small populations of Portuguese and Chinese, as well as of people of mixed Timorese and Portuguese origin known as mestiços.
The end of the Indonesian occupation saw a dramatic shift in Timor-Leste’s ethnic composition. Whereas Muslims were thought to represent perhaps at least 10 per cent of the population before independence, largely because the Indonesian government’s transmigration and development activities, today only a small fraction of this community remain.
Updated May 2020
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The legacy of Timor-Leste’s brutal occupation by Indonesia, beginning in 1975 after the end of Portuguese rule, has continued to shape the country’s political landscape since it secured independence in 2002. While for decades Indonesian repression offered a source of common identity across Timor-Leste, recent years have seen the deepening of tensions between the eastern and western populations – at times erupting into violence – as well as other areas of dispute related to language, land and political representation. Nevertheless, despite ongoing challenges around corruption and political cronyism, the country is in the process of building a common consensus through development and democracy.
Language has also proved a divisive issue in Timor-Leste, particularly at the initial stages of independence. As enshrined in the Constitution, Tetum and Portuguese are official languages while Indonesian and English are considered working languages. Even though only 0.1 per cent of Timorese have Portuguese as their mother language, the language of government administration and education is officially Portuguese. At the time of independence, Portuguese was mainly only spoken by the older generation political elites or resistance fighters who spent time in other Portuguese colonies like Mozambique; the younger generation spoke Bahasa Indonesian, reflecting a class and generational divide. Understanding of Portuguese has risen rapidly since independence, with approximately 39.3 per cent now proficient in Portuguese.
Nevertheless, in 2008 the government, recognizing the difficulty for many Timorese using Portuguese as the main language of instruction – reflected in poor education indicators and few teachers that could adequately speak the language – passed the Basic Education Act of 2008 (ME 2008), highlighting the importance of mother tongue education and instituting Tetum as a second language of instruction. This change resulted in calling for mother tongue multilingual language education in the Timor-Leste Strategic Development Plan 2011-2030 and the Mother Tongue-based Multilingual Education Pilot project, supported by UNESCO. The project focuses on using the mother tongue indigenous languages for early education and adding multilingual education at later stages. The project has reportedly had a positive impact on attendance rates and community relations.
Inconsistent land laws and policies have been the norm in Timor-Leste in the last couple of decades, as a result of shifting rule, conflict and displacement. Amid the violence that followed the independence referendum in 1999, exiting Indonesia troops left a trail of destruction, destroying homes and property titles. In the aftermath, people began returning to the capital and occupied whatever housing was available, without proper housing or land documentation. As a result of illegal occupation, an extreme housing shortage and no effective policy to address competing land/property claims, tensions between communities have flared. For example, violence in 2006 was used as an opportunity to gain control over land and housing.
Despite the difficulties related to land and housing rights, no legal framework was set up to address claims. The parliament approved a draft land law that established criteria to determine land ownership, but it was vetoed by then President José Manuel Ramos-Horta in 2012. Finally, however, in April 2017, the Land Law and related Expropriation Law came into force. The two laws are part of a package set of laws to remedy land rights issues. The former intends to provide a legal solution to overlapping land claims, establish rules for long term land use and informal land use rights, including a limited recognition of community land rights; the latter details the process by which the state can expropriate land for public purposes.
Indigenous customary land tenure systems had been outlawed during the time of Indonesian occupation. Despite this, and the aforementioned impact of conflict, the customary systems have proven to be extremely resilient. While the Land law recognizes community rights to land, establishing legal constructs of ‘community protection zones’ and ‘community property’, it is unclear how these concepts fit in with the various existing customary tenure systems. According to some observers, the application of the law could weaken customary systems: it does not, for example, confer legal status to customary systems or individual rights predicated on those systems and gives no legal status to customary land managers. The law further states that complementary legislation will be drafted to demarcate community land boundaries, but expropriation of community lands has reportedly been occurring under the Sistema Nacional de Cadastro (SNC), a national land registry project. Other plans include the expropriation of land for a national park in the eastern Lautem region, including on the customary lands of Fatuluku-speaking clans.
A key issue in Timor-Leste is violence against women and girls. According to the Asia Foundation’s ground-breaking 2015 Nabilan study (published in 2016), 59 per cent of women who have been in a relationship had experienced physical and/or sexual violence by a male intimate partner at least once; and 77 per cent of those who had experienced physical violence had experienced severe acts. Reflecting the normalization of violence against women, 36 per cent of ever-partnered men in the capital Dili between the ages of 18 and 49 admitted that they had perpetrated acts of physical and/or sexual violence against their female partners; in other parts of the country, the percentage was even higher. Among women between the ages of 18 and 49, 14 per cent reported that they had been raped by a non-intimate partner at some point in their lives; 10 per cent said that this had occurred during the preceding 12 months. While a subsequent government study found that corresponding percentages were somewhat lower, the difference could be attributed to differing methodologies; the outcomes were in any event still concerning. The very high prevalence of violence against women and girls reflect a number of aspects of Timorese society: deeply engrained gender inequality, including the long history of conflict and repeated bouts of collective violence; the traditional exchange of goods at marriage (barlake or hafolin) which reinforce the impression that wives are the ‘property’ of their husbands; and attitudes towards domestic violence as an acceptable form of discipline and a private matter.
Updated May 2020
The Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste or Timor-Leste is in the eastern half of the island of Timor which it shares with Indonesia, though there is also one small part of its territory that is completely encircled by Indonesia (Oecussi-Ambeno). It is located at the very south-eastern tip of the Indonesian archipelago, and relatively close (just over 600 kilometres) to the northern Australian coast. Its geography is mountainous and its climate tropical.
The Portuguese first came to Timor in 1520; by the end of the sixteenth century Timor was under Portuguese influence, exporting sandalwood. In 1613 the Dutch began gradually to replace the Portuguese throughout the East Indies, although by the mid-nineteenth century they had conquered only the western portion of Timor. The Netherlands held West Timor until 1949, when it granted independence to all of Dutch-held Indonesia. West Timor became Indonesian, while East Timor remained the East Asian remnant of Portuguese colonialism.
Most of the population of Portuguese East Timor was apolitical, and towards the end of Portuguese rule, which came in 1974, there was no broad-based nationalist movement or armed political struggle for independence. In April 1974 the Portuguese armed forces overthrew the dictatorship of Marcello Caetano, largely in order to end Portugal’s colonial wars in Africa. Timor political parties were legalized, which quickly brought political tensions to a head in East Timor.
The three small political factions in East Timor had incompatible goals: the União Democrática Timorense (UDT) advocated continuing association with Portugal; the Associação Popular Democrática Timorense (APODETI) advocated integration with Indonesia; and the Frente Revolucionária de Timor-Leste Independente (FRETILIN) drew inspiration from revolutionary nationalist movements in Angola and Mozambique and advocated complete independence. The dispute between parties resulted in the outbreak of armed conflict that included some of the colonial police and local Timorese Portuguese army soldiers. Unable to control the conflict, the Portuguese authorities fled and the Timorese military sided with FRETILIN, which enabled it to win the brief civil war. On 28 November 1975, FRETILIN declared the independence of the Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste.
Indonesia invaded just 10 days thereafter, on 7 December 1974. It was formally annexed by Indonesia on 17 July 1976, when it was declared the 27th province of Indonesia. The UN Security Council and General Assembly issued resolutions condemning the invasion, but Indonesia managed to gain the general support of other governments including Australia, USA and Canada.
The Indonesian invasion: mass human rights abuses & widespread famine
Indonesia invaded Timor-Leste with between 20,000 – 30,000 troops, leading FRETILIN to flee to the interior mountains to wage guerrilla war under the auspices of its military wing, FALINTIL, supported by local populations. The Indonesian military conducted massive civilian killings, executions of FALINTIL fighters, rape and torture. Disruptions due to the military’s destruction of arable land triggered famines and the spread of disease.
From 1975 there was significant immigration of Indonesian administrators, entrepreneurs, commercial agents and settlers, facilitated in part by the Indonesian ‘transmigrasi’ programme that assisted migrants from Javi and Bali to settle in minority areas of Indonesia, including East Timor. And this, in turn, led to clashes between the mainly Muslim Indonesian immigrants and the Roman Catholic East Timorese, frequently over perceived insults to East Timorese Catholic nuns or religious practices. Arrests, torture, disappearances and extrajudicial killings commonly occurred, and scores of Timorese were jailed as a result of unfairly conducted trials. These recurring incidents led to increased interest in East Timor by the growing human rights movement in South East Asia.
In 1989, Indonesia tentatively began to allow East Timor a greater degree of openness, allowing more freedom of movement and communication within East Timor and between East Timor and the outside world, including high-profile visitors such as the Pope. These visits, however, became the occasion for pro-independence demonstrations by East Timorese. The demonstrators were frequently arrested, tortured and imprisoned. In 1992 the Indonesian army captured Xanana Gusmão, leader of the FRETILIN resistance organization. At his trial, he was given a life sentence (subsequently commuted to twenty years).
The departure of President Suharto and the movement towards greater reform and democracy in Indonesia, as well as increased international pressure, eventually led to a UN-sponsored agreement between Indonesia, Portugal and the United States for a UN-supervised popular referendum for East Timor’s independence. The referendum was held on 30 August 1999, and overwhelming supported separation from Indonesia. The results were sanctioned by then Indonesian President B. J. Habibie.
Security forces and pro-Indonesia militias retreated in a wave of violence, including massive lootings, burnings and killings of an estimated 1,500 people and displacement of thousands. During the period that followed, large numbers of people became refugees, including many Indonesians, and Muslims and groups sympathetic to Indonesia who crossed the border into Indonesia. Much of the future country’s infrastructure was also destroyed around this time.
According to the Commission for Reception, Truth, and Reconciliation in East Timor (a commission established by the UN Transitional Administration in East Timor), at least 102,800 Timorese civilians died between 1974 and 1999, including 18,600 killed or forcibly disappeared and 84,200 who died of famine and disease, while over 100,000 households were internally displaced.
While FRETILIN won parliamentary elections in both 2001 and 2007, its influenced waned in the later elections, as it faced increased competition from National Congress for Timorese Reconstruction (CNRT).
Shifting National Identities
Timor-Leste’s history of colonization, occupation and resistance has been central to the Timorese identity, uniting an ethnically diverse territory through confrontations with a common enemy. The rapid spread of Catholicism during Indonesian rule also served to unite the population as a ‘nation’. Given this history, analysts generally assumed that nation- building in post-occupation Timor-Leste would be a relatively smooth process. Events after independence show the weakness of this assumption and demonstrate how quickly new ethnic–based identities can develop.
Timor-Leste is noted for the existence of multiple and multi-dimensional identities, shifting from national, religious, geographic and tribal affiliations. Yet it has been suggested that with the absence of a unifying variable (Indonesia occupation), national identity is changing as a result, influenced by poverty and inequalities in post-occupation Timor-Leste.
One particular divide that revealed itself in the violence of 2006 was east (Lorosae or firaku) versus west (Loromonu or kaladi) identities, based on one’s origin within the territory of Timor-Leste, making up 35 per cent and 65 per cent of the population respectively. This was also reflected in the capital of Dili in the form of violence between regionally defined urban gangs. Ethno-linguistically, the country is not easily separated into east/west ethnic divisions, as there is much diversity within these territories. Analysts, and even some East Timorese, were surprised by the development of this rift. Yet, however ‘imagined’, this divide extends back to the days of Portuguese rule and can be considered analogous to an ethnic rift. There are popular character stereotypes that suggest, for example, that westerners are less assertive than easterners. Building on this notion is the idea that easterners resisted Indonesia occupation more adamantly than westerners. The point at which this division became a source of violent conflict, however, is debated and ranges from around the end of World War II to the 2000s.
Eastern and Western identities were at the forefront of violence and subsequent displacement of thousands of people in Dili in April and May 2006. The violence can be traced to dynamics within the security forces and political manipulation of emerging identities. In January 2006, security force officers submitted a petition alleging discrimination by easterners against those from the west, especially in terms of ‘recruitment, promotions and disciplinary measures.’ The almost 600 soldiers were subsequently dismissed in March and held protests in the capital in April, garnering sympathy from both the President and much of the Dili population.
Protesters were joined by hundreds of youth and gang members while government troops were brought in, with the situation soon degenerating into mob violence split on east/west lines. Both politicians and gangs took the opportunity to mobilize support and fuel their particular causes using east/west divisions. As a result, easterners in the capital were the targets of looting and attacks; houses were burnt and 150,000 were displaced.
Moves Toward National Unity
Parliamentary and Presidential elections in 2012 were a pivotal time to show that Timor-Leste was prepared for the exit of UNMIT (UN United Mission in Timor-Leste) peacekeepers that had been established after the violence of 2006, with many anticipating the end of the UN era. The opposition CNRT won a slight majority in parliament and Taur Matan Ruak, a former guerilla fighter backed by the CNRT, won the Presidency. CNRT subsequently formed a coalition government that excluded Fretlin, briefly inciting violence and street protests.
In 2015, Prime Minister Gusmão resigned, paving the way for a FRETILIN successor, allowing the creation of a new ‘national unity government’ between CNRT and FRETILIN, essentially ending a decade of political in-fighting. This shift allowed a revision of the rhetoric used by political leaders, moving from one of legitimacy based on one’s role within the resistance (i.e. east versus west identities) to one of united national liberation for the realization of development goals.
Francisco Guterres won the 2017 Presidential elections. Also a former guerrilla fighter, he was supported by both FRETILIN and CNRT, and both parties subsequently were elected to the parliament in July 2017, securing 23 and 22 seats respectively. Unable to make progress on the national budget, Guterres dissolved the national parliament and called an unprecedented early election in January 2018, leading to the victory of newcomer Alliance for Change and Progress (AMP), holding an absolute majority with 34 out of 65 seats.
In the years since its independence, Timor-Leste has been identified in independent rankings as one of the most democratic country in Southeast Asia. Indeed, elections have been considered free and fair since 2012, there is a high voter turnout and as observed from the 2018 elections, new parties can enter the legislature without issue. Yet despite making progress on issues such as corruption, Timor-Leste still ranks poorly in measurements such as Transparency International’s Corruption Index. There is a lack of resources and capacity to address such governance issues within state agencies, especially the public finance management sector, and a rapid growth of oil revenues has facilitated corruption. Political power has been generally concentrated in the ‘old guard’ of the revolution, resulting in the persistence of cronyism and wealth inequality.
Timor-Leste faces critical challenges with deteriorating infrastructure, overdependence on oil revenues, poor health and education indicators and high youth unemployment.
Updated May 2020
ASSERT: Association for the equality of the disabled people of Timor
East Timor Institute for Reconstruction Monitoring and Analysis
East Timor and Indonesia Action Network (ETAN)
PO Box 21873
Brooklyn, NY 11202-1873
Tel: + 66 2391 8801
Judicial System Monitoring Programme
Tel/Fax: +670-323 883
Updated May 2020
- East Timor and West Irian (1979)
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