Timor-Leste (01/09)

For the most current version of this Note, see Background Notes A-Z.


Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste

Area: 15,007 sq. km.
Cities: Capital--Dili; Baucau.
Terrain: Mountainous.
Climate: Tropical; hot, semi-arid; rainy and dry seasons.

Nationality: Noun--Timorese; adjective--Timorese.
Population (2007): 1,100,000.
Religion: Catholic 96.5%.
Languages: Portuguese, Tetum (official languages); English, Bahasa Indonesia (working languages).
Education: Literacy--43%.
Health: Life expectancy--47.9/51.8 years (male/female). Child mortality rate (under 5)--83 per 1,000 population (both sexes).

Type: Parliamentary republic.
Independence (from Portugal): November 28, 1975.
Restoration of independence: May 20, 2002. (See History section.)
Constitution: March 2002.
Branches: Executive--president (head of state), prime minister (head of government), cabinet. Legislative--unicameral parliament. Judicial--Supreme Court and supporting hierarchy. The Supreme Court has not yet been formed; the Court of Appeal functions, on an interim basis, as the Supreme Court.
Major political parties: Revolutionary Front of Independent East Timor (FRETILIN), National Congress for Timorese Reconstruction (CNRT), Democratic Party (PD), Social Democratic Party (PSD), Timorese Social Democratic Association (ASDT), National Unity Party (PUN), People's Party of Timor (PPT), Klibur Oan Timor Asuwain (KOTA), and National Union of Timorese Resistance (UNDERTIM).

GDP (2008 est.): $393 million.
GDP per capita (nominal, 2008 est.): $460.
GDP composition by sector (2006): Services 55%, agriculture 32%, industry 13%.
Industry: Types--coffee, oil and natural gas.
Trade: Exports--coffee, oil and natural gas. Major markets--Australia, Europe, Japan, United States. Imports--basic manufactures, commodities. Major sources--Australia, Europe, Indonesia, Japan, United States.

Timor-Leste is located in Southeast Asia, on the southernmost edge of the Indonesian archipelago, northwest of Australia. The country includes the eastern half of Timor island as well as the Oecussi enclave in the northwest portion of Indonesian West Timor, and the islands of Atauro and Jaco. The mixed Malay and Pacific Islander culture of the Timorese people reflects the geography of the country on the border of those two cultural areas. Portuguese influence during the centuries of colonial rule resulted in a substantial majority of the population identifying itself as Roman Catholic. Some of those who consider themselves Catholic practice a mixed form of religion that includes local animist customs. As a result of the colonial education system and the 23-year Indonesian occupation, approximately 13 % of Timorese speaks Portuguese, 43% speak Bahasa Indonesia, and 6% speak English, according to the 2004 census. Tetum, the most common of the local languages, is spoken by approximately 91% of the population, although only 46.2% speak Tetum Prasa, the form of Tetum dominant in the Dili district. Mambae, Kemak, and Fataluku are also widely spoken. This linguistic diversity is enshrined in the country's constitution, which designates Portuguese and Tetum as official languages and English and Bahasa Indonesia as working languages.

Portuguese and Dutch traders made the first western contact with Timor in the early 16th century. Sandalwood and spice traders, as well as missionaries, maintained sporadic contact with the island until 1642, when the Portuguese moved into Timor in strength. The Portuguese and the Dutch, based at the western end of the island in Kupang, battled for influence until the present-day borders were agreed to by the colonial powers in 1906. Imperial Japan occupied East Timor from 1942-45. Portugal resumed colonial authority over East Timor in 1945 after the Japanese defeat in World War II.

Following a military coup in Lisbon in April 1974, Portugal began a rapid and disorganized decolonization process in most of its overseas territories, including East Timor. Political tensions--exacerbated by Indonesian involvement--heated up, and on August 11, 1975, the Timorese Democratic Union Party (UDT) launched a coup d'etat in Dili. The putsch was followed by a brief but bloody civil war in which the Revolutionary Front for an Independent East Timor (FRETILIN) pushed UDT forces into Indonesian West Timor. Shortly after the FRETILIN victory in late September, Indonesian forces began incursions into East Timor. On October 16, five journalists from Australia, Britain, and New Zealand were murdered in the East Timorese town of Balibo shortly after they had filmed regular Indonesian army troops invading East Timorese territory. On November 28, FRETILIN declared East Timor an independent state, and Indonesia responded by launching a full-scale military invasion on December 7. On December 22, 1975 the UN Security Council called on Indonesia to withdraw its troops from East Timor.

Declaring a provisional government made up of Timorese allies on January 13, 1976, the Indonesian Government said it was acting to forestall civil strife in East Timor and to prevent the consolidation of power by the FRETILIN party. The Indonesians claimed that FRETILIN was communist in nature, while the party's leadership described itself as social democratic. Coming on the heels of the communist victories in Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos, the Indonesian claims were accepted by many in the West. Major powers also had little incentive to confront Indonesia over a territory seen as peripheral to their security interests. Nonetheless, the widespread popular support shown for the guerilla resistance launched by the Timorese made clear that the Indonesian occupation was not welcome. The Timorese were not permitted to determine their own political fate via a free vote, and the Indonesian occupation was never recognized by the United Nations.

The Indonesian occupation of Timor was initially characterized by a program of brutal military repression. Beginning in the late 1980s, however, the occupation was increasingly characterized by programs to win the "hearts-and-minds" of the Timorese through the use of economic development assistance and job creation while maintaining a strict policy of political repression, although serious human rights violations--such as the 1991 Santa Cruz massacre--continued. Estimates of the number of Timorese who lost their lives to violence and hunger during the Indonesian occupation range from 100,000 to 250,000. On January 27, 1999, Indonesian President B.J. Habibie announced his government's desire to hold a referendum in which the people of East Timor would chose between autonomy within Indonesia and independence. Under an agreement among the United Nations, Portugal, and Indonesia, the referendum was held on August 30, 1999. When the results were announced on September 4--78% voted for independence with a 98.6% turnout--Timorese militias organized and supported by the Indonesian military (TNI) commenced a large-scale, scorched-earth campaign of retribution. While pro-independence FALINTIL guerillas remained cantoned in UN-supervised camps, the militia and the TNI killed approximately 1,300 Timorese and forcibly relocated as many as 300,000 people into West Timor as refugees. The majority of the country's infrastructure, including homes, irrigation systems, water supply systems, and schools, and nearly 100% of the country's electrical grid were destroyed. On September 20, 1999 the Australian-led peacekeeping troops of the International Force for East Timor (INTERFET) deployed to the country, bringing the violence to an end.

Timor-Leste became a fully independent republic with a parliamentary form of government on May 20, 2002, following approximately two and a half years under the authority of the UN Transitional Administration in East Timor (UNTAET). The country's first parliament was formed from the 88-member Constituent Assembly chosen in free and fair, UN-supervised elections in August 2001. The FRETILIN Party won the majority of Assembly seats. Mari Alkatiri, FRETILIN's Secretary General, became the first Prime Minister, and the country's 29-member cabinet was dominated by FRETILIN. Xanana Gusmao was elected in free and fair elections on April 14, 2002 as President. UNTAET's mandate ended with East Timor's independence, but a successor organization, the UN Mission for the Support of East Timor (UNMISET), was established to provide additional support to the government. UNMISET's mandate expired on May 20, 2005 after the UN Security Council unanimously approved the creation of a small special political mission in Timor-Leste, the UN Office in Timor-Leste (UNOTIL), to take its place. Under the constitution ratified in March 2002, "laws and regulations in force continue to be applicable to all matters except to the extent that they are inconsistent with the Constitution." Many Indonesian and UNTAET laws and regulations remain in effect, but are set to be replaced by new civil, criminal, and penal codes, which are under currently under review by the government.

Despite the winding down of the UN presence in Timor-Leste from 2005-2006, the institutions comprising the country's armed forces (F-FDTL) and police (PNTL) remained fragile and the authority of the state much more tenuous than most observers assumed at the time. In February 2006, approximately 400 military personnel (from a total military strength of 1,400) petitioned President Gusmao to address their complaints of discrimination. The commander of the F-FDTL dismissed the petitioners, who reacted with a demonstration that flared into violence on April 28. In response to the escalating unrest, large numbers of people began to flee their homes for internally displaced persons (IDP) camps or the outlying districts. The violence mounted with a series of deadly clashes among the F-FDTL, dissident military forces, civilians, and some police occurring on May 23-25. After these clashes civil order collapsed. Mob and gang violence took over the capital, resulting in additional deaths, widespread destruction of property, and the continued displacement of thousands of Dili residents. At the peak of the crisis, there was a national total of about 150,000 IDPs.

Facing a full-scale collapse of civil order, the Government of Timor-Leste on May 28 requested the Governments of Australia, Malaysia, New Zealand, and Portugal to send security forces to stabilize the country. Under heavy domestic political pressure due to his handling of the crisis, Prime Minister Alkatiri resigned on June 27. Jose Ramos-Horta--the Foreign and Defense Minister in the Alkatiri government--became Prime Minister on July 10, and a new cabinet was sworn in on July 14, 2006.

On August 25, the UN Security Council passed Resolution 1704, creating the United Nations Integrated Mission in Timor-Leste (UNMIT). UNMIT’s mandate was to assist in restoring stability, rebuilding the institutions comprising the security sector, supporting the Government of Timor-Leste in conducting the 2007 presidential and parliamentary elections, and achieving accountability for the crimes against humanity and other atrocities committed in 1999, among other aims. UNMIT also has a policing component of about 1,500 foreign police personnel. The UN Security Council extended UNMIT's mandate for one year in February 2007 and again on February 25, 2008. (UNMIT's own website provides additional information: http://www.un.org/Depts/dpko/missions/unmit/ )

Timor-Leste held presidential elections in the spring of 2007. On April 9, voters chose from a slate of eight candidates. With a voter turnout of almost 82%, the top two finishers were the FRETILIN Party candidate Francisco "Lu-olo" Guterres, who received 28% of the vote, and Jose Ramos-Horta, who received 22% of the vote after stepping down as Prime Minister to run as an independent candidate with the endorsement of former President Xanana Gusmao. In the runoff election on May 9, required because the electoral law specifies that a candidate must win a majority, Ramos-Horta won by a landslide, receiving 69% of the vote. The presidential elections experienced some procedural glitches, but were largely free of violence and significant irregularity.

The presidency is a mostly ceremonial position, with executive power concentrated in the office of the prime minister. The majority party in parliament normally determines the next prime minister. With the support of UNMIT and international donors, the Government of Timor-Leste held parliamentary elections on June 30, 2007. Observers agree that the elections were generally free and fair. FRETILIN won the most seats in parliament, but no single party won a majority and the various parties did not agree to form a national unity government. On August 6, 2007, President Ramos-Horta asked Xanana Gusmao, the leader of a coalition with a majority of the seats in the parliament (the Alliance with a Parliamentary Majority or AMP), to form a government. Gusmao was sworn in as Prime Minister along with most of the other ministers in the new government on August 8, 2007. Although the June elections proceeded in a largely peaceful atmosphere, violent disturbances broke out in several areas of Dili and the eastern districts of Baucau and Viqueque when the president announced the formation of a new government as FRETILIN partisans took to the streets to protest that they had not been given an opportunity to form a government. The unrest subsided within days, but the affected areas remained tense for several weeks thereafter and FRETILIN continues to assert that the AMP government is unconstitutional although it participates actively in the work of the national parliament.

FRETILIN's peaceful handover of power to the AMP government was a milestone in Timor-Leste's political development. Upon taking office, the AMP government put the problems of the internally displaced persons, the petitioners, and other issues flowing from the crisis of 2006 at the top of its policy agenda. Over the course of 2008, the government made progress in reintegrating IDPs. As of January 2009, approximately 2,000 displaced persons remained in camps in and around Dili. Another 18,000 or so IDPs remain in the outlying districts. Numbers of displaced persons were reduced substantially from 100,000 a year ago to approximately 20,000 nationwide through a Ministry of Social Solidarity IDP reintegration program first implemented in April 2008. The government also succeeded in resolving the grievances of the military petitioners. Accepting monetary compensation, they closed their encampment in Dili and returned to their homes.

On February 11, 2008 followers of former military police commander and fugitive Alfredo Reinado attacked President Ramos-Horta. Ramos-Horta sustained gunshot injuries and was airlifted to Darwin, Australia, where he underwent medical treatment. Prime Minister Gusmao escaped unharmed after his bodyguards thwarted a separate attack against him the same day as the attack on the president. The president's bodyguards killed Reinado. The government, with the approval of the national parliament, immediately imposed a state of siege which temporarily imposed a curfew, curtailed freedom of assembly, and gave security forces greater latitude for arrests and searches. These emergency measures were scaled back as conditions stabilized over the following weeks. President Ramos-Horta returned to Timor-Leste on April 17. The state of emergency was lifted completely when the remainder of Maj. Reinado’s followers surrendered to authorities on April 29, 2008. The government subsequently succeeded in restoring relative calm and stability throughout the country.

Principal Government Officials
Head of State (President)--Jose Ramos-Horta
Head of Government (Prime Minister)--Kay Rala Xanana Gusmao
Deputy Prime Minister--Jose Luis Guterres
Minister of Foreign Affairs--Zacarias Albano da Costa
Ambassador to the United Nations--Nelson Santos
Ambassador to the United States--vacant; Jorge Camoes, Charge d'Affaires, a.i.

Timor-Leste maintains an embassy at 4201 Connecticut Avenue, NW, Washington, DC 20008 (telephone: 202-966-3202). Timor-Leste Government website: http://www.timor-leste.gov.tl/

As the poorest nation in Asia, Timor-Leste faces daunting challenges. Basic income, health, and literacy indicators are among the lowest in Asia. Severe shortages of trained and competent personnel to staff newly established executive, legislative, and judicial institutions hinder progress. Rural areas, lacking in infrastructure and resources, remain brutally poor, and the relatively few urban areas cannot provide adequate jobs for the country's growing labor force. Many cities, including the country's second largest, Baucau, lack routine electrical service. Rural families' access to electricity and clean water is very limited. Unemployment and underemployment combined are estimated to be as high as 70%.

Timor-Leste has made significant progress in a number of areas since independence. It has become a full-fledged member of the international community, joining the United Nations, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and the Asian Development Bank (ADB). In July 2005, parliament unanimously passed a law creating a petroleum fund to effectively manage and invest oil revenues over the long term. While a nascent legal system has been put into place, the justice system remains among the weakest sector of government, greatly limiting access to speedy justice by Timorese citizens. Efforts are underway to put in place the institutions required to protect human rights, rebuild the economy, create employment opportunities, and reestablish essential public services.

Timor-Leste joined the United Nations on September 27, 2002. It is pursuing membership in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and became a member of the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) in July 2005. Timor-Leste's foreign policy has placed a high priority on its relationships with Indonesia; regional friends such as Malaysia and Singapore; and donors such as Australia, the United States, the European Union, Japan, and Portugal.

Relations Between Indonesia and Timor-Leste
Timor-Leste and Indonesia have full diplomatic relations. In 2005 Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono visited Timor-Leste, including the Santa Cruz cemetery in Dili where Indonesian troops had massacred hundreds of Timorese in 1991. After the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami devastated parts of Indonesia, the Government of Timor-Leste contributed humanitarian assistance to the victims. Likewise, the Indonesian Government sent humanitarian assistance to help those displaced by the unrest in Dili in 2006. After assuming office in May 2007, President Ramos-Horta traveled to Jakarta for his first state visit abroad. When former President Suharto died in January 2008, Prime Minister Gusmao and other senior officials traveled to Indonesia to pay their respects.

In 2005, Indonesia and Timor-Leste created a bilateral Truth and Friendship Commission (TFC) in order "to establish the conclusive truth in regard to the events prior to and immediately after the popular consultation in 1999, with a view to promoting reconciliation and friendship, and ensuring the non-recurrence of similar events." In July 2008, Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao, and President Jose Ramos-Horta met in Bali to receive the TFC’s report and to endorse its recommendations. The report acknowledged that abuses had been committed by persons on both sides of the conflict, and assigned “institutional responsibility” for human rights violations to the armed forces of Indonesia. While some critics fault the report’s failure to press for accountability on the part of individual Indonesian civilian and military leaders, supporters endorse the report’s recommendations for measures to promote reconciliation between the two countries.

Timor-Leste maintains an embassy in Washington, DC, as well as a Permanent Mission in New York at the United Nations. The United States has a large bilateral development assistance program--$25 million in fiscal year 2008--and also contributes funds as a major member of a number of multilateral agencies such as the United Nations, Asian Development Bank, and the World Bank. Aid from the U.S. to Timor-Leste from 2000-2008 totaled $273 million.

Principal U.S. Officials
Ambassador--Hans G. Klemm
Deputy Chief of Mission--Henry M. Rector
USAID Representative--Mark Anthony White
Political/Economic/Commercial Affairs--Roberto Quiroz II
U.S. Department of Defense Representative--Major Ron Sargent

The U.S. Embassy in Timor-Leste is located at Praia de Coquieros, Dili; tel: 670-332-4684, fax: 670-331-3206.