East Timor (05/04)

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

Flag of East Timor is red, with a black isosceles triangle (based on the hoist side) superimposed on a slightly longer yellow arrowhead that extends to the center of the flag; there is a white star in the center of the black triangle. 2003.


Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste

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

Nationality: Noun--Timorese; adjective--Timorese.
Population (2002 est.): 850,000.
Ethnic groups: Maubere.
Religion: Christian 93% (predominantly Roman Catholic), Muslim 4%.
Languages: Portuguese, Tetum (both official), Malay.
Education: Literacy--41%.
Health: Life expectancy--male 57.4 years; female 55.6. Mortality rate (under 5)--132.1/1,000.

Type: Parliamentary democracy.
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.
Major political parties: Revolutionary Front of Independent East Timor (FRETILIN), Democratic Party (PD), Social Democratic Party (PSD), Timorese Social Democratic Association (ASDT).

GDP (2002 est.): $380 million.
GDP per capita (nominal): $460.
GDP composition by sector: Services 57%, agriculture 25%, industry 17%.
Industry: Types--coffee, oil and natural gas, tourism.
Trade: Exports--coffee, oil and natural gas, tourism. Major markets--Australia, Europe, Japan, United States. Imports--basic manufactures. Major sources--Australia, Europe, Indonesia, Japan, United States.

East Timor is located in southeastern Asia, northwest of Australia and southeast of Indonesia. The country includes the eastern half of the island of Timor, the Oecussi enclave on the northwest portion of the island of Timor, and the islands of Atauro and Jako. 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. The Portuguese influenced the Timorese during colonial rule in a number of areas, including religion and, as a result, 90% of the population is 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, only about 10% of Timorese speak Portuguese, one of the two official languages. The vast majority of Timorese use Tetum, the second official language, for their daily affairs; Malay also is widely spoken. Of about 16 indigenous languages, Galole, Mambae, Kemak, and Tetum are spoken by significant numbers of people.

Portuguese and Dutch traders made the first western contact with East 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 1915. Imperial Japan occupied East Timor from 1942-45. The territory of the Dutch East Indies, including West Timor, gained independence as the Republic of Indonesia in 1949.

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'�tat 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 fullscale 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 was characterized by an attempted "hearts-and-minds" campaign of economic development assistance, coupled with a contrasting program of brutal military repression. 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 pronounced 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 commenced a largescale campaign of retribution. While pro-independence FALINTIL guerillas remained cantoned in UN-supervised camps, the militia killed approximately 1,200 Timorese, burned 75% of the country's homes, and forcibly pushed 300,000 people into West Timor as refugees. On September 20, 1999 Australian-led peacekeeping troops of the International Force for East Timor deployed to the country, bringing the violence to an end.

East Timor became a fully independent republic on May 20, 2002, following approximately 2-1/2 years under the authority of the UN Transitional Administration in East Timor (UNTAET). The country has a parliamentary form of government with its first parliament formed from the 88-member Constituent Assembly chosen in free and fair, UN-supervised elections in August 2001. The 29-member Cabinet is dominated by the FRETILIN Party, which won the majority of Assembly seats. Mari Alkatiri, FRETILIN's Secretary General, is Prime Minister and Head of Government, and Xanana Gusmao--elected in free and fair elections on April 14, 2002--is President and Head of State. UNTAET's mandate ended with independence, but a successor organization, the UN Mission for the Support of East Timor (UNMISET), was established. In May 2004, UNMISET's mandate was renewed for a period of six months, with a view to subsequently extending the mandate for a further and final period of six months, until May 2005. 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;" and Indonesian and UNTAET laws and regulations continue to be in effect. At the time of writing, the government was expected to announce shortly the holding of local elections in fall 2004.

Principal Government Officials
Head of State (President)--Kay Rala Xanana Gusmao
Head of Government (Prime Minister)--Mari Alkatiri
Minister of Foreign Affairs--Jose Ramos Horta
Ambassador to the United Nations and United States--Jose Luis Guterres

East Timor maintains an embassy at 3415 Massachusetts Avenue NW, Washington, DC 20007 (tel: 202-965-1515).

As the poorest nation in Asia, East Timor must overcome formidable 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 growing number of migrants seeking work. Rural families' access to electricity and clean water is very limited. While anticipated revenues from offshore oil and gas reserves, expected to begin in late 2004, offer great hope for the country, effective use of those resources will require a major transformation of the country's current human and institutional infrastructure. Meanwhile, as those substantial revenues come on line, foreign assistance levels--now standing at among the highest worldwide on a per capita basis--will likely taper off.

East Timor achieved significant progress in a number of areas since independence. It established a central bank and became a member of the international community, joining the United Nations, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and the Asian Development Bank (ADB). It is surviving the massive exodus of UN personnel, equipment and resources, and effecting a relatively smooth transition to Timorese control of the government and its administration. It produced a National Development Plan, and its Constituent Assembly has transitioned into a National Parliament that is already passing legislation. 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.

East Timor joined the United Nations on September 27, 2002, and is pursuing observer status in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and membership in the ASEAN Regional Forum. East Timor's nascent 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 European Union, Japan, Portugal, and the United States.

East Timor 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, $22.5 million in 2004, and also contributes funds as a major member of a number of multilateral agencies such as the Asian Development Bank. The U.S. Peace Corps has an active program in East Timor.

Principal U.S. Officials
Ambassador--Grover Joseph Rees III
Deputy Chief of Mission--Sean B. Stein
Political/Economic/Commercial Affairs--Vacant

The U.S. Embassy in East Timor is located at Avenida de Portugal, Farol, Dili; tel: 670-332-4684, fax: 670-331-3206.

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