East Timor

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Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste
  • República Democrática de
  • Repúblika Demokrátika de
Unidade, Acção, Progresso  (Portuguese)
Unidade, Asaun, Progresu  (Tetum)
"Unity, Action, Progress"
Anthem: Pátria  (Portuguese)
Location of East Timor
and largest city
8°33′S 125°34′E / 8.55°S 125.56°E / -8.55; 125.56Coordinates: 8°33′S 125°34′E / 8.55°S 125.56°E / -8.55; 125.56
Official languages
National languages
Working languages
(2015 census)[1]
  • East Timorese
  • Timorese
  • Maubere (informal)[2][3]
GovernmentUnitary semi-presidential republic[4]
• President
José Ramos-Horta
Taur Matan Ruak
LegislatureNational Parliament
Sixteenth century
• Independence declared
28 November 1975
17 July 1976
25 October 1999
20 May 2002; 20 years ago (20 May 2002)
• Total
15,007[5] km2 (5,794 sq mi) (154th)
• Water (%)
• 2021 estimate
1,340,513 (153rd)
• 2015 census
• Density
78/km2 (202.0/sq mi) (137th)
GDP (PPP)2020 estimate
• Total
$5.315 billion
• Per capita
GDP (nominal)2020 estimate
• Total
$1.920 billion
• Per capita
Gini (2014)28.7[8]
HDI (2019)0.606[9]
medium · 141st
CurrencyUnited States dollarb (USD)
Time zoneUTC+9 (Timor-Leste Time)
Driving sideleft
Calling code+670
ISO 3166 codeTL
Internet TLD.tlc
  1. Fifteen further "national languages" are recognised by the Constitution
  2. Centavo coins also used
  3. Former use of .tp has been phased out

East Timor (/ˈtmɔːr/ (listen)), also known as Timor-Leste (/tiˈmɔːr ˈlɛʃt/; Portuguese pronunciation: [ti'moɾ 'lɛʃ.tɨ]; Tetum: Timór Lorosa'e[10]), officially the Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste[11] (Portuguese: República Democrática de Timor-Leste,[12] Tetum: Repúblika Demokrátika Timór-Leste[10]),[13] is an island country in Southeast Asia.[14] It comprises the eastern half of the island of Timor, the nearby islands of Atauro and Jaco, and Oecusse, an exclave on the northwestern side of the island surrounded by Indonesian West Timor. Australia is the country's southern neighbour, separated by the Timor Sea. The country's size is 15,007 square kilometres (5,794 sq mi).[5] Dili is its capital.

East Timor was colonised by Portugal in the sixteenth century and was known as Portuguese Timor until 28 November 1975, when the Revolutionary Front for an Independent East Timor (Fretilin) declared the territory's independence. Nine days later, it was invaded and occupied by the Indonesian military; it was declared Indonesia's 27th province the following year. The Indonesian occupation of East Timor was characterised by a violent, decades-long conflict between separatist groups (especially Fretilin) and the Indonesian military.

In 1999, following the United Nations-sponsored act of self-determination, Indonesia relinquished control of the territory. As Timor-Leste, it became the first new sovereign state of the twenty-first century on 20 May 2002 and joined the United Nations[15] and the Community of Portuguese Language Countries.[16] In 2011, East Timor announced its intention to become the eleventh member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).[17] East Timor and the Philippines are the only two predominantly Catholic nations in Southeast Asia.[18]


"Timor" is derived from timur, the word for "east" in Malay, which became recorded as Timor in Portuguese, thus resulting in the tautological toponym meaning "East East"; in Indonesian, Timor Timur. In Portuguese, the country is called Timor-Leste (Leste being the word for "east"); in Tetum Timór Lorosa'e (Lorosa'e being the word for "east" (literally "rising sun")).[citation needed]

The official names under the Constitution are Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste in English,[19] República Democrática de Timor-Leste in Portuguese,[12] and Repúblika Demokrátika Timór-Leste in Tetum.[13] The International Organization for Standardization (ISO) official short form in English and all other languages is Timor-Leste (codes: TLS & TL), which has been adopted by the United Nations,[20] the European Union,[21] and the national standards organisations of France (AFNOR), the United States (ANSI),[22] United Kingdom (BSI), Germany (DIN), and Sweden (SIS), all diplomatic missions to the country by protocol and the CIA World Factbook.[23]



Cultural remains at Jerimalai on the eastern tip of East Timor have been dated to 42,000 years ago, making that location one of the oldest known sites of modern human activity in Maritime Southeast Asia.[24] Descendants of at least three waves of migration are believed still to live in East Timor. The first is described by anthropologists as people of the Veddo-Australoid type. Around 3000 BC, a second migration brought Melanesians. The earlier Veddo-Australoid peoples withdrew at this time to the mountainous interior. Finally, proto-Malays arrived from south China and north Indochina.[25] Hakka traders are among those descended from this final group.[26]

Timorese origin myths tell of ancestors who sailed around the eastern end of Timor arriving on land in the south. Some stories recount Timorese ancestors journeying from the Malay Peninsula or the Minangkabau highlands of Sumatra.[27] Austronesians migrated to Timor, and are thought to be associated with the development of agriculture on the island.[citation needed]

Classical era[edit]

From perhaps the 13th century, the island exported sandalwood.[28]: 267  Timor was included in Southeast Asian, Chinese, and Indian trading networks, and in the fourteenth century was an exporter of aromatic sandalwood, honey, and wax. It was the relative abundance of sandalwood on Timor that attracted European explorers to the island in the early sixteenth century.[29]

While there is limited information about the political system of Timor during this period, the island had developed an interconnected series of polities governed by customary law. Small communities, centred around a particular sacred house, were part of wider sucos (or principalities), which were themselves part of larger kingdoms led by a liurai. Rule of these kingdoms was dyadic, with the temporal power of the liurai balanced by the spiritual power of a rai nain, who was generally associated with the primary sacred house of the kingdom. While these polities were numerous and saw shifting alliances and relations, many were stable enough that they survived from initial European documentation in the 16th century until the end of Portuguese rule.[28]: 11–15 

Portuguese era (1769–1975)[edit]

Early Portuguese presence on Timor was very limited, with trade being directed through Portuguese settlements on other islands. Only in the 17th century did they establish a more direct presence on the island, a consequence of being driven out of other islands by the Dutch.[28]: 267  The Portuguese established outposts in Timor and Maluku. Effective European occupation of a small part of present-day East Timor began in 1769 when the city of Dili was founded and the colony of Portuguese Timor declared.[30] A definitive border between the Dutch-colonised western half of the island and the Portuguese-colonised eastern half was established by the Permanent Court of Arbitration of 1914,[31] and it remains the international boundary between the successor states Indonesia and East Timor, respectively.

For the Portuguese, East Timor remained little more than a neglected trading post until the late nineteenth century, with minimal investment in infrastructure and education. Even after this period when Portugal for the first time established actual control over the interior of its colony, investment remained minimal.[28]: 269, 273  Sandalwood continued to be the main export crop with coffee exports becoming significant in the mid-nineteenth century.[citation needed]

At the beginning of the twentieth century, a faltering home economy prompted the Portuguese to extract greater wealth from its colonies, which was met with East Timorese resistance.[32] The colony was seen as an economic burden during the Great Depression, and received little support or management from Portugal.[28]: 269 

Portuguese Timor had been a place of exile for political and social opponents deported from the metropolis since the late nineteenth century. Among them a large proportion were members of the anarchist and anarcho-syndicalist movement, which until the Second World War was the most influential of the left-wing movements in Portugal. The main waves of deportations to Timor were in 1896, 1927, and 1931. Some of the activists continued their resistance even in exile. After World War II, the remaining exiles were pardoned and allowed to return.[33]

During World War II, first the Allies and later the Japanese occupied Dili, and the mountainous interior of the colony became the scene of a guerrilla campaign, known as the Battle of Timor. Waged by East Timorese volunteers and Allied forces against the Japanese, the struggle resulted in the deaths of between 40,000 and 70,000 East Timorese civilians.[34] The Japanese eventually drove the last of the Australian and Allied forces out. However, Portuguese control was reinstated after the Japanese surrender at the end of World War II.[citation needed]

The 1950s saw Portugal begin investment in the colony, funding education and promoting coffee exports. However, the economy did not improve substantially, and infrastructure improvements were limited.[28]: 269  Following the 1974 Portuguese revolution, Portugal effectively abandoned its colony in Timor and civil war between East Timorese political parties broke out in 1975.

The Revolutionary Front for an Independent East Timor (Fretilin) resisted a Timorese Democratic Union (UDT) coup attempt in August 1975,[35] and unilaterally declared independence on 28 November 1975. Fearing a communist state within the Indonesian archipelago, the Indonesian military launched an invasion of East Timor in December 1975.[36] Indonesia declared East Timor its 27th province on 17 July 1976.[37] The United Nations Security Council opposed the invasion, and the territory's nominal status in the UN remained as "non-self-governing territory under Portuguese administration".[38]

Indonesian occupation (1975–1999)[edit]

A demonstration for independence from Indonesia held in Australia during September 1999

The period of Indonesian occupation was marked by violence and brutality. A detailed statistical report prepared for the Commission for Reception, Truth and Reconciliation in East Timor cited a minimum of 102,800 conflict-related deaths in the period between 1974 and 1999, including approximately 18,600 killings and 84,200 "excess" deaths from hunger and illness. Portuguese, Indonesian and Catholic Church data estimated 200,000 deaths.[39] Repression and restrictions counteracted improvements in infrastructure and services, meaning there was little overall improvement in living standards during this period. Economic growth mostly benefited immigrants from elsewhere in Indonesia.[28]: 271  A huge expansion of education was intended to increase Indonesian language use and internal security as much as it was for development.[40] The East Timorese guerrilla force (Forças Armadas da Libertação Nacional de Timor-Leste, Falintil) fought a campaign against the Indonesian forces from 1975 to 1998.[citation needed]

The 1991 Dili Massacre was a turning point for the independence cause and an East Timor solidarity movement grew in Portugal, the Philippines, Australia, and other Western countries. Following the resignation of Indonesian President Suharto, the new President BJ Habibie, prompted by a letter from Australian Prime Minister John Howard, decided to have a referendum on independence.[41] A UN-sponsored agreement between Indonesia and Portugal allowed for a UN-supervised popular referendum in August 1999. A clear vote for independence was met with a punitive campaign of violence by East Timorese pro-integration militias supported by elements of the Indonesian military. In response, the Indonesian Government allowed a multinational peacekeeping force, INTERFET to restore order and aid East Timorese refugees and internally-displaced persons.[42] On 25 October 1999, the administration of East Timor was taken over by the UN through the United Nations Transitional Administration in East Timor (UNTAET).[43][44] The INTERFET deployment ended in February 2000 with the transfer of military command to the UN.[45]

Contemporary era[edit]

José Ramos-Horta, 1996 Nobel Peace Prize winner, second president of East Timor

On 30 August 2001, the East Timorese voted in their first election organised by the UN to elect members of the Constituent Assembly.[19][46] On 22 March 2002, the Constituent Assembly approved the Constitution.[19] By May 2002, more than 205,000 refugees had returned.[47] On 20 May 2002, the Constitution of the Democratic Republic of East Timor came into force and East Timor was recognised as independent by the UN.[46][48] The Constituent Assembly was renamed the National Parliament, and Xanana Gusmão was sworn in as the country's first president. On 27 September 2002, East Timor was renamed Timor-Leste, using the Portuguese language, and was admitted as a member state by the UN.[49]

In 2006, the United Nations sent in security forces to restore order when unrest and factional fighting forced 15 percent of the population (155,000 people) to flee their homes.[50] The following year, Gusmão declined another presidential term, and in the build-up to the mid-year presidential elections there were renewed outbreaks of violence. In those elections, José Ramos-Horta was elected president.[51] In June 2007, Gusmão ran in the parliamentary elections and became prime minister. In February 2008, Ramos-Horta was critically injured in an attempted assassination. Prime Minister Gusmão also faced gunfire separately but escaped unharmed. Australian reinforcements were immediately sent to help keep order.[52] In March 2011, the UN handed over operational control of the police force to the East Timor authorities. The United Nations ended its peacekeeping mission on 31 December 2012.[50]

Francisco Guterres of the centre-left Fretilin party became president in May 2017.[53] The main party of the AMP coalition, the National Congress for Timorese Reconstruction, led by independence hero Xanana Gusmão, was in power from 2007 to 2017, but the leader of Fretilin, Mari Alkatiri, formed a coalition government after the July 2017 parliamentary election. However, the new minority government soon fell, leading to a second general election in May 2018.[54] In June 2018, former president and independence fighter, Jose Maria de Vasconcelos, known as Taur Matan Ruak, of the three-party coalition, Alliance of Change for Progress (AMP), became the new prime minister.[55] José Ramos-Horta of the centre-left CNRT has served as the president of East Timor since 20 May 2022 after winning the April 2022 presidential election runoff against the incumbent president, Francisco Guterres .[56]

Politics and government[edit]

Xanana Gusmão, the first East Timorese president after Indonesian occupation

The political system of East Timor is semi-presidential, based upon the Portuguese system.[57][58]: 175  In addition to the separation of executive powers between the president and the prime minister, the separation of powers between the executive, legislature, and judiciary is enshrined in the constitution.[59]: 12  Individuals are not allowed to participate in both the legislature and the executive. While the legislature is intended to provide a check on the executive, in practice the executive has maintained control of the legislature, under all political parties.[58]: 174  The executive, through the council of ministers, also holds some formal legislative powers.[58]: 175  The judiciary operates independently, although there are instances of executive interference.[59]: 13, 39 [60] Access to courts remain a challenge, with some mobile courts being developed to counter this.[60] Despite political rhetoric, the constitution and democratic institutions are almost universally respected.[59]: 15, 42  Elections are run by an independent body,[61]: 216  and turnout is high. The political system has wide public acceptance.[59]: 17 [62]: 106 

Formally, the directly elected president holds relatively limited powers compared to those in similar systems, with no power over the appointment and dismissal of the prime minister and the council of ministers. However, given they are directly elected, past presidents have wielded great informal power and influence.[58]: 175  The prime minister is chosen by parliament. If the president vetoes a legislative action, parliament can overturn the veto with a two-thirds majority.[59]: 10 

The head of state of East Timor is the president of the republic, who is elected by popular vote for a five-year term. Although the president's executive powers are somewhat limited, they do have the power to veto government legislation, initiate referendums, and to dissolve parliament in the event that it is unable to form a government or pass a budget.[4]: 244  Following elections, the president usually appoints the leader of the majority party or coalition as prime minister of East Timor and the cabinet on the proposal of the latter. As head of government, the prime minister presides over the cabinet.[63] The president is limited to two terms.[60]

Representatives in the unicameral National Parliament are elected by popular vote to a five-year term.[60] The number of seats can vary from a minimum of fifty-two to a maximum of sixty-five. Parties must achieve 3% of the vote to enter parliament, with seats for qualifying parties allocated using the D'Hondt method.[63] Elections occur within the framework of a competitive multi-party system. Upon independence, power was held by the Fretilin political party, which was formed shortly before the Indonesian invasion and led its resistance. Given its history, Fretilin viewed itself as the natural party of government, and supported a multi-party system under the expectation that a dominant-party system would develop. Support from the United Nations and the international community, both before and after independence, allowed the nascent political system to survive shocks such as the 2006 East Timorese crisis.[58]: 173  For parliamentary elections all candidates run in a single national district in a party-list system. One in three of all candidates presented by political parties must be women. This system promotes a diversity of political parties, but gives voters little influence over the individual candidates selected by each party.[58]: 175–176  Political parties or political coalitions must receive at least 4% of the total votes to enter parliament.[59]: 10  The National Congress for Timorese Reconstruction became the main opposition party beginning with its establishment and then victory in the 2007 parliamentary elections.[58]: 168–169 

While both major parties have been relatively stable, they remain led by an "old guard" of individuals who came to prominence during the resistance against Indonesia.[58]: 175 [59]: 10–11 [64][65] Most parties are based on personality, rather than policy.[59]: 16  An active civil society functions independently of the government, as do media outlets.[59]: 11–12  Civil society organisations are concentrated in the capital, including student groups. Due to the structure of the economy, there are no powerful trade unions.[59]: 17  The Catholic Church has strong influence in the country.[59]: 40  While women hold more than a third of parliamentary seats due to the legislation requiring female candidates, they are less prominent at other levels and within party leadership.[60]

The National Police of East Timor and Timor Leste Defence Force have held a monopoly on violence since 2008, with very few guns present outside of these organisations.[59]: 8  While there are allegations of abuse of power, there is some judicial oversight of police and public trust in the institution has grown.[60]

Political divisions exist along class lines and along geographical lines. There is broadly a divide between Eastern and Western areas of the country, stemming from differences that arose under Indonesian rule. Fretilin in particular is strongly linked to the Eastern areas.[58]: 176–177  Politics and administration is centred in the capital Dili, with the national government responsible for most civil services.[59]: 9, 36  Oecusse, separated from the rest of the country by Indonesian territory, is a Special Administrative Region with some autonomy.[58]: 180 

Administrative divisions[edit]

The fourteen municipalities of East Timor

East Timor is divided into fourteen municipalities, which in turn are subdivided into 64 administrative posts, 442 sucos (villages), and 2,225 aldeias (hamlets).[66][67][68]

The existing system of municipalities and administrative posts was established during Portuguese rule.[69]: 3  While decentralisation is mentioned in the constitution, administrative powers generally remain with the national government operating out of Dili.[70]: 2  Upon independence there was debate about how to implement decentralisation, with multiple models proposed which would create different levels of administration between the sucos and the central government. In most proposals, there were no specific provisions for suco level governance, and they were expected to continue to operate as mostly customary units. In the end, the existing districts were kept and renamed municipalities in 2009, and received very few powers.[62]: 88–92  Each municipality is led by a civil servant appointed by the central government, a structure that was only put in place in 2016.[69]: 4, 7  The isolated Oecusse municipality, which has a strong identity and is fully surrounded by Indonesian territory, is specified by Articles 5 and 71 of the 2002 constitution to be governed by a special administrative policy and economic regime. Law 3/2014 of 18 June 2014 was created to implement this constitutional provision, which went into effect in January 2015 turning Oecusse into a Special Administrative Region. The region began operating its own civil service in June 2015.[71][72] In January 2022 the island of Atauro, formerly an Administrative Post of Dili, became its own municipality.[68]

Administration in the lowest levels of the administrative system of East Timor, the aldeias and sucos, generally reflects traditional customs,[70]: 1  reflecting community identity and relationships between local households.[73]: 4  Sucos generally contain 2,000 to 3,000 inhabitants. Their long persistence and links to local governance means the sucos are the level of government that is linked to community identities, rather than any high level of administration.[62]: 89  Such relationships are associated specifically with the kinship groups within that land however, rather than the land itself.[74]: 52–53  Relationships between sucos also reflect customary practices, for example through the reciprocal exchanging of support for local initiatives.[73]: 9  Laws passed in 2004 provided for the election of some suco officials, but assigned these positions no formal powers. An updated law in 2009 established the expected mandate of these positions, although it continue to leave them outside of the formal state system, reliant on municipal governments to provide formal administration and services.[62]: 94–97  Further clarification was given in 2016, which entrenched the treatment of sucos and aldeias more as communities than formal levels of administration. Despite this lack of formal association with the state, suco leaders hold great influence and are often seen by their community as representatives of the state, and they have responsibilities usually associated with civic administration.[69]: 7–10 

Foreign relations and military[edit]

Demonstration against Australia in December 2013

International cooperation has always been important to East Timor, with donor funds making up 80% of the budget before oil revenues began to replace them.[59]: 42–44  International forces also provided security, with five UN missions being sent to the country from 1999. The final one, the United Nations Integrated Mission in East Timor, began after the 2006 East Timorese crisis and concluded in 2012.[75]: 4, 14 

East Timor is a long-standing applicant to join ASEAN.[59]: 42–44  Despite a closer cultural affinity to Pacific nations, the country has targeted ASEAN membership since before its independence for both economic and security purposes, something which was seen as mutually exclusive with membership in Pacific bodies. ASEAN membership was sought to improve the relationship with Indonesia, although it has stalled due to a lack of support from some ASEAN states.[75]: 10–11  East Timor is thus an observer to the Pacific Islands Forum and the Melanesian Spearhead Group. More broadly, the country is a leader within the Group of Seven Plus (g7+), an organisation of fragile states. It is also a member of the Community of Portuguese Language Countries.[59]: 42–44 

Continuing bilateral donors include Australia, Portugal, Germany, and Japan, and the country has a reputation for effectively and transparently using donor funds. Good relations with Australia and with Indonesia are a policy goal for the government, despite historical and more recent tensions. These countries are important economic partners, and provide most transport links to the country.[59]: 42–44  China has also increased its presence as a donor, contributing to infrastructure in Dili.[75]: 12 

The relationship with Australia was dominated from before independence by disputes over natural resources in the Timor Gap which lies between them, which hampered the establishment of a mutually agreed border. The dominance of Australian hard power led East Timor to utilise public diplomacy and forums for international law to push their case.[76][77] The dispute was resolved in 2018 following negotiations at the Permanent Court of Arbitration, when a maritime boundary between the two was established along with an agreement on natural resource revenues.[78][79]

The Timor Leste Defence Force (F-FDTL) was established in 2001, replacing Falintil, and was restructured following the events of 2006. It is responsible not only for safeguarding against external threats, but also for tackling violent crime, a role in which it overlaps with the National Police of East Timor. The size of these forces remains small, with 2,200 soldiers in the regular army and 80 in a naval component. A single aircraft and seven patrol boats are operated, with plans to expand the naval component. There is some military cooperation with Australia, Portugal, and the United States.[80]


Located in between Southeast Asia and the South Pacific,[81]: 2  the island of Timor is the largest of the Lesser Sunda Islands, which lie within the Malay archipelago.[82]: 1  The island is surrounded by the Ombai and Wetar Straits of the rougher Banda Sea in the north, and the calmer Timor Sea in the south.[81]: 2 [83] East Timor shares the island with Indonesia, which separates the main part of the country from the Oecusse exclave. The island of Atauro lies north of the mainland,[81]: 2  with the fourth area being the small island of Jaco. The Savu Sea lies north of Oecusse.[84]: 1  The country is about 265 kilometres (165 mi) long and 97 kilometres (60 mi) wide, with a total land area of 14,874 square kilometres (5,743 sq mi).[82]: 1  This territory is situated between 8′15S – 10′30S latitude and 125′50E – 127′30E longitude.[85]: 2  The country's coastline covers around 700 kilometres (430 mi),[82]: 27  while the main land border with Indonesia is 125 kilometres (78 mi) long, and the Oecusse land border is around 100 kilometres (62 mi) long.[84]: 1  Maritime borders exist with Australia to the south and Indonesia elsewhere.[86][87] East Timor has an exclusive economic zone of 77,051 km2 (29,750 sq mi).[88]

The interior of the country is mountainous,[81]: 2  with ridges of inactive volcanic mountains extending along the island.[28]: 2  Almost half of the country has a slope of at least 40%. The south is slightly less mountainous, and has some plains near the coastline.[85]: 2  The highest point is Tatamailau (also known as Mount Ramelau) at 2,963 metres (9,721 ft).[83][89] Most rivers dry up at least partially during the dry season.[84]: 2  Outside of some coastal areas and river valleys, the soil is shallow and prone to erosion, and its quality is poor.[85]: 13 [28]: 2  The capital, largest city, and main port is Dili, and the second-largest city is the eastern town of Baucau.

The climate is tropical with relatively stable temperatures throughout the year. A wet season lasts from December to May throughout the country, and lasts slightly longer in the south[85]: 5  and the interior due to the effect of a monsoon from Australia.[28]: 2  During this period, rainfall can reach 222–252 millimetres (8.7–9.9 in) per month. In the dry season, it drops to 12–18 millimetres (0.47–0.71 in).[85]: 5  The country is vulnerable to flooding and landslides that occur as a result of heavy rain, especially when rainfall levels are increased by the La Niña effect.[85]: 13  The mountainous interior is cooler than the coasts.[83] Coastal areas are heavily dependent on groundwater, which faces pressure from mismanagement, deforestation, and climate change.[85]: 14  While the temperature is thought to have experienced a small increase due to climate change, there has been little change in rainfall patterns.[85]: 6 

Coastal ecosystems around the country are diverse and varied, with vary spatially between the north and south coastlines, as well as between the eastern tip and areas more to the west. These ecosystems include coral reefs, as the country's waters are part of the Coral Triangle biodiversity hotspot.[82]: 28  The easternmost area of East Timor consists of the Paitchau Range and the Lake Ira Lalaro area, which contains the country's first conservation area, the Nino Konis Santana National Park.[90] It contains the last remaining tropical dry forested area within the country. It hosts a number of unique plant and animal species and is sparsely populated.[91] The northern coast is characterised by a number of coral reef systems that have been determined to be at risk.[92]

There are around 41,000 terrestrial plant species in the country, with around 35% of the land being forested in the mid 2010s.[93]: 1  The forests of the northern coast, central uplands, and southern coast are distinct.[84]: 2  East Timor is home to the Timor and Wetar deciduous forests ecoregion.[94] There is some environmental protection in law, but it has not been a government priority.[59]: 27 [82]: 10–14  In addition to climate change, local ecosystems are threatened by deforestation, land degradation, overfishing, and pollution.[93]: 2–3 


Economy of East Timor (nominal GDP)(previous and data)
Nominal GDP of East Timor (previous and data)

The economy of East Timor is a market economy, which used to depend upon exports of a few commodities such as coffee, marble, petroleum, and sandalwood.[95] Internally, market operations are limited by widespread poverty.[59]: 20  The country uses the United States dollar. The economy is generally open to foreign investment, although a prohibition on foreigners owning land means many require a local partner in the country.[59]: 20  Competition is limited by the small size of the economy, rather than any government barriers. There are far more imports than exports,[59]: 21  and prices for goods are often higher than in nearby countries.[59]: 27  Inflation is strongly affected by government spending.[96]: 257  Growth has been slow, averaging just 2.5% per year from 2011 to 2021.[97]: 24 

Most of the country is very poor, with just more than 40% living under the national poverty line. This poverty is especially prevalent in rural areas, where many are subsistence farmers or fishermen. Even in urban areas, the majority are poor. Overall, women are poorer than men, often being employed in lower-paying careers.[59]: 18  Malnutrition is common, with over half of children showing stunted growth.[96]: 255  While 91% of married working age (15-49) men were employed as of 2016, only 43% of married working age women were. There are small disparities in favour of men in terms of home and land ownership and owning a bank account.[98]: 14  The eastern three municipalities, which contain around a quarter of the population, has less poverty than the western areas, which contain 50% of the popuation.[61]: 214 

94% of domestic fish catch comes from the ocean, especially coastal fisheries.[85]: 17  66% of families are in part supported by subsistence activities, however the country as a whole does not produce enough food to be self-sustaining, and thus relies on imports.[85]: 16  Agricultural work carries the implication of poverty, and the sector receives little investment from the government.[96]: 260  Those in the capital of Dili are on average better off, although they remain poor by international standards.[96]: 257  The small size of the private sector means the government is often the customer of public businesses. A quarter of the national population works in the informal economy, with the official public and private sectors employing 9% each.[59]: 18  Of those of working age, around 23% are in the cash economy, 21% are students, and 27% are subsistence farmers and fishers.[59]: 21  The economy is mostly cash-based, with little commercial credit available from banks.[97]: 11–12  Remittances from overseas workers add up to around $100 million annually.[96]: 257 

Fractional coins, "centavos", used locally as part of the United States dollar

This poverty belies significant wealth in terms of natural resources, which at the time of independence had per capita value equivalent to the wealth of an upper-middle income country. Over half of this was in oil, and over a quarter natural gas. The Timor-Leste Petroleum Fund was established in 2005 to turn these non-renewable resources into a more sustainable form of wealth.[82]: 4–6  From 2005 to 2021, $23 billion earned from oil sales has entered the fund. $8 billion has been generated from investments, while $12 billion has been spent.[59]: 30  A decrease in oil and gas reserves led to decreasing HDI beginning in 2010.[59]: 18–19  80% of government spending comes from this fund, which as of 2021 had $19 billion, 10 times greater than the size of the national budget. As oil income has decreased, the fund is at risk of being exhausted. Withdrawals have exceeded sustainable levels almost every year since 2009.[59]: 23  Resources within the Bayu-Undan field are expected to soon run out, while extracting those within the so far undeveloped Greater Sunrise field has proven technically and politically challenging. Remaining potential reserves are also losing value as oil and gas become less favoured sources of energy.[96]: 264–272 [99]

The country's economy is dependent on government spending and, to a lesser extent, assistance from foreign donors.[100] Government spending decreased beginning in 2012, which had knock-on effects in the private sector over the following years. The government and its state-owned oil company often invest in large private projects. Decreasing government spending was matched with a decrease in GDP growth.[59]: 18  After the petroleum fund, the second largest source of government income is taxes. Tax revenue is less than 8% of GDP, lower than many other countries in the region and with similarly sized economies. Other government income comes from 23 "autonomous agencies", which include port authorities, infrastructure companies, and the National University of East Timor.[97]: 13, 28–309  Overall, government spending remains among the highest in the world,[97]: 12  although investment into education, health, and water infrastructure is negligible.[96]: 260 

A proportional representation of East Timor exports, 2019

Private sector development has lagged due to human capital shortages, infrastructure weakness, an incomplete legal system, and an inefficient regulatory environment.[100] Property rights remain ill-defined, with conflicting titles from Portuguese and Indonesian rule, as well as needing to accommodate traditional customary rights.[59]: 23  As of 2010, 87.7% of urban (321,043 people) and 18.9% of rural (821,459 people) households have electricity, for an overall average of 38.2%.[101] The private sector shrank between 2014 and 2018, despite a growing working age population. Agriculture and manufacturing are less productive per capita than at independence.[96]: 255–256  Non-oil economic sectors have failed to develop,[102] and growth in construction and administration is dependent on oil revenue.[96]: 256  The dependence on oil shows some aspects of a resource curse.[103] Coffee made up 90% of all non-fossil fuel exports from 2013-2019, with all such exports totaling to around US$20 million annually.[96]: 257  In 2017, the country was visited by 75,000 tourists.[104]


Population pyramid

East Timor recorded a population of 1,183,643 in its 2015 census.[6] The population lives mainly along the coastline, where all urban areas are located.[82]: 27  Those in urban areas generally have more formal education, employment prospects, and healthcare. While a strong gender disparity exists throughout the country, it is less severe in the urban capital. The wealthy minority often go abroad for health and education purposes.[59]: 25  The population is young, with the median age being under 20.[59]: 29  In particular, a large proportion of the population (almost 45% in 2015) are males between the ages of 15 and 24, the third largest male 'youth bulge' in the world.[61]: 212 

The CIA's World Factbook lists the English-language demonym for East Timor as Timorese,[105] as does the Government of Timor-Leste's website.[106] Other reference sources list it as East Timorese.[107][108] The word Maubere [de] formerly used by the Portuguese to refer to native East Timorese and often employed as synonymous with the illiterate and uneducated, was adopted by Fretilin as a term of pride.[109]

Healthcare received 6% of the national budget in 2021.[59]: 24  From 1990 to 2019 life expectancy rose from 48.5 to 69.5. Expected years of schooling rose from 9.8 to 12.4 between 2000 and 2010, while mean years of schooling rose from 2.8 to 4.4. Progress since 2010 for these has been limited. Gross national income per capita similarly peaked in 2010, and has decreased since.[110]: 3  As of 2016, 45.8% of East Timorese were impoverished, 16.3% severely so.[110]: 6  The fertility rate, which at the time of independence was the highest in the world at 7.8,[111] dropped to 4.2 by 2016. It is relatively higher in rural areas, and among poorer[98]: 3  and less literate households.[112] As of 2016, the average household size was 5.3, with 41% of people aged under 15, and 18% of households headed by women.[98]: 2  Infant mortality stood at 30 per 1,000, down from 60 per 1,000 in 2003.[98]: 7  46% of children under 5 showed stunted growth, down from 58% in 2010. Working age adult obesity increased from 5% to 10% during the same time period. As of 2016 40% of children, 23% of women, and 13% of men had anemia.[98]: 11 

Largest cities and towns in East Timor
Rank Name Municipalities Pop.
1 Dili Dili 244,584
2 Baucau Baucau 17,357
3 Maliana Bobonaro 12,787
4 Lospalos Lautém 12,471
5 Pante Macassar Oecusse 12,421
6 Suai Cova Lima 9,130
7 Ermera Ermera 8,045
8 Same Manufahi 7,332
9 Viqueque Viqueque 6,530
10 Ainaro Ainaro 6,250

Ethnicity and language[edit]

Major language groups in East Timor by suco

Ethnic background and linguistic group do not clearly define Timorese communities, with many communities within these broad groupings and many areas with overlaps and hybridisation between ethnic and linguistic groups.[74]: 44  Familial relations and descent, which are interlinked with sacred house affiliation, are a more important indicator of identity.[74]: 47  Each family group generally identifies with a single language or dialect.[74]: 49  With this immense local variation in mind, there is a broad cultural and identity distinction between the east (Bacau, Lautém, and Viqueque Municipalities) and the west of the country, a product of history more than it is of linguistic and ethnic differences,[74]: 45–47  although it is very loosely associated with the two language groups.[113]: 142–143 

Likely reflecting the mixed origins of the different ethnolinguistic groups of the island, the indigenous languages fall into two language families: Austronesian and Papuan.[28]: 10  Depending on how they are classified, there are up to 19 indigenous languages with up to 30 dialects.[113]: 136  Aside from Tetum, Ethnologue lists the following indigenous languages: Adabe, Baikeno, Bunak, Fataluku, Galoli, Habun, Idaté, Kairui-Midiki, Kemak, Lakalei, Makasae, Makuv'a, Mambae, Nauete, Tukudede, and Waima'a.[114] According to the Atlas of the World's Languages in Danger, there are six endangered languages in East Timor: Adabe, Habu, Kairui-Midiki, Maku'a, Naueti, and Waima'a.[115] The largest Malayo-Polynesian group is the Tetum,[116] mostly around Dili or the western border. Other Malayo-Polynesian languages with native speakers of more than 40,000 are Mambai in the central mountains south of Dili, Baikeno in Oecusse, Kemak in the north-west interior, and Tokodede on the northwest coast.[117][118] The main Papuan languages spoken are Bunak in the centre of Timor, especially within Bobonaro Municipality; Makasae in the eastern Bucau and Viqueque municipalities; and Fataluku in the eastern Lautém Municipality.[74]: 43  The 2015 census found that the most commonly spoken mother tongues were Tetum Prasa (mother tongue for 30.6% of the population), Mambai (16.6%), Makasai (10.5%), Tetum Terik (6.05%), Baikenu (5.87%), Kemak (5.85%), Bunak (5.48%), Tokodede (3.97%), and Fataluku (3.52%). Other indigenous languages accounted for 10.47%, while 1.09% of the population spoke foreign languages natively.[119]

There is a small mestiço population of mixed Portuguese and local descent.[120] There is a small Chinese minority, most of whom are Hakka.[121][122] Many Chinese left in the mid-1970s, but a significant number have also returned to East Timor following the end of Indonesian occupation.[123] East Timor has a small community of Timorese Indian, specifically Goan descent,[124] as well as historical immigration from Africa and Yemen.[120]

East Timor's two official languages are Portuguese and Tetum. In addition, English and Indonesian are designated by the constitution as "working languages".[81]: 3 [125] This is within the Final and Transitional Provisions, which do not set a final date. In 2012, 35% could speak, read, and write Portuguese, which is up significantly from less than 5% in the 2006 UN Development Report. Portuguese is recovering as it has now been made the main official language of Timor, and is being taught in most schools.[125][126] The use of Portuguese for government information and in the court system provides some barriers to access for those who do not speak it.[60] Tetum is also not understood by everyone in the country.[28]: 11  According to the Observatory of the Portuguese Language, the East Timorese literacy rate was 77.8% in Tetum, 55.6% in Indonesian, and 39.3% in Portuguese, and that the primary literacy rate increased from 73% in 2009 to 83% in 2012.[127] According to the 2015 census, 50% of the population between the ages of 14 and 24 can speak and understand Portuguese.[128] It is estimated that English is understood by 31.4% of the population.

Under Indonesian rule, the use of Portuguese was banned and only Indonesian was allowed to be used in government offices, schools and public business.[129] During the Indonesian occupation, Tetum and Portuguese were important unifying elements for the East Timorese people in opposing Javanese culture.[130] Portuguese was adopted as one of the two official languages upon independence in 2002 for this reason and as a link to Lusophone nations in other parts of the world. It is now being taught and promoted with the help of Brazil, Portugal, and the Community of Portuguese Language Countries.[131] Portuguese was adopted as it was seen by those involved in the independence struggle as a marker of East Timorese identity, differentiating the country from Indonesia. This created a divide with those who had grown up under Indonesian rule.[75]: 9–10 [132]

Tetum belongs to the Austronesian family of languages spoken throughout Southeast Asia and the Pacific.[133] Its use was promoted under Portuguese rule, and the modern language includes a large number of Portuguese loanwords. It serves as the primary language of the Catholic Church in the country.[81]: 3  Its use displaced the use of the Malay language, the previous lingua franca, despite the Mambai language being more common, including historically in the Dili area,[28]: 11  and replaced Indonesian as the most commonly shared language across the country. This growth occurred despite Tetum being mostly a spoken language, with little literature at the time.[113]: 151–152  There are four main dialects, and significant local variation due to influence from other languages.[134]


Escola Portuguesa Ruy Cinatti, the Portuguese School of Díli

East Timor's adult literacy rate in 2010 was 58.3%, up from 37.6% in 2001.[135] At the end of Portuguese rule, literacy was at 5%.[136] By 2021 it was 68% among adults, and 84% among those aged 15–24, being slightly higher among women than men.[59]: 27  More girls than boys attend school, although some drop out upon reaching puberty.[59]: 25  As of 2016 22% of working age women (15-49) and 19% of working age men had no education, 15% of women and 18% of men had some primary education, 52% of women and 51% of men had some secondary education, and 11% of women and 12% of men had higher education. Overall, 75% of women and 82% of men were literate.[98]: 2  Primary schools exist throughout the country, although the quality of materials and teaching is often poor. Secondary schools are generally limited to municipal capitals. Education takes up 10% of the national budget.[59]: 27  The country's main university is the National University of East Timor. There are also four colleges.[137]

Since independence, both Indonesian and Tetum have lost ground as media of instruction, while Portuguese has increased: in 2001 only 8.4% of primary school and 6.8% of secondary school students attended a Portuguese-medium school; by 2005 this had increased to 81.6% for primary and 46.3% for secondary schools.[138] Indonesian formerly played a considerable role in education, being used by 73.7% of all secondary school students as a medium of instruction, but by 2005 Portuguese was used by most schools in Baucau, Manatuto, as well as the capital district.[138] Portugal provides support to about 3% of the public schools in East Timor, focused on those in urban areas, further encouraging the use of the Portuguese language.[59]: 28 


Igreja da Imaculada Conceição church, in Viqueque

While the Constitution of East Timor enshrines the principles of freedom of religion and separation of church and state, Section 45 Comma 1 also acknowledges "the participation of the Catholic Church in the process of national liberation" in its preamble (although this has no legal value).[139] Upon independence, the country joined the Philippines to become the only two predominantly Roman Catholic states in Asia, although nearby parts of eastern Indonesia such as Flores and parts of Western New Guinea also have Roman Catholic majorities.[140]

According to the 2015 census, 97.57% of the population is Catholic; 1.96% Protestant; 0.24% Muslim; 0.08% Traditional; 0.05% Buddhist; 0.02% Hindu, and 0.08% other religions.[1] A 2016 survey conducted by the Demographic and Health Survey programme showed that Catholics made up 98.3% of the population, Protestants 1.2%, and Muslims 0.3%.[141]

The number of churches grew from 100 in 1974 to more than 800 in 1994,[137] with Church membership having grown considerably under Indonesian rule as Pancasila, Indonesia's state ideology, requires all citizens to believe in one God and does not recognise traditional beliefs. East Timorese animist belief systems did not fit with Indonesia's constitutional monotheism, resulting in mass conversions to Christianity. Portuguese clergy were replaced with Indonesian priests and Latin and Portuguese mass was replaced by Indonesian mass.[142] While just 20% of East Timorese called themselves Catholics at the time of the 1975 invasion, the figure surged to reach 95% by the end of the first decade after the invasion.[142][143] The Roman Catholic Church divides East Timor into three dioceses: the Archdiocese of Díli, the Diocese of Baucau, and the Diocese of Maliana.[144] In rural areas, Roman Catholicism is syncretised with local animist beliefs.[145] The number of Protestants and Muslims declined significantly after September 1999, as these groups were disproportionately represented among supporters of integration with Indonesia. Fewer than half of previous Protestant congregations existed after September 1999, and many Protestants were among those who remained in West Timor.[146]


Sacred house (lee teinu) in Lospalos

The culture of East Timor reflects numerous influences, including Portuguese, Roman Catholic, and Indonesian, on Timor's indigenous Austronesian and Melanesian cultures. East Timorese culture is heavily influenced by Austronesian legends. For example, East Timorese creation myth has it that an ageing crocodile transformed into the island of Timor as part of debt repayment to a young boy who had helped the crocodile when it was sick.[147][148] As a result, the island is shaped like a crocodile and the boy's descendants are the native East Timorese who inhabit it. The phrase "leaving the crocodile" refers to the pained exile of East Timorese from their island.

The presence of so many ethnic and linguistic groups means cultural practices vary across the country.[81]: 11  Furthermore, the capital has a more cosmopolitan culture, while rural areas maintain stronger traditional practices.[59]: 30  These practices reflect historical social structures and practices, where political leaders were regarded as having spiritual powers. Ancestry was an important component of leadership, with ancestors being an important part of cultural practices. Leaders often had influence over land-use, and these leaders continue to play an informal role in land disputes and other aspects of community practice today. An important traditional concept is lulik, or sacredness. Some lulik ceremonies continue to reflect animist beliefs, for example through divination ceremonies which vary throughout the country. Sacred status can also be associated with objects, such as Portuguese flags which have been passed down within families. The preservation of traditional beliefs in the face of Indonesia attempts to suppress them became linked to the creation of the country's national identity.[81]: 7–13  This national identity only began to emerge at the very end of Portuguese rule and during Indonesian rule.[113]: 134–136  A civic identity begun to develop, most clearly expressed through enthusiasm for national-level democracy,[113]: 155–156  and reflected in politics through a shift from resistance narratives to development ones.[149]: 3 

There is traditionally a strong oral history, highlighted in individuals able to recite long stories or poetry.[150] Traditional rituals retain important, often mixed in with more modern aspects. Different tais patterns are associated with different communities and more broadly linguistic groups.[113]: 137  Community life is centred around sacred houses, physical structures which serve as a representative symbol and identifier for each community. Kinship systems exist within and between houses. Traditional leaders, who stem from historically important families, retain key roles in administering justice and resolving disputes through methods that vary between communities.[74]: 47–49  Such leaders are often elected to official leadership positions, joining cultural and historical status with modern political status.[74]: 52  Internal migration into urban areas, especially Dili, creates cultural links between these areas and rural hinterlands. Those in urban areas often continue to identify with a specific rural area, even those with multiple generations born in Dili.[74]: 53–54 

East Timor became a state party to the UNESCO World Heritage Convention on 31 January 2017.[151] East Timor is currently[when?] finalising its dossiers needed for nominations in the UNESCO World Heritage List, UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage Lists, UNESCO Creative Cities Network, UNESCO Global Geoparks Network, and UNESCO Biosphere Reserve Network. The country currently[when?] has one document in the UNESCO Memory of the World Register, namely, On the Birth of a Nation: Turning points.[152]


Traditional Timorese dancers

There is a strong tradition of poetry in the country.[153] Prime Minister Xanana Gusmão, for example, is a distinguished poet, earning the moniker "poet warrior".[154]

Architecturally, buildings are often Portuguese style along with the traditional totem houses of the eastern region. These are known as uma lulik ("sacred houses") in Tetum and lee teinu ("legged houses") in Fataluku.[citation needed] Craftsmanship and the weaving of traditional scarves (tais) is also widespread.[citation needed]

An extensive collection of Timorese audiovisual material is held at the National Film and Sound Archive of Australia. These holdings have been identified in a document titled The NFSA Timor-Leste Collection Profile, which features catalogue entries and essays for a total of 795 NFSA-held moving images, recorded sound and documentation works that have captured the history and culture of East Timor since the early twentieth century.[155] The NFSA is working with the East Timorese government to ensure that all of this material can be used and accessed by the people of that country.[156]

In 2009 and 2010, East Timor was the setting for the Australian film Balibo and the South Korean film A Barefoot Dream. In 2013, the first East Timorese feature film, Beatriz's War, was released.[157] Two further feature-length films, Abdul & José and Ema Nudar Umanu, were respectively released on 30 July 2017 through the television network of RTTL[158][159] and on 16 August 2018 at the Melbourne International Film Festival.[160]


The cuisine of East Timor consists of regional popular foods such as pork, fish, basil, tamarind, legumes, corn, rice, root vegetables, and tropical fruit. East Timorese cuisine has influences from Southeast Asian cuisine and from Portuguese dishes from its colonisation by Portugal. Flavours and ingredients from other former Portuguese colonies can be found due to the centuries-old Portuguese presence on the island. Due to the East and West combination of East Timor's cuisine, it developed features related to Filipino cuisine, which also experienced an east–west culinary combination.


Players of the Timorese club Sport Dili e Benfica

Sports organizations joined by East Timor include the International Olympic Committee (IOC), the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), the Badminton World Federation (BWF), the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI), the International Weightlifting Federation (IWF), the International Table Tennis Federation (ITTF), the International Basketball Federation (FIBA), and East Timor's national football team joined FIFA. East Timorese athletes competed in the 2003 Southeast Asian Games held 2003. In the 2003 ASEAN Paralympics Games, East Timor won the bronze medal in men's 48 kg weightlifting.[161] After being recognized by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) in 2003, East Timorese athletes participated in the Athens 2004 Olympic Games under athletics, weightlifting and boxing.[162] East Timor won three medals in Arnis at the 2005 Southeast Asian Games.[163] East Timor competed in the first Lusophony Games and, in October 2008, the country earned its first international points in a FIFA football match with a 2–2 draw against Cambodia.[164] East Timor competed at the 2014 Winter Olympics.

Thomas Americo was the first East Timorese fighter to fight for a world boxing title. He was murdered in 1999, shortly before the Indonesian occupation of East Timor ended.[165]

See also[edit]


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External links[edit]


General information