Last Updated: Wednesday, 07 October 2015, 08:04 GMT

World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples - Timor-Leste : Overview

Publisher Minority Rights Group International
Publication Date 2007
Cite as Minority Rights Group International, World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples - Timor-Leste : Overview, 2007, available at: [accessed 7 October 2015]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.


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 parts of its territory which 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 climate tropical.


Main languages: Tetum, Mambai, Portuguese, Bahasa Indonesia, Tocodede, Bunak

Main religions: Roman Catholicism (90 percent), Islam, Animism, Islam (UK Foreign Office Country Profiles, 2007)

Main ethnic groups: Tetum (300,000), Mambae (80,000), Tukudede, Galoli, Bunak, Kemak, Fataluku, Baikeno (UK Foreign Office Country Profiles, 2007)

Timor-Leste's one million people (UK Foreign Office Country Profiles, 2007) are made up of a variety of ethnic groups, speaking some sixteen indigenous languages, as well as Portuguese and Bahasa Indonesia. Most (12) of the indigenous groups are of Austronesian, while there are four including the Bunak, the Fatalukuand and the Makasae which are of predominantly Melanesian-Papuan origin.

Among the largest ethnic groups are the 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 Mambae who may constitute around 8 percent live mainly in the central mountains. Some of the other main groups are the 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 vast majority, perhaps as much as 90 percent, of East Timorese are Catholics, as a legacy of the Portuguese colonial era, but there is also a non-negligible Muslim minority at perhaps 3 percent, though its exact size is contested.


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. This 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.

In August 1975, the Portuguese authority fled, and the Timorese military went over to FRETILIN, which enabled it to win a brief civil war costing some 2,000 lives. But in early December 1975, Indonesia, which had already taken over the East Timorese enclave of Oecussi in West Timor, invaded East Timor. Western nations like Australia and the USA had prior knowledge of the invasion but refused to act, apparently willing to sacrifice the East Timorese for their own perceived strategic interests.

The Indonesian invasion: mass human rights abuses & widespread famine

The Indonesian invasion was accompanied by great cruelty and appalling loss of life. The Timorese population rallied to FRETILIN in opposition to the invasion, and FRETILIN fled to the interior mountains to wage guerrilla war. The Indonesian estimate is that 15 per cent of the Timorese population – 100,000 people – died during the invasion and first five years of occupation. Other estimates are that more than one-third of the population died from the invasion and the famines and spread of disease caused by deliberate Indonesian tactics which involved the destruction of arable land and crops, under the military code-name of 'Operasi Keamanan (Operation Security)'

FRETILIN fled to the interior mountains to wage guerrilla war. Blaming the on-going warfare, the Indonesian government systematically excluded foreign journalists, medical teams and other independent observers from visiting East Timor. This prevented an accurate detailed assessment of the loss of life among East Timorese resulting from military killings, injuries, famine, exposure and disease, as well as the many cases of torture and political murder. Some observers described the situation as 'genocidal'.

From 1975 there was significant immigration of Indonesian administrators, entrepreneurs, commercial agents and settlers. 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 Indonesians 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 let in 1999 to an UN-sponsored agreement between Indonesia, Portugal and the United States for a UN-supervised popular referendum held on 30 August 1999, sanctioned by then Indonesian President B. J. Habibie.

Violent clashes and riots erupted soon after the East Timorese population voted massively for independence from Indonesia, seen by most outside observers to have been instigated by the Indonesian military and aided by Timorese pro-Indonesia militias. There followed a period of instability and violence until the intervention on an international peacekeeping force, INTERFET (International Force East Timor). During this period, large numbers of people became refugees, including many Indonesians and Muslims and groups sympathetic to Indonesia which crossed the border into Indonesia. Much of the future country's infrastructure was also destroyed around this time. Outrage at the violence and Indonesia's tacit support for the militias, combined with the result of the 1999 referendum, eventually resulted in members of the international community recognising East Timor as the independent state of Timor-Leste in 2002.

Shifts in ethnic composition

The end of the Indonesian presence has seen a dramatic shift of its ethnic composition: whereas Muslims were thought to represent perhaps 18 percent of the population a few years before independence, largely because the Indonesian government's transmigration and development activities had brought large numbers of individuals from Indonesia into the province, that percentage quickly shrunk to just a few percentages.

Timor-Leste has also since then struggled to recover from the legacy of the Indonesian occupation and the destruction of the conflicts which have marred it for the last three decades, and the sudden departure of many teachers, doctors, officials and professionals who had been brought in by the Indonesian authorities.

It continues to work towards building new democratic and governance institutions, soon after much of the new country's infrastructure was destroyed.


Timor-Leste faces huge governance challenges as it attempts to recover from the destruction which followed the 1999 referendum and the withdrawal of many of the Indonesians who had, during the more than two decades of Indonesian occupation, controlled much of the economic, political and professional classes. Much of the infrastructure and government institutions are being rebuilt from scratch, and this affects all aspects of life in the new country. Its judicial and legal institutions are also being re-established with the assistance of the international community. It is moving towards the establishment of numerous legal and other institutions to address human rights concerns, such as by the creation after 2004 of the Office of the Ombudsman for Human Rights and Justice .

As a fledgling democracy facing crushing poverty which continues to hamper many of the country's efforts, Timor-Leste has experienced most recently unrest linked to resentment at the ongoing difficulties in accessing jobs, education, and even on which languages should be official (the latter linked also to questions of access to employment opportunities). These tensions have occasionally been characterized as involving tensions between ethnic groups linked to the western and eastern parts of the country.

Current state of minorities and indigenous peoples

Timor-Leste continues to re-establish various administrative and legal institutions to address various social and human rights issues and strengthen the rule of law in the new country. Some degree of 'settling of accounts' as independence rolled in has seen the departure of the members of some minorities, such as the small Chinese, Protestants and Muslims, seen as connected to or having benefited under the occupying Indonesian regime. While the initial violence after independence – which was in any event rather limited and condemned by the Timor-Leste authorities – against these minorities have to a large degree ended, tensions among some of the indigenous minorities may now be increasing as patience over the pace of development increases.

The year 2006 saw deadly riots over the dismissal of almost 600 soldiers who complained of discrimination in the armed forces: their claims appear to be linked to perceived ethnic favouritism within the Timor-Leste government, as most of the soldiers were from the western part of the country. Dili itself appears to have moved towards some fragmentation along ethnic lines, as many residents from the east have fled to their home regions or settled out in the suburbs. While use of the 'ethnic' tag is convenient, it also does not seem to be completely accurate as those from the west (known as loromonu, literally sunset), and those of the east (or lorosae meaning sunrise) are of various, overlapping ethnic groups. The current distrust may in fact be more closely connected to the – mistaken – view that the population in the western part of the country were too conciliatory with the Indonesian occupiers. Whatever the explanation, the tensions between the two real and have in 2006 bred violence and tensions which are continuing in 2007.

There also appears to be a linguistic and almost generational division in the country. The younger generation, educated almost exclusively in Bahasa Indonesia while the Portuguese language was banned during the Indonesian occupation, have at times voiced their opposition to the status Portuguese has as an official language, and the concomitant advantage to those who speak it in some government employment opportunities. Many of these young people are only fluent in Bahasa Indonesia (and Tetum), and claim that they are discriminated in the government's language preferences, though Bahasa Indonesia, along with English, are also recognised as working languages under the country's Constitution.

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