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Freedom in the World 2004 - East Timor

Publisher Freedom House
Publication Date 18 December 2003
Cite as Freedom House, Freedom in the World 2004 - East Timor, 18 December 2003, available at: [accessed 29 November 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.

Political Rights: 3
Civil Liberties: 3
Status: Partly Free
Population: 800,000
GNI/Capita: $390
Life Expectancy: 49
Religious Groups: Roman Catholic (90 percent), Muslim (4 percent), Protestant (3 percent), other (3 percent)
Ethnic Groups: Austronesian (Malayo-Polynesian), Papuan, small Chinese minority
Capital: Dili


East Timor continued the arduous process of nation building in 2003 in a scarred land as it prepared for the end of a UN mandate that has helped maintain order and build democratic institutions from scratch. A series of armed attacks on civilians by suspected antigovernment militias early in the year raised questions about the tiny Southeast Asian country's ability to protect its citizens once international troops and police are fully withdrawn by May 2004.

The Portuguese became the first Europeans to land on Timor Island in the sixteenth century. They retreated to the eastern part of Timor in the late eighteenth century following years of fighting for control of the island with the Dutch. After Portugal abruptly abandoned its colony of East Timor in early 1975, two armed Timorese groups – the leftist Fretilin and the right-wing Timorese Democratic Union – fought for control of the territory. Indonesia invaded in December 1975 and formally annexed East Timor in 1976.

As Indonesian forces tightened their grip on the territory, they committed widespread abuses against the local population during counterinsurgency operations against Fretilin's armed wing, the East Timorese National Liberation Army (Falintil). By 1979, civil conflict and famine had killed up to 200,000 Timorese. For the next two decades, poorly equipped Falintil forces continued to wage a low-grade insurgency from the rugged interior.

East Timor's road to independence began with the 1998 downfall of Indonesia's iron-fisted President Suharto, who had rejected even autonomy for the territory. As support for independence mounted in 1999, local militias, armed by the Indonesian army, began attacking pro-independence activists and suspected supporters. Amid the violence, East Timorese voters overwhelmingly approved an August 1999 referendum on independence. In response, militia fighters and Indonesian forces killed more than 1,000 civilians, drove more than 250,000 others into Indonesia's West Timor, and destroyed up to 80 percent of East Timor's roads and buildings before being ousted in late September 1999 by an Australian-led multinational force. An interim UN administration helped rebuild roads, schools, and other infrastructure and set up a legislature and other basic institutions.

The Fretilin party won the most seats in the 2001 constituent assembly vote, which was marred by accusations by smaller parties, not fully substantiated, that Fretilin intimidated voters. In a controversial move, the constituent assembly inserted a clause in the constitution it drafted that automatically transformed the assembly into the nation's parliament upon independence for a full five-year term. That means that legislative elections are not due until 2007. Fretilin's leader, Mari Alkatiri, is prime minister.

President Jose Gusmao, a former resistance commander who had been captured and jailed by Indonesian authorities, took office after easily winning a five-year term in elections in April 2002. East Timor became fully independent in May, its citizens flush with hope but woefully short on economic resources. It is Southeast Asia's poorest country, with 85 to 90 percent of urban adults lacking jobs and small-scale coffee production virtually the only export industry.

Armed attacks in early 2003, in the western Ermera district near the Indonesian border and elsewhere killed at least five villagers. Yet even as security problems continue, the end of the UN mandate in May 2004 will mean a withdrawal of UN security forces that had totaled 3,372 troops and 387 civilian police in mid-2003. The human rights group Amnesty International expressed concern in July that East Timor's fledgling police force lacks the capacity, oversight, and legal and procedural guidelines to protect the public while respecting human rights. It cited in particular the December 2002 shooting by police of some 18 people, two fatally, during riots in the capital, Dili.

Foreign donors in 2002 pledged $440 million to East Timor through 2005. If fully disbursed, these funds should help the government stay afloat financially until it begins earning income under a 2002 deal with Australia that gives East Timor a share of revenues from Timor Sea oil and gas production. The revenues could total $6 billion over 20 years, according to conservative estimates. However, Foreign Minister Jose Ramos Horta, speaking to the Hong Kong-based Far Eastern Economic Review in January 2003, warned that the new nation might not yet have the institutions to properly handle large revenue flows.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties

East Timorese chose their leaders for the first time in presidential elections in 2002 and balloting for a constituent assembly the previous year. They continue to face the task of building viable democratic institutions in a land plagued by neglect and brutality during two centuries of Portuguese colonial rule and 24 years of Indonesian occupation. Opposition parties have complained that Fretilin has excluded their members from some supposedly nonpartisan government jobs.

The key source of local news and information is the state-run Radio East Timor, though several community and nongovernmental radio stations serve various parts of the half-island country. East Timor's few news publications freely criticize the government. Denied voices or roles under the Indonesian occupation, numerous nongovernmental groups are now providing social services and monitoring and promoting human rights.

East Timor's several trade unions are independent but inexperienced and poorly funded and have made little headway in organizing workers. With an estimated two-thirds to three-fourths of East Timorese dependent on subsistence agriculture, unions are likely to play limited roles for the foreseeable future.

Like other state institutions, East Timor's civil law judiciary is weak and inexperienced, having been built quickly from the ground up by UN administrators and East Timorese leaders. Besides lacking adequate resources, the courts are short on trained lawyers, prosecutors, and translators, who have to work in four languages – Indonesian, the local Tetum dialect, English, and Portuguese. Although its use raises questions about universal access to the judiciary, Portuguese is the primary language of the courts and was used to draft many laws, even though it is spoken by only a minority of East Timorese.

Many criminal suspects are held in pretrial detention without judicial review longer than legally permissible, some for periods longer than the maximum sentence for the crimes for which they were charged, according to the U.S. State Department's human rights report for 2002, released in March 2003. In the aftermath of the January militia attacks, security forces illegally detained 39 people, some for more than a week, according to Amnesty International.

Like other post-conflict societies, East Timor faced the vexing question of whether to deal with past abuses through trials or through some form of reconciliation. It chose trials, and a UN tribunal in Dili, staffed by local and international judges, has convicted and jailed more than 30 East Timorese for their roles in the 1999 violence. Overall, indictments have been handed down against more than 300 suspects, the majority for crimes against humanity. However, more than two-thirds remain in Indonesia, which refuses to extradite them.

Ethnic Malay Muslims and ethnic Chinese face occasional harassment, while many non-Portuguese speakers claim to be at a disadvantage in competing for political and civil service posts. While most returning refugees from Indonesian West Timor have reintegrated fairly easily, there have been isolated cases of local residents stoning, beating, and interrogating returnees suspected of militia links, with some returnees in past years subjected to forced labor.

East Timorese women face problems including domestic violence, the judiciary's relatively poor record of prosecuting suspected rapists, and traditional practices in some regions and villages preventing women from owning or inheriting property.

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