Political Rights: 3
Civil Liberties: 3
Status: Partly Free
Population: 800,000
GNI/Capita: $520
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


Two years after gaining independence, the world's newest nation continued in 2004 the arduous task of constructing effective state institutions, promoting social reconciliation, and developing the economy. However, the euphoria that greeted independence has given way to concern over economic growth, unemployment, and corruption. Acknowledging that the East Timor government still lacked capacity in numerous fields, the United Nations extended its Mission in Support of East Timor (UNMISET), which had been scheduled to end in 2004, until May 2005.

The Portuguese colonized East Timor in the sixteenth century but did little to develop the territory. After Portugal abruptly abandoned East Timor in 1975, the leftist Revolutionary Front for an Independent East Timor (Fretilin) and the right-wing Democratic Union of Timor (UDT) fought for control of the territory. Fearing that a left-wing East Timor would emerge in the midst of the Indonesian archipelago, the staunchly anti-Communist regime of Indonesia's General Suharto covertly supported right-wing groups in East Timor. Indonesia responded to Fretilin's November 1975 declaration of independence by invading East Timor in December 1975 and formally incorporating it as Indonesia's twenty-sixth province in 1976. The United Nations condemned both actions.

Over the next two decades, Fretilin's armed wing, Falintil, waged a low-grade insurgency against the Indonesian army (TNI), which ruled East Timor with few civilian checks on its power. As Indonesian forces consolidated their control over East Timor, they committed widespread abuses against the local population. Civil conflict and famine may have killed up to 200,000 Timorese during Indonesian rule.

When the TNI fired on a peaceful funeral demonstration in the presence of foreign cameramen in 1991, killing more than 200, foreign governments increasingly conditioned their relations with Indonesia on the latter's treatment of East Timor. The 1996 Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to two leading East Timorese, exiled activist Jose Ramos-Horta and the Catholic Bishop of Dili, Carlos Belo. Negotiations on autonomy for East Timor conducted with jailed resistance leader Jose Alexendre "Xanana" Gusmao and others went nowhere, owing to Suharto's opposition.

Suharto's successor, Habibie, approved a referendum on East Timor's status. After 78.5 percent of the electorate in East Timor voted for independence in August 1999, elements of the TNI and their pro-integrationist East Timor allies embarked on a scorched-earth policy. By the time an Australian-led multinational force arrived to restore order, up to 1,000 civilians had been killed, more than 250,000 others had been driven into Indonesian West Timor, and approximately 80 percent of East Timor's buildings and infrastructure had been destroyed.

In October 1999, The UN Security Council authorized the UN Transitional Authority for East Timor (UNTAET), charged to provide security, oversee reconstruction, and prepare for independence. In August 2001, East Timor elected an 88-member Constituent Assembly to draft a constitution. In an election contested by 16 political parties, Fretilin won 57 percent of the vote, significantly less than the 80 percent that its leader, Mari Alkatiri, had predicted. Many attribute this result to statements by Gusmao that a Fretilin landslide would not be good for democracy. Gusmao had been chairman of Fretilin until 1988 when he left the party with a stinging critique, rejected violence, and created a broad resistance coalition. Gusmao was directly elected president for a five-year term, with 87 percent of the vote, in May 2002.

Little controversy surrounded the political substance of the constitution, which came into effect upon independence on May 20, 2002. However, the designation of November 28, 1975, the day of the Fretilin takeover in Dili, as independence day; the choice of its previous term for the territory, Republica Democratica de Timor Leste as the official name of the new country; and the close resemblance of the national flag to the old Fretilin party flag all generated dissent. The opposition claimed that the use of Fretilin symbols and conventions for the new state was an attempt to conflate the ruling party with the state itself. Fretilin also inserted a clause into the constitution to transform the Constituent Assembly into the country's first postindependence parliament. This action was opposed by President Gusmao, Bishop Belo, and most of the non-Fretilin political leaders, who all favored fresh elections. The designation of Portuguese, the language of the elite spoken by only 5 percent of Timorese, as the national language alongside Tetum, a language understood by approximately 82 percent of the population, also triggered opposition.

UNTAET was disbanded upon independence. Mindful of the severe dearth of trained personnel in virtually all public sectors, as well as the cross-border threat from Indonesian West Timor, the United Nations authorized UNMISET, which retained responsibility for security and continued United Nations programs in economic recovery, reconstruction, and capacity building. On May 20, 2004, UNMISET officially handed over responsibility for external defense and internal security to East Timor. Concerned over the immaturity of the country's security and civil institutions, however, the United Nations voted to extend UNMISET's mandate for an additional year, until May 2005, although significantly reducing its presence. Security personnel fell from 3,000 civilian police, troops, and military observers to 604, while the number of experts serving in the country's civil administration was cut from 100 to 60.

East Timor has made extensive progress in implementing the national development plan launched in 2002, which prioritizes health, education, infrastructure, and agriculture in that order. According to the Far Eastern Economic Review, more than 700 of the 900 schools burnt during the post-referendum violence have been rebuilt, health centers have spread across the country, and 80 percent of a budgeted 13,100 civil service positions have been filled. Nevertheless, the country only has 20 doctors, roads in many part of the country are impassable, and only Dili can count on a stable power supply.

Poverty hampers East Timor's nation-building efforts. East Timor is Asia's poorest country, with an average per capita income of less than $500, and 41 percent of the population live below the national poverty line of 55 cents per day, according to Oxfam. Up to 80 percent of the country's working-age population is unemployed. After experiencing an unsustainable boom in 2000-2001, when the economy, driven by massive international presence in the country and postreferendum reconstruction spending, expanded 15 percent, East Timor sustained a contraction of 3 percent in 2003. Prospects for 2004 are limited.

Income from oil and gas is the economic lifeline that the Timorese and international donors are counting on to help the country achieve self-sufficiency. For most of 2004, East Timor was locked in a bitter dispute with Australia over the maritime border in the Timor Sea that divides the two countries. At stake are proceeds from rich oil and gas deposits that would give East Timor an estimated additional $8 billion over the next two decades, according to The Economist. Australia adopted formidable tactics toward this issue, withdrawing from the International Court of Justice's jurisdiction on law of the sea issues two months before East Timor became independent. Not until mid-2004, when the oil consortium involved threatened to abandon its project unless an agreement was reached by year's end, did Australia return to the negotiating table.

An estimated 16,000 of the 250,000 East Timorese who fled or were pushed across the border to Indonesian West Timor are still there. Fewer than 100 returned to East Timor in the first three months of 2004, leading the United Nations to conclude that the majority of those remaining had decided to stay in Indonesia, at least for now. Although there has been no major cross-border violence since late 2003, the mere presence of the refugee camps along the Indonesian – East Timor border and of an unknown number of militia members in them remains a security threat.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties

East Timor's directly elected president plays a largely symbolic role, with his formal powers limited to the right to veto legislation and make appointments. Governing power resides with the prime minister, Fretilin leader Mari Alkatiri, and parliament, both holdovers from the directly elected Constituent Assembly. The Democratic Party (PD) and the Social Democratic Party (SDT) each won slightly more than 8 percent of the vote in the August 2001 elections, and form the nucleus of a parliamentary opposition that numbers around 25 of the 88 members. In contrast to Fretilin, which derives its legitimacy from its role in the independence struggle, PD is run by a younger generation of university graduates and intellectuals.

Elections for village leaders, which were scheduled to take place in successive rounds beginning in late 2004, have been pushed back. There are fears that Fretilin will attempt to limit the power and activities of political opposition groups. Following a March 6 opposition rally, a number of civil servants faced investigations, disciplinary actions, and job loss, measures that have been questioned in the press. The administration claims that those disciplined violated laws prohibiting civil servants from attending political rallies during business hours; those involved claim they were off duty.

There is great concern that corruption, largely as a product of bad habits learned from Indonesia, will explode once the United Nations presence finally ends. Many welcome the fact that Western experts effectively run the Finance Ministry and keep a tight reign on spending. East Timor was not ranked by Transparency International in its 2004 Corruption Perceptions Index.

East Timor's press legislation is one of the most liberal in Asia, according to Reporters Sans Frontieres. However, anecdotal evidence indicates that there have been more than a few instances in which reporters have been seriously rebuked or fired for writing investigative articles on public officials. A recent proposal to create an independent TV station as an alternative to the state-owned one was rejected by the prime minister. Draft legislation is currently being considered by the government that would make defamation a criminal act.

East Timor is a secular state, but the Roman Catholic Church plays a central role in the life of the country. Church rules prohibit persons living under religious vows from holding political office, so some politically active priests and nuns have been barred from government office. No significant threats to religious freedom exist, and the prime minister, a member of the country's small Arab minority, is a practicing Muslim.

Although the government generally respects freedom of assembly and association, there were a few cases in which these rights were violated. In March, PNTL officers raided a house in the village of Uatulari where an opposition party was holding a public meeting. Although a permit is not necessary for a meeting in a private home, police claimed that the party had not obtained a permit.

East Timor has a labor code based on the International Labor Organization's standards. The law permits workers to form and join worker organizations without prior authorization. However, attempts to organize workers generally have been slowed by inexperience and a lack of organizational skills. During the year, the government established official registration procedures for trade unions and employer organizations.

The country's legal system is fragile. With only two functioning courthouses in the country, communities are frequently left with the responsibility of adjudicating their own disputes. The rights to due process and an expeditious fair trial are often restricted or denied, largely because of shortages of resources and lack of trained personnel. The establishment of the National Judicial Training Center by the UNDP in September 2004 to provide standardized, postgraduate legal training for judges, prosecutors, and public defenders is a significant step toward alleviating the human capacity problems and lack of standardization currently plaguing the legal system.

Neither the police (PNTL) nor the military (FDLT) are perceived to have the trust of the population or the capacity to provide adequate security and order. Infighting between the PNTL and FDLT erupted into a public confrontation between members of the two security forces on January 25 in Los Palos. Tensions between the two organizations are attributable to a recruitment process that resulted in a large number of former Falintil members being incorporated into the defense force while police officers were drawn largely from the Indonesian-era police force. Insufficient clarity in the division of labor between the two security forces, as well as PNTL resentment that FDLT has garnered the lion's share of foreign training resources, exacerbate relations. The fact that the FDLT falls under President Jose Alexendre "Xanana" Gusmao's control, while the PNTL reports to Alkatiri, has further deepened social mistrust of the political independence and neutrality of these bodies.

An April 2004 report by UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan stated that the PNTL had been the subject of "continuing, disturbing reports of excessive use of force, assault, negligent use of firearms, criminal activities, corrupt practices and violations of human rights." The creation of two special units within the security forces – a bodyguard unit of the Internal Administrative Ministry and a police rapid-intervention unit supplied with submachine guns and assault rifles – are also worrisome signs.

Like other postconflict societies, East Timor faces the vexing question of how to balance the desire for justice for past abuses with the need for reconciliation. In 2001, UNTAET created an independent Commission for Reception, Truth, and Reconciliation (CAVR) with the mandate to investigate human rights violations committed between April 1974 and October 1999, and to facilitate community reconciliation. CAVR is scheduled to issue its final report in October 2004. In May 2004, parliament debated an amnesty law that would extend to crimes such as genocide, as well as to war crimes, murder, sexual offenses, and torture. International human rights organizations have lobbied against this move, arguing that the proposed pardons would preempt any serious judicial followup to the CAVR's final report.

The UN Serious Crime Unit (SCU) was established in 2000 to investigate serious incidents, included murder, rape, and torture, that were committed between January 1, 1999, and October 15, 1999. The SCU, which is housed within the East Timor Attorney General's office, has filed charges against approximately 400 people, including many high-ranking Indonesians such as General Wiranto, head of the TNI at the time of the 1999 referendum and the third-place finisher in Indonesia's 2004 presidential election. In the midst of the election campaign, the SCU issued an arrest warrant for Wiranto, but East Timor's attorney-general refused to process it.

The latest UN resolution did not extend the mandate of the SCU, which was required to complete all of its investigations by November 2004, with all trials and other activities completed no later than May 2005. The widespread belief that the majority of those responsible for serious crimes will not be brought to justice by this time, combined with Indonesia's unwillingness to prosecute those responsible for the 1999 violence under its jurisdiction, has led many in the human rights community to call for a UN tribunal. East Timor's leaders have rejected such proposals in the name of reconciliation with Indonesia.

At least 275 Indonesians who have been denied citizenship by East Timor and lack Indonesian papers are stateless and have been targets of violence in the past.

Many Timorese claim that their country's brutal history has led to a "culture of violence" in society, including widespread domestic violence. With the assistance of the UN Population Fund, East Timor has helped draft new domestic violence legislation to protect women and children that is to be reviewed and implemented as part of the country's new penal code.

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