Political Rights: 3
Civil Liberties: 3
Status: Partly Free
Population: 900,000
GNI/Capita: $550
Life Expectancy: 55
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


In late 2004 into 2005, local elections, postponed in 2004, took place in what the UN Security Council called a "peaceful and orderly fashion." The United Nations moved to allay fears concerning the May 2005 withdrawal of the UN Mission in Support of East Timor (UNMISET) by establishing a one-year UN Office in Timor-Leste (UNOTIL), tasked specifically with helping to develop police, border patrols, and other critical institutions. On August 4, 2005, a truth commission sponsored jointly by the Indonesian and East Timor governments met for the first time to investigate postreferendum violence. Critics of the commission say it is designed merely to deflect international pressure for a tribunal.

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. This conflict prompted the staunchly anti-Communist regime of Indonesia's General Suharto to covertly support right-wing groups in East Timor, and then to invade East Timor when Fretilin issued a declaration of independence in November 1975. East Timor was formally incorporated as Indonesia's twenty-sixth province in 1976.

Over the next two decades, Fretilin's armed wing, Falintil, waged a low-grade insurgency against the Indonesian army (TNI), which ruled East Timor. As Indonesian forces consolidated control over East Timor, they committed widespread human rights abuses. Civil conflict and famine may have killed up to 180,000 Timorese during Indonesian rule.

After the Dili massacre in 1991, in which TNI soldiers killed more than 200 participants in a funeral march and which was captured on film by foreign journalists, international pressure on Indonesia steadily rose. Two leading East Timorese – exiled activist Jose Ramos-Horta and the Catholic bishop of Dili, Carlos Belo – won the 1996 Nobel Peace Prize.

B. J. Habibie, Suharto's successor, 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), 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, a rather low share that many attribute to statements by the charismatic former resistance leader Kay Rala Xanana Gusmao (formerly, Jose Alexandre Gusmao), that a Fretilin landslide would not be good for democracy. Gusmao vacated his position as Fretilin chair in 1988 to build a broad resistance coalition that rejected violence. Gusmao won the presidency with 87 percent of a direct popular vote in May 2002.

Upon independence, UNTAET was replaced by the newly authorized UN Mission in Support of East Timor (UNMISET), with responsibility for security and programs in economic recovery, reconstruction, and capacity building. In May 2004, UNMISET officially handed over responsibility for external defense and internal security to East Timor, but its mandate was extended until May 2005, with sharply reduced personnel levels. While UNMISET did withdraw in May 2005, it was replaced by the UN Office in Timor-Leste (UNOTIL).

East Timor has made extensive progress in implementing the national development plan launched in 2002, particularly in reconstructing schools and health centers destroyed in post-referendum violence, and in building the Civil Service. 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. More than 250,000 children attend elementary and secondary schools in East Timor, and more than 13,000 study in national and foreign universities. The country currently has 54 East Timorese doctors, up from only 20 last year. Nevertheless, poverty remains desperate: the country is among Asia's poorest, with 41 percent of the population living below the national poverty line of 55 cents a day, according to Oxfam. Gross Domestic Product per capita contracted in the last year.

Income from oil and gas is an economic lifeline, and rising petroleum prices in 2005 delivered a windfall to the government. More importantly, however, a long dispute between Australia and East Timor over maritime borders (and valuable oil and gas deposits) seems now on the brink of resolution. Under the terms of the probable settlement, East Timor will receive some $13 billion in energy revenues, up from an earlier figure of $8 billion. Encouragingly, East Timor seems to have explicitly taken account of hard lessons learned by other developing countries with rich oil reserves. It has created an externally audited petroleum fund, the expenditures of which will prioritize health education and social projects, under strict budgetary supervision. Much of the oil income will be invested in U.S. government bonds.

An estimated 16,000 of the 250,000 East Timorese who fled or were pushed across the border to Indonesian West Timor remain there.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties

Citizens of East Timor can change their government democratically. 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. The last presidential election was in 2002. Governing power resides with the prime minister, Fretilin leader Mari Bin Amude Alkatiri, and the unicameral National Parliament, both holdovers from the directly elected Constituent Assembly. Elections for a new president and parliament are scheduled to occur in late 2006. Alkatiti reorganized his cabinet to better address issues of poverty in July 2005.

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 to the Constituent Assembly (which later became the National Parliament), and they 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.

From December 2004 to September 2005, local elections, postponed in 2004, took place in all 13 districts, with turnout rates ranging from 80 to 90 percent; the polls were widely considered to be free and fair. Anomalies that did occur, as when polling stations failed to open on time, were acknowledged to be the results of inexperience, and elections that took place later in the year seem to have gone more smoothly than those that occurred in January.

In its 2005 country assistance strategy document, the World Bank stated that corruption was an issue of growing concern; however, this charge has been hotly refuted by national officials. The bank's concerns seems to center around the state control of oil revenues, although East Timor's moves to establish a petroleum fund should alleviate some of these concerns. East Timor was not ranked by Transparency International in its 2005 Corruption Perceptions Index.

East Timor's press legislation is one of the most liberal in Asia, according to Reporters Without Borders. However, recent moves raise concern about freedom of the press. Following a story by East Timor's largest newspaper, Suara Timor Larosea, concerning the existence of widespread famine in outlying areas, Alakatiri banned Larosea reporters from his press conferences and ordered all government offices to sever ties with reporters from the newspaper. On the other hand, both the president and members of the National Parliament have rallied to the paper's defense. According to a 2004 U.S. State Department Country Report on Human Rights Practices, the government has also periodically ordered television stations to cease broadcasting images that it finds damaging – as when police assaulted demonstrators after a July 2004 demonstration. This partially confirms broader anecdotal accounts of government vindictiveness in the wake of press criticism. East Timor has three newspapers (two dailies and one weekly), three radio stations, one television station, and one commercial internet service provider.

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; 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. Academic freedom is generally respected.

The government generally respects freedom of assembly and association. The largest mass demonstration since independence occurred in a 20-day period during April-May 2005. Sponsored by the Catholic Church to address areas of concern in government policy, the protests ended peacefully in compromise. Still, at one point, the government had threatened to use force to disperse more than 7,000 demonstrators. While the eventual peaceful resolution of the confrontation is a good indication of the government's commitment to freedom of assembly, the Church's institutional power surely helped encourage the amicable resolution.

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.

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 UN Development Program 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. 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 Kay Rala Xanana Gusmao's control, while the PNTL reports to Alkatiri, has further deepened social mistrust of the political independence and neutrality of these bodies. According to the U.S. State Department report, the PNTL in particular is under-equipped and poorly trained. Concern about allegations that the PNTL has used excessive force has also been expressed by UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, and PNTL training will be a particular mandate of the UNOTIL.

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. The CAVR final report was issued in late 2005, and will be made publicly available in early 2006. Among the report's findings are evidence of U.S. complicity in the original Indonesian take over of East Timor, and reports of systematic human rights violations under the Indonesian occupation government, contributing to the deaths of 100,000 to 180,000 East Timorese. Other UN-mandated efforts to prosecute human rights violations, such as the Human Rights Court on East Timor (the so-called Ad Hoc court) and the Serious Crimes Unit, failed to prosecute senior Indonesian officials. The Serious Crimes Unit, which produced 76 convictions regarding 20 defendants, was not able to bring high Indonesian officials to justice; it ceased functioning, as mandated, in November 2004. The Ad Hoc court has been widely judged a failure.

In December 2004, therefore, UN officials began to advocate for the formation of a committee of international experts and an international war crimes tribunal. While no such tribunal had been convened at year's end, discussion of an international investigation has prompted Indonesia and East Timorese officials to enter into an agreement to form the Commission on Truth and Friendship (CTF). This CTF, which would not have prosecutorial powers, met for the first time in August 2005. International pressure for an international tribunal remains strong, as does criticism of the truth and reconciliation commission currently meeting.

Many Timorese claim that their country's brutal history has led to a "culture of violence" that includes 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, and has also created the Office for the Promotion of Equality (formerly the Gender Affairs Unit) within the prime minister's office. Women enjoy equal rights under East Timor's constitution. Nevertheless, women's participation in government is sharply lower than that of men. Civil society pressure for a quota for women's representation in government resulted in the election of 23 women (out of the original 88 members) to the Constituent Asssembly.

This 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.