Photo: Irene Slegt / PANOS

Timor-Leste’s landscape is still deeply scarred from the conflict that raged in 1999, after the Timorese population voted for independence from Indonesia. The capital, Dili, became the crucible of an Indonesian-backed scorched-earth campaign. Around 70 per cent of the country’s infrastructure was destroyed and an estimated three-quarters of the population displaced. The buildings and monuments that were spared the destruction reveal centuries of colonial ventures in the eastern half of Timor.

Built under Portuguese colonial rule, the government palace faces the ocean front, some say symbolically, with its back turned to the rest of the city. Portuguese traders first arrived on the island of Timor in the early 16th century. Although often characterized as ruling by benign neglect, the Portuguese also brutally repressed popular uprisings such as in Manufahi (1912).

The sudden prospect of independence came after Portugal’s fascist regime fell in 1974. A brief civil war and covert incursions from Indonesia threatened the decolonization process, and on 28 November 1975 Fretilin (Frente Revolucionária de Timor-Leste Independente) made a unilateral declaration of independence to prevent an imminent invasion. But 10 days later, Indonesia launched a full-scale invasion that triggered one of the most brutal occupations of the 20th century.

Christ with open arms crowns Cristo Rei beach. The massive statue was erected to demonstrate Indonesia’s religious tolerance and goodwill in modernizing what became its 27th province. The occupation was resisted from the start. Indonesian repression was unforgiving, using forced dislocation and hunger as weapons of control as well as military force. Up to a third of the population was killed. A massacre in Santa Cruz cemetery in 1991 made international headlines and became the symbol of the East Timorese plight. In 1999 both internal and international pressure led to Indonesia conceding a referendum in which voters chose between autonomy and independence. The vote for independence was overwhelming (78.5 per cent) but prompted the devastating campaign by Indonesian-backed militias.

The UN Security Council mandated a mission to oversee the transition of the territory into viable statehood and the country became fully independent as Timor-Leste in 2002. UN support missions have continued since, though relations with the UN are not as harmonious as at the outset.

According to most accounts, Timor-Leste fared well until 2006. But that year security broke down, as fighting broke out between former guerrillas and pro-government troops, displacing two-thirds of the capital’s residents. Soldiers from Australia, New Zealand/Aotearoa, Portugal and Malaysia were invited in to keep the peace. The crisis proved difficult to resolve because it was simultaneously driven by communal conflict and a political power struggle.

Events since April 2006 have forced Fretilin to redefine itself as an opposition party. At independence, Fretilin was at a clear advantage over other political parties: it was well organized, and its legacy in the independence movement gave it tremendous influence. But it was an independent opposition figure, Xanana Gusmao, who had been imprisoned by Indonesia since 1993, who became the country’s first President, and he forced the resignation of Fretilin Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri in June 2006 amid allegations that a hit squad had threatened political opponents. Gusmao then declined another term as President and formed a new political party, the National Congress for Timorese Reconstruction. The independent José Ramos-Horta was elected president in 2007 and following a general election, in which Fretilin was narrowly the largest party, he asked Gusmao to form a coalition government.

The violent backdrop continues, however, resulting in a near-fatal attack on President Ramos-Horta in February 2008. The struggle of the poorest country in Asia to establish its democratic institutions and to combat poverty looks like being a long one.

*Sara Gonzalez* and *Carole Reckinger*

Map of Timor-Leste

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