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New Internationalist


July 2008
Photo: Irene Slegt / PANOS
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

Timor-Leste Fact File
Leader President José Ramos-Horta; Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao.
Economy GNI per capita $840 (Indonesia $1,420, Australia $35,990).
Monetary unit US dollar.
Main exports Coffee, sandalwood, marble.
Timor-Leste’s offshore oil and gas resources have been exploited by Australia under an agreement about national boundaries with Indonesia. Timor-Leste challenged this and in 2005 Australia agreed to hand over 50 per cent of the revenue from the Greater Sunrise development, provided the boundary dispute was set aside, though Australia continues to exploit other fields unilaterally. A development fund has been set up to receive the oil and gas revenues and ensure that they are used for the national good.
People 1.1 million. Population growth rate 2.6%. People per square kilometre 72 (UK 246).
Health Infant mortality 47 per 1,000 live births (Indonesia 26, Australia 5). A poor harvest in 2007 led to some deaths and many districts depended on international food aid.
Environment The country has the only sandalwood forests remaining in the South Pacific but these were exploited more in the 24 years of Indonesian rule than in over four centuries of Portuguese colonialism. Deforestation and land erosion remain substantial problems.
Culture The East Timorese people are descended from Melanesian and Malayan populations.
Religion About 90 per cent of the population identifies itself as Roman Catholic but this coexists with animist beliefs. There is a small Muslim minority (around one per cent).
Language The official languages are Tetum and Portuguese. Bahasa Indonesia is spoken as well – all schooling was carried out in that language until independence.
Human Development Index: 2005 0.514 (Indonesia 0.728, Australia 0.962)
Sources State of the World’s Children, World Guide, CIA, COI, CAVR.
Timor-Leste ratings in detail
Income distribution
The lack of development has been such that there has not been much income to distribute, though rural areas are especially poor. The new coalition government has broken with the previous economic strategy by increasing expenditure and allowing greater access to petroleum revenues from the Petroleum Fund, in an attempt to alleviate poverty.
Life expectancy
60 years (Indonesia 70, Australia 81). The health system remains weak, especially in rural areas. The under-five mortality rate is still too high, at 55 per 1,000 live births, but has been cut from 177 since 1990.
Estimated at 59%. The generation educated under the Indonesian system must now learn Portuguese. The older and youngest generation have been educated in Portuguese.
Position of women
While the independent constitution has established equality between the sexes, Timorese society is patriarchal. Gender-based violence is widespread, and women’s literacy rates are lower.
Good in general, though press freedom was threatened under the Alkatiri Government, which attempted to criminalize defamation.
Sexual minorities
The constitution does not explicitly protect sexual minorities from discrimination. ‘Sexual orientation’ was removed from the draft non-discrimination clause in 2001 and ‘marital status’ was substituted.
NI Assessment (Politics)
Successive governments have been criticized by human rights organizations for their pragmatic approach to reconciliation with Indonesia, specifically in the use of amnesties. The culture of impunity has extended to the 2006 crisis: President Ramos-Horta announced in May 2008 that former minister Rogerio Lobato, who was found guilty of arming a civilian group in 2006, would be among those pardoned. The Gusmao Government is far from strong, and has to cope with the continuing potential for civil conflict, as well as the major challenges on the economic front.

This column was published in the July 2008 issue of New Internationalist. To read more, buy this issue or subscribe.

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Country ratings (details)
Income distribution2
Life expectancy2
Position of women1
Sexual minorities2
NI Assessment (Politics)3

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