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The Facts


new internationalist
issue 253 - March 1994


A colonized nation
Eighteen years under Indonesian occupation have turned East Timor into a country with all the worst attributes of a colonized territory. Indonesia claims that integrasi of East Timor as its ‘27th province’ rescued it from Portuguese colonialism. But Indonesian colonialism has wrought far greater havoc than the Portuguese ever did in nearly 500 years of colonial rule.

Compiled by Carmel Budiardjo.

[image, unknown] [image, unknown]
East Timor [image, unknown]
West Timor Bigger scale map [image, unknown]


Between 1975 and 1979 an estimated 200,000 East Timorese – a third of the population – lost their lives because of war-related starvation and disease or because of massacres and atrocities.

  • In 1980, with a normal growth rate of 1.7% per year, the population of East Timor should have been 754,000.

  • The actual population in 1980 was 555,000.

  • The present population level is about 800,000, of whom at least 150,000 are Indonesian immigrants.


East Timor is a resource-rich country, despite claims that it would not be viable if it became independent.

  • Coffee is produced by large plantations as well as smallholders. Since the invasion companies run by the Indonesian army have taken over the trade, forced down prices and frequently confiscated coffee in transit.

  • Marble quarrying, like coffee and sandalwood, is now controlled by army-backed monopolies.

  • Oil and gas are the largest natural resources with large reserves in the Timor Sea between East Timor and Australia. In 1989 Australia and Indonesia concluded the Timor Gap Treaty for joint exploitation of these reserves in violation of international law. Twelve multinational companies in Australia, Japan, the US and UK won contracts. The Treaty has been challenged in the Australian courts by the East Timorese resistance movement and in the World Court by the Portuguese Government.

  • Unemployment is widespread among East Timorese. Most jobs go to Indonesians.


There is great ethno-linguistic diversity in East Timor.

  • At least 14 distinct languages are spoken by ethnic groups ranging in size from over 100,000 to just a few thousand people.

  • Tetum is the most widely-spoken language and is the first language in western and southern regions, the second language in many other regions.

  • Portuguese was the official language until 1975. It is widely spoken by people who were educated during the colonial era. It is still used in many homes alongside Tetum.

  • Bahasa Indonesia is the sole medium of instruction and communication under the Indonesian regime.

  • Tetum and Portuguese have been banned throughout the education system since 1975.


The Bali-based army commander claims that combat troops are being reduced now that armed resistance has ‘ceased to be a threat’. The head of the Catholic Church in East Timor says this is untrue.

  • There are an estimated 14 battalions (roughly 650 men in each) in East Timor.

  • At least one of these is there to fight the armed resistance. It is replaced every few months with fresh troops from various parts of Indonesia.

  • Territorial battalions ‘dedicated to road and village construction’ spy on the population, ambush villagers and, when necessary, engage in combat.

  • Indonesian police are on duty throughout the country.

  • Regular troops of Kodim, the East Timor military command, are located in villages for intelligence gathering and control.

  • East Timorese foot soldiers are recruited into the Indonesian army – they also fight the armed resistance.

  • Red-beret special troops – the most feared of all – spy on, arrest and torture East Timorese.

  • Paramilitary forces known as hansip and ratih consist of East Timorese civilians trained as militia.

  • A new force of 3,844 East Timorese has been formed and is now being trained.


The standard of health of the East Timorese is very low. Nothing has been done by the Indonesians to break the cycle of poverty, malnutrition and disease.

  • Infant mortality: 160 deaths per 1,000 births. East Timor and Mali (in West Africa) have the highest infant mortality rates in the world. An Indonesian health official admitted in November 1993 that at least 70 per cent of children under five are malnourished.

  • Disease: the most prevalent are tuberculosis, endemic malaria, pneumonia, parasitic infestations, skin infections and severe anaemia, especially in women after childbirth and children.

  • Sanitation: most of those resettled since 1977 live in huts standing on bare soil, crawling with insects, and with animals running in and out – formerly their houses were on stilts, giving protection against vermin and keeping animals below. There are no toilets, hardly any running water. Parasites spread through human and animal faeces.

  • Hygiene: is abysmal at the hospital in Baucau, one of the few built by the Indonesians. There is a lack of basic equipment, patients with tuberculosis are separated from surgical cases by nothing more than a curtain.

  • Health centres: built by the Indonesians in the towns are poorly equipped and have few medicines. East Timorese are suspicious of Indonesian medical personnel, none of whom speak Tetum, and prefer to visit the small number of clinics run by dedicated Catholic nuns.


Up to 1975 most East Timorese were animists. Since the invasion they have flocked to join the Catholic Church.

  • Roman Catholicism was introduced by the Portuguese and was the religion of about 30 per cent of the population. Catholics now account for over 80 per cent of the population. The Church is the only East Timorese institution able to function officially, where people can gather in large numbers, obtain solace and sometimes seek sanctuary.

  • Muslims formed a minute community, mostly Arab families who settled in the country as traders. The overwhelming majority of Indonesian troops and immigrants are Muslims. Many mosques have been built. Islam is seen as the religion of the occupiers and a challenge to the supremacy of Catholicism.


East Timor has suffered extensive deforestation.

  • The region from Venilale to Los Palos in the east is now known as ‘dead earth’, a deserted, uncultivated plain where former inhabitants are dead and gone and all human activity has ceased.

  • Much vegetation has been damaged by the use of defoliants – possibly Agent Orange – during the intense military operations in the late 1970s.

  • Army-backed companies plunder resources without regard for environmental protection legislation.

  • Forest fires occur annually in the dry season. Farmers who used to get rid of dried undergrowth by controlled burning have been forced down to the coastal plains. Much of the burning is now done by troops to prevent guerrillas from using foliage as cover. Without the careful management of former days the torched areas are quickly covered by the noxious, tough and impenetrable high grass Imperata cylindrica.

1 Catholic Church census for 1974, Indonesian census for 1980.
2 Geoffrey Hull, Mai Kolia Tetun, a Course in Tetum-Praca, Australia Catholic Relief and Australian Catholic Social Justice Council, 1993.
3 George Aditjondro, From Memo to Tutuala, a lecture at Satya Wacana Christian University, Salatiga, Central Java, on 4 August 1993 (publication forthcoming).
4 Fr Gregor Neonbasu, Keadilan dan Perdamaian di Diosis Dili (Justice and Peace in the Dili Diocese), Dili, September 1992.
5 Neill A Borowski, World Population to Stabilize in 2200, Knight-Ridder Newspapers; Jakarta Post, 9 November 1993; Dr Helga Brgel, ‘East Timor’ in Medicine and War, London, April-June 1993.
6 Bishop Belo, ‘A Diary of Oppression’ in Timor Link, Catholic Institute of International Relations, London, October 1993.
7 Report of a visit to East Timor in August 1990 by Gabriel Defert, author of Le Genocide Oublie; personal testimonies of East Timorese in exile.

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