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World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples - Timor-Leste

Publisher Minority Rights Group International
Publication Date 2007
Cite as Minority Rights Group International, World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples - Timor-Leste, 2007, available at: [accessed 18 May 2023]
Comments In October 2015, MRG revised its World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples. For the most part, overview texts were not themselves updated, but the previous 'Current state of minorities and indigenous peoples' rubric was replaced throughout with links to the relevant minority-specific reports, and a 'Resources' section was added. Refworld entries have been updated accordingly.
DisclaimerThis 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.


The Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste or Timor-Leste is in the eastern half of the island of Timor which it shares with Indonesia, though there is also one small parts of its territory which is completely encircled by Indonesia (Oecussi-Ambeno). It is located at the very south-eastern tip of the Indonesian archipelago, and relatively close (just over 600 kilometres) to the northern Australian coast. Its geography is mountainous and climate tropical.


The Portuguese first came to Timor in 1520; by the end of the sixteenth century Timor was under Portuguese influence, exporting sandalwood. In 1613 the Dutch began gradually to replace the Portuguese throughout the East Indies, although by the mid-nineteenth century they had conquered only the western portion of Timor. The Netherlands held West Timor until 1949, when it granted independence to all of Dutch-held Indonesia. West Timor became Indonesian, while East Timor remained the East Asian remnant of Portuguese colonialism.

Most of the population of Portuguese East Timor was apolitical, and towards the end of Portuguese rule, which came in 1974, there was no broad-based nationalist movement or armed political struggle for independence. In April 1974 the Portuguese armed forces overthrew the dictatorship of Marcello Caetano, largely in order to end Portugal's colonial wars in Africa. This quickly brought political tensions to a head in East Timor. The three small political factions in East Timor had incompatible goals: the União Democrática Timorense (UDT) advocated continuing association with Portugal; the Associação Popular Democrática Timorense (APODETI) advocated integration with Indonesia; and the Frente Revolucionária de Timor Leste Independente (FRETILIN) drew inspiration from revolutionary nationalist movements in Angola and Mozambique and advocated complete independence.

In August 1975, the Portuguese authority fled, and the Timorese military went over to FRETILIN, which enabled it to win a brief civil war costing some 2,000 lives. But in early December 1975, Indonesia, which had already taken over the East Timorese enclave of Oecussi in West Timor, invaded East Timor. Western nations like Australia and the USA had prior knowledge of the invasion but refused to act, apparently willing to sacrifice the East Timorese for their own perceived strategic interests.

The Indonesian invasion: mass human rights abuses & widespread famine

The Indonesian invasion was accompanied by great cruelty and appalling loss of life. The Timorese population rallied to FRETILIN in opposition to the invasion, and FRETILIN fled to the interior mountains to wage guerrilla war. The Indonesian estimate is that 15 per cent of the Timorese population - 100,000 people - died during the invasion and first five years of occupation. Other estimates are that more than one-third of the population died from the invasion and the famines and spread of disease caused by deliberate Indonesian tactics which involved the destruction of arable land and crops, under the military code-name of 'Operasi Keamanan (Operation Security)'

FRETILIN fled to the interior mountains to wage guerrilla war. Blaming the on-going warfare, the Indonesian government systematically excluded foreign journalists, medical teams and other independent observers from visiting East Timor. This prevented an accurate detailed assessment of the loss of life among East Timorese resulting from military killings, injuries, famine, exposure and disease, as well as the many cases of torture and political murder. Some observers described the situation as 'genocidal'.

From 1975 there was significant immigration of Indonesian administrators, entrepreneurs, commercial agents and settlers. And this, in turn, led to clashes between the mainly Muslim Indonesian immigrants and the Roman Catholic East Timorese, frequently over perceived insults to East Timorese Catholic nuns or religious practices. Arrests, torture, disappearances and extrajudicial killings commonly occurred, and scores of Timorese were jailed as a result of unfairly conducted trials. These recurring incidents led to increased interest in East Timor by the growing human rights movement in South-East Asia.

In 1989, Indonesia tentatively began to allow East Timor a greater degree of openness, allowing more freedom of movement and communication within East Timor and between East Timor and the outside world, including high-profile visitors such as the Pope. These visits, however, became the occasion for pro-independence demonstrations by East Timorese. The demonstrators were frequently arrested, tortured and imprisoned. In 1992 the Indonesians army captured Xanana Gusmão, leader of the FRETILIN resistance organization. At his trial, he was given a life sentence (subsequently commuted to twenty years).


The departure of President Suharto and the movement towards greater reform and democracy in Indonesia, as well as increased international pressure, eventually let in 1999 to an UN-sponsored agreement between Indonesia, Portugal and the United States for a UN-supervised popular referendum held on 30 August 1999, sanctioned by then Indonesian President B. J. Habibie.

Violent clashes and riots erupted soon after the East Timorese population voted massively for independence from Indonesia, seen by most outside observers to have been instigated by the Indonesian military and aided by Timorese pro-Indonesia militias. There followed a period of instability and violence until the intervention on an international peacekeeping force, INTERFET (International Force East Timor). During this period, large numbers of people became refugees, including many Indonesians and Muslims and groups sympathetic to Indonesia which crossed the border into Indonesia. Much of the future country's infrastructure was also destroyed around this time. Outrage at the violence and Indonesia's tacit support for the militias, combined with the result of the 1999 referendum, eventually resulted in members of the international community recognising East Timor as the independent state of Timor-Leste in 2002.

Shifts in ethnic composition

The end of the Indonesian presence has seen a dramatic shift of its ethnic composition: whereas Muslims were thought to represent perhaps 18 percent of the population a few years before independence, largely because the Indonesian government's transmigration and development activities had brought large numbers of individuals from Indonesia into the province, that percentage quickly shrunk to just a few percentages.

Timor-Leste has also since then struggled to recover from the legacy of the Indonesian occupation and the destruction of the conflicts which have marred it for the last three decades, and the sudden departure of many teachers, doctors, officials and professionals who had been brought in by the Indonesian authorities.

It continues to work towards building new democratic and governance institutions, soon after much of the new country's infrastructure was destroyed.


Main languages: Tetum, Mambai, Portuguese, Bahasa Indonesia, Tocodede, Bunak

Main religions: Roman Catholicism (90 percent), Islam, Animism, Islam (UK Foreign Office Country Profiles, 2007)

Main ethnic groups: Tetum (300,000), Mambae (80,000), Tukudede, Galoli, Bunak, Kemak, Fataluku, Baikeno (UK Foreign Office Country Profiles, 2007)

Timor-Leste's one million people (UK Foreign Office Country Profiles, 2007) are made up of a variety of ethnic groups, speaking some sixteen indigenous languages, as well as Portuguese and Bahasa Indonesia. Most (12) of the indigenous groups are of Austronesian, while there are four including the Bunak, the Fataluku and and the Makasae which are of predominantly Melanesian-Papuan origin.

Among the largest ethnic groups are the Tetum whose language is one of the country's two official languages (the other being Portuguese). They live mainly around Dili and on the neighbouring northern coast. The Mambae who may constitute around 8 percent live mainly in the central mountains. Some of the other main groups are the Tukudede, Galoli, and the Baikeno. There are also small populations of Portuguese and Chinese, as well as of people of mixed Timorese and Portuguese origin known as mestiços.

The vast majority, perhaps as much as 90 percent, of East Timorese are Catholics, as a legacy of the Portuguese colonial era, but there is also a non-negligible Muslim minority at perhaps 3 percent, though its exact size is contested.


Timor-Leste faces huge governance challenges as it attempts to recover from the destruction which followed the 1999 referendum and the withdrawal of many of the Indonesians who had, during the more than two decades of Indonesian occupation, controlled much of the economic, political and professional classes. Much of the infrastructure and government institutions are being rebuilt from scratch, and this affects all aspects of life in the new country. Its judicial and legal institutions are also being re-established with the assistance of the international community. It is moving towards the establishment of numerous legal and other institutions to address human rights concerns, such as by the creation after 2004 of the Office of the Ombudsman for Human Rights and Justice.

As a fledgling democracy facing crushing poverty which continues to hamper many of the country's efforts, Timor-Leste has experienced most recently unrest linked to resentment at the ongoing difficulties in accessing jobs, education, and even on which languages should be official (the latter linked also to questions of access to employment opportunities). These tensions have occasionally been characterized as involving tensions between ethnic groups linked to the western and eastern parts of the country.


None listed.


Minority based and advocacy organisations

ASSERT: Association for the equality of the disabled people of Timor
Email: [email protected]

East Timor Institute for Reconstruction Monitoring and Analysis
Tel: +670-3325013
Email: [email protected]

East Timor and Indonesia Action Network (ETAN)
PO Box 21873
Brooklyn, NY 11202-1873
Tel: +1-718-596-7668
Email: [email protected]

Tel: +66 2391 8801

Judicial System Monitoring Programme
Tel/Fax: +670-323 883
Email: [email protected]

Perkumpulan HAK
Tel. +670.390.313323
Email: [email protected]

Sources and further reading

Aditjondro, G. J., Timor Lorosa'e on the Crossroad, Jakarta: Center for Democracy and Social Justice, 2002.

Benetech Human Rights Data Analysis Group, The Profile of Human Rights Violations in Timor-Leste, 1974-1999, Report to the Commission on Reception, Truth and Reconciliation of Timor-Leste. Human Rights Data Analysis Group, 2006.

Cox, S. and Carey, P.B.R., Generations of Resistance: East Timor, London, Cassell, 1995.

East Timor Joint Assessment Mission, East Timor: Building a Nation; A Framework for Reconstruction and Development, Dili, 1999. Available at

East Timor Human Rights News,

Human Rights and the Future of east Timor, Report on Joint UNTAET Human Rights Unit and East Timor Jurists Association Workshop, Dili, 7-8 August 2000. Available at

Human Rights Watch, The Limits of Openness: Human Rights in Indonesia and East Timor, New York, 1994.

Kingham, Chris, The Birth of a New Nation: An Exploration of National Identity in East Timor, University of Wales, Aberystwyth, March 2006. Available at

Knezevic, Neven, Timor-Leste: Background Paper on Human Rights, Refugees and Asylum Seekers, Writenet Report, 2005. Available at

Law and Justice in East Timor: A Survey of Citizen Awareness and Attitudes Regarding Law and Justice in East Timor, Asia Foundation, February 2004. Available at

Molnar, Andrea, East Timor: An Introduction to the History, Politics and Culture of Southeast Asia's Youngest Nation, Northern Illinois University, May 2005. Available at

Report of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights on the situation of human rights in Timor-Leste, UN Doc. E/CN.4/2005/115. Available at

Suter, K., East Timor and West Irian, London, MRG report, 1982.

Timor-Leste Land Law Program, Compliance with the Constitution by Non-National Claimants of Pre-Existing Land Rights in Timor- Leste: Draft/Working Research Document for Roundtable Discussion, Dili, June 2004.

Walsh, P., East Timor's Political Parties and Groupings: Briefing Notes, Canberra: Australian Council for Overseas Aid, April 2001.

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