Timor-Leste is a a poor, almost completely undeveloped nation in the Indian Ocean. Slightly larger than Connecticut, it is home to about 1.1 million people and shares roughly half of the slender island of Timor with West Timor, which is part of Indonesia. The half-island used to called East Timor, but is now has been officially designation as The Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste. The way the East Timorese view their homeland seems a bit confused. They call it Timor Lorosae ("where the sun rises"). According to legend, the Timor Islands was a once a giant crocodile that a boy rode into the ocean. The Timorese people say they descended from a man who lived in a cave. Various sources refer to East Timor by a number of different names, reflecting the country’s historical experiences: Portuguese Timor, Timor Timur, Timor Loro Sa’e, Timor Leste, and East Timor. The Capital city is Dili.

Timor-Leste has a history of dependence, first on Portugal, then on Indonesia and then on the United Nations and then on NGOs and foreign aid. On May 20, 2002 Timor Leste became an independent nation. This newly acquired freedom was gained after Timor-Leste’s experiences of Portuguese presence from the middle of the 16th century to 1975, Indonesian occupation between 1975-1999, and United Nations’ administration from end of 1999-May 2002. [Source: Andrea K. Molnar, Northern Illinois University, Department of Anthropology and Center for Southeast Asian Studies, May 2005 , seasite.niu.edu/EastTimor]

The Dutch presence in Indonesia resulted in an 1859 treaty in which Portugal ceded the western portion of the island. Imperial Japan occupied Portuguese Timor from 1942 to 1945, but Portugal resumed colonial authority after the Japanese defeat in World War II. Timor-Leste declared itself independent from Portugal on 28 November 1975 and was invaded and occupied by Indonesian forces nine days later. It was incorporated into Indonesia in July 1976 as the province of Timor Timur (Timor-Leste). An unsuccessful campaign of pacification followed over the next two decades, during which an estimated 100,000 to 250,000 individuals lost their lives. [Source: CIA World Factbook =]

In August 1999, in a UN-supervised popular referendum, an overwhelming majority of the people of Timor-Leste voted for independence from Indonesia. However, in the next three weeks, anti-independence Timorese militias - organized and supported by the Indonesian military - commenced a large-scale, scorched-earth campaign of retribution. The militias killed approximately 1,400 Timorese and forcibly pushed 300,000 people into western Timor as refugees. Most of the country's infrastructure, including homes, irrigation systems, water supply systems, and schools, and nearly 100 percent of the country's electrical grid were destroyed. In September 1999, Australian-led peacekeeping troops deployed to the country and brought the violence to an end. =

In May 2002, Timor-Leste was internationally recognized as an independent state. In 2006, internal tensions threatened the new nation's security when a military strike led to violence and a breakdown of law and order. At Dili's request, an Australian-led International Stabilization Force (ISF) deployed to Timor-Leste, and the UN Security Council established the UN Integrated Mission in Timor-Leste (UNMIT), which included an authorized police presence of over 1,600 personnel. The ISF and UNMIT restored stability, allowing for presidential and parliamentary elections in 2007 in a largely peaceful atmosphere. In February 2008, a rebel group staged an unsuccessful attack against the president and prime minister. The ringleader was killed in the attack, and most of the rebels surrendered in April 2008. Since the attack, the government has enjoyed one of its longest periods of post-independence stability, including successful 2012 elections for both the parliament and president. In late 2012, the UN Security Council voted to end its peacekeeping mission in Timor-Leste and both the ISF and UNMIT departed the country by the end of the year. =

Timor-Leste is currently struggling to create a sustainable nation-state. It relatively isolated and has few sources of employment. In the violence that followed East Timor’s 1999 independence referendum, its infrastructure, never robust, was totally destroyed and has been only partially rebuilt. In April 2006 violence erupted again in and around the capital, Dili, resulting in further damage to infrastructure. Electricity, telephone and telecommunications, roads and lodging remained unreliable for a long time, particularly outside of the capital. East Timor’s economy relies largely on international assistance and revenues from oil and gas production. There are a lot of agitated youths who sometimes resort to violence

Anneli Knight wrote in The Guardian: “Timor-Leste is predominantly a subsistence farming culture and the road is dotted with pigs, goats, chickens and dogs (and an abundance of piglets, kids, chicks and puppies). Fencelines are carefully woven together by pieces of palm frond and wood, with no need for joins. The houses are simple, mostly thatched, surrounded by carefully swept yards. On the way we stopped at a bustling outdoor covered food market selling garlic bundles, pyramids of potatoes, trays of dried fish, bunches of green bananas and smaller piles of ginger and turmeric.” [Source: Anneli Knight, The Guardian, August 5, 2015]

Timor-Leste is trying to launch a tourism industry to provide jobs and earn money Tourism is limited due to a lack of infrastructure and tourist facilities. There are a couple dozen hotels in Dili, including one luxury hotels is an anchored cruise ship. Scuba diving and whale- and dolphin- watching are tourist attractions, in addition to the country's beaches. The northern coast features white sand beaches, while the southern coast is rocky with occasional black sand beaches. There are elaborate intact coral reefs, populated by over 1,000 aquatic species. But as British NGO workers told the New York Times Timor-Leste has the potential to be an alluring tourist destination but almost little of the infrastructure to support it. "There's not a lot to do in the traditional sense," he said. "There's not much night life. It doesn't have all those things like Jet Skiing." Another big problem is that it is difficult and expensive to get to. The round-trip airline tickets for the two-hour flight from Bali are $650. And all n’ alll, there’s really not that much to see and do when you get there.

Geography of Timor-Leste

Located about 2,100 kilometers (1,300 miles) to the east of Jakarta and 400 kilometers (250 miles) north of western Australia, Timor-Leste covers 15,410 square kilometers (5,950 square miles), which is roughly the size of Connecticut. Reached primarily by plane from Bali, Timor-Leste is situated in the Indian Ocean with the Banda Sea to the north and the Timor Sea to the south (both are eastern branches of the Indian Ocean). Many aspects of the new country, such as its territorial waters, still had not been determined in the mid 2000s.

Timor-Leste is located on the southernmost edge of the Indonesian archipelago. It occupies the somewhat, narrower, eastern half of Timor, an island 32,000 square kilometers (12,355 square miles), which is roughly the size of Belgium or Taiwan. Almost serving as a kind of bridge between Asia and Australia, Timor is part of the group of islands called East Nusa Tenggara. It is also part of another island group: the Lesser Sundas, A rugged 160-kilometer (100-mile) border separates Timor-Leste and West Timor. Timor-Leste also embrace a small enclave inside West Timor called Ocussi (Ambeno (or Oecussi), which occupies 78 square kilometers (30 square miles) on the northwest coast of West Timor, and some offshore islands such as Atauro in the north and Jaco in the east.

Dili, on the north coast of Timor-Leste, is the capital and largest city, as well as the country's main port. Other large cities include Dare, outside Dili, and Baucau, the site of the main airport, on the northeast coast. Rugged mountains cover much of the country, particularly in the central part of the island. The landscape also includes coastal lagoons, dry grasslands, savannah forests, gullies, and patches of dense rain forest. The forested ranges are riddled with caves. Foho Tatamailau (Gunung Tata Mai Lau), a 2,963-meter-high 9,721-foot-high mountain just south of Dili, is highest point on Timor-Leste. A large remnant of tropical forest at the eastern tip of Timor island is a national park.

Formed by continental uplift along a major fault line (and in the case of Atauro, submarine volcanic activity), Timor-Leste has extremely rugged and mountainous backbone that was once part of an ocean environment. Even the highest peaks have marine fossils. Almost half of Timor-Leste’s land has a slope of 40 degrees or more making it scenically beautiful but extremely difficult for road construction and cultivation. Steep terrain combined with inconsistent rainfall and stony, limestone soils are challenging for the farmers. Only eight percent of the land is arable and only 5 percent has permanent crops. The rolling highland plains West of Baucau and around Lospalos and Maliana are important agricultural areas.

The coastal lowlands and river plains are relatively small in size. In the north mountains drop into the sea, in the south they slope into coastal plains. On the south side of Timor-Leste the coastal flats are 20-30 kilometers wide, while to the north they are much narrower with many stretches where the mountains fall directly into the sea. There are wild rocky headlands and long expanses of silky white sand beaches. Along both coasts views across the shimmering ocean are stunning. Timor-Leste’s fringing reefs are extensive and generally in good condition

Most of Timor-Leste’s large braided rivers completely disappear in the dry season, but after torrential rain can turn into raging torrents, sometimes producing flash floods. The 80-kilometer-long (50-mile-long) Laclo River in the north is the longest river. Impressive waterfalls cascading down the mountain-sides can also be seen at this time. Lake Ira Laloro is the only lake of any size. There are also smaller salt lakes and along the south coast marshes teeming with wildlife. Bubbling mud pools can be viewed in Oecusse and there are geothermal hot springs at Marobo, Waicana (near Venilale), Uato Carbau (near Viqueque) and on Atauro as well as other places.

Climate and Weather in Timor-Leste

Situated about 1000 kilometers (630 miles) south of the Equator, not all that far from northern Australia, Timor-Leste has a tropical climate that is drier than Bali but still has humidity averaging 73 percent. There is a wet season, caused by the hot northwest monsoon, from December to April and a dry season, caused by cooler southeast monsoon, from May to November. The average temperature is 25 degrees C (80 degrees F), with a range of 32 degrees C (90 degrees F) during the hottest time of the day to 18 degrees C (64 degrees) at night. Temperatures in the dry season average 20–33 degrees C (68–91 degrees F). The weather during this season is pleasant and dry. The wet season sees average temperatures of 29–35 degrees C (84–95 degrees F), with heavy rains and flooding. The average temperature is 27 degrees C (80 degrees F) in January and 24 degrees C (75 degrees F) in July. Dili, the capital, is always hot. Around October or November, oppressive humidity arrives and monsoon cloud activity builds up. Tropical cyclones occur.

There are great temperature and climate variations depending on whether you are on the coast in the mountains.. In the coastal regions temperatures get as high as 33 degrees C (95 degrees F). In the mountains, daytime temperatures are warm to hot, but are cool to cold at night. The high mountains are significantly cooler, with temperatures averaging about 23 degrees C (70 degrees F). In the months of June and July the temperature in the mountains can drop to around 5 degrees C (36 degrees F) during the night. During these months the mountains experience steady rain fall and the air tends to be damp and humid. [Source: Andrea K. Molnar, Northern Illinois University, Department of Anthropology and Center for Southeast Asian Studies, May 2005 , seasite.niu.edu/EastTimor]

Annual average rainfall is 120 to 150 centimeters (47 to 59 inches). Precipitation varies greatly according to whether it is the dry season or wet season and whether you are on the coast or in the mountains. The south, which is closer to Australia, receives less rain than the north. During the rainy season rains tend to fall in short afternoon downpours around the coast while longer periods of rain may predominate in the mountains. At this time of the year the countryside is lush, green and beautiful but the jungles contain leeches and dirt roads are often in nasty condition. Traveling extensively by road in remote areas should be avoided when dirt roads may be impassable. During the dry season the vegetation is browner and the dirt roads are dusty.

There are many different micro-climates from dry barren hill sides to thickly forested peaks interspersed with cultivated areas. In general, as you drive south the countryside becomes much more lush and greener. The mountains and higher elevations are sometimes wet and misty and at other times clear and invigorating. The best diving and trekking is from May to November. The best fishing is from November to March. The best dolphin and whale viewing is from October to December. The birdwatching is good all year

Clothing in Timor-Leste

East Timorese are tolerant people and almost any clothing style is acceptable as long as it is not outrageously sexually-suggestive. Some East Timorese dress carefully and neatly in traditional clothes. Others dress in jeans and T-shirts. Wearing shorts and jeans in Singapore is okay, but don't wear clothes with a lot of holes or go without a shirt.

In hot weather, wear loose cotton garments are best. Try to avoid synthetic fabrics; they can be hot and scratchy. White or light-colored garments are better than dark ones. Wear a hat and sunglasses and use sun screen for protection from the sun. Sandals are often more comfortable than shoes and easier to slip on and off when entering temples. It advisable to carry a sweater, sweatshirt or long-sleeve if you can because sometimes the air conditioning can be too cold..

People of Timor-Leste

The people of Timor-Leste are called the East Timorese. They are mainly of mixed of Malay, Papuan and Polynesian descent, roots that reflects the geography of where they live. There is a Chinese minority. The vast majority of the people are Roman Catholic. There are small numbers of Muslims and Protestants. The population includes a small fraction of people who are not ethnically East Timorese: including Chinese and Arab merchants as well as Indonesians who married East Timorese

The Timorese are known collectively as Maubere, an originally derogatory name turned into a name of pride by the resistance movement. Andrea K. Molnar of Northern Illinois University wrote: “Maubere refers to a common name found among the Mambae people, the largest ethnic group in East Timor (Traube 1986). During the Portuguese colonial period, maubere was generally used to distinguish the native East Timorese from the upper class, educated Portuguese and, to a certain degree, the mestizos, the half caste group. ‘Maubere’ was often employed as a synonym for the illiterate, uneducated and, to some degree, uncivilised (see Traube 1986). [Source: Andrea K. Molnar, Northern Illinois University, Department of Anthropology and Center for Southeast Asian Studies, May 2005 , seasite.niu.edu/EastTimor, CIA World Factbook]

There are many distinct ethnic group and local cultures and languages in East Timor despite the population being highly heterogeneous. Very few of the indigenous cultures have been anthropologically documented: Tetum of Viqueque district, Ema of Marobo in Bobonaro district, and Mambai in Aileu district . The largest Malayo-Polynesian ethnic groups are the Tetun (or Tetum) (150,000), primarily living in the north coast and around Dili, the Mambae (120,000), living in the mountains of central East Timor, the Tukudede (70,000), who are living in the area around Maubara and Liquisa, the Galoli (60,000) living between the tribes of Mambae and Makasae, Kemak (60,000) in north-central Timor island, and the Baikeno (23,000), living in the area around Pantemakassar. The main tribes of predominantly Papuan origin include the Bunak (60,000) living in Central interior Timor island, the Fataluku (34,000) living in the eastern tip of East Timor around Los Palos, and the Makasae living in the eastern end of the island. [Source: easttimorgovernment.com]

In addition to the groups above — in common with other former Portuguese colonies where interracial marriage was common — there is small population of people of mixed Timorese and Portuguese origin, known in Portuguese as Mestiço. The best-known East Timorese Mestiço is Nobel-Peace-prize winner José Ramos Horta. Mário Viegas Carrascalão, Indonesia's appointed governor between 1987 and 1992, was also Mestiço.

Population of Timor-Leste

Population: 1,201,542, country comparison to the world: 160; other estimates range as low as 800,000 (July 2014 est.). Age structure:0-14 years: 42.4 percent (male 261,794/female 247,486); 15-24 years: 19.8 percent (male 120,256/female 117,268); 25-54 years: 29.3 percent (male 170,179/female 182,278); 55-64 years: 4.8 percent (male 29,867/female 28,156); 65 years and over: 3.6 percent (male 21,214/female 23,044) (2014 est.). Median age: total: 18.5 years; male: 17.9 years; female: 19.1 years (2014 est.)[Source: CIA World Factbook =]

Population growth rate: 2.44 percent (2014 est.), country comparison to the world: 35. Birth rate: 34.48 births/1,000 population (2014 est.), country comparison to the world: 30. Death rate: 6.18 deaths/1,000 population (2014 est.), country comparison to the world: 158. Net migration rate: -3.87 migrant(s)/1,000 population (2014 est.), country comparison to the world: 189. =

Total fertility rate: 5.11 children born/woman (2014 est.), country comparison to the world: 15 Contraceptive prevalence rate: 22.3 percent (2009/10); Mother's mean age at first birth: 22.1, median age at first birth among women 25-29 (2009-10 est.) Sex ratio: at birth: 1.07 male(s)/female; 0-14 years: 1.06 male(s)/female; 15-24 years: 1.03 male(s)/female; 25-54 years:0.93 male(s)/female; 55-64 years: 1.01 male(s)/female; 65 years and over:0.96 male(s)/female; total population: 1.01 male(s)/female (2014 est.) =

Rural population: 71.7 percent of total population (2011), rate of urbanization: 4.25 percent annual rate of change (2010-15 est.). East Timor is one of the few places in the world where people are migrating from the cities to the countryside rather than visa-versa Net migration rate: -3.87 migrant(s)/1,000 population (2014 est.), country comparison to the world: 189.

Languages of Timor-Leste

Languages: Tetum (official), Portuguese (official), Indonesian and English (working languages). There are about 16 indigenous languages; Tetum (also spelled Tetun), Galole, Mambae, and Kemak are spoken by a significant portion of the population. Tetum is the most widely spoken language in Timor-Leste. [Source: CIA World Factbook]

The most widely spoken languages in this former Portuguese colony are Tetum, the dominant local language, and Indonesian, the language of East Timor’s giant neighbor. According to the 2004 census, 85 percent claim a capability in Tetum, 58 percent in Indonesian and 21 percent in English. The new Constitution establishes Portuguese and Tetum as the country’s two official languages, but Tetum is seen as thin and undeveloped, and most of the nation’s official business is conducted in Portuguese. [Source: Seth Mydans, New York Times, July 31, 2007]

As a result of the colonial education system and the 23-year Indonesian occupation, approximately 13.5 percent of Timorese speak Portuguese, 43.3 percent speak Bahasa Indonesia, and 5.8 percent speak English, according to the 2004 census. Although Tetum is widely spoken only 46.2 percent speak Tetum Prasa, the form of Tetum dominant in the Dili district. Tetum, Galoli, Mambai, and Tokodede are classified as Austronesian languages, while Bunak, Kemak, Makassai, Dagada, Idate, Kairui, Nidiki, and Baikenu are the non-Austronesian tongues. This linguistic diversity is enshrined in the country’s constitution. [Source: Countries of the World and Their Leaders Yearbook 2008, Gale, 2007]

The maze of languages prevents development in East Timor. Tetum is useless outside of East Timor. It is a trading language and is understood by most Timorese but has a limited vocabulary and is not understood off the island. Although though maybe 10 percent of East Timorese speak Portuguese, the language was reintroduced into the government, courts, and schools. English and Bahasa Indonesia were classified as "working languages". There was some debate over which language would be official: Tetum, the local Timorese language, Portuguese, Bahasa Indonesian, or even English. Portuguese is spoken by many older East Timorese but it is tainted by it association with colonialism and is not spoken by many young people. Only about 10 percent of the population speaks it. Bahasa Indonesian is spoken by as much as 90 percent of East Timorese under 25 but is tainted by it association with the Suharto regime and is not spoken by many older people. Bahasa Indonesian had been taught in schools since 1975. Newspapers are printed in Bahasa Indonesian and Tetum.

Religion in Timor-Leste

Religions: Roman Catholic 96.9 percent, Protestant — Evangelical 2.2 percent, Muslim 0.3 percent, other 0.6 percent (2005). Figures on religion collected in 1992 (before independence) indicated that at that time the population was 90 percent Roman Catholic, 4 percent Muslim, 3 percent Protestant, 0.5 percent Hindu, and an undetermined number of Buddhists. Traditional animism was never officially recognized by the Indonesian government as a religion. The largest Protestant group is the Assembly of God. [Source: CIA World Factbook =]

Portuguese influence during the centuries of colonial rule resulted in a substantial majority of the population identifying itself as Roman Catholic. Many of those who consider themselves Catholic practice a mixed form of religion that includes local animist customs. The East Timorese government reports that most Christians continue to practice animist traditions. A minority, called serani, do not. Most Tetum are Catholics although traditional religions remain. Most Atoni in northwestern Timor are Catholics while those in south-central western Timor and the Kupang area are Protestants. Observing the way animist and religious beliefs are blended is one of the interesting aspects of traveling in Timor.

East Timor has been nominally Catholic since early in the Portuguese colonial period. The Catholic faith became a central part of East Timorese culture during the Indonesian occupation between 1975 and 1999. While under Portuguese rule, the East Timorese had mostly been animist, sometimes integrated with minimal Catholic ritual, the number of Catholics dramatically increased under Indonesian rule. This was for several reasons: Indonesia was predominantly Muslim; the Indonesian state required adherence to one of five officially recognised religions and did not recognise traditional beliefs; and because the Catholic church, which remained directly responsible to the Vatican throughout Indonesian rule, became a refuge for East Timorese seeking sanctuary from persecution. [Source: easttimorgovernment.com]

According to the Worldmark Encyclopedia of Nations: The new government has generally respected the regulations for freedom of religion that were established by the United Nations Transitional Administration in Timor-Leste (UNTAET). Though public opinion had leaned toward making Catholicism the national religion, the presiding bishop, Carlos Filipe Ximenes Belo (a Nobel Peace Prize laureate), encouraged members of the Constituent Assembly not to make such a designation. The 2002 constitution instead provides for the freedom of conscience, religion, and worship and this right is generally respected in practice. Religious organizations must register with the Ministry of Interior if most or all of their members are foreigners. Due to past associations with Indonesian occupation groups, some Muslim and Protestant minorities have reported social harassment.” [Source: Worldmark Encyclopedia of Nations, Thomson Gale, 2007]

One human rights advocate told the Los Angeles Times, “Religion is very important here and not in an abstract way. The church leaders are often the leaders in the community.” In the rampage after the independence referendum in 1999, the Catholic diocese office were all looted and burned. Churches have often been sought by people fleeing violence.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Timor-Leste tourism websites,Timor-Leste government websites, Wikitravel, Wiki Voyage, UNESCO, Wikipedia, Lonely Planet guides, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Bloomberg, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Japan News, Yomiuri Shimbun, Compton's Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Updated in August 2020

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