Lay of the Land   East Timor (8 50 S, 125 55 E) consists of the eastern half of Timor Island, which lies within the Lesser Sunda cluster about 300 miles north of Australia and at the eastern extreme of the Indonesian Archipelago. It also covers Oecussi (or Ambeno), an isolated area within Indonesian-controlled West Timor., and two smaller islands (Atauro and Jaco). The terrain is very mountainous with peaks as high as 2963m/9630 feet (Mount Ramelau or Foto Tatamailau). The northern coast is fringed with white sand beaches; the south coast is rocky with an occasional black sand beach. Most of the rivers are dry during the summer but fill rapidly during the winter rainy season.

The Sea   East Timor lies in the middle of the world’s richest marine ecosystems. Intact reefs host gargantuan corals in an endless array of shapes and colours. An estimated 1000 aquatic species range through these waters, from showy butterfly fish to massive manta rays, dolphins, tuna, pilot whales, manatees and five endangered species of sea turtles. Large oil and gas deposits have been found in the Timor Gap between East Timor and Australia, with extraction is due to begin in 2004.

Language   Over 30 different Austronesian and Papuan languages or dialects are spoken by East Timor’s various cultural groups, a legacy of successive waves of immigration from all parts of Asia over the past 10,000 years or so. The most widely-spoken of these is Tetum, one of the country’s two official languages, the other being Portuguese. English and Bahasi Indonesian are also used in government and business.

Religion   90% of Timorese are professed Catholics, although many also practise ancestor and spirit worship (animism). There are small Protestant, Muslim, Hindu and Buddhist communities in Dili.

History   East Timor’s history dates back to 30,000 years ago, give or take a millennium or two, when it provided a stopping place for migrating groups from Asia. The first arrivals are believed to have come from the southern coast of China; later groups travelled from other parts of Asia as well as India and the northern coast of Africa. These people recreated their own communities in Timor and retained their mother tongues, with the result that East Timor has over 30 different different cultural groups today, each with a distinct language, housing style and craft tradition.

The Chinese merchants are thought to have been the first to commercialize trade among these islands as early as 200BC, visiting Timor for the very white sandalwood that grew spontaneously on the island. As with the later arrivals, from India and Arabia, they did not settle here, staying only long enough to collect their merchandise. It was not until the Europeans - first the Portuguese and later the Dutch - began to dominate the southeast Asian trade routes in the 16th century that permanent outposts were established.

In 1515, two monks from Portugal landed at Lifau (now in Oecussi) to establish a mission, opening the door to a colonial rule that would last over 400 years. The Dutch claimed the western portion of the island, and the neighbours’ mutual distrust gave rise to the vast fortresses which still stand at key points on the coast and along the border between East and West Timor.

When the monks landed, they would have found an agricultural population that knew metallurgy, used iron tools and practised animism - although the islands immediately to the west had been converted to Buddhism and Islam. The land was divided into several kingdoms, each with a liuriai (king) at the top of the social pyramid, assisted by datos (nobles) who were responsible for overseeing the sucos (villages). Slaves occupied the base of the pyramid. Although polygamy was common, women enjoyed a high level of freedom and power. Witch doctors and story tellers - effectively living libraries - were important members of society.

It was the Portuguese who introduced Catholicism to East Timor, whose pastel-coloured buildings lend a European twist to the capital and smaller towns, and whose culinary traditions flavour every Timorese dish. The Portuguese also established the coffee plantations which today produce the country’s main export commodity. On the other hand, they invested little in the Timorese themselves in terms of education or medical care. Dissent was suppressed and the death penalty sanctioned for minor transgressions against the colonial rule, resulting in several rebellions. The abrupt departure of the Portuguese in 1975, following a coup at home, allowed East Timor a brief window of independence. Political parties were quickly formed, notably the pro-independence Freitelin and the APODETI group which favoured integration with Indonesia. On November 28, 1975, with a government dominated by the Freitelin, East Timor declared independence. On December 7th Indonesian troops surged over the border from West Timor and announced its annexation as Indonesia's 27th province - a move never recognized by the United Nations. Many Timorese fled to the bush in the face of carpet bombing, executions and the destruction of crops, resulting in an estimated 100,000 people dying during the first year of occupation - many of starvation and disease.

Throughout Indonesia's twenty-four year occupation of East Timor, the vast majority of its people waged a constant resistance battle, many fighting in organized but pathetically under-equipped guerilla detachments from caves and mountain hideouts under the command of the charismatic Freitelin leader Xanana Gusmão, now President of East Timor. In 1996 two Timorese, Bishop Desmond Belo and Jose Ramos-Horta, who had spent years speaking on behalf of East Timor outside the country received the Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts. But it was a combination of events that finally led to change: the international release of newsreels depicting a massacre of students demonstrating at Dili’s Santa Cruz cemetery, and the fall of the Soeharto government in Indonesia. The United Nations secured an agreement from Indonesia to allow Timorese to choose, in a referendum, between integration with Indonesia or independence. The result was an overwhelming vote for independence, but celebrations were short-lived as the departing Indonesians systematically destroyed buildings, roads and power lines across the country, killing thousands. Australian troops finally put an end to the violence, but not before over 200,000 people had been forcibly marched over the border into West Timor. The United Nations stepped in to provide an interim government in East Timor between 1999 and 2002, and with the help of a tremendous number of humanitarian aid organizations, set about rebuilding the country and preparing it for self rule. East Timor officially became the world’s newest country on May 20, 2002.

more about the languages
of East Timor

more about archeology
in East Timor

more about East Timor's
Nobel Prize laureates