East Timor, officially named Timor-Leste, (Tetum: Timór-Leste; officially the Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste) is a state in Southeast Asia. It comprises the eastern half of the island of Timor, the nearby islands of Atauro and Jaco, and Oecusse, an exclave on the northwestern side of the island, within Indonesian West Timor. The small country of 15,410 km (5,400 sq mi) is located about 640 km (400 mi) northwest of Darwin, Australia.

 Brief history of Timor-Leste

 Anthropological investigations indicate that the first people to arrive in Timor, approximately 40,000 to 20,000 years BC, were of the Vedo Australoide type, similar to the Vedas of Ceylon. A second wave, which arrived around 3000 years BC, consisted of Melanesians, similar to those living today in Papua New-Guinea and some Pacific Islands. Probably due to the mountainous nature of the country, these new arrivals did not mix with the former inhabitants, who withdrew to the interior mountainous regions. This may be one of the reasons why Timor-Leste has so many different languages. A third wave of people, who arrived around 2500 BC, consisted of ‘proto-malays’ – people coming from South China and North Indochina. Even today the Chinese in Timor-Leste, mainly Hakka, are one of the more important trading communities.

The Portuguese colonize Timor

The Portuguese reached the coast of Timor on what is now the enclave of Oecussi around 1515. They made huge profits from exports of sandalwood but eventually overexploited this resource. As sandalwood became almost extinct the Portuguese in 1815 introduced coffee plantations, along with sugar cane and cotton. Timor-Leste remained largely underdeveloped with an economy based on barter. Prior to World War II, the capital, Dili, had no electricity or water supply and there were few roads. Even so, before the Second World War, Timor-Leste was seen as strategically important. When World War II started, the Australians and the Dutch, aware of Timor’s importance of as a buffer zone, landed in Dili despite Portuguese protests. The Japanese then used the presence of the Australians as a pretext for an invasion in February 1942 and stayed until September 1945. By the end of the war Timor was in ruins. Approximately 50,000 Timorese had lost their lives as a result of Japanese occupation and the efforts of the Timorese to resist the invaders and protect Australia. People were also forced to give food to the Japanese, so when the Japanese finally surrendered, the scene in Timor was that of human misery and devastation.

The 1960s – a new era of Portuguese colonialism

The Portuguese made feeble attempts to revive the country, but development was slow. The average annual growth rate between 1953 and 1962 was a mere 2%. Meanwhile, the United Nations declared Timor-Leste a non-self governing territory under Portuguese administration. It was only then that Portugal tried to systematically develop Timor-Leste through three successive five-year plans. Portugal governed Timor-Leste with a combination of direct and indirect rule, managing the population as a whole through the traditional power structures rather than using colonial civil servants. This left traditional Timorese society almost untouched.

In 1974, however, the ‘carnation revolution’ in Portugal had a sudden impact on all its colonies. The political climate in Portugal shifted to the left and for the first time, the Timorese were given freedom to form their own political parties.

On August 11 1975, the more conservative Timorese parties launched a coup in an attempt to seize power from the Portuguese and prevent the ascension of the left-wing Frente Revolucionária do Timor-Leste Independente (FRETILIN). Clashes between the two main Timorese contenders escalated into violence resulting in more than 2,000 deaths. On November 28 1975, FRETILIN declared Timor-Leste as the República Democrática de Timor Leste (RDTL). The RDTL, recognized just by a few countries, which were mainly former Portuguese colonies, was short-lived. Ten days later on December 7, 1975 Indonesian troops invaded.

The Indonesian occupation

In the early years of Indonesian annexation, some 60,000 people lost their lives – contributing to the estimated 200,000 total deaths over the entire period of their administration. In an effort to achieve greater control over its dissident new province – whose seizure was condemned by the United Nations – Indonesia invested considerable sums in Timor-Leste leading to more rapid economic growth, which averaged 6% per year over the period 1983-1997. Unlike the Portuguese, the Indonesians favored strong, direct rule, which was never accepted by the people of East Timor who were determined to preserve their culture and national identity.

In 1991, the Indonesian military permitted a parliamentary delegation from Portugal to visit East Timor. Their visit was cancelled in the last minute. Almost immediately, the Indonesian military went on an attack. A young student, Sebastião Gomes, was killed and many others were arrested. On November 12 1991, thousands of Timorese marched towards the Santa Cruz cemetery to mourn the death of Sebastião Gomes. The Indonesian Army opened fire and killed more than 200 Timorese. The ‘Santa Cruz Massacre’ marked a turning point in the brutal occupation of Timor-Leste, as the shocking images were beamed around the world. Individuals and organizations started accelerating pressure on their governments and on international organizations on behalf of Timor-Leste. The imprisonment of resistance leader Xanana Gusmão in 1992 also put the international spotlight on the human rights situation.

Indonesia found itself in an increasingly difficult position, which culminated in October 1996 when the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to two Timorese leaders, Bishop Ximenes Belo and José Ramos-Horta, adding to the growing assertiveness of the independence movement. Then in 1997 and 1998, Suharto’s New Order was shaken by a severe economic crisis, leading to widespread demands for political change. Suharto was forced to resign and was replaced by his vice-president, Dr. B.J Ainun Habibie. President Habibie was unwilling to maintain the ‘burden’ of such an expensive province. In January 1999 Timor-Leste was offered ‘wide-ranging autonomy’. Should the Timorese reject this proposition, Indonesia was prepared to ‘let Timor-Leste go’. On popular consultation, an agreement was finally made in Timor-Leste in May 1999, under the auspices of UN Secretary-General Kofi Anan.

A referendum for freedom

In 1999, the UN started to prepare a referendum for freedom by setting up the United Nations Assistance Mission for Timor-Leste (UNAMET). On 30th August, the people of Timor-Leste voted overwhelmingly – 78% – in favor of independence from Indonesia. The pro-integration militia gangs responded with extraordinary brutality by rampaging and plundering across the country. As a result, one-third of the population was forced to resettle in refugee camps in West Timor and neighboring islands. Another third looked for refuge in the mountains of Timor-Leste.  An estimated 2,000 people were reported to have died in the violence. The UN Security Council authorized a multinational force (INTERFET) under the unified command structure of a member state, Australia, to restore peace and security. The UN also launched a large-scale humanitarian operation including food supplies and other basic services.
 On October 25 1999, the UN Security Council established the United Nations Transitional Administration in Timor-Leste (UNTAET) as an integrated multi-dimensional peacekeeping operation responsible for the administration of Timor-Leste during its transition to independence.


On August 30, 2001, Timor-Leste held its first free elections. On May 20, 2002 Timor-Leste became the world’s newest democracy and the first new country of the third millennium. The celebrations took place at Taci Tolou, a former mass grave site just outside Dili, and was attended by dignitaries including United Nations Secretary- General Kofi Annan, former United States President Bill Clinton, and perhaps most significantly, President Megawati Sukarnoputri of Indonesia. At midnight on May 19, the new flag of Timor-Leste was raised, the new national anthem was sung, and Timor-Leste’s long fight for freedom was finally over.

Public holidays

East Timor now has public holidays that commemorate historic events in the liberation struggle, as well as those associated with Catholicism and Islam:

Date Name Notes
January 1 New Year’s Day
date varies Eid al-Adha
March-April Good Friday
May 1 Labour Day
May 20 Independence Restoration Day Anniversary of transfer of sovereigntyfrom the United Nations transitional government,2002
May-June Corpus Christi
August 30 Popular Consultation Day Anniversary of the Popular Consultation, 1999
November 1 All Saints’ Day
November 2 All Souls’ Day
November 12 National Youth Day Anniversary of the Santa Cruz massacre, 1991
November 28 Proclamation of Independence Day 1975
date varies Idul Fitri
December 7 National Heroes’ Day Anniversary of Indonesian invasion of East Timor,1975
December 8 Immaculate Conception
December 25 Christmas Day

In addition, the law defines “official commemorative dates” which are not considered holidays but could be subject to time off from work:

Date Name
February-March Ash Wednesday
March-April Holy Thursday
May-June Ascension Day
June 1 International Children’s Day
August 20 Day of the Armed Forces for the National Liberation of Timor-Leste (FALINTIL)
November 3 National Women’s Day
December 10 International Human Rights Day