Timor-Leste, formerly called East Timor, is a fascinating and beautiful country in Southeast Asia. Geographically, it’s part of the Indonesian archipelago, about 400 miles north of Darwin, Australia. Politically, Timor-Leste has been an independent country since May 20, 2002. Before that, this small mountainous land was occupied by the Indonesian military for 25 years, though it was never part of Indonesia in a political sense.  Some of the facts and figures on this map are a little outdated but it will answer some of your basic questions about the geography and demographics of East Timor:

timor mapThe official name of the country Timor-Leste, is Portuguese. Prior to the Indonesian occupation, Timor-Leste had been a Portuguese colony for 400 years. When Portugal withdrew from its colonies, the Timorese immediately declared independence. But the Indonesian government and Western powers had a different plan – annexation. Indonesia had been independent of Dutch rule since 1945 and they saw the Eastern part of Timor as ripe for take-over. Therefore, on December 7th 1975 Indonesia invaded, beginning a bloody occupation that has been called one of the worst genocides of the 20th century. Approximately ¼ of the population, about 200,000 people, were killed or died due to starvation during the 25-year occupation that lasted until 1999.

The Indonesian invasion and occupation would not have been possible without the consent and support of powerful Western actors, particularly the United States and Australia. The reasons for Western support of Indonesia’s invasion and occupation are complex. They included political calculations, which at the time meant countering the “communist threat.” There were also economic aspirations, which meant opening markets across the vast Indonesian archipelago. And then there the natural resource considerations — oil in the Timor Sea. General Suharto, the U.S. backed Indonesian strongman who, in a military coup had overthrown Indonesia’s first president, Sukarno ten years earlier, was more than willing to support the West’s agenda in all these areas.

The expectation was that as a small politically insignificant country, Indonesia would easily be able to absorb East Timor with little resistance.  The day before the Indonesians invaded, President Ford and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger were in Jakarta meeting with Suharto. The message from the U.S., and thus the Western world, was essentially, “make it quick and keep it quiet.” Given the robust financial and military support the U.S. was supplying to Indonesia (M-16’s and OV-10 Bronco’s), this was not a dirty war U.S. officials wanted in the newspapers.

ov-10 bronco

The OV-10 Bronco, made by Rockwell International, was used in the Indonesian invasion and occupation of East Timor

ford_kissingAlthough the expectation was that the invasion and annexation would be quick, the opposite turned out to be the case. The Timorese people fought the occupation tooth and nail, insisting on their right of self-determination. From guerilla warfare in the mountains to underground activism and international advocacy work and the liturgical use of Tetum in the Catholic Church, Timorese people held onto their identity and aspiration for an independent country. But the occupation was also complicated. Some Timorese wanted to join Indonesia. And under Indonesia, roads, hospitals, schools and other public institutions were built. Eventually in 1999 a confluence of political factors led to an independence referendum in which 75% of Timorese chose independence.

One of those factors was the Santa Cruz Massacre in 1991. Until that time, the cause of East Timor was little known in the international community. But on November 12, 1991 the funeral procession for a fallen independence activist turned into a pro-independence protest march. The Indonesian military responded by herding hundreds of fleeing people into a cemetery compound while opening fire on unarmed civilians; 250 people were killed. American journalists Alan Nairn and Amy Goodman witnessed the massacre and the British cameraman Max Stahl filmed it. The film eventually made it out of the country, exposing the brutal reality of the situation in Timor for the world to see. From that point on, international solidarity increased dramatically which increased pressure on western governments to stop their financial support of the Indonesian military.

santa cruz

Photos of the march which led to the Santa Cruz massacre.

When it came time to choose a national language, the leaders chose Portuguese along with the most common native tongue of the land, Tetum. In Tetum this land is called Timor Loro Sa’e. “Loro” (sun) “Sa’e” (rise / ascend) together are the Tetum word for East. Tetum is a fascinating language in this way.  Timor-Leste has many languages. Some of them, like Tetum, are Austronesian languages, which originated Southeastern China, down through the Philippines and Indonesia. Others, especially those in the Eastern districts are of Papuan origin and therefore totally unrelated to the Austronesian languages. Most all Timorese speak at least 2 and often 3, 4 or even 5 languages. As you can imagine, this makes things challenging for some things, like education and public institutions, and extremely rich and beneficial for other things, like the expanded worldviews, traditions and the cultural richness that comes with linguistic diversity.

lingua timor

Tetum is now the lingua franca of Timor-Leste and is spoken by most of the population, though most Timorese speak their native tongue at home and some older people in rural areas only speak their native language.