Timor-Leste (East Timor) has a rich history and culture developed over centuries. Archeological evidence, including ancient rock art and stone carvings, indicate people have been living in Timor-Leste for over 4,000 years. The early Austronesian hunter-gather arrivals were later joined by Asian migrants who introduced agriculture. Over time, Timor-Leste became divided into a number of small kingdoms – with skirmishes frequent between the differing tribal groupings.
From as early as the 13th century, there are records of visiting Javanese and Chinese traders drawn by sandalwood, honey and wax.
In the 15th century, both Dutch and Portuguese started arriving, eventually resulting in Timor-Leste becoming a Portuguese colony for over 400 years. While the Portuguese introduced coffee production, along with sugar cane and cotton, their rule was also a time of periodic bloody uprisings as they raised local taxes and used forced labour in construction plantations. Missionaries soon followed spreading the Catholic faith. As the colonists were mostly concerned with trading and for the best part concentrated their presence around the coast, the traditional lifestyle and animist beliefs of most Timorese remained relatively unchanged well into the 20th century.
The Japanese were the next invaders, occupying Timor-Leste during WWII, following the landing of Australian troops. 40-60,000 Timorese are estimated to have died as a result of horrific repression and associated starvation.
In 1975, after the Japanese defeat, withdrawal of the Portuguese and Timor–Leste’s subsequent declaration of independence, Indonesia launched a full scale invasion. A 24 year period of ‘pacification’, costing the lives of more than 200,000 Timorese from violence and associated disease and famine followed. Spirited Timorese resistance and concerted efforts at the United Nations culminated in an independence referendum being held in 1999. Despite a bloody campaign of intimidation, an overwhelming 78.5% of Timorese bravely voted for independence.
In retaliation, the Indonesian army and backed militia rampaged through the country, torching Dili and other towns. Nationwide, it is estimated a further 1,000 – 2,000 civilians were massacred and around 70% of services, infrastructure and buildings were destroyed.
International peacekeepers eventually helped the Timorese restore peace and in 2002 the country regained its independence as the Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste, amidst huge celebrations. Since that time and with relative calm in recent years Timor-Leste’s primary focus has been on national development.
Timorese are incredibly hospitable, gregarious and some of the friendliest you’ll ever encounter. Celebrations held at national and community levels are many and vibrant. Timorese society is also conservative and traditional with a strong focus on family, the community and religion.
With a population of just over 1.1 million, Timorese are linked closely. At the same time many indigenous groups exist, each with its own language and cultural practices. Tetun is the largest of these accounting for approximately 25% of the population. They live around Dili, Suai and Viqueque. Mambae make up a further 10% and are found in the central mountains. Other groups include the Kemak, Bunak and Fataluku amongst others, each accounting for 5% or less.
Timor-Leste (East Timor) has many spoken languages reflecting past migration, colonialism and other occupation. Tetun and Portuguese languages have been given official status, with Indonesian and English considered working languages. Another fifteen or more indigenous languages also are spoken.
The capital of Dili is a modern developing city offering a wide range of services and amenities for residents and visitors. While many Timorese are drawn to the capital seeking employment, 70% still live in rural areas. These Timorese mostly reside in small towns and remote villages and practice a subsistence fishing and farming lifestyle.
Around 90% of Timorese identify as Roman Catholic and the remainder mostly as Protestant, Muslim and Hindu. In spite of this, animism continues to be a persuasive force in most peoples’ everyday lives. Observing the way animist and religious beliefs are seamlessly blended is one of the interesting aspects of holidaying in this country.
Timorese cultural heritage is multi-layered – a fascinating combination of traditional Timorese, Portuguese, Chinese and Indonesian influences. This permeates their local architecture, cuisine, clothing styles and artistic endeavors.
Timorese culture continues to evolve in local arts and handicrafts, as well as in dance and music. Cultural motifs, both old and modern, are incorporated into the design of tais – hand-woven textiles, basket work and wood carving. Cultural groups still perform traditional dances and songs and also are entertaining in new ways. Talented Timorese bands and dance groups perform in local venues and at festivals.
Currently Timor-Leste’s economy is mostly dependent on the extraction of oil reserves from the Timor Sea which account for a massive 80% of GDP. These funds have enabled significant investment in core services and infrastructure, especially related to roads and electricity.
Apart from the oil and gas revenue, coffee exports and net tourism receipts account for Timor-Leste’s other main sources of foreign exchange. These, however, represent a small percentage of the country’s import and service payments.
Within South-East Asia, Timor-Leste (East Timor) lies 400km north of Australia, across the Timor Sea, and in the Lesser Sunda Islands at the eastern end of the Indonesian archipelago. It comprises the eastern half of Timor Island, the separate enclave of Oecusse, situated in West Timor and the small off-shore islands of Atauro and Jaco.
Timor-Leste has a hot tropical climate with a dry season, May-November, and a wet season, December-April. The temperature on the coast is usually between 25-35C and in the mountains at higher elevation it is much cooler – sometimes wet and misty and at other times clear and invigorating.