East Timor (Timor-Leste) | Facts and History

Motael Church, Dili, East Timor. Kok Leng Yeo on Flickr.com


Dili, population about 150,000.


East Timor is a parliamentary democracy, in which the President is Head of State and the Prime Minister is Head of Government. The President is directly elected to this largely ceremonial post; he or she appoints the leader of the majority party in parliament as Prime Minister. The President serves for five years.

The Prime Minister is head of the Cabinet, or Council of State. He also leads the single-house National Parliament.

The highest court is called the Supreme Court of Justice.

Jose Ramos-Horta is the current President of East Timor. The Prime Minister is Xanana Gusmao.


East Timor's population is around 1.2 million, although no recent census data exist. The country is growing quickly, due both to returning refugees and to a high birth rate.

The people of East Timor belong to dozens of ethnic groups, and intermarriage is common. Some of the largest are the Tetum, around 100,000 strong; the Mambae, at 80,000; the Tukudede, at 63,000; and the Galoli, Kemak, and Bunak, all with about 50,000 people.

There are also small populations of people with mixed Timorese and Portuguese ancestry, called mesticos, as well as ethnic Hakka Chinese (around 2,400 people).

Official Languages

The official languages of East Timor are Tetum and Portuguese. English and Indonesian are "working languages."

Tetum is an Austronesian language in the Malayo-Polynesian family, related to Malagasy, Tagalog, and Hawaiian. It is spoken by about 800,000 people worldwide.

Colonists brought Portuguese to East Timor in the sixteenth century, and the Romance language has influenced Tetum to a large degree.

Other commonly spoken languages include Fataluku, Malalero, Bunak, and Galoli.


An estimated 98 percent of East Timorese are ​Roman Catholic, another legacy of Portuguese colonization. The remaining two percent are divided almost evenly between Protestants and Moslems.

A significant proportion of Timorese also retain some traditional animist beliefs and customs from pre-colonial times.


East Timor covers the eastern half of Timor, the largest of the Lesser Sunda Islands in the Malay Archipelago. It covers an area of about 14,600 square kilometers, including one non-contiguous piece called the Ocussi-Ambeno region, in the northwest of the island.

The Indonesian province of East Nusa Tenggara lies to the west of East Timor.

East Timor is a mountainous country; the highest point is Mount Ramelau at 2,963 meters (9,721 feet). The lowest point is sea level.


East Timor has a tropical monsoon climate, with a wet season from December to April, and a dry season from May through November. During the wet season, average temperatures range between 29 and 35 degrees Celsius (84 to 95 degrees Fahrenheit). In the dry season, temperatures average 20 to 33 degrees Celsius (68 to 91 Fahrenheit).

The island is susceptible to cyclones. It also experiences seismic events such as earthquakes and tsunamis, as it lies on the faultlines of the Pacific Ring of Fire.


The economy of East Timor is in shambles, neglected under Portuguese rule, and deliberately sabotaged by occupation troops during the war for independence from Indonesia. As a result, the country is among the poorest in the world.

Close to half of the population lives in poverty, and as many as 70 percent face chronic food insecurity. Unemployment hovers around the 50 percent mark, as well. The per capita GDP was only about $750 U.S. in 2006.

East Timor's economy should improve in coming years. Plans are underway to develop off-shore oil reserves, and the price of cash crops like coffee is rising.

Prehistoric Timor

The inhabitants of Timor are descended from three waves of migrants. The first to settle the island, Vedo-Australoid people related to Sri Lankans, arrived between 40,000 and 20,000 B.C. A second wave of Melanesian people around 3,000 B.C. drove the original inhabitants, called Atoni, up into the interior of Timor. The Melanesians were followed by Malay and Hakka people from southern China.

Most of the Timorese practiced subsistence agriculture. Frequent visits from sea-going Arab, Chinese, and Gujerati traders brought in metal goods, silks, and rice; the Timorese exported beeswax, spices, and fragrant sandalwood.

History of Timor, 1515-Present

By the time the Portuguese made contact with Timor in the early sixteenth century, it was divided into a number of small fiefdoms. The largest was the kingdom of Wehale, composed of a mixture of Tetum, Kemak, and Bunak peoples.

Portuguese explorers claimed Timor for their king in 1515, lured by the promise of spices. For the next 460 years, the Portuguese controlled the eastern half of the island, while the Dutch East India Company took the western half as part of its Indonesian holdings. The Portuguese ruled coastal regions in cooperation with local leaders, but had very little influence in the mountainous interior.

Although their hold on East Timor was tenuous, in 1702 the Portuguese officially added the region to their empire, renaming it "Portuguese Timor." Portugal used East Timor mainly as a dumping ground for exiled convicts.

The formal boundary between the Dutch and Portuguese sides of Timor was not drawn until 1916, when the modern-day border was fixed by the Hague.

In 1941, Australian and Dutch soldiers occupied Timor, hoping to fend off an anticipated invasion by the Imperial Japanese Army. Japan seized the island in February of 1942; the surviving Allied soldiers then joined with local people in guerilla war against the Japanese. Japanese reprisals against the Timorese left about one in ten of the island's population dead, a total of more than 50,000 people.

After the Japanese surrender in 1945, control of East Timor was returned to Portugal. Indonesia declared its independence from the Dutch, but made no mention of annexing East Timor.

In 1974, a coup in Portugal moved the country from a rightist dictatorship to a democracy. The new regime sought to disentangle Portugal from its overseas colonies, a move that the other European colonial powers had made some 20 years earlier. East Timor declared its independence in 1975.

In December of that year, Indonesia invaded East Timor, capturing Dili after just six hours of fighting. Jakarta declaring the region the 27th Indonesian province. This annexation, however, was not recognized by the UN.

Over the next year, between 60,000 and 100,000 Timorese were massacred by Indonesian troops, along with five foreign journalists.

Timorese guerillas kept fighting, but Indonesia did not withdraw until after the fall of Suharto in 1998. When the Timorese voted for independence in an August 1999 referendum, Indonesian troops destroyed the country's infrastructure.

East Timor joined the UN on September 27, 2002.

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Szczepanski, Kallie. "East Timor (Timor-Leste) | Facts and History." ThoughtCo, Aug. 25, 2020, thoughtco.com/east-timor-leste-facts-history-195753. Szczepanski, Kallie. (2020, August 25). East Timor (Timor-Leste) | Facts and History. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/east-timor-leste-facts-history-195753 Szczepanski, Kallie. "East Timor (Timor-Leste) | Facts and History." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/east-timor-leste-facts-history-195753 (accessed June 7, 2023).