Is East Timor a country? When did East Timor become independent from Portugal? How long did the Indonesian occupation of East Timor last? Here’s everything you need to know about East Timor’s geopolitical status.

In Dili, there’s a moving museum that tells the story – violence, bloodshed, torture and all – of East Timor’s long struggle for independence. I remember being moved by tales of colonial oppression on the part of the Portuguese, who arrived in 1520 and didn’t leave East Timor until 1975, but the real focus was even the more recent history of the Indonesian occupation.

On 7th December 1975, less than two weeks after East Timor had declared independence from Portugal, the Indonesian army invaded the new nation in a vicious attack that led to a 24-year-long occupation. For over two decades, the East Timorese fought a deadly guerilla war against the Indonesian army and the Archives & Museum of East Timorese Resistance has immortalized this struggle is an uncompromising fashion.

It’s not an easy place to visit, as you read about protests that turned violent, human rights abuses, and civilian casualties. It does put things into perspective, however, and it inspired me to write this article about the status of one of the world’s newest nations. Many travellers I met in Southeast Asia often wondered where East Timor was, let alone if it was truly a sovereign nation (a shame, given the blood shed for their independence).

It is a sovereign nation, of course, with the Indonesian occupation having ended in 1999, and full independence being reinstated in 2002. The scars of this struggle for nationhood are still prevalent across East Timor, which makes it a fascinating but hard-hitting place to visit.

Before you jump in, it’s a great idea to be clued up on the country’s history and geopolitical status. From Portuguese colonial rule to independence from Indonesia, in this article, I answer the question: ‘Is East Timor a country?’.

Is East Timor a country?

East Timor, formally known as Timor-Leste, is a sovereign nation in Southeast Asia. It occupies the eastern half of the island of Timor, with Indonesia covering the majority of the western portion of the same island. Additionally, East Timor includes the smaller islands of Atauro and Jaco, as well as an enclave, Oecusse, within Indonesian West Timor. Dili serves as the country’s capital and administrative centre.

Gaining its independence from Indonesia in 2002, East Timor is one of the world’s youngest countries. Its road to sovereignty was arduous, marked by years of foreign occupation – first by the Portuguese and later by the Indonesians – and a struggle for independence that led to violent conflict and human rights abuses. The United Nations played a significant role in the transitional administration before full independence was finally achieved.

Politically, East Timor operates as a democratic republic and is governed by a framework that includes a president, a prime minister and a unicameral legislature. Though it grapples with political instability and economic challenges, including a heavy reliance on oil reserves, the country is a full-fledged member of the international community. It holds membership in key global organisations such as the United Nations.

The flag of East Timor.

Read more: A Complete East Timor Tourism Guide

Important facts about East Timor

Here are the most important facts to know before travelling to East Timor:

  • Capital: Dili
  • Area: Approximately 15,410 square kilometres
  • Population: Around 1.3 million
  • Official Languages: Tetum and Portuguese
  • Working Languages: English and Indonesian
  • Currency: United States Dollar (USD)
  • Time Zone: UTC +9
  • Government: Unitary semi-presidential representative democratic republic
  • Head of State: President
  • Head of Government: Prime Minister
  • Independence: Declared on 28 November 1975 (from Portugal), Actual independence on 20 May 2002 (from Indonesia)
  • Main Exports: Oil, coffee, sandalwood
  • GDP Per Capita: Varies, but generally below $3,000 USD
  • Religion: Predominantly Roman Catholic (over 90%)
  • Literacy Rate: Approximately 67.5%
  • Internet Country Code: .tl
  • International Affiliations: United Nations, Community of Portuguese Language Countries (CPLP), ASEAN observer status
  • Challenges: Economic diversification, political stability, social equality, infrastructure development

Read more: The Best Experiences and Things to do in East Timor

Where is East Timor?

East Timor is located in Southeast Asia on the eastern half of the island of Timor. The island itself is part of the Lesser Sunda Islands, an archipelago that includes several Indonesian islands and sits in the southern part of the Malay Archipelago. The country is bordered by the Timor Sea to the south, the Wetar Strait to the north, and the Ombai Strait to the northwest. To the west, East Timor shares a land border with the Indonesian province of East Nusa Tenggara, which occupies the western half of the island.

Besides the mainland, East Timor’s territory also includes the smaller islands of Atauro and Jaco. Additionally, it has an exclave known as Oecusse, or Ambeno, which is surrounded by Indonesian territory on the island of Timor. The capital city, Dili, is situated along the northern coast of the country, facing the Wetar Strait.

Geographically, East Timor boasts a diverse landscape that ranges from coastal plains to mountainous terrain. The highest peak, Mount Ramelau, stands at an elevation of 2,963 metres. Though relatively small in land area, covering around 15,007 square kilometres, East Timor’s strategic location has often made it a focal point in regional politics and trade routes, notably during periods of European colonial expansion.

United Nations Map of East Timor.

Read more: How to Travel to Jaco Island in East Timor!

Is it East Timor or Timor-Leste?

You may hear or see East Timor referred to in official capacities as Timor-Leste. Both ‘East Timor’ and ‘Timor-Leste’ refer to the same country, but each name has its own context and usage. ‘East Timor’ is the English translation of ‘Timor-Leste’, which is the country’s official name in its official languages, Portuguese and Tetum. ‘Timor’ comes from the Malay word for ‘east’, so the name ‘East Timor’ essentially means ‘East East’, which may seem redundant but is commonly used in English-speaking contexts.

‘Timor-Leste’ is the name used in official international settings and is the name under which the country is a member of the United Nations and other international organisations. It’s worth noting that Portuguese is one of the official languages of the country, reflecting its history as a Portuguese colony prior to Indonesian occupation.

The usage often depends on the context. In formal and diplomatic settings, ‘Timor-Leste’ is generally preferred. In casual English conversation and less formal written English, ‘East Timor’ is more commonly used. Both names refer to the same nation, which gained its independence from Indonesia in 2002 and is located on the eastern half of the island of Timor in Southeast Asia.

East Timor Coastline
The road to Dili.

Read more: Tea With The Timorese

A brief history of East Timor

The history of East Timor is a complex narrative marked by colonialism, occupation, and a struggle for independence. Here is a brief overview:

  • Pre-Colonial Period: The island of Timor has been inhabited for thousands of years. Its indigenous populations are believed to be descendants of Austronesian and Papuan peoples. The island was initially divided into a myriad of small kingdoms.
  • Portuguese Colonisation: Portuguese traders and missionaries began arriving in Timor in the early 16th century. Over time, Portugal consolidated its control over the eastern part of the island, while the Dutch occupied the western part (now part of Indonesia).
  • Japanese Occupation: During World War II, Japanese forces occupied the entire island from 1942 to 1945. Thousands of Timorese died during this period due to famine, forced labour, and conflict.
  • Return of the Portuguese: After the war, the Portuguese resumed their colonial rule. East Timor remained largely isolated and undeveloped, but small nationalist movements began to emerge.
  • Indonesian Invasion: Shortly after Portugal began a decolonisation process in 1975, Indonesia invaded East Timor, justifying its action by claiming it was preventing the emergence of a communist state. The United Nations never recognised this annexation, but many countries, including the United States and Australia, effectively did by engaging in military and trade relations with Indonesia.
  • Independence Struggle: Resistance against Indonesian rule was immediate but brutally suppressed. Estimates suggest that up to a third of the East Timorese population died from conflict, famine, and disease from 1975 to 1999. The main resistance group, FRETILIN, continued guerrilla operations for many years.
  • Referendum and UN Intervention: In 1999, under international pressure, Indonesia agreed to a UN-supervised referendum. An overwhelming majority voted for independence. Pro-Indonesia militias reacted violently, leading to a humanitarian crisis. Eventually, a UN-backed international force led by Australia intervened to restore order.
  • Independence and Modern Period: On May 20, 2002, East Timor was formally recognised as an independent state under the name Timor-Leste. The country has faced numerous challenges, including political instability and economic hardship, since gaining independence. However, it has also made strides in establishing democratic institutions and is gradually working towards social and economic development.

While the nation is still grappling with its complex past and the challenges of being one of the world’s youngest countries, its history is a compelling testament to the resilience and tenacity of its people.

Things To Do In Dili East Timor
East Timor is dotted with colonial ruins.

Read more: East Timor: My First Impressions of Dili

When and why did East Timor gain independence from Portugal?

East Timor’s journey towards independence from Portugal is a difficult tale, and one intricately bound up with global shifts in politics and decolonisation efforts. Portugal began decolonising its overseas territories in the 1970s, partly influenced by the 1974 Carnation Revolution in Portugal, which led to the overthrow of the Estado Novo dictatorship. This change in governance spurred a new commitment to end colonial rule overseas.

In East Timor, the prospect of decolonisation initiated political activity and eventually led to the formation of political parties. The three main groups were the Timorese Democratic Union (UDT), the Revolutionary Front for an Independent East Timor (FRETILIN), and the Timorese Popular Democratic Association (APODETI). Initially, UDT and FRETILIN formed a coalition to seek independence, but the alliance was short-lived, and tensions erupted into conflict by mid-1975.

Amid the internal strife, Portugal effectively abandoned its colonial administration and withdrew, leaving a vacuum and worsening the situation. On 28 November 1975, FRETILIN unilaterally declared East Timor’s independence from Portugal. However, this independence was short-lived. On 7 December 1975, Indonesia invaded East Timor, claiming it as its 27th province, an act that was never internationally recognised.

Maubara Fort East Timor
A Portuguese cannon overlooking the ocean.

Read more: The Abanonded Colonial Ruins of Liquica, East Timor

Why did Indonesia occupy East Timor?

The occupation of East Timor by Indonesia in 1975 was a multifaceted event rooted in a mix of geopolitical, ideological, and strategic concerns. Here are some key factors:

  • Geostrategic Interests: Indonesia viewed the island of Timor as strategically important due to its location. Control over East Timor would grant Indonesia a more consolidated territory, thereby reducing external threats and internal security concerns.
  • Ideological Factors: At the height of the Cold War, Indonesia was wary of the left-leaning FRETILIN party in East Timor, fearing that its rise to power might create a communist or socialist state in close proximity. Indonesia, then under the authoritarian rule of President Suharto, sought to prevent what it perceived as a potential ‘domino effect’ that could tip the regional balance in favour of communism.
  • Regional Stability: Indonesia claimed that its invasion was to maintain regional stability, though this argument was widely viewed as a pretext for asserting control. They argued that the internal conflict in East Timor following Portugal’s withdrawal posed a threat to peace in the area.
  • International Indifference and Tacit Approval: Indonesia invaded East Timor with tacit approval from some Western powers, notably the United States and Australia, who prioritised their relationship with Indonesia over the fate of East Timor. This international context provided Indonesia with the confidence to proceed with its occupation, as it received diplomatic cover and military assistance from key allies.
  • Economic Interests: Although less often cited, economic considerations, including potential offshore oil reserves, may have also played a role in Indonesia’s decision to occupy East Timor.

The Indonesian occupation led to widespread human rights abuses, including extrajudicial killings, forced displacement, and famine, resulting in a significant loss of life among the East Timorese population. Despite this, resistance to Indonesian rule continued until a UN-brokered referendum in 1999 allowed East Timorese to vote for independence, which they overwhelmingly did. Following a period of violent upheaval and a UN-administered transition, East Timor finally achieved full independence as Timor-Leste in 2002.

Things To Do In Dili East Timor
A monument to the suffering of the East Timorese during the Indonesian occupation.

Read more: The Ruins of the Ai Pelo Prison in East Timor

How has East Timor fared since independence?

Since achieving independence in 2002, East Timor, or Timor-Leste, has faced a myriad of challenges along with notable progress. Here’s an overview:

  • Political Stability and Governance: Initially, the country grappled with political instability, including internal conflicts and power struggles that culminated in a crisis in 2006. Since then, multiple elections have been held, with relatively peaceful transitions of power, suggesting gradual maturation of its democratic institutions.
  • Economic Challenges: Economically, East Timor remains one of the poorest countries in Southeast Asia. Its economy is heavily dependent on oil and gas reserves, which account for the lion’s share of government revenue. This dependency makes it vulnerable to global price fluctuations and raises questions about long-term sustainability. Efforts to diversify the economy have been slow but are ongoing, with areas like agriculture and tourism being targeted for development.
  • Social Indicators: Social indicators have shown some improvements. For instance, literacy rates have increased and child mortality rates have decreased. However, challenges such as malnutrition, unemployment, and poverty persist. Gender inequality also remains an area of concern, although steps are being taken to address it.
  • Infrastructure and Services: Significant investments have been made in infrastructure, including roads and electricity, but much remains to be done. Basic services like healthcare and education have seen some development, but the quality is often lacking, and rural areas are particularly underserved.
  • International Relations: On the international front, East Timor has been building relationships and is a member of various international organisations, including the United Nations and the Community of Portuguese Language Countries (CPLP). It has also sought to resolve border issues with its neighbours, Indonesia and Australia, the latter particularly in relation to maritime boundaries and resource sharing in the Timor Sea.
  • National Identity and Culture: Culturally and socially, there is an ongoing effort to forge a cohesive national identity that honours diverse ethnic backgrounds and languages. The country’s complex history and multicultural fabric make this both a challenge and an opportunity.
East Timor Coastline
Many East Timorese work in subsistence jobs like fishing.

Read more: Mundo Perdido: An Attempted Hike To The Top of East Timor’s ‘Lost World’.

What’s the capital of East Timor?

The capital of East Timor is Dili. Situated on the northern coast of the country, Dili serves as the political and administrative centre. The city is also the largest in East Timor and has undergone significant development since the country gained independence in 2002.

It hosts various government buildings, foreign embassies, and international organisations. Additionally, Dili is an important economic hub, featuring markets, shops, and a port that handles a large portion of East Timor’s trade.

Despite its challenges, including infrastructure issues and a burgeoning population, Dili remains central to East Timor’s ongoing efforts at nation-building.

East Timor Pictures Dili
The author during his trip to Dili!

Read more: The Top Things To Do in Dili, East Timor

How many municipalities are in East Timor?

East Timor is divided into 13 municipalities. These municipalities serve as the primary administrative subdivisions of the country. Additionally, there is the Special Administrative Region of Oecusse, which is an exclave separated from the rest of East Timor by Indonesian territory.

Here is a list of the 13 municipalities:

  1. Aileu
  2. Ainaro
  3. Baucau
  4. Bobonaro
  5. Cova Lima
  6. Dili (the capital)
  7. Ermera
  8. Lautém
  9. Liquiçá
  10. Manatuto
  11. Manufahi
  12. Viqueque
  13. Oecusse (Special Administrative Region)

Each municipality is further divided into administrative posts, sucos (villages), and aldeias (hamlets). The municipalities are essential for local governance and the implementation of various development projects, public services, and administrative tasks.

Jaco Island
Jaco Island is located in the far east of East Timor.

Read more: Jaco Island: East Timor’s Deserted Island Paradise

Is Oecussi in East Timor or Indonesia?

Oecusse, also known as Oecusse-Ambeno or the Oecusse Special Administrative Region, is an exclave of East Timor. Although it is politically and administratively part of East Timor, it is physically separated from the main part of the country by a stretch of Indonesian territory. Specifically, Oecusse is surrounded on three sides by Indonesia’s Nusa Tenggara Timur province and has a coastline along the Savu Sea to the north.

The exclave has a unique history, including being one of the first regions on the island of Timor to be colonised by the Portuguese. Due to its isolation from the main part of East Timor, Oecusse has some distinct cultural practices and languages. It is also one of the more underdeveloped regions of East Timor, although efforts have been made to improve infrastructure and economic prospects in the area.

Read more: Meet the People of Kupang in West Timor!

What languages do they speak in East Timor?

In East Timor, or Timor-Leste, the linguistic landscape is quite diverse, reflecting the country’s complex history and cultural heritage. The country has two official languages: Tetum and Portuguese. Additionally, English and Indonesian are designated as ‘working languages’.

  • Tetum: Tetum is an Austronesian language and one of the native languages of East Timor. It serves as a lingua franca and is widely spoken and understood. Tetum has various dialects, and the form known as Tetun Prasa is commonly used in daily conversation, while Tetun Dili, a more formal variant, is used in official settings.
  • Portuguese: Portuguese is a vestige of East Timor’s colonial past under Portugal. While not as widely spoken as Tetum, its use has been promoted in governmental and educational settings since independence in 2002. However, fluency in Portuguese varies and is more commonly found among the older population and educated elite.
  • English and Indonesian: English and Indonesian are considered working languages, primarily used in government and international relations. Indonesian, in particular, is understood by a significant portion of the population, given East Timor’s history of Indonesian occupation.
  • Indigenous Languages: Besides Tetum, there are approximately 15 indigenous languages spoken across the country. These include Fataluku, Makasae, Bunak, and Galoli, among others. These languages are usually confined to specific regions or communities.

The diversity of languages in East Timor is emblematic of its complex history. While this multiplicity poses challenges for nation-building and education, it also represents a unique aspect of the country’s identity.

East Timor Coastline
It’s useful to speak either Portuguese or Indonesian if you want to get around easily in East Timor.

Read more: Venilale and the Japanese Caves of East Timor

Is East Timor in the Community of Portuguese Language Countries?

East Timor is a member of the Community of Portuguese Language Countries (CPLP), also known as Comunidade dos Países de Língua Portuguesa in Portuguese. The CPLP is an international organisation comprised of countries where Portuguese is an official language, with the aim of fostering collaboration and strengthening ties between these nations. The organisation was founded in 1996, and East Timor became a member in 2002 shortly after gaining its independence from Indonesia.

Membership in the CPLP is part of East Timor’s broader strategy to strengthen its international presence and develop economic, cultural, and diplomatic ties. Given that Portuguese is one of the country’s official languages, along with Tetum, joining the CPLP was seen as an important step in reinforcing its cultural and linguistic heritage, which had been eroded during the years of Indonesian occupation.

Being part of the CPLP allows East Timor to engage in various cooperative endeavours with other Portuguese-speaking countries, ranging from educational and cultural programmes to economic partnerships and political diplomacy. While Portuguese is not as widely spoken in East Timor as Tetum or Indonesian, its status as an official language and its historical ties to Portugal make the country’s membership in the CPLP fitting.

The CPLP serves as an additional platform for East Timor to have its voice heard on the international stage, and it enables the country to tap into a network that spans multiple continents, including countries in Africa, Asia, and South America, as well as Portugal and Brazil.

The flag of the Community of Portuguese Language Countries (in Portuguese: Comunidade dos Países de Língua Portuguesa).

Read more: How Many Countries in Asia? Everything You Need to Know.

What religions do they practice in East Timor?

The religious landscape in East Timor is predominantly Roman Catholic, a legacy left by Portuguese colonial rule. According to estimates, about 90% or more of the population identifies as Roman Catholic. The Church plays a significant role in the social and cultural life of East Timorese, not just as a place of worship but also as an institution that has been intricately involved in the country’s history, particularly during the struggle for independence from Indonesia.

Protestantism also has a presence, albeit a smaller one, with denominations such as the Assemblies of God, Baptists, and Seventh-day Adventists having congregations in the country. These groups constitute around 3-4% of the population. Their introduction is relatively recent and mainly occurred during the period of Indonesian occupation, as Indonesia itself has a more diverse Christian landscape.

Islam and Hinduism are practised by a very small portion of the population. The Islamic community is tiny and mainly consists of immigrants or descendants of immigrants from Indonesia and other countries. Similarly, the Hindu community is exceptionally small, although the island of Timor was once part of the Majapahit Hindu empire, which influenced much of Southeast Asia.

Traditional beliefs and animist practices also persist, especially in rural areas. These are sometimes syncretised with Catholic practices, creating a unique blend of religious traditions. These indigenous beliefs often focus on the worship or veneration of ancestors, natural elements, and spirits.

Venilale East Timor
An East Timorese Church.

Read more: Baucau: Swimming Pools and Crocodiles in East Timor’s Second City

Is East Timor safe to visit?

East Timor can be a challenging destination to travel to, but that doesn’t mean it’s unsafe. It’s essential to consider various factors when evaluating the safety of travelling to East Timor. Here are some points to consider:

  • Political Situation: While East Timor has stabilised politically since its early years of independence, occasional tensions and disruptions can occur. However, these are generally not targeted at foreigners.
  • Health: Medical facilities in East Timor are limited, especially outside of the capital, Dili. It’s advisable to have comprehensive medical insurance and to take necessary precautions, such as vaccinations and malaria prophylaxis. Also, be aware that emergency services and specialist treatments may be lacking.
  • Roads and Transportation: Road conditions can be poor, especially during the rainy season, and driving standards may not align with what you’re accustomed to. Public transport options are limited, so many visitors opt for private transportation.
  • Natural Disasters: East Timor is prone to natural disasters like floods and landslides, particularly during the rainy season. Earthquakes and tsunamis are also possible, though less frequent.
  • Advice from Official Sources: Before travelling, it’s wise to consult your country’s travel advisory for the most current information and advice (I always check the FCDO listings in the UK).
Jaco Island
East Timorese roads are in various states of repair (this is a surpisingly good one pictured).

So, is East Timor a country?

East Timor, or Timor-Leste, unequivocally qualifies as a sovereign nation. Having endured a complex history marked by colonial rule and occupation, it has emerged as an independent state with full international recognition. Since its formal independence from Indonesia in 2002, East Timor has made strides in establishing democratic governance, albeit with challenges and setbacks along the way.

Though it remains one of Southeast Asia’s less affluent nations, struggling with economic dependency and various developmental hurdles, its status as a country is beyond question. It is a member of global organisations like the United Nations and the Community of Portuguese Language Countries, participating actively in international dialogue and cooperation. It has its own constitution, elected government, and defined territorial boundaries, satisfying the traditional criteria for statehood.

Jaco Island East Timor
Glorious beaches await you in East Timor!

Read more: How Many Countries in Southeast Asia? Everything You Need to Know.

FAQ: Is East Timor a country?

Here’s a short FAQ on the topic: ‘Is East Timor a country?’:

Q1: What is East Timor also known as?

A1: East Timor is also officially known as Timor-Leste.

Q2: Is East Timor a sovereign nation?

A2: Yes, East Timor is a sovereign nation. It gained formal independence from Indonesia on 20 May 2002 and is internationally recognised as an independent state.

Q3: What are the official languages of East Timor?

A3: The official languages are Tetum and Portuguese.

Q4: Where is East Timor located?

A4: East Timor is located in Southeast Asia, occupying the eastern half of the island of Timor. It shares a land border with Indonesia.

Q5: Is East Timor part of any international organisations?

A5: Yes, East Timor is a member of various international organisations, including the United Nations and the Community of Portuguese Language Countries (CPLP).

Q6: What form of government does East Timor have?

A6: East Timor has a unitary semi-presidential representative democratic republic. It has both a President and a Prime Minister who are active participants in the governance of the country.

Q7: What is the currency used in East Timor?

A7: The United States Dollar (USD) is the official currency.

Q8: What is the main religion in East Timor?

A8: The predominant religion is Roman Catholicism, followed by a minority of Protestants and practitioners of traditional beliefs.

Q9: What are the main economic sectors in East Timor?

A9: The main economic sectors are oil and gas, followed by agriculture.

Q10: Has East Timor always been an independent country?

A10: No, East Timor was a Portuguese colony until 1975 and was then occupied by Indonesia until 1999. It gained full independence in 2002.

Q11: Is it safe to visit East Timor?

A11: While generally considered safe for travel, it’s advisable to consult your country’s travel advisory for the most current information and take necessary precautions.

Q12: In conclusion, is East Timor a country?

A12: Yes, East Timor is unequivocally a country. It has met all the international legal criteria for statehood, including a defined territory, a permanent population, a government, and the capacity to enter into relations with other states.