East Timor | Freedom House

Freedom in the World

East Timor

East Timor

Freedom in the World 2002

2002 Scores


Partly Free

Freedom Rating
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Civil Liberties
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Political Rights
(1 = best, 7 = worst)

Ratings Change: 

East Timor's political rights rating improved from 6 to 5 due to the elections for a constituent assembly.


Following elections for a constituent assembly in August 2001, East Timor prepared for full independence in May 2002. Mari Alkatiri, the secretary-general of the Revolutionary Front for an Independent East Timor (Fretilin), was named to head a new council of ministers that will act as a cabinet. Fretelin won the most seats in the assembly. Late in the year, the United Nations was winding down its transitional administration that is preparing the former Indonesian territory for independence, while Jose Gusmao, the charismatic former guerrilla leader, was widely expected to win a presidential election that is likely to be held just before independence.

The Portuguese colonized the eastern part of Timor Island in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. After Portugal abandoned its colony in early 1975, two armed Timorese groups, the leftist Fretilin and the right-wing Timorese Democratic Union, fought for control of the territory. Indonesia invaded in December 1975 and formally annexed East Timor in 1976 as its 27th province. Indonesian forces committed widespread abuses against the local population while waging counterinsurgency operations against Fretilin's armed wing, the East Timorese National Liberation Army (Falintil). By 1979, civil conflict and famine had killed up to 200,000 Timorese. For the next two decades, the poorly equipped Falintil waged a low-grade insurgency from the rugged interior.

In one of the bloodiest incidents under Indonesian rule, soldiers killed dozens of civilians in November 1991 who were holding a peaceful pro-independence march in the territorial capital of Dili. The 1996 Nobel Peace Prize went to Carlos Felipe Ximenes Belo, the East Timor Roman Catholic bishop, and Jose Ramos Horta, the leading East Timorese independence activist. The award helped raise international awareness of Indonesian abuses in the territory.

East Timor's road to independence began in January 1999, when Indonesian President B. J. Habibie announced that he favored letting the East Timorese decide their political future in a referendum. This reversed the hardline integration policy of Habibie's predecessor, President Suharto. Yet Habibie had little control over the Indonesian military, which provided weapons to militias that began attacking pro-independence activists and suspected supporters. During the summer, militia fighters and soldiers forced some 40,000 to 60,000 villagers to flee their homes. Amid the violence, 78.5 percent participating voters in an August 30, 1999, referendum chose independence over autonomy. The turnout was 98.5 percent. In early September, militia fighters and Indonesian forces killed up to 1,000 civilians, drove more than 250,000 others into Indonesia's West Timor, and destroyed up to 70 percent of East Timor's roads and buildings. An Australian-led multinational force entered East Timor under UN auspices on September 20 and soon restored order. In October, Indonesia formally ceded East Timor to the UN.

Since relieving the Australian-led force in early 2000, a UN force of peacekeeping troops and civilian police has provided security in the territory. In the most serious threat to peace, UN troops fought a series of clashes with militia fighters near the border with Indonesia's West Timor in the summer of 2000 that killed at least three peacekeepers. The militia fighters operated out of East Timorese refugee camps in West Timor, where they harassed refugees and, in early September 2000, led a mob attack that killed four UN staff at a refugee office in Atambua. As of late 2001, an estimated 50,000 East Timorese, including some pro-Jakarta militia members, remained in West Timor. The UN is training a small East Timorese defense force, made up largely of former guerrillas, and is likely to maintain some troops in the country after independence on May 20, 2002, to help ensure the fledgling nation's security.

Fretilin's 55 seats in the August 30 elections left it short of the 60 seats it would need to dictate the terms of the constitution being drafted by the 88-member constituent assembly. Ending months of speculation, the popular Gusmao announced just days before the August vote that he would run for the presidency in 2002.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

East Timor is governed by an interim United Nations authority that has a Security Council mandate to set up a democratic government and prepare the territory for full independence. The authority, the UN Transitional Administration in East Timor (UNTAET), is headed by Sergio Viera de Mello of Portugal, a senior UN official. Many of the smaller parties accused Fretilin of widespread intimidation during the campaign for the constituent assembly elections.

UNTAET and East Timorese leaders have set up, from scratch, courts and other basic government institutions. The nascent judiciary, however, is "fragile and vulnerable to interference," with inexperienced judicial officials lacking support and training and being subjected to threats and intimidation, Amnesty International warned in July. Moreover, in some cases authorities have taken little or no action against criminal suspects who belong to unofficial security groups linked to political parties, former Falintil members, political leaders, or church officials, Amnesty said. In a further problem, legal officials are having difficulty recruiting enough qualified judges, prosecutors, and defense lawyers, contributing to delays in most criminal cases.

In a major step toward bringing to justice those behind the 1999 violence, a UN tribunal in Dili sentenced a former pro-Indonesia militiaman to 12 years in prison in January for killing an independence supporter. The conviction, the first stemming from the 1999 atrocities, was followed by the February sentencing of a member of the pro-independence Falintil militia to seven years in prison for killing a pro-Indonesian militia member. Later in the year, the tribunal handed down its first verdict on crimes against humanity. It sentenced ten members of a pro-Indonesian militia to jail terms of up to 33 years. However, the tribunal's work was hampered by inadequate resources and Jakarta's reluctance to extradite suspects to East Timor or allow UN investigators to question suspects in Indonesia. Investigations into hundreds of cases will not have been completed or even begun by the time UNTAET's mandate ends. The court, which has international and local judges, was set up by UNTAET in 2000 to try suspects accused of mass killings and other serious human rights violations in 1999.

The worst abuses in 1999 began immediately after the UN announced on September 4 that the East Timorese had voted overwhelmingly for independence from Jakarta. Indonesian soldiers and army-backed militias killed, raped, and tortured civilians and forced hundreds of thousands of people into the mountains or into West Timor and other parts of Indonesia, according to Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and other groups. Militia forces later seized control of most camps in West Timor and intimidated and in some cases killed, abducted, and raped refugees to prevent them from returning to East Timor. Prior to the referendum, militia fighters killed, raped, arbitrarily detained, tortured, and otherwise abused pro-independence activists and alleged supporters, as well as human rights monitors, journalists, humanitarian workers, and UN staff.

Denied voices or roles under the Indonesian occupation, numerous nongovernmental groups are now providing social services and monitoring and promoting human rights. Most are dependent on foreign aid. Domestic violence against women is a significant problem in East Timor, and traditional customs prevent women in some regions and villages from inheriting or owning property, according to the U.S. State Department's February 2001 report on human rights in East Timor in 2000. The report also noted that local gangs have harassed the tiny ethnic Malay Muslim minority, while some ethnic Chinese businessmen have faced extortion and harassment.

Under a treaty reached with Australia in June 2001 on sharing offshore oil and gas resources, Dili will receive 90 percent of the revenues from the production of oil and gas in the Timor Sea. In the two decades after 2004, the fields are expected to bring in $180 million a year for East Timor. Until the revenues come on stream, the impoverished country is likely to continue depending on foreign aid for virtually its entire budget. Given this reality, the World Bank called on international donors in June to provide the balance of the $170 million in aid pledged in 1999 to East Timor. Most of the money will be spent rebuilding roads, hospitals, and schools. The bank did not say how much aid has yet to be delivered. An estimated two-thirds to three-fourths of East Timor's labor force is engaged in subsistence agriculture, according to the U.S. State Department report.