East Timor | Freedom House

Freedom in the World

East Timor

East Timor

Freedom in the World 2003

2003 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 5 to 3 due to the holding of the country's first direct presidential election since it gained independence.


After becoming the world's newest state in May, East Timor faced the daunting challenge of nation building in a land scarred by neglect and human rights abuses during 2 centuries of Portuguese rule and 24 years of Indonesian occupation. The country received full independence with the departure of an interim United Nations administration that, in two years, helped rebuild roads and buildings and set up a legislature and other basic democratic institutions. The UN, however, made relatively little progress in getting many basic services up and running, drafting business laws, and sorting out land disputes.

To make matters tougher, the new country is Asia's poorest, 85 to 90 percent of urban adults have no jobs, up to half of East Timorese are illiterate, and small-scale coffee production is virtually the only export industry. Even after revenues from offshore oil and gas production come on stream in 2005, the Southeast Asian country is likely to remain heavily dependent on foreign aid for the foreseeable future. The government of President Xanana Gusmao also faces the divisive question of whether to grant amnesty to past human rights abusers or to pursue justice through the courts.

The Portuguese became the first Europeans to land on Timor Island in the sixteenth century. They retreated to the eastern part of Timor in the eighteenth century following years of fighting for control of the island with the Dutch. After Portugal abruptly abandoned East Timor 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 Indonesian forces consolidated their hold on the territory, they committed widespread abuses against the local population during 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, poorly equipped Falintil forces continued to wage a low-grade insurgency from the rugged interior.

East Timor's road to independence began with the 1998 downfall of Indonesia's iron-fisted President Suharto, who had steadfastly rejected even autonomy for the territory. As support for independence mounted in 1999, local militias, armed by the Indonesian military, began attacking pro-independence activists and suspected supporters. Amid the violence, East Timorese voters overwhelmingly approved an August 1999 referendum in favor of independence.

In response, 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 80 percent of East Timor's roads and buildings before being ousted in late September by an Australian-led multinational force. UN administrators in 2000 began the arduous task of preparing the fragile territory for independence.

Mindful of the continuing threat posed by militias making their bases in West Timor, the United Nations plans to keep a small contingent of troops in the country until 2004. By then, a small East Timorese defense force is expected to be ready to assume responsibility for national security.

Gusmao, 56, a former resistance commander before being captured and jailed by Indonesian authorities, began running the nation-in-waiting after easily winning a five-year term in presidential elections in April 2002. After the fanfare of independence in May died down, Gusmao's government faced widespread calls to bring to justice pro-Jakarta militia fighters responsible for rights abuses in 1999. For his part, President Gusmao advocated amnesty in the hopes of speeding reconciliation in the young country and encouraging the return from West Timor of tens of thousands of refugees.

The government also faced repeated protests by hundreds of armed men claiming to be former resistance fighters and demanding state welfare benefits as compensation for their roles in the struggle against Indonesian rule. Separately, a protest in December over the arrest of a student turned into a riot that killed at least one person.

Foreign donors, meanwhile, pledged $440 million to East Timor through 2005. Those funds should help the government stay afloat financially until it begins earning income under a 2001 deal with Australia that gives East Timor up to 90 percent of the revenues from Timor Sea oil and gas production. The revenues could be worth $6 billion over 20 years, according to conservative estimates.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

Having gained their independence, the East Timorese now face the task of building viable democratic institutions, having started largely from scratch after the Indonesian occupation ended. The presidential elections in 2002 and legislative balloting the previous year marked the first time that East Timorese were allowed to choose their own leaders. Fretilin won the most seats in the 2001 legislative vote, which was marred by accusations from smaller parties, not fully substantiated, that Fretilin used intimidation to help secure votes. Fretilin's leader, Mari Alkatiri, is East Timor's prime minister.

The judiciary and other governmental institutions are inexperienced and largely untested, having been built quickly from the ground up by UN administrators and East Timorese leaders. The fledgling civil law court system is poorly funded and heavily backlogged because of a shortage of trained lawyers, prosecutors, and translators, who have to work in four languages (Indonesian, the local Tetum dialect, English, and Portuguese), the Hong Kong-based Far Eastern Economic Review reported in August. Like the courts, the prison system is rudimentary, as evidenced in part by an August jailbreak by nearly 200 inmates from Dili's main prison.

In a major step toward bringing to justice suspects in the 1999 violence, a UN tribunal in Dili staffed by local and international judges convicted and jailed several East Timorese for killings that year. The tribunal's work, however, has been hampered by limited resources and Jakarta's reluctance to extradite suspects to East Timor or to allow UN investigators to question suspects in Indonesia.

The key source of news and information in the new country is Radio East Timor, which was set up by UN administrators. However, 5 out of East Timor's 13 districts were not receiving the station as of July because of power shortages, with the cash-strapped central government unable to help, the Far Eastern Economic Review reported. 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, while traditional customs prevent women in some regions and villages from inheriting or owning property, according to the U.S. State Department's global human rights report for 2001, released in March 2002. The report also noted that Protestants, Malay Muslims, and ethnic Chinese businessmen have faced some harassment in mainstream society. Nevertheless, all groups can worship relatively freely in this predominantly Roman Catholic country.

East Timor has several trade unions that represent teachers, nurses, and other professions, but they are inexperienced and poorly funded. With an estimated two-thirds to three-fourths of East Timor's workforce laboring in subsistence agriculture, unions will probably play limited roles for the foreseeable future. Workers seeking higher regular pay or severance pay frequently stage strikes, which at times turn violent.

Agriculture, primarily coffee production, is the backbone of the economy. East Timor has carved out a niche in the high-end, organically certified Arabica coffee market. Coffee production took on even greater importance with the departure of many UN workers at independence, which deflated what had been a booming trade in providing food, lodging, and other goods to well-paid expatriate staff in Dili.