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In 2012, Timor-Leste successfully held presidential and parliamentary elections, which were deemed largely free and fair by observers. Former head of the National Defense Force Major General José Maria Vasconcelos, popularly known as Taur Matan Ruak, became the country’s new president. The National Congress for Timorese Reconstruction, in coalition with the Democratic Party and the new Frenti-Mudanca, formed a government in August, led again by Kay Rala Xanana Gusmão. The UN Integrated Mission in Timor-Leste departed in December.
Portugal abandoned its colony of East Timor in 1975, and Indonesia invaded within days of the declaration of independence by the leftist Revolutionary Front for an Independent East Timor (Fretilin). Over the next two decades, Fretilin’s armed wing, Falintil, waged a low-grade insurgency against the Indonesian army, which committed widespread human rights abuses as it consolidated control. Civil conflict and famine reportedly killed between 100,000 and 250,000 Timorese during Indonesian rule.
International pressure on Indonesia mounted following the 1991 Dili massacre, in which Indonesian soldiers were captured on film killing more than 200 people. In 1999, 78.5 percent of the East Timorese electorate voted for independence in a referendum approved by Indonesian president B. J. Habibie. The Indonesian army’s scorched-earth response to the vote killed roughly 1,000 civilians, produced more than 250,000 refugees, and destroyed approximately 80 percent of East Timor’s buildings and infrastructure before an Australian-led multinational force restored order.
In 2001, East Timor elected a Constituent Assembly to draft a constitution. Kay Rala Xanana Gusmão—former commander-in-chief of Falintil and leader of Fretilin until he broke from the party in 1988 to form a wider resistance coalition—won the presidency the following year. Independence was officially granted in May 2002. The Fretilin party, led by Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri, won the country’s first local elections in 2004 and 2005.
A political crisis in 2006 erupted into widespread rioting and armed clashes with the police, leading to numerous deaths and the displacement of an estimated 150,000 people. Alkatiri was forced to resign as prime minister in June 2006, and a United Nations Integrated Mission in Timor-Leste (UNMIT) was established to help restore peace and increase police presence. José Ramos-Horta, who was appointed to replace Alkatiri, won the May 2007 presidential runoff election. Outgoing president Gusmão launched a new party, the National Congress for Timorese Reconstruction (CNRT), to compete in the June 2007 parliamentary elections. With no party gaining sufficient seats to form a government, the CNRT joined smaller parties to form the Alliance of the Parliamentary Majority, and it was invited by Ramos-Horta to form a government, with Gusmão as prime minister.
Timor-Leste successfully completed presidential and parliamentary elections in 2012, which, despite some minor technical problems, were deemed largely free and fair by observers. Fretilin party chair Francisco Guterres, known as Lú-Olo, and former head of the National Defense Force (F-FDTL) Major General José Maria Vasconcelos, better known as Taur Matan Ruak, emerged as contenders after the first round of the presidential election on March 17. Ruak, who ran as an independent but received last minute support from the CNRT, won in the second round on April 16 with 61 percent of the vote.
Due to the 3 percent electoral threshold to enter Parliament, only 4 out of 21 competing parties garnered seats in the July 7 legislative elections. Gusmão secured a second term as prime minister after the CNRT captured 30 seats, just short of the number needed to form a government. The CNRT entered into a coalition with the Democratic Party, which won 8 seats, and the new Frenti-Mudanca—which had broken from Fretilin in 2011—which took 2 seats; the new government took office in August. Fretilin, which secured 25 seats, remained in opposition.
UNMIT formally departed Timor in December after transferring full responsibility to Timor’s National Police in October. The security operations of the Australian-led International Stabilization Force (ISF) concluded in November 2012, and the ISF will withdraw by April 2013. Various UN agencies will maintain offices in the country.
East Timor’s weak economy is fueled primarily by oil and gas revenues. Despite an oil fund balance valued at over $11.7 billion at the end of the year, East Timor remained the poorest country in Southeast Asia, with more than 40 percent of the population living below the national poverty line.
East Timor is an electoral democracy. The 2012 presidential and parliamentary elections were deemed generally free and fair. The directly elected president is a largely symbolic figure, with formal powers limited to the right to veto legislation and make certain appointments. The leader of the majority party or coalition in the 65-seat, unicameral Parliament becomes prime minister. The president and members of Parliament serve five-year terms, with the president eligible for a maximum of two terms.
Voter frustration with corruption and nepotism has plagued both Fretilin and CNRT-led governments. An anticorruption commission was created in 2009 with a broad mandate, except for powers of prosecution. In June 2012, former justice minister Lucia Lobato was found guilty of corruption on a government procurement project and sentenced to five years in prison; her appeal was rejected in December. The country was ranked 113 out of 176 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2012 Corruption Perceptions Index.
Journalists often practice self-censorship, and authorities regularly deny access to government information. The 2009 penal code decriminalized defamation, but it remains part of the civil code. Two journalists were placed under house arrest in October 2012 by the Public Prosecutor’s office after allegedly writing false accounts of a 2011 traffic accident; they were awaiting trial at years end. The free flow of information remains hampered primarily by poor infrastructure and scarce resources. Radio has the greatest reach, with 63 percent of people listening on a monthly basis. The country has three major daily newspapers, some of which are loosely aligned with the ruling or opposition parties. Printing costs and illiteracy rates generally prevent the expansion of print media. In 2012, an estimated 0.9 percent of the population had access to the internet.
East Timor is a secular state, though 98 percent of the population is Roman Catholic. There are no significant threats to religious freedom or clashes between religious groups. Academic freedom is generally respected, though religious education is compulsory in schools.
Freedoms of association and assembly are constitutionally guaranteed. However, a 2004 law regulates political gatherings and prohibits demonstrations aimed at “questioning constitutional order” or disparaging the reputations of the head of state and other government officials. The law requires that demonstrations and public protests be authorized in advance.
Workers, other than police and military personnel, are permitted to form and join labor organizations, bargain collectively, and strike. In 2011, the government approved a law governing the right of workers to strike, which reduced the time required for written notification prior to a strike from 10 days to 5 days. In June 2012, a new labor law was implemented which, among other things, established a minimum wage of $115 per month. Unionization rates are low due to high levels of unemployment and informal economic activity.
The country suffers from weak rule of law and a prevailing culture of impunity. There is a considerable backlog in the understaffed court system, with approximately 4,700 criminal cases pending at the Office of the Prosecutor General as of September 2012. Due process rights are often restricted or denied, owing largely to a lack of resources and personnel. Alternative methods of dispute resolution and customary law are widely used, though they lack enforcement mechanisms and have other significant shortcomings, including unequal treatment of women. UNMIT passed all casework related to serious crimes committed during the Indonesian withdrawal between January and October 1999, to Timor; as of September 2012, 79 percent of the 396 cases had been concluded. In December, three defendants were convicted for crimes against humanity committed in 1999, and sentenced to between 6 and 16 years in prison.
Internal security continued to improve in 2012, though the post-election period was marred by brief conflict resulting in one death after it was announced that Fretilin was excluded from the CNRT’s ruling coalition. Gang violence—sometimes directed by rival elites or fueled by land disputes—continued sporadically. Police officers and F-FDTL soldiers are regularly accused of excessive force and abuse of power—60 cases were reported between January and September 2012—though the courts have had success prosecuting them. A police officer was sentenced to 10 years in prison in February for homicide, and another was sentenced to 4 years in August for negligent homicide. Six F-FDTL soldiers stood trial for assault and homicide in September; the case was ongoing at year’s end.
The status and reintegration of the thousands of Timorese refugees who still remain in the Indonesian province of West Timor after fleeing the 1999 violence remained unresolved in 2012. The Timorese government has long encouraged the return of the refugees, but concerns over access to property and other rights, as well as the status of former militia members, continues to hinder their return.
Community property comprises approximately 90 percent of the land in East Timor; land reform remains an unresolved and contentious issue. In February 2012, Parliament passed three land laws that facilitated grant titles for plots with uncontested ownership, created a legal category for communal land, and established a system to resolve land disputes outside of the court system.
Equal rights for women are constitutionally guaranteed, but discrimination and gender inequality persist in practice and in customary law. Women hold 25 of the 65 seats in Parliament. Amendments to the election laws in 2011 increased the quota requiring one-third of candidates on party lists for parliamentary elections to be women. Despite a 2010 law against domestic violence, gender-based and domestic violence remain widespread. East Timor is a source and destination country for human trafficking into forced labor and prostitution.