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East Timor History, Language and Culture

History of East Timor

In May 2002, after 450 years of foreign occupation, East Timor became the 21st century’s first new nation. Timor’s pre-occupation history is sketchy. The migration of various peoples along the South-East Asian monsoon track evidently led to the population of the island by a civilisation that had no written records but worked in iron and had a relatively sophisticated agricultural system.

The Portuguese arrived in the early 16th century and by the 1550s had occupied the eastern part as the Dutch took control of the west, which became part of the Dutch East Indies.

The Japanese invaded in 1942, occupying the territory until its liberation in 1945 when Portugal regained possession and remained until the Carnation Revolution of 1974 after which the new government dissolved its colonial empire. Just nine days after East Timor declared independence in November 1975 it was invaded by Indonesia and in the savage counter-insurgency that followed, more than 100,000 East Timorese lost their lives either as a direct result of fighting or through hunger and illness.

In June 1999, Indonesia’s President Habibie announced a referendum offering independence or integration, but after 80% opted for independence the Indonesian army went on an orgy of destruction that displaced hundreds of thousands of people.

In October 1999, a UN transitional administration was set up, pending elections, which were eventually held in April 2002 and Xanana Gusmão was installed as the new nation’s first president. More than 200,000 refugees returned to the fledgling nation. In 2008 the new president, José Ramos-Horta was injured in an assassination attempt. UN peacekeeping forces were deployed until the mission ended in December 2012.

Did you know?
• Xanana Gusmão is a distinguished poet. A former freedom fighter, in prison in 1993 he was awarded the Great Cross of the Portuguese Order of Liberty.
• East Timor competed at the 2014 Winter Olympics after Alpine skier Goutt Goncalves became its first athlete to qualify for the Games.
• According to the East Timorese creation story a crocodile transformed into the island to return a favour to the boy who helped it recover from sickness.

East Timor Culture

Religion in East Timor

Christian majority with 86% Catholic. Islam and animist beliefs are also practised.

Social Conventions in East Timor

Most social courtesies are fairly formal. Many conventions will be similar to those of Indonesia (despite their political and religious differences) and many old East Timorese conventions will doubtless come to the fore in the coming years.

Language in East Timor

Tetum is the main dialect and is the official language along with Portuguese; English is often used for administrative purposes (due to the high numbers of English-speaking relief and UN workers still working in East Timor). More than 30 other languages are also used in East Timor.