East Timor was a Portuguese colony from the mid-17th century until 1975. The Indonesian military invaded the country just days after it had declared its independence.
After many years of harsh leadership, a referendum on independence was held in 1999. An overwhelming majority voted for independence from Indonesia. But when the pro-Indonesian militia groups retreated, society was left in ruins. Half of the country’s inhabitants were forced to flee. In the turbulence that ensued, the UN took over the administration of the country, which again became independent in 2002.
East Timor then entered a calmer phase of development but disturbances broke out again in 2006 and 2007 when the police and the military came to blows. The security situation in East Timor has improved considerably since then, but it remains largely dependent on the on-site UN mission, the United Nations Integrated Mission in Timor-Leste (UNMIT).
Population triples within decades
Since independence, poverty in East Timor has increased, particularly in the cities. Half of the population lives on less than USD 0.88 per day – the national poverty line.
Population growth in East Timor is among the highest in the world. Every woman gives birth to an average of seven children. This could mean that the population will triple by 2050.
Only half of the children complete their basic education. Increasingly, larger baby booms will mean the already-strained education system will faced more challenges.
Human rights are protected by law, but the judicial system is both weak and overloaded. Many inhabitants are unaware of their rights.
Women’s position in society is weak. Many girls do not complete their elementary education and women’s access to work in the formal economy is limited. Sexually-related violence is common, both in and outside the home.
Language problems at all levels
Before independence, almost half of those employed in positions of in social service were Indonesians. They have now been replaced by East Timorese, but the lack of education and experience among the local population means there are major deficiencies when it comes to improving operations.
Upon independence, it was decided that the official languages in East Timor would be Tetum and Portuguese, not Indonesian, a language which many people speak and write.
The elite almost only speak Portuguese, and Tetum is not a fully developed written language. This poses a challenge for schools and the judicial system.
In 2004, East Timor discovered major oil deposits. Income from oil has the potential to develop the economy, but so far the expected growth has not come because of the low capacity within the state apparatus to turn income into real investments. The economy is built almost entirely on subsistence farming and private trade.
Sweden’s focus areas in East Timor:
- Democracy and human rights