Freedom in the World 2007

Ratings Change: 

East Timor’s civil liberties rating declined from 3 to 4 due to the extent to which the violence exhibited by rioters and security forces threatened press freedom and the livelihoods of Dili residents as well as significant setbacks in the rule of law, including police complicity in the May violence and an enduring culture of impunity for abuse on the part of security forces.


East Timor descended into crisis in 2006 with the outbreak of widespread rioting and violent clashes in the capital in April and May, prompted by the sacking of 600 defense force (FDTL) troops in mid-March as well as frustration over rampant corruption and high levels of unemployment. Clashes with the police resulted in numerous deaths and displaced 150,000 people, necessitating the deployment of Australian-led foreign troops to restore security. Tensions persisted when allegations emerged in June that Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri had formed a hit squad to kill off his political opponents. The unrest led President Kay Rala Xanana Gusmao to declare emergency powers, and brought a significant decline in freedom of the press and demonstration as well as further setbacks in the rule of law. A high-pressure political standoff followed between the president and prime minister, ultimately forcing Alkatiri to step down in late June. Nobel Prize winner and former foreign affairs minister Jose Ramos Horta was appointed as the new prime minister in July, and the UN Integrated Mission in Timor-Leste was established in August to help consolidate stability and national reconciliation, especially in preparation for the May 2007 general elections. With the final report of the Commission for Reception, Truth, and Reconciliation (CAVR) published in February, President Gusmao continued to prioritize reconciliation with Indonesia over achieving justice for past abuses. The degree to which those found responsible for this year’s violence are held accountable for their actions will help determine whether the country’s culture of impunity is reversed or further entrenched.

The Portuguese colonized East Timor in the sixteenth century but did little to develop the territory. After Portugal abruptly abandoned it in 1975, the leftist Revolutionary Front for an Independent East Timor (Fretilin) and the right-wing Democratic Union of Timor (UDT) fought for control. The conflict prompted the staunchly anti-Communist regime of Indonesia’s General Suharto to covertly support right-wing groups in East Timor, and then to invade when Fretilin issued a declaration of independence in November 1975. East Timor was formally incorporated as Indonesia’s twenty-sixth province in 1976.

Over the next two decades, Fretilin’s armed wing, Falintil, waged a low-grade insurgency against the Indonesian army (TNI), which ruled East Timor. As Indonesian forces consolidated control, they committed widespread human rights abuses. Civil conflict and famine may have killed up to 180,000 Timorese during Indonesian rule.

International pressure on Indonesia began to mount following the 1991 Dili massacre, in which TNI soldiers killed more than 200 participants in a funeral march and were captured on film by foreign journalists. In August 1999, 78.5 percent of the East Timorese electorate voted for independence in a referendum approved by Suharto’s successor, B. J. Habibie. TNI elements and their integrationist allies in East Timor responded with a scorched-earth policy that killed roughly 1,000 civilians, drove more than 250,000 others into Indonesian West Timor, and destroyed approximately 80 percent of East Timor’s buildings and infrastructure before an Australian-led multinational force was brought in to restore order.

In October 1999, the UN Security Council authorized the UN Transitional Authority for East Timor (UNTAET) to provide security, oversee reconstruction, and prepare for independence. The country elected an 88-member Constituent Assembly to draft a constitution in August 2001. Fretilin won 57 percent of the national vote in a peaceful election contested by 16 political parties, just short of the two-thirds majority required to give it absolute control. In April 2002, Kay Rala Xanana Gusmao (formerly Jose Alexandre Gusmao) won the presidency with 87 percent of a direct popular vote. Independence, officially granted in May 2002, ushered in a semipresidential system characterized by a power struggle rooted in divides dating to the 1970s. Gusmao, former head of Falintil and chairman of Fretilin until 1988, when he broke from the party to form a wider resistance coalition, began conveying discontent in 2002 with Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri and the Fretilin Party’s governance. He was increasingly echoed by the East Timorese people in light of heightened unemployment and corruption. Fretilin nevertheless won the country’s first local elections by a wide margin in late 2004 and 2005, as the result of stronger local party machinery.

At independence, UNTAET was replaced by the UN Mission in Support of East Timor (UNMISET), which was responsible for security, economic recovery, reconstruction, and capacity building. UNMISET officially transferred responsibility for external defense and internal security to East Timor in May 2004, but its mandate was extended until May 2005, with sharply reduced personnel levels. UNMISET withdrew in May 2005, but was replaced by the UN Office in Timor-Leste (UNOTIL).

In 2006, the four-year-old country descended into violence. An Australian-led contingent of 2,200 foreign troops was deployed to ensure security after deep-seated political divisions culminated in the eruption of widespread clashes in the capital, threatening civil war, in April and May. The unrest began in March, when 600 members (or roughly one-third) of the East Timor Defense Force (FDTL) were dismissed for striking in protest of poor working conditions, low pay, and claims of ethnic discrimination by officers from the east (the Lorosae ) against those from the west (the Loromonu ). General frustration with the government’s failure to alleviate poverty, unemployment, and corruption combined with objections to the government’s response to the new turmoil in the defense force, encouraging numerous East Timorese to take up arms and join gangs. A weak opposition did not provide an effective alternative voice. In late May, FDTL soldiers killed 10 unarmed police officers under UN protection; ongoing clashes with the police (many of whom had worked for the old Indonesian administration) killed more than 25 people and displaced 150,000 Dili residents, nearly one-half of whom remained in refugee camps on the outskirts of the city through November.

The antigovernment protests prompted the president, whose authority is fairly limited under normal circumstances, to assume emergency powers in May. Still revered as a national hero for his role in the resistance, Gusmao maintained public support, while Alkatiri and the Fretilin administration were widely discredited by the violent series of events. A month-long political standoff between the two political figures ensued, with the president supporting the fired soldiers and endorsing public calls for Alkatiri’s resignation, based in part on allegations that he had armed a hit squad to kill his political opponents. Gusmao threatened to resign himself if Alkatiri did not, while Alkatiri maintained his innocence and claimed that the country’s widespread violence was the result of a coup attempt. When Alkatiri finally stepped down in late June, Gusmao chose Nobel Prize winner and former foreign affairs minister Jose Ramos Horta (who had recently quit the cabinet in response to Fretilin’s continued support for Alkatiri) to serve as the country’s prime minister until legislative and presidential elections are held in 2007.

In August, detained rebel leader Major Alfredo Reinado led a mass escape of 56 prisoners from Dili’s main jail. The state of emergency was nevertheless suspended the same month with the establishment of the UN Integrated Mission in Timor-Leste (UNMIT), charged with facilitating stability, a culture of democratic governance, and political dialogue aimed at national reconciliation. UNOTIL, scheduled to expire in May 2006, had been extended by the UN Security Council for another month until a special UN envoy was appointed; the envoy’s assessments yielded UNMIT. Primarily designed to meet the country’s immediate need for security support, the new mission was also a response to Gusmao’s calls in January for UN assistance in preparing for the 2007 presidential and parliamentary elections, and to charges by several observers and East Timorese politicians that UN “short-termism” was to blame for recent events.

Turmoil resumed in October, when the United Nations published the findings of its Special Commission of Inquiry for East Timor, which had investigated the allegations against Alkatiri and the causes of national unrest. The report blamed Alkatiri for the outbreak of violence and for failing to prevent the transfer of weapons. It also implicated the former interior and defense ministers as well as army and police commanders in weapons distribution, and faulted the government for not being more proactive in resolving problems between the country’s military and police forces. Violent riots reflecting east-west tensions—driven more by economic competition and unsettled land disputes than ethnic differences, according to some analysts—resumed almost immediately after the findings were released. The mutilated torsos of two men thought to be from the eastern Bacao and Los Palos districts were found in the capital. Rival youth groups attacked each other as well as foreign peacekeepers. UNMIT recommended that Australian troops be replaced with UN police officers.

While East Timor has made significant progress in reconstructing schools and health centers destroyed in postreferendum violence and building its civil service since 2002, it remains the poorest country in Southeast Asia, with a contracting gross domestic product and about 40 percent of the population living under the poverty line, particularly in rural areas. According to a UN Development Program report published in March 2006, the country’s offshore oil and gas revenues would allow it to do much better, if only the government executed its budget effectively and distributed funds nationally rather than primarily devoting income to the capital. The humanitarian crisis and economic strain of April and May prompted the United Nations to launch an appeal in June for emergency aid to provide food and assistance to victims of the conflict, and especially the tens of thousands of displaced persons. While the country’s population remains small, at about one million, it has increased rapidly since independence; at 7.8 children per woman, East Timor has the highest fertility rate in the world.

Oil and gas reserves are predicted to become even more of a revenue earner now that East Timor and Australia have finally reached agreement in the January 2006 Greater Sunrise deal over long-disputed ownership rights and maritime boundaries in the Timor Sea. East Timor agreed not to contest current maritime boundaries for the next 50 years in exchange for a 50–50 split in revenues from the resulting offshore energy project. Relations with Indonesia, however, have been somewhat more tenuous since the February 2006 final report of the independent Commission for Reception, Truth and Reconciliation (CAVR) estimated the minimum number of conflict-related deaths during the occupation to be 102,800 and recommended that the Indonesian government send a delegation to acknowledge past abuses, comply with any future justice initiatives, and financially contribute to reparations. Driven in part by its intentions to become a full member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), in which Indonesia is a key player, as soon as it can afford to, the government of East Timor has prioritized reconciliation with the Indonesian government over retribution for past abuses.

Rights groups such as Amnesty International have warned that a weak response to the recent atrocities, comparable to the muted response to the postreferendum killings of 1999, could contribute to a cycle of impunity in the country.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

East Timor is an electoral democracy. While the directly elected president is a largely symbolic figure, with formal powers limited to the right to veto legislation and make certain appointments, President Kay Rala Xanana Gusmao played a central role in running the country following his assumption of emergency powers in May 2006. While the constitution does not grant the president the right to dismiss the prime minister, Gusmao’s pressure on Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri to resign was undoubtedly a crucial factor in his ultimate decision to do so. Moreover, amid opposition calls for Parliament to be dissolved altogether, it was Gusmao’s choice among four candidates put forward by Fretilin, the ruling party of the unicameral National Parliament, which made Jose Ramos Horta the new prime minister in July. Presidential and legislative elections remain scheduled for April-May 2007, in line with the constitution’s five-year term limit for both branches. The balloting will be the country’s first direct legislative elections under the constitution since the Fretilin-dominated Constituent Assembly automatically became the Parliament after writing the charter in 2002. From December 2004 to September 2005, local elections, having been postponed in 2004, took place in all 13 districts, with turnout rates ranging from 80 to 90 percent; the polls were widely considered to be free and fair. The few anomalies that did occur were largely attributed to inexperience.

The Democratic Party (PD) and the Social Democratic Party (SDT), which each won slightly more than 8 percent of the vote in the August 2001 elections to the Constituent Assembly, form the nucleus of a parliamentary opposition that comprises around 25 of the body’s 88 members. Opposition parties won just one out of 31 contested regions in the 2004–2005 elections, and Fretilin remains the clearly dominant party. However, the extent to which 2006 events have discredited the party and Alkatiri, who was nevertheless overwhelmingly reelected as its leader during the party congress in May, suggests that the 2007 elections could reduce Fretilin’s strength. While there is no credible evidence to support Alkatiri’s claim that the year’s violence was actually an opposition attempt to stage a coup, some observers have pointed to opposition party efforts to use the riots to undermine confidence in the government ahead of the elections.

In 2005, the World Bank identified corruption as one of the greatest challenges to East Timor, particularly as it affects the allocation of oil revenues. National officials have disputed such assessments, but corruption proved a clear catalyst for the antigovernment protests in May. Included for the first time in Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index in 2006, East Timor ranked 111 out of 163.

A deteriorating security situation for journalists has brought a significant decline in freedom of expression. Arrests of and threats and attacks against journalists spiked during the antigovernment riots of April, May, and June 2006. Alkatiri’s supporters were suspected of targeting independent news media. Fearing reprisal for the publication of critical reports in late May, most employees of the Timor Post , the country’s leading independent daily, went into hiding; this newspaper as well as another daily, the Suara Timor Lorosae , were suspended for several days following the reports. An estimated 40 antigovernment militants attacked the Radio e Televisao de Timor-Leste (RTTL), the public broadcasting service, in late June; some staff members were targeted and roughly 20 lost their homes as a result of the violence, causing journalists to join the ranks of the conflict’s internally displaced persons. The International Federation of Journalists condemned the extent to which the violence undermined the media’s ability to cover the country’s social and political crisis.

Meanwhile, national debate erupted in early 2006 over a revised penal code that criminalizes defamation and allows for fines and jail terms of up to three years for anyone who publishes comments seen as harmful to an official’s reputation. Another revision doubles the term of imprisonment when defamation is committed through the media. The new code follows increased government efforts to crack down on journalists over the last three years as reporting has grown more critical. The prime minister signed an executive decree approving the new code in December 2005, alarming several international and domestic press-freedom watchdog groups, which subsequently lobbied President Gusmao to veto the legislation right up to the date it was scheduled to come into effect in mid-February. Gusmao sent the law back to the Ministry of Justice for consideration on February 17, where it has remained since. The criminal defamation provisions of the Indonesian penal code apply until a new East Timorese penal code is promulgated.

East Timor is a secular state, but the Roman Catholic Church plays a central role; 98 percent of the population is Roman Catholic. Church rules prohibit persons living under religious vows from holding political office; some politically active priests and nuns have been barred from government office. There are no significant threats to religious freedom or clashes among the country’s different groups. However, tensions developed between Alkatiri, a practicing Muslim of Yemeni descent, and the Catholic Church following the government’s February 2005 decision to make religious education an unfunded after-school elective rather than a compulsory part of the curriculum. The decision prompted the largest public protests since independence, ultimately reversing the decision and prompting the establishment of a consultative body comprised of government and religious organization members. Academic freedom is generally respected.

Freedoms of association and assembly are guaranteed by the constitution, yet the Law on Freedom, Assembly and Demonstration, passed by the Parliament in December 2004, regulates political gatherings and prohibits demonstrations with the aim of “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. Many of the police reportedly sided with the rebel soldiers when they rioted in March 2006; the riots were brutally put down by forces loyal to the prime minister. June public protests in the capital calling for Alkatiri’s resignation were securely guarded by foreign peacekeepers and remained peaceful.

East Timor has a labor code based on the International Labor Organization’s standards. The law permits workers to form and join worker organizations without prior authorization. However, attempts to unionize workers generally have been slowed by inexperience and a lack of organizing skills.

The country suffers broadly from the lack of rule of law and a prevailing culture of impunity. The legal system is fragile, with only two functioning courthouses, and the rights to due process and an expeditious, fair trial are often restricted or denied, largely because of a lack of resources and trained personnel. The prosecutor general’s issuance of an arrest warrant for former interior minister Rogerio Lobato, who was accused of collaborating with Alkatiri in arming civilians, was considered a sign of the judicial system’s independence.

Neither the police (PNTL) nor the military (FDLT) are perceived to have the trust of the population or the capacity to provide adequate security and order. Moreover, neither is regarded as politically neutral, since the FDLT falls under President Gusmao’s control, while the PNTL reported to Fretilin’s Lobato; the police force was relieved of its duties in May when some factions became involved in the violence. An unclear division of labor between the two security forces exacerbates friction between them. The problem is compounded by the fact that many members of the police force previously worked for the Indonesian authorities, while many ex-Falintil members were absorbed into the country’s new military. Most of the FDLT troops sacked in mid-March were former resistance fighters. These divisive loyalties and pasts culminated in late May 2006, when FDTL soldiers killed 10 unarmed police officers under UN protection. A Human Rights Watch report, released in April, detailed the prevalence of torture and mistreatment by the police as well as the failure of the main internal police oversight body (PEDU) to hold police officers accountable for abuse. The UN police force (UNPOL) assumed control of national policing in September. The Police Supplemental Agreement, signed in December, officially grants the United Nations full responsibility for policing and provides for UNMIT’s role in reforming and rebuilding the PNTL.

Several analysts and international human rights groups connect the country’s currently dire security situation with the tradition of impunity established by the failure to achieve justice for past abuses. Like other postconflict societies, East Timor faces the challenge of balancing justice with reconciliation—in this case with a neighbor whose favor is essential to the poverty-stricken nation’s economic growth. The United Nations has mandated efforts to prosecute human rights violations, such as the Human Rights Court on East Timor (the so-called Ad Hoc court) and the Serious Crimes Unit, but each failed to prosecute senior Indonesian officials. After convicting 85 defendants out of the 391 indicted, the tribunal and prosecutorial process was halted altogether in May 2005. A July 2005 report by the Commission of Experts, established by the UN secretary general to investigate the violence of 1999, was not seriously considered by the Security Council. The Commission on Truth and Friendship, a body comprised of 10 Indonesian and East Timorese officials without the power to prosecute, first met in August 2005.

Despite initial hesitation, Gusmao agreed to the February 2006 publication of the final report of the Commission for Reception, Truth, and Reconciliation (CAVR), established by UNTAET in 2001 to investigate human rights violations committed between April 1974 and October 1999 and facilitate community reconciliation. The report attributed a majority of some 18,600 unlawful killings to the Indonesian security forces and another 84,200 deaths to hunger and illness, bringing the total number of conflict-related deaths during Indonesia’s occupation to 102,800. In the interest of strengthening ties with Indonesia, Gusmao rejected the commission’s recommendations, including that Indonesia send a delegation to acknowledge past violations, comply with future efforts to achieve justice for past abuse, and pay reparations. In June, Amnesty International called on the United Nations to ensure that the findings of the Special Commission of Inquiry into the April–May 2006 violence are matched with efforts to bring the perpetrators to justice. The group warned that a lack of punishment would further fuel the culture of impunity, which was later cited by the commission itself as a key cause of the country’s descent into chaos.

Women enjoy equal rights under East Timor’s constitution, yet women’s participation in government is much lower than that of men. Domestic violence remains a persistent problem, and the country’s weak legal system coupled with the prevalence of customary law at the local level means that abuse is rarely prosecuted. With the assistance of the UN Population Fund, new domestic violence legislation to protect women and children has been drafted and submitted to the Parliament, and an Office for the Promotion of Equality (formerly the Gender Affairs Unit) has been established within the prime minister’s office. Drawing further public attention to the deeply rooted nature of the problem, the final report of the CAVR found that rape as well as sexual slavery and violence were used by the Indonesian military during the occupation, particularly before and after the 1999 referendum, as tools to splinter the resistance.

2007 Scores


Partly Free

Freedom Rating

(1 = best, 7 = worst)

Civil Liberties

(1 = best, 7 = worst)

Political Rights

(1 = best, 7 = worst)