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LOCATION: East Timor, West Timor (Indonesia)
POPULATION: 2 million
LANGUAGE: Tetum, Portuguese, Indonesian.
RELIGION: Roman Catholic


The Timorese people live on the island of Timor in Southeast Asia and also on some nearby islands. Because of their colonial history —the Portuguese occupying the eastern half of the island and several enclaves in the west and the Dutch the remainder —important differences have emerged over time. During the Indonesian Occupation from 1975 until 1999 both West Timor and East Timor were provinces of the Republic of Indonesia, and there were more contacts between the two. However, since 1999 and because of the events that surrounded the move to independence, there has been less contact over the troubled border, with about 1,115,000 living in East Timor, and 1,800,000 in West Timor.

Although there have been archaeological remains dating back to 11,000 bc, the Timorese people are believed to be Austronesians, who arrived on Timor about 5,000 years ago and brought with them new skills in pottery and a tradition of agriculture and domesticated animals. They began to work bronze, and iron and were some of the peoples least influenced, culturally, by Indian and Javanese traders. By about 1,000 bc, the Atoni people arrived. They call themselves the Atoni Pah Meto ("the people of the dry land") and they still live in West Timor, with more groups arriving over the next 2,000 years.

Because of the spices grown on Timor and the presence of sandalwood, Chinese merchants started visiting Timor from the 12th century and some of them stayed, with some of these intermarrying with the local Timorese population. The later arrival of the Portuguese and Dutch traders led to some Timorese marrying with Europeans, and this was the origin of the Topasse, or Eurasian population, which by 1600 was said to number about 12,000. Another group that also arrived during this time was the Rotinese from the nearby island of Roti, and these people are now culturally similar to the Timorese, although they speak a different language.

From 1566 the Portuguese started to establish bases on East Timor, and they brought missionaries leading to the early conversion of some Timorese to Roman Catholicism. For the most part the Portuguese preferred to operate through Chinese or Topasse middlemen. In the early 17th century the Dutch started taking over parts of West Timor, establishing a fort at Ku-pang and trading in a similar manner to the Portuguese. It was not until 1913 that the official borders for the Dutch and Portuguese sections of the island were drawn up, leaving the Portuguese with the east, the Oecussi enclave in the northwest, and the Dutch with the rest, which became an integral part of the Netherlands East Indies. This line divided many Timorese tribes in central Timor, but as the border was largely unmarked, people crossed it regularly, often without knowing it. The Timorese attempt to eject the Portuguese in 1887 and again in 1912 had failed, and there were no more major uprisings.

The emergence of Timorese nationalism came in 1933 when some Protestants from West Timor, while studying at the Bandung Institute of Technology in Java, established De Timorsch Jongeren ("Timorese Youth"). It led to the formation of the Perserikatan Kebangsaaan Timor ("Timor Nationalist Union") four years later. For the Timorese in East Timor, they lacked any central organization, and most of the radicals were exiles from Portugal, who yearned to return to mainland Portugal. However, they did have an important role many years later in educating the Timorese elite.

During World War II the Japanese attacked Dutch West Timor and when the Dutch and Australian forces took East Timor, the Japanese invaded the eastern part of the island. During the Japanese Occupation, the relatively benevolent rule of both the Dutch and Portuguese ended, and the Timorese were persecuted by the Japanese because of their actual and supposed support for the Allies. It is thought that about 70,000 Timorese died under the Japanese, from fighting, retribution, and starvation.

After the war, fighting started between the nationalists and the Dutch in the Netherlands East Indies. It saw the Nationalists under Sukarno triumphant, and his assimilation policies started to take hold throughout Indonesia, as the country had become, with many Timorese in West Timor starting to go to primary and secondary schools and being taught in Bahasa, the new national language of Indonesia. With the rise to power of Suharto in 1965 the assimilation policy and that of transmigrasi ("Transmigration"), with migrants from Java being moved to West Timor, saw most west Timorese losing most of their sense of separate identity.

By contrast in East Timor, Portuguese rule had led to a "benign neglect" of the eastern half of the island, with most Timorese customs continuing as they had done for centuries, with little in the way of interference in village life. However, the overthrow of the military government in Portugal in 1974 led to the formation of Timorese political parties, notably the pro-Western UDT (Timor Democratic Union) and the left-wing Fretilin. The latter won the civil war that resulted and took control of East Timor. The extremely anti-Communist government in Indonesia was keen to prevent this and invaded in December 1975. In the following year East Timor became an integral part of Indonesia.

For the Timorese, the standard of living vastly improved under the Indonesians, with schools, hospitals, clinics, and roads. However, they resented the Indonesians and especially the Indonesian migrants who arrived. This did more than anything else to ensure the sense of Timorese identity remained strong. A resistance group run by Fretilin operated from then until 1999 when Indonesia agreed to hold a referendum on independence, and the Timorese voted to reject the autonomy offer by the Indonesian government and move to full independence. Pro-Indonesian militia then wrecked much of the country, destroying large amounts of the infrastructure built by the Indonesians, and many of the Timorese fled. An international force led by Australia then occupied East Timor, and in 2002, East Timor became an independent country and a member of the United Nations. It is believed that up to 200,000 East Timorese died as a result of the Indonesian occupation from 1975 until 1999.

The Timorese people have been heavily politicized by the occupation, and also by political infighting and actual fighting that followed. This has led to instability in the capital, but many Timorese have now slowly rebuilt their lives.


Most of the Timorese people live on the island of Timor, either on the eastern half and the Oecussi enclave on the northern coast of West Timor or in the Indonesian province of Timur Tengah (West Timor). Because of the links with Indonesia, historical and geographical, there are many Timorese living in Indonesia; because of the historical ties, there are also some in Portugal. The fighting since 1974 has led to large numbers of Timorese refugees escaping to Australia; they live largely in the cities of Darwin, Sydney, and Melbourne.

Within East Timor itself, about 5% of the population (50,800) lives in the capital Dili, with smaller numbers living in the major towns of Liquica, Manatuto, Suai, Baucau, and Viqueque. The vast majority of the Timorese population, both in East Timor and also West Timor, live in villages scattered around the countryside. Many of these are extremely isolated —indeed many Timorese ensured this remained so, to protect their communities from the Japanese and later the Indonesians and the pro-Indonesian militia.

Of the various groups living in East Timor, the Atoni are the most heavily researched. They descend from settlers who arrived in West Timor, and most of them still live in the west of the island, numbering about 300,000 in 1960 and about 600,000 today. The Helong people, related to the Atoni, live in and around the city of Kupang and in the coastal region in the very west of West Timor, as well as on the island of Semau.

In central Timor most of the people are from Bunak (or Bunaq), as are the Mambai who generally occupy the mountains and valleys. The dominant group in East Timor is the Tetum, whose language is now the official language of the country. They themselves are divided into the Eastern Tetum and the Western Tetum. Mention should also be made of the Cairui and the Waimaka (Uai Ma'a), who live in remote parts of East Timor and whose lifestyles have been least affected by recent history. There are also the Fattaluku, who live around Lorehe. The Rotinese and the Ndaonese, who came from nearby islands in the early modern period, are now also often regarded as Timorese.


For historical reasons, the Timorese in West Timor speak Indonesian, although some older people still speak Dutch. In East Timor, the official language is Tetum, with the second language being Portuguese; however, most young people are interested in speaking English. Those who went to school or who were involved in public life between 1975 and 1999 also speak Indonesian. In addition, there are a large number of other languages spoken by the Timorese, such as Rotinese and Sama Bajau.


The folklore of the Timorese varies considerably, depending on the tribe and the part of the island they come from. Traditionally, each tribe had its element of folklore, with the Atoni often talking of their arrival on the island in pre-historic times and the Rotinese talking of their arrival in the early modern period. There are also traditional village stories about rich people, poor people, buffalos, and other elements of morality tales, which are the same all around the world. Some elements of Chinese folklore have also been accommodated in Timorese stories.

In East Timor much of the folklore is concerned with resistance and resistance movements. These include the fighting against the Portuguese in 1887 and again in 1912, during the Japanese Occupation 1942-1945, the civil war in 1974-1975, and then the fighting against the Indonesians during their occupation from 1975 until 1999.


The vast majority of East Timorese are Roman Catholic, with official figures being 98% of the population (in contrast to about a quarter when Portuguese rule ended in 1975). Th is growth of Roman Catholicism is said to be attributed to the church's role in working against the Indonesian occupation. Some 1% are Protestant and the remaining 1% are Muslim. In West Timor, because of the Dutch influence, only some 56% are Roman Catholic, but 35% are Protestant, and most of the remainder are Muslim. Most of the small Chinese and Sino-Timorese population of East Timor, who followed Taoism and Buddhism, fled in 1974 and have not returned.


The major holidays in East Timor are New Years' Day (January 1), Good Friday, Independence Day (from Indonesia, May 20), the Feast of the Assumption, Consultation Day (August 30), Liberation Day (September 20), All Saints' Day, Santa Cruz Day (November 12), Independence Day (from Portugal, November 28), the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, and Christmas Day (December 25).

In West Timor the major holidays are New Year's Day (January 1), Lebaran (the end of Ramadan), Waicak Day (Buddha's birthday, the eighth day of the fourth lunar month), Muharram (the start of the Islamic Year), Maulad Nabi Muhammad (the birthday of the Prophet Muhammad), Independence Day (August 17), and Isra Miraj Nabi Muhammad/ Christmas Day (the ascension of the Prophet Muhammad, December 25).


In traditional village life for the Timorese, there were rites of passage ceremonies associated with birth, puberty, marriage, and death. These generally involved ceremonies in the village, with the actual ceremony varying depending on the custom of the tribe. The Atoni had a hereditary nobility, but this has long since died out, although the series of village headmen continues. The Ema people also had a complicated system of social organizations that controlled the ceremonies, most of which worked through community and lineage house structures. The Rotinese had a system of ritual initiation of the youths going through puberty and their method of burial involved people from the village and nearby villages coming for a ceremony that lasted at least three days. Other tribes have similar ceremonies, with one of the major ones for the Eastern Tetum people being "washing the buffalo's leg."


All village societies of the Timorese have reverence for the elderly, with village elders being respected by all and being used to teach the young in the tribal customs and folklore. In a similar manner, children are brought up to respect their parents and are taught strict rules of behavior, which they also exhibit in schools. Greetings reflect hierarchical terms but are often based on whether a person is elderly, not just whether they are a village headman or not.

Because of the fighting in East Timor for much of the period since 1975, some of this traditional way of life has broken down, and in 1999 —and indeed before —the Indonesians were able to recruit young men to serve in their militia where they were involved in harassing locals, either as a part of the government policy, or because they felt they had the power so to do. With so many East Timorese having missed formal schooling from 1999 until 2001, many lack the discipline that their older (and younger) siblings have had.


In villages, most people live in houses raised on stilts and with high thatched roofs, animals being kept under the house at night. These houses were made from wood, and, traditionally, people would build new houses as they moved around the jungle, clearing a new area every few years. However, most people do not move around as much as they have done in the past.

In towns and cities, the best houses resemble small Portuguese or Dutch villas and a very few resemble large ones. The walls are often white-washed rendered brick. Smaller houses in towns and cities are made largely or entirely from wood. In Kupang and other urban areas in West Timor, there are modern prefabricated apartment blocks similar to those elsewhere in Indonesia.


Family life in Timorese society revolves around an extended family. Generally a couple would live with their children and the father's —and possibly sometimes the mother's —elderly relatives, such as their parents and occasionally uncles and aunts. Children might stay in the family house after marriage —sometimes leaving after they start having their own children. Much of this depends on the circumstances of the people concerned, and it is not uncommon for a man in a secure job to have as many as a dozen other people living in his house, surviving off his salary.


In East Timor traditional clothing involved wearing, for men, a large cloth similar to the sarong and a large ritual headdress made from feathers, people being ritually bare-chested. Women wear a brightly colored dress. During the Portuguese and Dutch colonial periods men in administrative positions in towns would dress in khaki or white (Dutch) or green (Portuguese), with a bush shirt and shorts. Nowadays, in villages, most men wear a t-shirt or polo shirt and a sarong, with boys often wearing only a pair of shorts. Women and girls wear a blouse and a skirt, often made from bright colors.


While wealthier Timorese in towns have access to many types of food, most of the cuisine in the countryside and among poor Timorese is similar to that in Indonesia and Malaysia, with chicken, pork, or beef, and noodles or rice, often with an egg, with root crops, such as cassava and yams, supplemented with fruits, such as pineapples and bananas. Maize was often a part of the diet, and now potatoes are grown in Timor. For drinks, those made from sugar cane are popular, with fruit juices and also fizzy drinks consumed by many people. Much coffee is grown in Timor, but it is largely for export, so few people drink it although drinking of tea is common.

Some tribal groups located near the sea rely heavily on fish for their diet. Among some groups, such as the Bunak, there are a large number of ritual dishes that are prepared only under special conditions. In Ema society there are differences between food that is boiled, which represent main meals, and food that is either grilled or eaten raw, which are regarded as foods for snacks.


During the period of Dutch and Portuguese colonial rule, there was little in the way of formal schooling in the country, with most children being taught at home. Indeed there was only one high school in East Timor when the Indonesians invaded in 1975. Under the Indonesian occupation, large numbers of schools were built throughout East Timor, and, for the first time, schooling was free and compulsory for all Timorese, many of whom were able to go to universities in the rest of Indonesia. However, in 1999, after the East Timorese voted for independence, militia groups destroyed most of the schools, and it took several years before many of these could be rebuilt.


The Timorese, through the wars in the 20th century, have managed to retain much of their cultural heritage. This has been especially important in East Timor where the new government has done much to record and preserve the culture of the Timorese people. This has resulted in work by anthropologists and books and government publications being made available in Tetum, now the official language of the country.


The vast majority of the Timorese are involved in agriculture, living in village societies, with 8.2% of the land being arable and over half of this under permanent cultivation. Th ere are also many people who work on coffee plantations and as laborers on large farms. A very small number have office or administrative jobs. There is high unemployment, estimated at 20% in urban areas, and this has led to much discontent among the youth.


Many village games were played in pre-colonial time, and some of these, such as cock-fighting, continued during the period of Dutch and Portuguese colonial rule. However, by the mid-20th century, the most played game on the island was soccer, with children and young men playing it throughout the island. Both the first president of East Timor, Xanana Gusmao, and his successor, José Ramos Horta, were soccer players in their youth, with the former briefly being known as the "goalkeeper" because of the position he played in the game. The presence of Australian soldiers in East Timor since independence has led to attempts to introduce games, such as Australian Rules Football. Other games that are played in East Timor include basketball, volleyball, and badminton. In 2000, for the summer Olympics held in Sydney, a small team from East Timor competed, its first ever involvement in an international sporting event.


Because much of the country does not have electricity, the local television station, TV Timor-Leste, founded in 2000 and broadcasting in Tetum and Portuguese, has only a small following. Radio Timor Leste broadcasts are listened to by about 90% of the population, with most villagers having access to transistor radios; this station also broadcasts in Tetum, Portuguese, and English. Three other radio stations also are operating in the country. The highly-politicized nature of the Timorese people has resulted in many newspapers being available, but most of these are only read in Dili and major towns.

Most village entertainment is involved in watching (or taking part in) small sporting activities or cockfighting, as well as hunting and reading.


Many Timorese have been involved in woodwork and the making of models, especially of human or animal spirits. Some of these are now manufactured for sale to tourists. The making of pottery takes place in all villages, as does weaving and the making of baskets. For children, the large aid effort from Australia and elsewhere has resulted in many plastic toys being distributed throughout the country, augmenting kites, spinning tops, and other toys that have been played for hundreds of years.


The Timorese are subject to many social problems; this has largely been the effect of history and politics. The Indonesian occupation alienated large numbers of youths, and although the literacy rates improved considerably, many Timorese resented those who managed to get government scholarships or take up places at Indonesian universities. Others were involved in the resistance struggle or were part of the small group of discontented youth hired by the Indonesians to form their militia groups before the 1999 referendum on independence.

The social dislocation of the Indonesian invasion, occupation, and the moves to independence in 1999 led to alienation of many people, and from 1999 until 2001, many children were unable to attend formal schools because the buildings had been destroyed by the militia. Since independence in 2002 there has also been rising unemployment, which by 2008 was estimated at 20% in Dili. There has been anger at the overseas-educated Timorese, some of whom have taken up senior administrative positions and office jobs. Some Timorese want to achieve reconciliation and a lasting peace with Indonesia, and others want to punish those who collaborated with the Indonesians during their brutal occupation of East Timor.


Although most of the tribal societies of the Timorese are patrilineal, following the father, women dominate in religious ceremonies among the Tetum people. In Bunak villages, women have certain specific roles in the agricultural process and in the preparation of food, not just for eating but especially for ritual. A number of Timorese women now have important political roles in East Timor and their position in society has been helped by the work of the wife of Xanana Gusmao, Kirsty Sword. Although she is Australian by birth, she has done much to improve the legal rights of women and promote women's roles in decision making.


Dunn, James. Timor: A People Betrayed. Sydney: Australian Broadcasting Corporation, 2001.

Fox, James J., ed. The Flow of Life: Essays on Eastern Indonesia. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1980.

Gunn, Geoffrey C. Timor Loro Sae: 500 Years. Macau: Livros do Oriente, 1999.

Hicks, David. "Timor-Roti." Ethnic Groups of Insular Southeast Asia. Frank M. LeBar, ed. New Haven, CT: Human Relations Area Files Press, 1972.

Nordholt, Herman Gerrit Schulte. The Political System of the Atoni of Timor. The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1971.

Vondra, J. Gert. Timor Journey. Melbourne: Lansdowne, 1968.

—by J Corfield

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