A Brief History of Timor-Leste by Catherine Kim

A lot of the time I get a quizzical look when I say my research is in Timor-Leste. Sometimes, a few seconds of thought gives an “Oh… EAST Timor” response, but a good chunk of people have never heard of the place. Which is understandable, as it is a tiny nation of 1.3 million people encompassing half of Timor Island and has been formally a country less time than I have been alive. Timor-Leste is still officially a teenager with its independence in 2002. With the 20 year anniversary of the referendum popular consultation for independence, I thought I would briefly outline Timor-Leste’s history.

View of Dili flying in. You can see the coral reefs and Cristo Rei statue on the point in the lower right.

View of Dili flying in. You can see the coral reefs and Cristo Rei statue on the point in the lower right.

Honestly, other than a basic timeline I did not have a good understanding of Timor-Leste’s history until doing a tour in the capital of Dili. The Portuguese colonized Timor in the 1500s when it was a global superpower. Prior to colonization, Timor Island was comprised of various tribes. Like most colonial powers at the time, Portugal was primarily interested in the unspoiled resources of the island like sandalwood and they did a good job of clearing it out. I do not think there is any sandalwood left in Timor to this day.

Timor-Leste was a Portuguese colony until a military coup back in Portugal in November 28, 1975. Even during Timor’s time as a Portuguese colony, the indigenous population was marginalized. It had never occurred to me that the Timorese had been poorly treated through limited education etc. long before the Indonesian occupation even though discrimination of the native population was standard for colonizers. The independence was short-lived, however, when the Indonesians marched in nine days later.

The international community was aware of Indonesia’s plans to annex Timor-Leste. With the red-scare raging at the time, Indonesia’s control over Timor-Leste was favored by the US and supported with US equipment. Australia did not believe the Timorese had the capacity to govern themselves and many of the other world powers such as Japan, Russia, France, did nothing.

As a former Portuguese colony, the Timorese are culturally very different than Indonesia with a large majority of the population following the Catholic Church. The Indonesians were ruthless in Timor-Leste. An estimated 100,000 to 300,000 Timorese died during the Indonesian occupation from starvation and violence. The violence was not only from the Indonesians, but also internal Timorese parties such as pro-independence, pro-autonomy, and pro-Portuguese parties vying for power in the resistance.

In 1989, Pope John Francis the VI visited Timor-Leste and delivered mass from Tasi Tolu. Pope Francis was the only international dignitary to visit Timor-Leste during the Indonesian occupation. His visit served to shed light on the humanitarian crisis in Timor-Leste.

The white ‘uma lulick’ or sacred house in Tasi Tolu that was built for Pope John Paul VI to deliver mass in 1989. Tasi Tolu is an important site and area where the 20 year referendum celebration was held. Thousands of motorbikes parking for the event.

The white ‘uma lulick’ or sacred house in Tasi Tolu that was built for Pope John Paul VI to deliver mass in 1989. Tasi Tolu is an important site and area where the 20 year referendum celebration was held. Thousands of motorbikes parking for the event.

A few years later in 1991, a young activist named Sebastian Gomes was shot outside Motael Church trying to seek shelter from Indonesian forces. His funeral on the 12th of November became a pro-independence protest which led to the Santa Cruz Massacre in Santa Cruz Cemetery where he was buried. The Indonesian army open-fired on the crowd in the cemetary and about 250 Timorese were killed. British journalist Max Stahl was present filming the atrocity. The film was smuggled from the country and aired internationally which enlightened the world to the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Timor-Leste. In 1996, two Timorese, Jose Ramos-Hortas and Bishop Carlos Filipe Ximenes Belo, were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts campaigning for independence to the United Nations.

Motael Church in Dili, Timor-Leste. The site where young independence activist Sebastian Gomes was killed.

Motael Church in Dili, Timor-Leste. The site where young independence activist Sebastian Gomes was killed.

The United Nations oversaw the independence referendum to determine either special autonomy within Indonesia or independence for Timor-Leste in 1999. The results were overwhelmingly in favor of independence with 78.5% of the population pro-independence. Following the announcement of the result, there was another wave of violence where approximately 2,000 people were killed. Official independence was achieved in 2002.

The influence of Timorese history as a Portuguese colony and Indonesian province is prominent throughout Timorese culture today. Portuguese is an official language along with Tetun and most of the population speaks Bahasa Indonesia. Even the Timorese youths learn some Bahasa through the Indonesian influence of tv. The food is Indonesian influenced with pisang gorent, tempeh, and bakso common on the streets, but also with good, European-style bread that backers coming through Southeast Asia very much appreciate. Portuguese names are very common. You meet many a Jose, Mario, Maria, Inacia in Timor. The Timorese love singing and dancing, everyone, that is, except my Tetun teacher.

Hopefully, the future is bright for this young country. Tourism is slated to be Timor-Leste’s main non-petroleum industry, yet at this point only the most adventurous travelers come to Timor. Let’s see what the future holds.

Some teens hanging out at the beach decked out in ‘Viva Timor-Leste’ tees practicing their English with me before the 20 year referendum festivities begin.

Some teens hanging out at the beach decked out in ‘Viva Timor-Leste’ tees practicing their English with me before the 20 year referendum festivities begin.

Virtual Diving Outreach in Timor-Leste by Catherine Kim

Through my involvement as a field team member on the XL Catlin Seaview Survey, we collected thousands of 360-degree underwater “streetview” images of coral reefs in the Indo-Pacific. You can see them all on the Global Reef Record and selected 360 images are available on Google Oceans.

Less than 1% of the world’s population SCUBA dives and this access to reefs is important for awareness and conservation of these unique and important ecosystems. In the Indo-Pacific especially about 300 million people are estimated to rely on coral reef resources.

As the Scientific Exploration Society’s Elodie Sanford Explorer I will aim to bring virtual “diving” experiences to communities in Timor-Leste who have/are working to protect their coral reefs. I feel strongly that providing this immersive experience to communities that rely on these resources and are on the front lines to protect them is an important missing link in conservation.

Check out Jaco Island in Timor-Leste up in Google Oceans!

SES Elodie Sandford Explorer for 2019 by Catherine Kim


I am excited to announce I have been selected as the Scientific Exploration Society’s Elodie Sanford Explorer Awardee for Amateur Photography! Elodie Sanford was an avid photographer, explorer, and honorary Vice President of the SES. It is an honor to continue on her legacy as a pioneer with a purpose investigating Tara bandu in Timor-Leste.


I focused my PhD research on the coral reef ecology of Timor-Leste. It became apparent that the cultural, socio-economic, and environmental aspects of society were very much intertwined. On my second field trip, I learned that my site on Atauro Island had been designated as a locally managed marine area (LMMA) just weeks before through Tara bandu, or customary law. This meant that no fishing was allowed on the protected reef and as a visitor, I had to pay a small fee to SCUBA dive for my research. Although I was focusing on the corals for my surveys, it looked “fishier” than I had remembered! There were these large schools of fish I did not recall seeing previously, however, it had been almost 18 months since my last dive here.

Fish SCUBA diving off Beloi Barrier Reef on Atauro Island Timor-Leste.

I am very excited to be returning to Timor-Leste to learn more about the communities involved in marine conservation efforts. Thank you to the Scientific Exploration Society and the friends and family of Elodie Sanford! Stay tuned to learn more about my adventures!

Winter Waterfalls by Catherine Kim

Amidst this polar vortex, I am trying to see the bright side of winter. It’s cold. Freezing at the moment… But over the holidays I enjoyed some winter hiking in Sapphire Valley, North Carolina. I don’t know about your family, but our holidays are more of the last-minute variety where are the popular places are already booked. So we went on a road trip to the area with the southern most ski resort on the east coast. It turned out to be a great perfect vacation in exploring a new place with zero expectations. The region is a perfect storm of elevation and plentiful rain which means there are waterfalls abound.


Rainbow Falls. A constant mist makes for rainbows and a very muddy trail.

Whitewater Falls. The tallest waterfall east of the Mississippi.

Whitewater Falls. The tallest waterfall east of the Mississippi.

The mismatch between the number of people out and about and the size of the parking lots seemed to indicate this area is more popular as summer vacation spot. The trails, views, and waterfalls were still beautiful in the winter with no shortage of waterfalls nestled in the rolling mountains.

Glen Falls

Glen Falls

These waterfalls were split between two different parks: Gorges State Park and Nantahala National Forest. Nantahala comes from Cherokee meaning “noonday sun” which speaks to the steepness of the mountains and gorges. Gorges State Park has a lovely visitors center with exhibits explaining the features of the area. Whitewater and Dry falls were easily viewed via short paved paths and the other two required some hiking, but nothing too strenuous. We managed to see multiple waterfalls each day.

Dry Falls

Dry Falls

Sometimes the unplanned vacation exploring a new area is just what you need.

Brisbane Writer's Festival by Catherine Kim

I have never been to a writer's festival or ever really thought about going to one.  I was on the University of Queensland's (UQ) library's page to search for an article like a good student and one of the event banners scrolling through had a talk by Min Jin Lee to talk about her New York Times best-selling book Pachinko.  I froze, looking at a portrait of a writer who completely reflected me, female, Korean, Korean-American even, and she was going to be in Brisbane.

I couldn't go to her UQ library talk, but as UQ is a principal sponsor of the Brisbane Writer's Festival I was able to score free tickets to the events.

In Conversation with Min Jin Lee and Richard Glover at Brisbane Writer's Festival.

In Conversation with Min Jin Lee and Richard Glover at Brisbane Writer's Festival.

Pachinko, (disclaimer: without having read it yet) is about four generations of a Korean family who move to Japan during the Japanese occupation of Korea from 1910 - 1945.  Despite later characters being born in Japan for several generations, Korean-Japanese are eternally treated as foreigners.  They continue to own South Korean passports, or North Korean identification cards (fun fact: Kim Jong-Un is likely a quarter Japanese...), are required to be fingerprinted yearly, and can never hold certain occupations that require citizenship such as nursing.  The outright discrimination and ill-treatment cause many Korean-Japanese to hide their Korean heritage and live their lives as Japanese.

I will admit that I am only marginally familiar with Korean history and all this delve into it was fascinating - North Koreans in Japan?!??  Another part of me was in shock and awe that someone who represented me as much as possible without being related to me was sitting in an auditorium in Brisbane talking about how Korean-Americans are like friendly labrador retrievers who want to be liked and give hugs compared to regal mastiff Korean-Japanese who are always on guard from experiencing generations of discrimination.  I found myself sitting there crying, realizing I had never really known how much of an outsider I have been my entire life growing-up in the States and never seen the winning combination of someone who looked like me and spoke like me since moving to Australia.

Needless to say, I bought the book and went up to her to sign it.  The crying continued and she was the nicest, letting me go through my schpeel and gave me a hug.  I even got a selfie with her and gaysian extraordinaire Benjamin Law.

Selfie time! with Min Jin Lee and Benjamin Law

Selfie time! with Min Jin Lee and Benjamin Law

It did not expect to have such an identity affirming experience going to a writer's festival.  In the US, I'm a minority and in Australia I'm a novelty item.  I understand as it would be jaw-dropping to run into an Asian with an Australian accent back home.  And then there's science, pop culture, politics, but let's not get into all that now.  One of the reasons I do science outreach is because I know none of these kids have ever seen a person like me.  I often ask the students, 'Where do you think I'm from?'  Invariably the first guess is China.  I get where you're coming from kids, but no.  One time it was followed by Taiwan, Singapore, Canada, and then the US.  I have never been called Canadian more in my life... that is also another post.  It was a great day of hanging out with my fellow Asians and seeing a number of great panels, #ClimateChangeisReal.  My eyes have been opened and I hope to go to more writer's festivals!  That is as long as I can score free tickets.

Science Australia Gender Equity (SAGE) Symposium by Catherine Kim

The Science Australia Gender Equity (SAGE) initiative based off of the Athena SWAN Charter started 10 years ago in the UK.  Since the pilot in 2015, there has been a yearly SAGE symposium and this year was in Brisbane.  I had applied to attend the STEM Superstar Communicator workshop and failed, but ended up getting a free ticket to the rest of the symposium.  Never hurts to try!

It was a whirlwind two days and covered much more than women in the workplace such as LGBTIQ, disability, and indigenous issues.  For example, I had never thought of the stress of not being out at work, dealing with water cooler talk about your weekend, the assumptions about the sex of your partner, and how that might affect your everyday work life.

STEMMINIST - new vocabulary and swag.

STEMMINIST - new vocabulary and swag.

From the very opening, a spell-binding welcome to country by Songwoman Maroochy, the day provided a lot of new perspectives.  Hearing white men championing the issues was something special like Adi Paterson, a white, male, CEO question why there was no child care facility at his office and discussing intersectionality was jaw-dropping.  There was a lot of emphasis on top-down values and change at these institutions which is sadly very pivotal and more effective than the possibilities at the worker level.  Seeing men and women at those upper echelons of power at large organizations who were thinking about gender equity was encouraging.  By the end of the day, I was suffering from 'CEO fatigue' and it was a godsend that they had two students speak during the closing.

The attendees were 90% women which is not necessarily right, but to be expected at a gender equity conference and it was also 95% white.  There was a diverse set of speakers all day from white men to indigenous community members yet that diversity was not reflected in the attendees.  Despite that, the actions to make the event inclusive were noticeable with a preferred pronouns on the name tags, child care, closed captioning, and Auslan sign language interpreters all day. The Brisbane Convention Center was a gorgeous, tech savvy venue, but do they really need to put to-go coffee cups when they also provide enough 'real' cups?

It was interesting to see some of the inner workings of a university or a large organization.  Flexibility was a key theme, in work hours and in leave, not limited to maternity leave, but also paternity leave and carer's leave and flexibility to address nuances for every individual situation.  There seems to be a delicate balance between policies and flexibility.  Diversity and inclusion across the board is the goal, but getting to that point is still a long way off.  The symposium was amazing to see all these people switched on about the topic, but there is always an element of preaching to the choir at these events.  Progress is slow, but an everyday task.  Combat everyday sexism, understand the different perspectives of people different than you, and one day we might get there.

Wonder of Science - Outreach in Queensland by Catherine Kim

It has been a very science outreach filled month!

Two weeks ago I went to Brightwater state school to make slime with 5th graders with fellow Young Science Ambassador Seun.  The Wonder of Science is a STEM outreach program at the University of Queensland that partners research students and early career scientists to schools to tackle inquiry based science projects. 

I talked matter - solid, liquids, and gases - with three 5th year classes and taught them the word viscosity.  The activity of the day was to make Oobleck which is a fun, messy, mysterious activity.

Fellow Young Science Ambassador Seun.

Ooobleck! A non-Newtonian liquid.

The following Monday, I visited Pomona junior secondary near Noosa to begin their unit investigating: How can the Noosa River maintain its A- rating?  I was impressed at the cross-disciplinary unit the teachers have put together and I also got to talk to the class about my PhD research.  They asked a lot of good questions.  I also learned that a lot of these school are not heated!  It's the middle of 'winter.'  Australia can get away with not heating buildings (aka nobody will freeze to death) so they don't heat or cool for that matter.#straya

Playing teacher for the dat with a 7th year class at Pomona junior secondary.

Lastly, today I joined the Logan regional conference as one of many YSAs to judge student presentations from multiple schools in the region.  I am always impressed by the quality of the presentations!  These events are actually quite like real scientific conferences and it's great to see these kids being involved with the scientific process.  Looking back at my education, I realize I could have used more of this sort of inquiry based learning.  Memorizing facts is easier, but the real world can be complicated and teaching kids to think through problems is worth the effort.

Year 9 presentation on tectonics with a cool magnetic demonstration board.  The colored plates on there move!

Demo-ing the loop the loop for a roller coaster model.

Australian Marine Science Association Conference 2017 by Catherine Kim

Conferences are one of the currencies of science.  To an outsider it might be difficult to see their importance, but they are really one of the best ways to see what work is ongoing in your field, promote your own work, drink lots of coffee, network, and have an all-around good time.

Great coffee provided by the Port of Darwin.  Much appreciated!

Great coffee provided by the Port of Darwin.  Much appreciated!

Last week, I attended the Australian Marine Science Association conference in Darwin and presented an oral presentation and a PEP (short) talk.  Six months ago, tagging on a conference at the end of my field work seemed like a good idea since I would layover in Darwin from Dili, Timor-Leste en route to Brisbane anyhow.  Things always go slower though and field work is always busy and despite best intentions the law of conferences means you are always scraping together your presentation right til the very end.  Of course, both of my presentations were on the first day...

At the closing conference gala, I was more shocked than anyone when I won the Fisheries Research and Development Corporation Best Pep Talk.  Thankfully, I had spent a whole day on my 5 minute presentation and it does feel good to be recognized!

I'm a winner! Best talk and PEP talk award sponsored by the Fisheries Research and Development Corporation. L to R: Dr. Carolyn Stewardson (FRDC), Samantha Nowland, myself, and Dr. Will Figueira (AMSA President).

Overall, I was pleasantly surprised by the variety of topics and variety of organizations (CSIRO, AIMS, universities, indigenous rangers) within the marine realm that the conference encompassed.  There were talks on genetics of mud microbiota, kelp ecology, seagrasses, marine management of dugongs, and more.  There was also a lot of emphasis on indigenous management as 85% of northern Australia are managed by indigenous communities which was very encouraging.  All of the research that is undertaken in the north (cue Game of Thrones references) is heavily dependent on local knowledge and the rangers that patrol the area as it is extremely remote with turbid waters and lots of bitey and stingy creatures.  A new term I learned was ‘paticipatory mapping’ where the local knowledge – marine habitats, fishing grounds, currents etc. - is outlined on maps and then digitized to collate the local knowledge and inform management because there is so little data collected in these remote areas.

Dr. Alastair Hobday's plenary on making predictions on timescales relevant to industry aka not 2100.

‘Developing the North’ was also a theme as it is the gateway to Asia and very much underdeveloped.  I was surprised to learn that the Port of Darwin has been leased for 99 years by a Chinese company which says a lot about the future of Darwin.  Despite the north’s remoteness, a survey of the Kimberley coast demonstrated that there are still significant numbers (1000s!) of people who visit the area during the tourist season.  These are mostly due to cruises from Broome to Darwin and 4WDriving, but a single boat ramp was measured to peaks at 45 boats per day during the high season!

In conclusion, although piggy backing conferences to the end of fieldwork was not the smartest idea I am very glad I managed to put together at least one good presentation.  AMSA was a great meeting and I would love to come back another year!

The closing gala at the Botanical Gardens in Darwin with co-workers.  I hope my wedding is this nice.  Thanks AMSA!