Timor-Leste

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.

SES Elodie Sandford Explorer for 2019 by Catherine Kim

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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.

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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!

Post-Bleaching Surveys in Timor-Leste by Catherine Kim

Coral surveys back in Timor-Leste. Photo: F Ryan

A year and a half ago, I did my first coral health surveys in Timor-Leste for my PhD research.  Since then, it has been a big year for coral reefs with the largest global coral bleaching event in history in 2016.  Coral bleaching is caused by stressful environmental conditions, like high ocean water temperatures, that cause the tiny algae living in coral tissue to be expelled.  This results in white or ‘bleached’ looking corals.  This is important because the algae and coral form a symbiotic partnership where the coral provides a home for the algae and, in return, the algae provides food for the coral.  Corals can regain their algae and recover or, if the corals are bleached for too long, can die.  In some areas like the Great Barrier Reef and Hawai‘i, the coral mortality due to bleaching was well-documented, but many countries lack the ability to regularly monitor their reefs.

Timor-Leste is the newest member state of the Coral Triangle, the epicenter of marine biodiversity with over 600 species of corals.  The Coral Triangle encompasses 30% of coral reefs globally; however, little is known about how this area was affected by the mass bleaching event through 2016.  With funding from the Estate of Winifred Violet Scott, I just finished resurveying my sites in Timor-Leste and collecting the temperature loggers I deployed on the reef in November 2015.  The sites look similar to my first surveys a year-and-a-half ago.  This is promising news as it indicates that Timorese reefs may not be as susceptible to climatic changes such as ocean warming that threaten reefs worldwide.  However, there are a myriad of other threats such as pollution and overfishing that affect these reefs, but eliminating coral bleaching as a major threat for Timorese reefs gives hope that reefs here can thrive and continue to support the people who rely on them with proper management.