Timor-Leste country brief

Overview

The Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste is situated on the island of Timor, approximately 700km northwest of Darwin. The capital of Timor-Leste is Dili.

Timor-Leste and Australia have a close relationship based on proximity, history and people-to-people links. Australia has been at the forefront of international support for Timor-Leste since its independence in 2002, not only as the largest bilateral donor of development assistance, but also by providing a leadership role to ensure security and stability in the country.

Timor-Leste has a population of around 1.2 million. The official languages of Timor-Leste are Tetum and Portuguese, while English and Indonesian are working languages. Approximately 95 per cent of Timorese are Catholic.

Political overview

Timor-Leste achieved formal independence on 20 May 2002. Timor-Leste's independence resulted from the August 1999 UN-sponsored referendum.

The first democratic legislative elections were held on 30 August 2001 and over 91 per cent of Timor-Leste's eligible voters elected a Constituent Assembly.

In March 2002, the Constituent Assembly approved Timor-Leste's Constitution (based on the Portuguese model) with an elected President as head of state and a Prime Minister appointed from the political party, or alliance of political parties, with a majority in the unicameral parliament.

Timor-Leste held Parliamentary elections on 7 July 2012. Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao’s National Congress for the Reconstruction of Timor (CNRT) party received the highest percentage share of the votes (36.68 per cent), followed by Fretilin (29.89 per cent), the Democratic Party – PD (10.30 per cent) and Frenti Mudansa (3.11 per cent). Voter participation was 74.78 per cent and 97.64 per cent of votes were valid.

Dr Rui Maria de Araujo was appointed Prime Minister of Timor-Leste and the head of the Sixth Constitutional Government on 16 February 2015, following the resignation of Xanana Gusmao.

Former Chief of the Armed Forces, Taur Matan Ruak replaced Dr Jose Ramos-Horta as President on 20 May 2012 following elections in March and April.

Legislative elections Presidential elections
Last held 7 July 2012 17 March 2012 (run-off following first round on 16 April 2012)
Key results National Congress for the Reconstruction of Timor (CNRT) (36.7%) Mr Taur Matan Ruak (61.23%)
Fretilin (29.9%) Francisco ‘Lu’Olo’ Guterres (38.77%)
Democratic Party (PD) (10.3%)
Frenti Mudansa (3.1%)
Term duration Five years Five years
Next elections Due by mid-2017 Due by mid-2017

Economic overview

Timor-Leste has some of the worst poverty indicators in the Asia-Pacific region and its economy is one of the most heavily petroleum-dependent in the world.

The Government of Timor-Leste is seeking to use its oil revenues to support of long-term economic development, economic diversification and poverty reduction. On 13 July 2011, the Timorese Government released a Strategic Development Plan, which provides a framework for development for 2011-2030.

Timor-Leste faces a range of long-term development challenges to achieve sustainable and broad-based economic growth. These challenges are compounded by infrastructure deficits, notably in the areas of transportation, telecommunications and electricity.

Under the terms of the Timor Sea Treaty, Timor-Leste receives 90 per cent of the revenue from the Joint Petroleum Development Area. As a result, Timor-Leste has been able to accrue over US$16.3 billion (in an internationally acclaimed Petroleum Fund.

Despite this economic growth, Timor-Leste remains a challenging business environment with the World Bank now ranking Timor-Leste 173 out of 189 in the 2016 “Ease of Doing Business” survey. Recent improvements streamlining the process for registering businesses in Timor-Leste have been positive.

Agriculture

The majority of Timorese people are employed in agriculture, although the available data suggest that agriculture’s contribution to GDP is declining. Relatively low food production by small-holders as well as underdeveloped local markets has led to a dependency on imports. Raising agricultural productivity and rural incomes remain key challenges. Coffee is Timor-Leste’s second-largest export, after oil and gas, although volumes remain relatively low. Some commercial potential may also exist for other crops such as vanilla, spices, candlenut and palm oil.

Finance and banking

The US dollar was adopted as the official currency in January 2000. Timorese coins in denominations of 1, 5, 10, 25 and 50 centavos were introduced in November 2003 to enable small denomination transactions and partially assist with monetisation of the economy.

Legal and judicial issues

Timor-Leste's legal system is based on civil law. Although a broad range of legislation has been promulgated, further strengthening of legal and judicial frameworks will be key to promoting economic development and effective governance in Timor-Leste, particularly the law on land ownership, which is currently before the parliament. Important commercial legislation that has already been passed by Parliament includes an investment law, commercial registry and tax legislation.

The Timorese Constitution does not permit foreign land ownership, although leases and joint venture arrangements are possible.

Bilateral relations

The Australian people have a special affinity with Timor-Leste stretching back decades.

Australia was in the front-line of support for Timor-Leste's transition to independence and led the multinational INTERFET force which restored security in Timor-Leste following the 1999 post-independence ballot violence.

Australia also led the 2006-2013 International Stabilisation Force (ISF), comprised of Australian and New Zealand Defence Force members. The ISF provided security back-up to the UN Integrated Mission in Timor-Leste (UNMIT) and remained in Timor-Leste at the invitation of the Timorese Government.

Australia's defence and police engagement with Timor-Leste continue through Australian Defence Cooperation Program and Australian Federal Police’s Timor-Leste Police Development Program.

Trade and investment

In2014-15, total merchandise trade between Australia and Timor-Leste was valued at $37 million.

Australian exports to Timor-Leste were valued at $34.5 million with major items including passenger motor vehicles and vehicle parts.

Imports from Timor-Leste were valued at $2.6 million, with over half consisting of coffee. Timor-Leste has had preferential duty free access and quota free access to the Australian market since July 2003.

People to people links

The people of Australia and Timor-Leste share deep personal connections forged through shared experiences during the Second World War, the Timorese journey to independence, and the growth of the Timorese diaspora in Australia. Many Australians remain actively connected to Timor-Leste, including through the Australia-Timor-Leste friendship group network, rotary clubs and churches.

Australia Awards

Through the Australia Awards initiative, Australia provides scholarships for Timorese students, researchers and professionals to study in Australia. The Awards are an important part of the aid program in Timor-Leste and aim to: develop capacity and leadership skills so that individuals can contribute to development in Timor-Leste, and develop personal connections with Australia. Timorese nationals are eligible for long-term Awards (Australia Awards Scholarships and the Australia Awards Leadership Program) and short-term Awards (Australia Awards Fellowships).

Volunteers

The Australian Volunteers for International Development (AVID) program promotes economic growth and poverty reduction in the Indo-Pacific region by assisting host organisations to deliver effective and sustainable development outcomes.

Australia’s overseas volunteer program, Australian Volunteers for International Development, has a one-stop entry point to Australian volunteering.

Development assistance

More information on development assistance to Timor-Leste.

Last Updated: 21 July 2016