After four centuries of Portuguese rule, 24 years of Indonesian occupation, and two years of United Nations administration, East Timor gained independence and a new name on May 20, 2002. The Carter Center was closely involved with the birth of Timor-Leste, the first new nation of the 21st century.
During the U.N.-administered transition period, Timor-Leste made progress toward consolidating democracy. With the support of the international community, the nation has experienced successful elections, drafted and ratified a constitution, and begun to create important institutions needed to establish a strong, sustainable democracy, including a formal legal system and active civil society.
The Carter Center began its involvement in East Timor in June 1999, when President Carter, leading an international observer mission for Indonesia's parliamentary elections, met in Jakarta with detained East Timorese leader Xanana Gusmao. Gusmao expressed his concerns for the safety of the East Timorese people during the consultation period and his belief that international observation would be essential to the safe conduct of the ballot. Given the island's long history of oppression and the presence of pro-integration militia, there was concern that militia would create an atmosphere of intimidation prior to the vote. The Carter Center mission, therefore, focused on monitoring the political and security environment prior to, during, and after balloting.
After receiving an invitation from Indonesian President B.J. Habibie, The Carter Center was accredited as the first international observer group and opened an office in Timor-Leste's capital, Dili, to monitor the Aug. 30 public consultation.
In the face of continuing violent repression designed to subvert the ballot, the Center observed a high voter turnout on Aug. 30, in which Timorese voted overwhelmingly for independence from Indonesia.
Following announcement of the consultation results, East Timorese pro-integration militia, supported and directed by Indonesian military, launched a full-scale, deliberate campaign of violence. Many lives were lost, many East Timorese were forced to flee into West Timor, and Timor Leste's physical infrastructure was almost destroyed. The Carter Center left Timor-Leste in early September because of the violence.
Carter Center staff members were then deployed to Jakarta, Indonesia, and Darwin, Australia, to continue to monitor the postelection situation. The Center re-established its field presence in Timor-Leste in October and remained in the territory through December 1999.
A December 1999 assessment team found public institutions being strengthened and citizen groups forming to lay the foundation for a sustainable, democratic Timor-Leste. In November 2000, another assessment team found that most political parties remained personality-based and had yet to develop party platforms, security concerns remained relating to the competition between political parties, and the development of the voters list faced difficulties.
The Center deployed 29 observers to monitor the August 2001 Constituent Assembly elections.
The Center found that the U.N.-administered elections were calm and peaceful with no major irregularities at the polls.
The Carter Center worked with domestic observer groups to monitor political party development during the constitution drafting, and in March 2002 deployed two delegates to observe the weeklong public consultation on the draft constitution.
On April 14, 2002, East Timorese again went to the polls, this time to elect their first president. The Carter Center delegation observed a remarkably high voter turnout on election day. In contrast to the previous two elections, the Center's observers found East Timorese to be very familiar with both the process of voting and the purpose of the ballot.
The Carter Center launched an observation mission for Timor-Leste's parliamentary elections with the June 2007 deployment of long-term observers, who were joined by short-term observers closer to election day.
The majority of Timorese voters participated in an orderly and peaceful June 30 parliamentary election.
The Carter Center continued to observe the district counting and national tabulation until complete.
From December 2001 through March 2002, the Center implemented a project to promote good governance, accountability of public institutions through the dissemination of public information to citizens, and the work of local organizations at the grassroots level.
The Center also conducted several one-day training workshops addressing rule of law and citizens' rights when dealing with the police.
As a component of its overall program to support the growth of democracy in Timor-Leste, The Carter Center administered several small grants to local nongovernmental organizations to contribute to building a stronger civil society.
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Size: 14,874 square kilometers
Population below poverty line: 37 percent (2011 est.)
Life expectancy: 67 years
Ethnic groups: Austronesian (Malayo-Polynesian), Papuan, small Chinese minority
Religions: Roman Catholic, Protestant/Evangelical, Muslim, other
Languages: Tetum (official), Portuguese (official), Indonesian, English
Source: U.S. Central Intelligence Agency World Factbook 2016