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Culture of East Timor

The Culture of East Timor reflects numerous cultural influences, including Portuguese, Roman Catholic and Malay, on the indigenous Austronesian cultures in East Timor.


The Catholic faith has become a central part of East Timorese culture during the Indonesian occupation between 1975 and 1999. Although under Portuguese rule, the East Timorese had mostly been animist, the number of Catholics dramatically increased. This was for several reasons: Indonesia was predominantly Muslim; the Indonesian state required adherence to one of five officially recognised religions and did not recognise traditional beliefs; and because the Catholic church, which remained directly responsible to the Vatican throughout Indonesian rule, became a refuge for East Timorese seeking sanctuary from persecution. The 'Apostolic Administrator' (de facto Bishop) of the Diocese of Dili, Monsignor Martinho da Costa Lopes, began speaking out against human rights abuses by the Indonesian security forces, including rape, torture, murder, and disappearances. Following pressure from Jakarta, he stepped down in 1983 and was replaced by the younger priest, Monsignor Carlos Felipe Ximenes Belo, who Indonesia thought would be more loyal. However, he too began speaking out, not only against human rights abuses, but the issue of self-determination, writing an open letter to the Secretary General of the United Nations, calling for a referendum. In 1996 he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, along with exiled leader Jose Ramos-Horta, now the country's Foreign Minister.

In spite of accusations by the Suharto regime that East Timor's independence movement, Fretilin, was communist, many of its leaders had trained to be priests, and their philosophy probably owed more to the Catholic liberation theology of Latin America than to Marxism.

However, in spite of the majority of the country's people now being Catholics, there is freedom of religion in the new republic, and the Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri, is a Muslim of Yemeni descent.


The lingua franca and national language of East Timor is Tetum, which is a Malayo-Polynesian language influenced by Portuguese, with which it has equal status as an official language. Other indigenous languages, which have official recognition under the constitution include Fataluku, Kemak, Makassae, and Galoli. Fataluku, a Papuan language, is widely used in the eastern part of the country, often more so than Tetum. Under Portuguese rule, all education was through the medium of Portuguese, although it coexisted with Tetum and other languages. Portuguese particularly influenced the dialect of Tetum spoken in the capital, Dili, known as Tetun Prasa, as opposed to the more traditional version spoke in rural areas, known as Tetun Terik. Tetun Prasa is the version more widely used, and taught in schools.

The Indonesian language, or Bahasa Indonesia has ceased to be an official language, although it, along with English, it has the status of a 'working language' under the Constitution. It is still widely spoken, particularly among younger people who were educated entirely under the Indonesian system, under which the use of either Portuguese or Tetum were banned. For many older East Timorese, the Indonesian language has negative connotations with the Suharto regime, but many younger people have expressed suspicion or hostility to the reinstatement of Portuguese, which they see as a 'colonial language' in much the same way that Indonesians saw Dutch. However, whereas the Dutch culture and language had little influence on those of Indonesia, the East Timorese and Portuguese cultures became intertwined, particularly through intermarriage.

Many foreign observers, especially from Australia and Southeast Asia have also been dismissive about the reinstatement of Portuguese, but this is not surprising. Until the demise of the Suharto regime, many were equally dismissive about the very idea of an independent East Timor, arguing that the East Timorese were culturally no different from Indonesians. Even many people who were supportive of East Timor take this view, again mistakenly drawing parallels with Dutch in Indonesia.