Jul 24, 2024 Last Updated 5:22 AM, Jul 16, 2024

Review: Nation building and national identity in Timor Leste

Vannessa Hearman

East Timor came under United Nations transitional administration in September 1999, after its population (and those in the diaspora) voted overwhelmingly to break away from Indonesia. In May 2002, the Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste came into being.

Michael Leach's, Nation-Building and National Identity in Timor-Leste is a comprehensive study of the rise of East Timorese nationalism over some forty years, from the period just prior to the 1975 declaration of independence from Portuguese rule by the pro-independence Fretilin (Revolutionary Front for an Independent East Timor). Much of this conception of the nation was defined against Indonesian rule of the territory over a 24-year period, from 1975 to 1999. Works on the history of East Timor can be found primarily in Portuguese and English, and Leach’s book is a valuable addition to the body of scholarship on Timorese history and society.

Leach traces the evolution of ideas on nationalism, as held by the East Timorese (at least those whose views were captured in writing or orally) up to 2015, the year in which Timor-Leste marked the five-hundredth anniversary of the arrival of the Portuguese and the Catholic religion onto its shores. Following a broadly chronological structure, Leach examines the formation of the ideological visions of the East Timorese nation and the competition between them, as well as the key players in this process.

Leach’s book opens with a discussion of the theories of nationalism, the nation-state, and nation- and state-building. He uses these theories as a springboard to showcase the unique characteristics of East Timorese nationalism and to show how it has evolved over time. Chapters two to eleven then deal with particular segments of East Timor/Timor-Leste’s history, with the final five chapters dealing with the post-1999 period.

Leach argues that the Portuguese colonial era was a period of accommodation and resistance in large areas of the territory. Once Portugal began preparing for East Timor’s decolonisation, a number of political parties and groupings formed. Fretilin was the largest political party out of several that emerged in 1974. A civil war broke out in August 1975 between UDT (Union for a Democratic Timor) and Fretilin, partly due to their different views about the pace of decolonisation and future shape of the independent nation-state of East Timor. In December 1975, Indonesia invaded which pressured Timorese political leaders and intellectuals to further build upon East Timorese nationalism as a resource to fight against the Indonesian occupation.

Despite the diversity of the ideas of nation among the East Timorese (such as between Fretilin’s radical modernising vision and UDT’s view that called for a more gradual path to independence), pre-colonial forms of rule and leadership remained somewhat important sources of authority. In their efforts to create a useable vision of nation, East Timorese leaders also needed to consider several factors. These factors included leaders being scattered across several countries, with some in hiding; different attitudes that had developed towards Indonesia as the new coloniser; and the lingering bitterness of the 1975 civil war.

One solution to this, Leach outlines, was the decision from the 1980s onwards to promote a vision of the nation as one underpinned by national unity across ethnic lines, the fight for self-determination, and a distinct identity based on Catholicism. This vision was a product of the reorganisation of what was left of the East Timorese armed resistance and a shift away from party politics, led by Xanana Gusmão. These moves led to the formation of the Revolutionary National Council for Resistance (CRRN). This body was later followed by pro-independence umbrella groupings that united East Timorese across party lines, namely the National Council for Maubere Resistance (1988-1998) and the National Council for Timorese Resistance (1999-2000). Also, in the early 1980s, following a meeting between Gusmão and Dili’s apostolic administrator, Father Martinho da Costa Lopes, a new alliance began with the Catholic Church, premised on the resistance renouncing its leftist orientation. As a result, Leach contends, by the 1990s, Timor-Leste was an example of a plural anti-colonial nationalism that had incorporated elements of ethno-nationalism and a ‘strong Catholicised identity’, defined in contrast to its Indonesian occupier.

Although a unifying vision of the nation could be forged by leaders in the East Timorese struggle for independence under Indonesian rule, Leach suggests that the limits of anti-colonial visions of nation were exposed once victory had been achieved, and new fissures and tensions developed after independence in 2002. Some of these were evident, for example, in the 2006 political crisis which began when a section of the East Timorese armed forces claimed they had been treated less favourably than those soldiers and officers from the eastern part of the country. These allegations of favouritism, in particular, contested the extent of contributions to the struggle by different communities in East Timor. The crisis led to the unseating of the then-Fretilin government led by Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri. Intense political rivalry between Fretilin and Gusmão’s new party, National Congress for Timorese Reconstruction (CNRT, an abbreviation mirroring that of the pro-independence front), marked the period 2007 to 2012. This rivalry dissipated when Gusmão resigned as prime minister in 2015 and invited members of Fretilin to join the government, including Rui Araujo to assume the prime ministership.

Leach uses mainly published sources (and some interviews) to examine the shaping of the ‘nation of intent’ of East Timor that underpinned the rise of the nation-state of Timor-Leste in 2002. These published sources include the fascinating, if short lived, newspapers and journals published in East Timor as Portugal entered a new phase of democracy from April 1974. Leach has brought together and analysed works by many East Timorese writers in this book. He does well to capture the exciting atmosphere of political change in East Timor just prior to the civil war and the invasion, and the resulting flow of liberatory ideas into, and out of, East Timor. Likewise, the section on life in the ‘liberated zones’, areas in the mountains administered by Fretilin where people took refuge from the invasion, was intriguing. The zones became the setting for the limited implementation of ideas such as kore a’an (to liberate oneself). Leach then traces what happened to the dream of creating an East Timorese nation over the course of the changing fortunes in the struggle for self-determination, particularly the bitter years when there was no end in sight to the Indonesian occupation.

My criticisms of the book are only minor. I found the division of chapters into multiple sections of varying lengths and many subheadings to be disruptive to the flow of the narrative. Some sections are too brief to warrant a separate section and lead to a sense of disjointedness. The study, in my opinion, would have also been improved by greater reference to Indonesian language primary materials, produced by the Indonesian government and East Timorese interlocutors. When so many Timorese ideas of self and nation became defined against the Indonesian military presence and the New Order regime’s ideology and philosophy, a closer study of such Indonesian language materials would have greatly enriched this book. To examine a nation-of-intent, it is also important to discuss the competing ideas of those who preferred integration into Indonesia and why they saw this to be a more viable vision than one of East Timorese independence. Nonetheless, in spite of these minor criticisms, Leach’s book is an important addition to the emerging field of the history of Timor-Leste and an excellent starting point to exploring the evolving ideas of nation in Timor-Leste in greater depth.

Michael Leach, Nation-Building and National Identity in Timor-Leste, Abingdon: Oxon, Routledge 2017.

Vannessa Hearman is lecturer in Indonesian Studies at Charles Darwin University, Australia. She is currently researching the case of East Timorese asylum seekers who sailed to Australia aboard a fishing boat called the Tasi Diak in 1995. Her research interests are post-conflict transitions and histories of activism related to Indonesia and Timor-Leste.

Inside Indonesia 132: Apr-Jun 2018

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