Jun 14, 2024 Last Updated 8:34 AM, May 27, 2024

Travels in West Timor

Published: Sep 29, 2007

SIMON ANDREWARTHA discovers a quiet invasion by outsiders, even in the remotest villages.

'This area used to be inhabited by Bunak people. When the Belunese moved here, the Bunak seemed to just fade away. People said they didn't like the smell of the fish the Belunese used in their cooking'. This was how one respected elder of the local community explained what happened to the Bunak tribe. Today, the Bunak are found on the mountainous East Timorese side of the border with Belu regency in West Timor.

Before the first Portuguese arrived in the sixteenth century, Belu lay at the heart of one of the most influential kingdoms on Timor, Waihale. But as the Bunak had to make way for the Belunese, so the Belunese were in turn to yield to a new intruder. The kingdom of Waihale became the first victim of the Portuguese explorers. After landing on the north coast of the island with a force of about 80 men armed with muskets, the Portuguese marched to Waihale on the south coast, and destroyed it.

There is no written record of armed conflict between the Belunese of Waihale and the Bunak. The local community leader's explanation for the mysterious decline of the Bunak could be as good as any other.

Whereas the Belunese were defeated by conquest, the Bunak simply faded away when a new people moved in. A similar contrast can be seen between the fates of modern East and West Timor. East Timor was invaded by Indonesia in 1975. But a more subtle erosion of sovereignty has been taking place over the last couple of decades in West Timor. The West Timorese appear to be following the path of the Bunak, either removing themselves or being pushed out from the space they once occupied by a process of economic marginalisation.


The age-old problem of a subsistence economy meeting a cash economy is played out again. Self-sufficiency, albeit imperfect, is replaced by real poverty. However, beneath this seemingly inevitable, but unplanned, collision of two opposing worlds, is a strong current of deliberate manipulation.

The hand of the government is evident in its support of migrants to West Timor, in particular of their religious identity, over that of the Timorese. This intervention stacks the odds even more firmly against preservation of a distinctly Timorese identity and way of life.

Anyone who visits rural markets in West Timor can see the Timorese being marginalised almost before their eyes. Some markets are still located where they have always been - on a windswept hillside or by a dry river bed, rather than in a government building. You can still buy there such quaint traditional produce as honeycomb, hand-made rope, clay pots, and betel nut.

But all the markets are dominated by something else: tarpaulin- covered stalls selling the same plastic wares you can find in markets anywhere throughout Indonesia. These stalls are invariably owned by Bugis, an ethnic group originating from Southern Sulawesi, and never by Timorese.

Timorese with something to sell are there, but they are squatting at the back of the market. A short distance away you can probably buy sopi, distilled palm juice. It is banned by the government and hence sold on the sly, by the cupful. All the customers are Timorese.

The overall impression is of a noisy school yard, where the less aggressive children have made an enclave for themselves at the back of the shelter shed, hoping to be left alone.

When I asked about this between 1993 and 1995 I was told it was at least 15 years since the Bugis arrived. I saw them myself on numerous occasions, even in remote villages. Walking along a dirt road in one such village, I heard the sound of children shouting noisily at me. Normally, children will only do this to Western tourists in the provincial capital, Kupang. When I remarked on it to the Timorese youth walking with me, he said: Itu orang Bugis, mereknya lain, 'That's the Bugis... different brand'. Timorese children in rural areas are uniformly reserved and polite to strangers.


The Bugis have also made inroads into the control of local resources. Land is the primary resource of the Timorese subsistence farmer. In a village in the fertile region of Mollo Utara, ramshackle Bugis trade stalls stand incongruously against the picturesque vista of tilled fields and grass 'bee-hive' huts that lie directly beneath the peaks of Mount Mutis. Their presence is evidence of a capitalist success story, but one that owes its success to the deceit of the original inhabitants.

According to the local Catholic priest, the very first Bugis migrants came and said that they were poor. So the village elders gave them land. At other times the Bugis invoked the symbolic significance of betel nut in Timorese culture by making an offering of it in return for land. On this small plot of land the Bugis erected their first trade stall, warung. Here they sold the usual assortment of household goods, usually on credit.

Eventually, when the debts of some customers were well and truly beyond their means, the Bugis demanded more land, or they would report the debtors to the authorities. The Bugis would also offer sheets of corrugated iron, the preferred roofing material, in exchange for land.

Once they owned sufficient acreage to grow things, the Bugis planted the local cash crop, garlic, which commands a good price in Kupang. With the proceeds they bought their own truck, to transport the garlic that they now bought directly from the Timorese.

The inexperienced Timorese, easily impressed by a lump sum figure, are persuaded to sell their crop even before it has been harvested. The price per kilogram is dictated by the Bugis buyers. This brings the price down even further than if the crop was sold on weight.

Oranges, which also grow in abundance in this area, are also sold before they have ripened on the tree. From this position the Bugis can acquire even more farming land.


The Bugis are Muslim, while the Timorese are Christian. To the Timorese, this adds another, threatening dimension to the economic clash. Nusa Tenggara Timur province (NTT) encompasses West Timor. Its total population only numbers around three million. Yet it is commonly thought of as the 'Christian stronghold' of Indonesia, which is the world's most populous Muslim nation. Although in a minority, migrant Bugis Muslims in NTT receive government support in ways that add an aura of official sanction to their activities.

The most obvious form of government support is funding for new mosques. Muslims qualify for assistance once a sufficient number of Muslim households are present in a community. Such funding is not available to build churches. While there is still no mosque in the village I described above, others have sprung up in equally unlikely places on Timor.

As if in response, this seems to have triggered what could almost be described as a competition between Christian parishes to construct bigger and better churches. An impartial observer might feel that the manpower and funding for this frenzy of construction - almost entirely drawn from the local congregations - could be better spent on community development. But the importance of the church as a focus of community strength cannot be underestimated.

As with the Three Little Pigs who sought safety in vain from the Big Bad Wolf by making houses of straw and wood, the new churches are equally unlikely to be effective protection against the prevailing wind of Islam. But they are a highly visible indication of the threat the Timorese perceive.

Adding to the picture of tacit government support for migrants is a story related to me by missionaries teaching theology in Kupang. Many of their graduates hope to find jobs giving religious instruction in village primary and junior high schools. But they often experience difficulty, because the Department of Education and Culture has allotted the vacancies to Muslim migrants. This is in spite of the fact that the Muslim teachers have little knowledge of the Christian religion practised by the local community.

Conversion to Islam is virtually unheard of amongst West Timorese. Yet there are persistent rumours of aggressive Muslim proselytising amongst the villagers in the southern sub-districts of Amanatun and Amanuban. Travelling by bus, I myself sighted a dilapidated mosque in this area. Timorese passengers casually told me that locals were offered money to register as Muslims. If true, this kind of missioning suggests naked political empire building, rather than religious evangelism.


The political implications of an increasing number of Muslim immigrants to West Timor are perhaps clearest in the changing ethnic make-up of regional administrators. In the strongly Protestant sub-district of Amfoang Utara, on the north coast, for example, a Javanese Muslim has been reappointed for two consecutive terms as sub-district head (camat).

The administrative centre for Amfoang Utara is the remote village of Naikliu, often completely cut off from access to Kupang by both sea and land approaches in the wet season. Yet it is home to a community of Bugis traders, and boasts a mosque.

It was in Naikliu that I first encountered what turned out to be one of several documents purporting to be the Muslim blueprint for the destruction of the Catholic church in NTT. Whether genuine or not, as with the panic construction of churches, they seemed symptomatic of the alarm the juggernaut of Islam has caused amongst both Protestant and Catholic Timorese.

Within a few short years the image of NTT as the 'Christian stronghold' of Indonesia seems to have become less convincing. Instead I think of the Lilliputians in Gulliver's Travels, who nervously await the next move of their giant alien intruder.

Simon Andrewartha lived in West Timor and teaches Indonesian in Australia.

Inside Indonesia 55: Jul-Sep 1998

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