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Fragments of utopia: Popular yearnings in East Timor

  • Douglas Kammen

Six months after the historic August 1999 referendum in which the people of East Timor voted to reject Indonesia's offer of broad autonomy, the newly appointed chief of the United Nations Transitional Administration in East Timor, Sérgio Vieira de Mello, commented to CNN on the enormous challenge of setting the territory on the road to independence: ‘It is a test case, therefore it is even a laboratory case where we can transform utopia into reality. But I think we can try and get it right in the case of Timor.’ After 24 years of brutal military occupation, the suggestion that East Timor was to be a laboratory case for the United Nations might have seemed insulting, the notion of utopia absurd. Hundreds of thousands of people were without housing. Basic infrastructure lay in ruins. Commodities were scarce and those goods available were sold at grossly inflated prices. Eleven thousand foreign troops had arrived to restore security. Tens of thousands of refugees were still living in squalid camps across the border in Indonesian West Timor, many against their will. Nevertheless, Vieira de Mello's statement neatly captured the twin aspirations of the time — the independence long-dreamed of by East Timorese and the opportunity for the United Nations literally to build a state from the ground up. In the same CNN report, East Timorese Nobel Laureate José Ramos-Horta emphasised precisely this point: ‘This is the first instance in the history of the UN that the UN has managed completely an entire country; and they have a [Timorese pro-independence] movement that is very cooperative, they have an exceptional people that's cooperating with them, so they cannot fail. They are condemned to succeed because failure would be disastrous for the credibility of the UN, so they simply cannot afford to fail.’ Utopia, it seems, had become a necessity.

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1 ‘Rebuilding East Timor is a challenge for returning refugees and citizens’, CNN report aired 15 March 2000, posted on (last accessed on 4 Apr. 2007). The punctuation has been altered slightly.

2 Ibid.

3 The name Amaurot is derived from the Greek ‘amaruroton’, meaning a shadowy or unknown place. See editors' comments in More, Thomas, Utopia (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, revised edition 2003), p. 5.

4 More, Utopia, p. 38.

5 For discussions of millenarianism and messiahs, see Jorge Barros Duarte, ‘O fenómeno dos movimentos nativistas’, Sér Antropogbiologia, Lisboa, 5 (1–2), 1987–88: 41–52; and Gunn, Geoffrey, Timor Loro Sae: 500 years (Macau: Livros do Oriente, 1999), p. 280.

6 Traube, Elizabeth, ‘Unpaid wages: Local narratives and the imagination of the nation’, Asia Pacific Journal of Anthropology, 8, 1 (2007): 18.

7 Xanana Gusmão, ‘On the occasion of the first anniversary of independence’, 20 May 2003, in Gusmão, Xanana, Timor lives! Speeches of freedom and independence (Alexandria, NSW: Longueville Books, 2005), p. 229.

8 Traube, ‘Unpaid wages’, p. 19.

9 I am grateful to staff in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for providing two of these posters from a water-damaged box on the floor of a cluttered storeroom.

10 Carlos ‘Charles’ Billich was born in Lovran, Croatia in 1934 and emigrated to Australia in 1956. ‘In his own auto-biographical notes, Billich tells us that as a child he identified himself with the aesthetic symbols of the Italian regime; as an adolescent he was enchanted by Art Deco which in Italy fell under the well-known ‘Futurist’ movement in the arts which for some was associated – rightly or wrongly – with the Fascist regime. Today, he is classified as a “surrealist” painter.' See (last accessed on 5 Aug. 2008).

11 ‘Constituição do Governo da República Democrática de Timor-Leste’, in Timor-Leste: Uma luta heróica (Lisbon, no date), p. 19. In Sept. 1974, the name ASDT was changed to Frente Revolucionária de Timor Leste Independente, abbreviated Fretilin).

12 ‘Development plans for Dili, Baucau unveiled’, Lusa, 1 Feb. 2006, translation posted on (last accessed on 30 Sept. 2008).

13 Tilly, Charles, Tilly, Louise and Tilly, Richard, The rebellious century, 1830–1930 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1975), p. 25.

14 Gusmão, Timor lives!, p. 231.

15 Quoted in ‘Warga TL masih “bermental colonial”’, Suara Timor Lorosae, 3 June 2003.

16 Traube, ‘Unpaid wages’, p. 18.

17 ‘Palácio do Governo front park being transformed’, Guide Post, Nov. 2006, p. 6. The budget for the new park was reported to be US$660,000; reported in ‘Jardin Palacio Do Governo transforma ba ema hotu’, Suara Timor Lorosae, 7 Dec. 2006.

18 Photograph from Thomaz, Luís Filipe F.R., ‘Timor: O Protectorado Português’, in História dos Portugueses no Extremo Oriente, 2° Volume: Macau e Timor. O declínio do Império (Lisbon: Fundação Oriente, 2001), p. 519.

19 See Nordholt, H.G. Schulte, ‘The symbolic classification of the Atoni of Timor’, in The flow of life: Essays on eastern Indonesia, ed. Fox, James J. (Cambridge, MA and London: Harvard University Press, 1980), pp. 231–65.

20 According to some accounts, Xanana Gusmão is one such descendant of Wehale.

21 Forman, Shepard, ‘East Timor: Exchange and political hierarchy at the time of the European discoveries’, in Economic exchange and social interaction in Southeast Asia: Perspectives from prehistory, history and ethnography, ed. Hutter, Karl (Ann Arbor: Center for South and Southeast Asian Studies, 1971), p. 108.

22 I would like to thank Janet Gunter for this valuable insight. Gunter elaborates on this in an unpublished article, ‘Kabita-Kaburai, de cada dia: Indigenous hierarchies and the Portuguese in Timor’, pp. 7–9.

23 On the rebellion of 1911–12, see Pélissier, René, Timor en guerre: Le crocodile et les Portugais (1847–1913) (Orgeval, France: 1996), pp. 254–7, and Katharine Davidson, ‘The Portuguese colonisation of Timor: The final stage, 1850–1912’ (Ph.D. diss., National University of Australia, 1994), especially ch. 8.

24 Although complete data on liurai punished for collaboration are not available, the scope can be gauged in reverse from the relatively small number of liurai and village heads who subsequently received lavish praise for their loyalty to Portugal. See, for example, de Oliveira, Luna, Timor na história de Portugal, vol. IV (Lisbon: Fundação Oriente, 1999), pp. 185, 193–7.

25 Nicol, Bill, Timor: The stillborn nation (Victoria: Widescope International Publishers, 1978), p. 52.

26 Dunn, James, Timor: A people betrayed (Milton, Qld: The Jacaranda Press, 1983), p. 75.

27 Nicol, Stillborn nation, p. 52.

28 KOTA, ‘Message … for the Portuguese People’, quoted in Nichol, Stillborn nation, p. 53.

29 Interview with Clementino dos Reis Amaral, 2002.

30 ‘Less-timid Timorese’, Asiaweek, 26 Feb. 1999. See also, ‘East Timor: Ramos Horta sends message to meeting of “liurais” in Macau’, Lusa, 11 Feb. 1999, translation posted on (last accessed on 5 Aug. 2008). In an interview in 2007, KOTA President Manuel Tilman insisted that the first liurai conference had been held in 1998 and a second conference in Peniche, Portugal, in Apr. 1998. This seems to be an attempt to claim that the liurai were active prior to Indonesian President Soeharto's resignation and that the liurai conference paved the way for the formation of National Council for Timorese Resistance (Conselho Nacional da Resistência Timorense). Information kindly provided by Selma Hayati, who attended the February 1999 conference in Macau and interviewed Manuel Tilman on 11 February 2007 in Dili.

31 The discussion in the following three paragraphs draws on ‘Dr. Jacob Xavier: Budaya Timor harus direfleksikan dalam konstitusi’, Cidadaun No. 13, first week of Nov. 2001, p. 4.

32 The establishment of MNTLD in Portugal may have been related to the emergence of clandestine networks in Dili (involving some former UDT members/sympathisers, with alleged links to Deputy Governor of East Timor, Francisco Lopes da Cruz) that participated in the 10 June 1980 attack on the broadcasting facility in Maribia military barracks in Becora. In 2003, Jacob Xavier voted against legislation on former combatants because it failed to include data on MNTLD. See Suara Timor Lorosae, 1 Dec. 2005, quoted in UNOTIL Daily Media Review. Note also the close similarity between MNLTD and a group called Movimento Libertação Timor Dili, which Mari Alkatiri claims was organised in Lisbon prior to 1975. See CAVR, Chega! Final report of the Commission for Reception, Truth and Reconciliation in East Timor, part 3, p. 26 and footnote 84 for sources.

33 Interview with Francisco Pinto, 20 Dec. 2006, Dili. Some authors use the slightly different name, Movimento do Povo de Timor-Leste.

34 ‘The heir to the throne of Portugal and the owner of the World Bank was also elected’, Lusa, 8 Sept. 2001. I am grateful to Janet Gunter for translating this article.

35 Ibid.

36 Ibid.

37 Summarised in UNOTIL Daily Media Reports, 5 May 2005.

38 I am grateful to Leong Kar-yen for this information.

39 Interview with Francisco Pinto, 6 Dec. 2006, Dili.

40 José Ramos-Horta emerged as a landslide victor in the second round presidential run-off. Four parties dominated the parliamentary election: Fretilin received 20 per cent of the vote, Gusmão's newly formed CNRT won 24 per cent, the ASDT-PSD coalition won 15 per cent and PD won 11 per cent, which translated into 21, 18, 11 and 8 parliamentary seats respectively. CNRT, ASDT-PSD and PD formed a coalition government, headed by Prime Minister Xanana Gusmão.

41 Nicol, Stillborn nation, p. 159. The author does not provide a date for this statement.

42 Jolliffe, Jill, East Timor: Nationalism and colonialism (St. Lucia, Qld: University of Queensland Press, 1978), p. 67.

43 Ibid., p. 64.

44 Clementino dos Reis Amaral argued, ‘We are not suggesting this because we have ambitions to become like kings of old. But the constitution should give authority to traditional leaders who are village heads and hamlet heads so that they can resolve cases that arise.’ Quoted in ‘Usulan Kota untuk lestarikan kultur tradisional TL ditolak’, Suara Timor Lorosae, 13 Dec. 2001.

45 In an annex titled, ‘Descriptions of key disaffected groups’, a USAID report describes Colimau 2000 as ‘a small sect with animist beliefs’ that believes that ‘fallen independence fighters will come alive again and return from the forests to lead them’. See Michael Brown et al., ‘Conflict assessment: East Timor’, produced for USAID/East Timor and USAID Office of Conflict Management and Mitigation, 18 May 2004, p. 52.

46 It is interesting to note that beginning in 1994, there were a series of market riots in East Timor in which East Timorese attacked Indonesian vendors who had entered the territory after the 1989 ‘normalisation’ of Timor.

47 All information in this paragraph is from an interview with Meta Mali, 26 Dec. 2006, Aileu.

48 Confidential interview, 15 Aug. 2006, Dili.

49 On these incidents, see ‘Rakyat Bobonaro diteror’, Suara Timor Lorosae, 18 June 2002; ‘11 anggota Colimau ditangkap’, Suara Timor Lorosae, 28 June 2002; and ‘Kolimau 2000 kontinua ataka povu Maliana’, Suara Timor Lorosae, 26 July 2002. Bruno Magalhães was arrested in Suai on 7 July 2002. Gabriel Fernandes was arrested in late July and detained for 30 days.

50 Quoted in ‘Colimau 2000 tantangan berat bagi Igreja TL’, Suara Timor Lorosae, 14 Aug. 2002.

51 See statements by Meta Mali in ‘Colimau 2000 tak lawan pemerintah dan gereja’, Suara Timor Lorosae, 3 Sept. 2002.

52 ‘Lagi, 16 pengacau ditangkap’, Suara Timor Lorosae, 16 Jan. 2003; and ‘31 anggota Kolimau 2000 diadili’, Suara Timor Lorosae, 18 Jan. 2003.

53 Reported in ‘18 penganut aliran “ganjil” diadili’, Suara Timor Lorosae, 1 Feb. 2003.

54 Personal communication with former UNTAET Political Affairs Officer, 10 Jan. 2007.

55 After his release from prison, Bruno Magalhães operated a brothel in the Farol neighbourhood of Dili that catered to Malaysian police officers serving with the UN mission.

56 Interview with Bruno Magalhães, 7 Nov. 2006, Dili.

57 With a wry smile, Bruno added that communist ideology is actually good, but is simply not appropriate at present, though it might be in 30 years time.

58 The number 59 is significant for another reason in Timor: in 1959 there was a short-lived rebellion against Portuguese rule.

59 I am grateful to Aderito de Jesus Soares for this information, based on a conversation he had with Bruno Magalhães in Dili in September or October 2006.

60 On copper in Timor, see Gunn, Geoffrey, Timor Loro Sae: 500 years (Macau: Livros do Oriente, 1999), p. 76.

61 This fund was established in 2005 to manage the revenue Timor-Leste receives from offshore oil and natural gas.

62 Paulo Moura, ‘O Socialismo místico de Manuel Tilman’, Público, 1 Apr. 2007; translated by Janet Gunter.

63 Jamison, Fredric, ‘The politics of utopia’, New Left Review, 25 (Jan.–Feb. 2004): 37.

Douglas Kammen is Assistant Professor in the Southeast Asian Studies Programme at the National University of Singapore. Correspondence in connection with this paper should be addressed to: . He would like to thank Judith Bovensiepen, Janet Gunter, Selma Hayati, Leong Kar-yen, Felix Maia, Preston Pentony and Aderito de Jesus Soares for their valuable assistance with this article. Any error of fact or interpretation is the responsibility of the author.

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