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Democracy as Lulic?

Amongst Timor-Leste’s traditions, there is none more central to how Timorese understand themselves in relation to their world than that of lulic, or that which is ‘sacred’.

While a sense of lulic is not always visible, especially in life that is affected by elements of modernity, such as in a town or in Dili, it continues to lie under the surface for many, perhaps most, Timorese.

The idea of lulic can apply to place, to the relationship between things, such as the sun and the moon or the earth and the sky, to relationships between people, to life and death and social obligations and to symbols of authority and social organisation.

As traditions evolve and change to incorporate new elements, so too has lulic changed to incorporate such symbols.

Old Portuguese swords may be considered as lulic, as can flags that have a particular value or importance.

This is not so unusual, though, as even Westerners attribute value beyond the material to many objects, including national flags, anthems, life events and so on.

Among many Westerners, too, while many have never fully engaged with political processes, many others have suggested that this can have a sense of, if not ‘sacred duty’, then at least a strong moral obligation.

Some of us malai vote because we have to, but some of us vote because we care about what our vote means and the extent to which it can contribute to shaping outcomes about how we and people we care about live.

In Timor-Leste, people have a much more keenly developed sense of the importance of voting than most malai could ever begin to comprehend.

Most malai value the right to vote and the idea of democratic processes, but it has not been critical to the lives of most of them.

In Timor-Leste, however, the opportunity to vote in a process that very closely reflected their true wishes – even though it was profoundly compromised by violence and destruction – ended 24 years of occupation and oppression, in which perhaps a quarter of the population had lost their lives.

 It gave voice to the voiceless.

The day of that vote, in which people showed great courage just to attend polling stations, displayed a profound sense of ownership of their own fate.

For a people so long and so deeply repressed, to vote was a true act of liberation, for themselves and for their community.

Indeed, the vote could be said to have had something of a transcendental quality about it.

As with attending church and other major social moments, in 1999 everyone dressed in their best clothing.

They walked through the night, often with candles as their light.

Their identification cards were prized possessions held up with pride, defiance and hope.

The price for this magical day was paid in blood and ashes. It is now commemorated as a national holiday.

The votes for the constituent assembly in 2001 and the presidency in 2002 were also important, but perhaps a little more procedural as Timorese worked through this ‘what next’ process.

But by 2007, after a few years of mounting frustration, problems and eventually cathartic violence, they voted again.

The 2007 elections were less happy than many would have wished for, but they produced a substantial change in Timor-Leste’s political landscape.

The people of Timor-Leste had reconfirmed that their vote had real meaning.

They valued it, used it and, this time, had the opportunity to celebrate it.

The people of Timor-Leste have now embarked on a new round of elections to determine the shape of the government and political actors who will represent them, their aspirations and their community.

Politicians are being held to account.

Their vote has the power to confirm  continuity or change.

Perhaps it is the romanticism of a malae to suggest that the process of voting has developed something of a lulic value. .

But, perhaps, it may also be that the overwhelming majority of Timorese people regard the chance to vote as a sacred duty, to continue to respect the memory of all of those who have passed struggling for such an opportunity, as well as to enhance the lives of those with us and those who are yet to come.

So perhaps democracy, as a practice and an idea, represented by symbols, has begun to be incorporated into the inner lives of the Timorese people.

Perhaps, just perhaps, democracy has begun to develop a sense of the lulic.

If the democratic process has, indeed, begun to develop some of these qualities, Timor-Leste will be joining those other countries of the world that have embedded the importance of this process deep in their world view.

Like past Portuguese symbols of another political process and another era, voting has become consolidated in the lives of the people of Timor-Leste.

Whether or not this is, then, lulic ultimately does not matter.

What matters is that the people of Timor-Leste have taken democracy to their hearts.

This can only have a beneficial outcome for the 2012 elections process and for the people and the country.   
*Professor Kingsbury is co-ordinating the Australia Timor-Leste Friendship Network observers mission to East Timor’s 2012 elections

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