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Post-Colonialism in Timor-Leste

States that have been colonised commonly reflect elements of their colonial past. Timor-Leste has the unusual distinction of having been colonised by two different powers in living memory, with each leaving significant elements of themselves imprinted upon Timorese society.

The imprint of Portuguese colonialism is officially recognised and embraced, not least through official language, architectural heritage, religion and a continuing affinity with Lusophone states. Even Tetum, an indigenous trading language developed from the older Tetum Terik, is heavily inflected with Portuguese, particularly in its courtesies.
Despite the often neglectful and sometimes brutal nature of Portuguese colonialism, Timor-Leste’s elites in particular retain fond memories of Portuguese paternalism. Their relationship to the other colonial power is more qualified, yet Indonesia has also left indelible imprints in Timor-Leste.

Timorese cuisine may have many sources, but one does not have to go far to find masakan padang and its many local variants, or bakso or mie. And one can travel from one end of Timor-Leste to the other and speak Indonesian with only slightly less opportunity than using Tetum itself.

Indeed, many malae who believe they speak Tetum often actually speak a blend of Tetum and Indonesian; one would be berani to say otherwise. Although there are indigenous Tetum words for numbers, it is more common to hear them expressed in Indonesian. This was particularly telling during the two presidential electoral rounds, when polling station staff called out the ballot box tag numbers not in one of the official languages of Timor-Leste but in Indonesian.

In a country in which there are so many languages, it is a case of, if it works then it is okay. No-one seems too concerned about what is and what is not ‘official’.
There are, of course, also negative reminders of Indonesia’s influence. The popularity yet nutritional inadequacy of ‘super-mie’ is a problematic learned behaviour from Indonesia, although the adoption by many women of the Indonesian kebaya looks as elegant in Timor-Leste as in Java. Batik is also still popular, not least as a rural head-dress.

The relationship between the armed forces and the police, though much improved, has more than a hint of Indonesian-style rivalry in it. And the fashion of uniforms, particularly of officers, is more than a little reminiscent of the former occupiers. So, too, the Indonesian fascination with uniforms for its public service has found its way into Timor-Leste’s public service. A Timorese friend said, showing off his new public service uniform: ‘It’s good! Do you like it?’ I replied, I hope politely: ‘It is very nice.’ In Indonesia, public service (a term – pembantu umum/public assistant – which Indonesian public servants very much dislike using for its lack of status) uniforms became standardised under Suharto’s New Order and reflected his and his military’s aspirational fascism. It was only disorganisation that stopped them from achieving this dark goal, although there is no doubt that, from time to time, they really tried. There is probably a place for uniforms, in the police and the army. But perhaps that place is not the public service. This is very much an echo of the old Indonesia.

So too political rallies, body paint, political flags and a three day cooling off period before elections were all pioneered for Timor-Leste in Indonesia.
As Timor-Leste’s largest and closest neighbour and occupying a larger part of the archipelago of which Timor-Leste is a part, it is unsurprising that Indonesia’s influence should still be felt so strongly. As Indonesia has changed, too, it is unsurprising that the real politik of good neighbourly relations is giving way to a more genuine friendship.
Indonesia still has many problems and retains some undesirable qualities that Timor-Leste would do well to avoid, corruption and elements of its more organised forms of crime being prime among them. But Indonesia is, in many respects, a state much removed from that which invaded and occupied Timor-Leste for 24 years.

Many observers had noted that it was not the Indonesian people – or peoples, as there are so many varieties of them – that were to blame for what happened in Timor-Leste. That was the responsibility of a repressive authoritarian government propped up by a brutal and self-serving military.

Those days have, largely, gone. There is still some way to go with security sector reform in Indonesia and its democracy has had ups and downs. But it has progressed, generally well, and Indonesia is now a more rather than less democratic state.

Parallel to this, Timor-Leste has also democratised, with many even adopting the old ‘New Order’ term for the democratic process: pesta demokrasi, or festival of democracy. Under Indonesia’s New Order, one needed a fine sense of irony to use this term.
But in Timor-Leste, the festival of democracy has taken on a new, full and rich meaning. The first part of the festival has concluded. We now await the main act.

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