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Resistance, symbolism and the language of stateness in Timor-Leste.


On 20 May 2012, Timor-Leste celebrated the tenth anniversary of being an internationally recognised, sovereign and independent nation-state. A decade earlier Timor-Leste had marked the end of nearly half-a-millennium of foreign rule--Portuguese colonialism, Japanese invasion, Indonesian occupation and lastly a United Nations (UN) interregnum--by holding a midnight ceremony. The symbolic highlight of the ceremony was the lowering of the blue UN interregnum flag and the raising of the red-black-yellow-white Timor-Leste national flag at midnight. While the UN flag came down smoothly, it took a while before the East Timorese guard of honour managed to raise their flag. (1)

This moment of trouble with flying the symbol of the new nation-state foreshadowed the difficulties the young state has continued to face in gaining a hegemonic hold over the singular articulation of the nation. The flag itself has become a symbol of this struggle--not standing for the unity of the nation-state, but rather reflecting the on-going debates on how the nation-state should be defined and by whom. After a turbulent first decade since independence, the idea of 'the state' looms larger than ever before among the people of Timor-Leste. It does so in a variety of ways. The Republica Democratica de Timor-Leste (RDTL), the state internationally recognised since 2002, is one of the main frames of reference for the inhabitants of the territory. People tend to both lament and praise the physical and imagined presence of this state. The state appears both an integrative and divisive frame of reference and this ambivalence is what makes the state so fascinating in East Timor. In this article I will explore the Timorese efforts to establish legitimacy through a range of public symbols and activities, and will also consider their contestation by various non-state Timorese organisations.

The most prominent groups in this respect are martial arts groups (MAGs), ritual arts groups (RAGs) and veterans' organisations. Many originate from the resistance movement against Indonesian occupation and are in part built upon structures and networks from the conflict years (Sousa-Santos 2010). The MAGs, the largest of which are Persaudaraan Setia Hati Terate--Sacred Brotherhood of the Lotus Heart (PSHT), Kera Sakti (Sacred Monkey) and Kung Fu Master, define themselves through the adherence to imported martial arts skills such as pencak silat and kung fu. RAGs, on the other hand, define themselves through the use of 'traditional East Timorese rituals and spirituality'. (2) The main RAGs are 7-7, Colimau 2000 and Korka (also occasionally referred to as KORK--Kmanek Oan Rai Klaran, 'Wise Children of the Land'). The veterans' organisations consist mainly of disaffected former members of the independence struggle, though many of the younger members are not old enough to have participated in the resistance. The two largest veteran's organisations are the Sagrada Familia and Conselho Popular pela Defesa da Republica Democratica de Timor-Leste--Popular Council for the Defence of the Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste (CPD-RDTL). Though reliable numbers are difficult to come by, combined membership of the various groups reaches at least a five-digit number (cf. Myrttinen 2010 and Scambary et al. 2006 for a more comprehensive discussion of the groups).

I argue that the relationship of the various groups to the new, independent nation-state is complex and ambivalent. The groups share many of the visions and myths which lie at the heart of the social imaginary from which the RDTL state draws its legitimacy, including a commitment to the resistance struggle and to visions of a brighter future. Simultaneously, however, they also challenge the legitimacy of the state by questioning its legal basis, by alleging that the state is not living up to its obligations to the population, and by taking over services which many would have expected the state to provide (for example security, social services and commemorations of the independence fighters). Further, while these different groups and movements contest the RDTL state's, they also contest each others', prerogative to interpret and define the form taken by the state, the nation, and Timor-Leste's destiny. In doing so both the state and these various non-state actors follow the same script--they speak the same 'language of stateness' (Hansen and Stepputat 2001: 3-10). Below I discuss the concept 'languages of stateness' before focussing on three key aspects of this 'language' in the Timor-Leste context. These include the role of symbols, the valorisation of the resistance and a millenarian view of the future. I argue that the discourses of the state and of the non-state actors are, on the one hand, antagonistic while also mutually reinforcing.


States enter the lives of their citizens in a multitude of both material and immaterial ways or, as Veena Das (2004:225) puts it, 'as a form of regulation that oscillates between a rational mode and a magical mode of being'. The presence of the state manifests itself in physical structures such as ministries or administrative posts, through the presence of its representatives (at times in uniform) and symbols (e.g. flags and coats of arms) and, more intangibly through its involvement in the everday lives of citizens through the provision of services and in demands of taxation and forms of oversight and enumeration. As Finn Stepputat (2004) examines for the case of local government in Peru, such rituals and symbols are central to conveying and reaffirming the idea and presence of the state.

Thomas Blom Hansen and Finn Stepputat (2001: 3-10) argue that the sum of these rituals, symbols, practices and promises together make up its 'languages of stateness'. Their research agenda is captured in the following quote:

The state not only strives to be a state for its citizen-subjects, it also strives to be a state for itself and is expected by populations, politicians and bureaucrats to employ 'proper' languages of stateness in its practices and symbolic gestures. [...] Let us approach each actual state as a historically specific configuration of a range of languages of stateness, some practical, others symbolic and performative, that have been disseminated, translated, interpreted, and combined in widely differing ways and sequences across the globe (Hansen and Stepputat 2001: 6-7).

In Timor-Leste, I argue, these languages of stateness are mimicked by non-state actors to contest the state's authority and hegemony. By 'becoming like the state' the non-state actors seek to undermine the state while also reinforcing it.


While the majority of East Timorese live in rural regions, in Timor-Leste's vast countryside the state is far less present than in the capital city. Here the state is restricted to health centres, district police stations and administrative posts where the citizens are registered and official meetings are held. The symbols of the state, its flags, monuments, uniformed state-representatives and basic government services are also only haphazardly present. This state of affairs is often lamented (cf. Loch 2007; Traube 2007).

However, the state of Timor-Leste is visibly present in the built environment of the capital Dili, a city that is dominated by administrative buildings such as the colonial-era Palacio do Governo and more recent buildings such as the Chinese-built Presidential Palace and Foreign Ministry. (3) The national flag is prominently on display in front of government offices, joined, in front of the Presidential Palace and the Paldcio do Governo, by the flags of all UN member states on key national holidays and state visits. State-sponsored slogans exhorting national unity, peace and future development are displayed prominently on banners and on street-side murals. (4) Sidewalks have been laid out in the national colours--red, black, white and yellow --while traffic on the streets is increasingly impeded by the large number of state SUVs and four-wheel-drive vehicles emblazoned with Kareta Esmdo (state car) as well as official convoys for which roads are routinely blocked. The RDTL state also enters the lives of its citizens in other ways, for example through ID cards, the provision of services to annual commemorations of independence (in particular the struggles that led to it) underscored with flag-raisings and parades. These visible signs of the presence of the RDTL state can be read as a message to the local population, to the international family of nation-states and the state itself that after 24 years of struggle and in spite of subsequent crises, the Timor-Leste state is now a manifest reality and a full-fledged, recognised member of the international community.

The ways in which MAGs, RAGs and veterans' organisations underline their presence are reminiscent of these material and immaterial manifestations of the RDTL state. The degree to which they are able to do this depends on the size of the group; the elements they choose to use (e.g. parades, uniforms, ID cards, flags) also differ between the groups.

Where the state has representative buildings in the shape of ministries, governmental palaces and administrative posts, many of the larger non-state groups have established nationwide networks of 'co-ordination posts' where members meet, distinguishable by the respective flags, signs or logos of the groups. These symbols are employed especially by the MAGs and RAGs, as territorial markers of the area under their control. Graffiti is most prominent) Where some representatives of the state, such as police officers and military, mark their presence through uniforms and, on occasion, parades, so do the members of the various groups. Uniforms range from military-style ones in the case of the veterans' organisations to Japanese martial arts-style outfits of MAGs to identical t-shirts; parades are organised as shows of force. Less visibly, membership in the groups is affirmed by laminated ID cards distributed to members (e.g. PSHT), ritual scarifications or tattoos (e.g. 5-5, 7-7, Santo Antonio group) or other insignia similarly imbued with power, such as a red band in the case of Sagrada Familia (author's interviews and observations; see also Myrttinen 2010 and Scambary et al. 2006).

Beyond paralleling such symbolic signs and manifestations of the state, non-state actors have also begun providing services that should fall within the purview of the state. (6) The most contested one of these services is informal security provision, as this challenges the Timor-Leste state's already shaky monopoly on the use of coercive power (TLAVA 2009). This monopoly has not only been implicitly questioned by non-state actors providing security where the police are unable to but also explicitly by the international community when responsibility for internal and external security provision was only slowly transferred to the national authorities post-independence, only to be transferred back to UN Police and the International Stabilisation Force following the 2006 crisis. Responsibility for internal security provision was only fully transferred back to the East Timorese police in 2011. As in other fields of governance, the line between state and non-state is often difficult to draw: State actors such as police officers, for instance, may also be simultaneously active in MAGs or RAGs while also adding to their income by working as private security guards after finishing their police shifts.

Veterans' organisations have set up their own funds to provide pensions and other services for members who do not receive (or receive insufficient) state support, such as organising agricultural co-operatives (author's interviews, Dili, 2010 and 2012). These efforts are not necessarily seen by the groups themselves as challenging the RDTL state but rather augmenting its efforts at nation-building. In the words of a representative of a veterans' organisation, 'our group does not wish to destroy; we wish to help build the nation' (author's interview, Dili, November 2010). The state has not, however, seen these various efforts at supplanting it as the main service provider in a positive light. While state crackdowns on the activities of non-state actors have been mostly framed in the language of re-asserting state sovereignty, political expediency often seems to play a greater role in determining which group's state-like activities are seen as a threat and which ones are tacitly allowed to continue.


In the Timor-Leste context, a key element in the languages of stateness employed by both state and non-state actors is the 'mystical' and 'spiritual' meaning (to use my informants' terms) read into symbols and rituals employed. As in many post-colonial states in the region, the world of spirits and of the supernatural is closely intertwined with everyday life, also in the political realm. Several key representatives of the RDTL, including party leaders, parliamentarians, rebels, prime ministers and Presidents, make references to the realm of the spiritual and magical, at times insinuating or openly laying claim to having supernatural powers, such as powers of invisibility, therianthropy (shape-shifting into animals) or communicating with ancestral spirits or God (author's interviews; Hohe 2002; Kammen 2009 and Nygaard-Christensen 2011). Similarly, numerous leaders of MAGs, RAGs and veterans' organisations also claim access to magic powers, including powers of invincibility, invisibility, black magic or creating duplicates of one's-self (author's interviews; Myrttinen 2010: 261-263).

Beyond the personal powers, objects such as amulets, flags, pictures of saints or insignia are considered as being lulik, i.e. sacred or having spiritual power, and are revered publicly or in private (e.g. as protective amulets). Historically in Portuguese Timor, the flags of the colonial master were often considered lulik (Hicks 2004; Hohe 2002) and a great amount of meaning and power was read into them. As Hohe (2002: 79-80) describes in detail, party flags are often laden with similar symbolic and 'magic' meaning, as also echoed in an interview with Manuel Tilman, head of the KOTA party, with the Portuguese newspaper O Publico, quoted by Kammen (2009: 407):
 Manuel Tilman is in front of the flag of the party he runs, KOTA,
 explaining its meaning. It is not easy. 'Black represents the
 darkness, white the light ... There is a movement from the darkness
 to the light. Then we have the numbers 8 and 1. And 8 is magic,
 also among the Hindus and Buddhists. On its side, it means infinity
 in algebra. The 1 signifies that we believe in just one God.'

 'This flag has existed in Timor since the first men, 6,000 years
 BCE.' The same flag? 'Exactly the same. It has existed since the
 beginning, in keeping with our suppositions, representing, now, our
 difficulties ... There were two confederations--that of Lorosomo
 [sic, Loromonu], with 16 kingdoms, and that of Belos, with 36. Each
 one had a king, but there was a treaty to divide the powers.
 Lorosomo [sic] had the political and religious powers. The one on
 this side, the Belos, the military and administrative. That is why
 we are so irascible.... Politically we are separated. But we are
 just one nation. I have a project of unification, but it is not for
 the moment. On the other side, they also know and adopt this flag.'

As the example of the flags underscores, the category of lulik is not closed to the 'traditional' and 'local' but open to new imported elements, e.g. Portuguese flags. Among the MAGs and RAGs, and to an extent the veterans' organisations, local traditional and imported influences are mixed in symbols and rituals which both affirm membership in the group and, in some cases, bestow magic powers. (7) More mundane yet more 'state-like' symbols are also used for this purpose, such as laminated cards confirming membership in the particular group. Other symbols and icons have been brought in from further afield, be it from the saints of the Catholic Church or the imagery of global media culture, including male action heroes and symbols of rebellion, such as Rambo, van Damme, Bruce Lee, Bob Marley or Che Guevara. (8)

Like non-state groups, state institutions also draw on traditional and Catholic symbols for power. The national police force, Policia Nacional de Timor-Leste (PNTL) is a good example of this. While both the PNTL in Aileu and the Public Order Battalion (Batalhao de Ordem Publica) in Dili hold live crocodiles (often considered a lulik animal) as mascots, the PNTL district headquarters in neighbouring Liquici is watched over by a statue of Saint Anthony of Lisbon, patron saint of the PNTL.


The end result of these parallel systems of secular and mystical claims to stateness is, as Hansen and Stepputat (2006:306) put it, a 'fragmented system of authority' where, as it were, there is a plurality of voices speaking in languages of stateness. Apart from mirroring each other, these languages of stateness employed both by the RDTL state and various non-state actors, be it through symbols, rituals and acts such as service provision, also lead to a situation of contestation over the prerogative to utilise these languages and define their meaning. This contestation on the one hand leads to a questioning of the state but also to re-affirmation of its centrality as a frame of reference.

National flags and, to a lesser extent, coats of arms, are among the most visible symbols of statehood and, in Timor-Leste, among the most contested (see also Hohe 2002: 79-80). The red-yellow-black-white national flag was adopted following the 1975 declaration of independence, and according to Article 15 of the RDTL Constitution, the colours are described as symbolising the following: 'Yellow--the traces of colonialism in Timor-Leste's history; Black --the obscurationism [sic.] that needs to be overcome; Red--the struggle for national liberation; White--peace.' (Governu Timor-Leste 2012).

The flag is however seen by many as being too close to the Fretilin party flag (which has the same colours and a similar design) and therefore unacceptable (Author's interviews; Lost Boy 2009). Various groups have proposed alternatives to the current flag, including a proposal by the head of the RAG Colimau 2000 to incorporate the Christian cross in the flag to underline the importance of Catholicism to Timor-Leste society (Kammen 2009: 403). (9) Others, including CPD-RDTL, however, claim the current flag as theirs, and feel that Fretilin, the party which was at the forefront of the independence struggle, has unrightfully sought to monopolise it. The Sagrada Familia, though politically mostly aligned with groups opposing Fretilin, nonetheless continues to use both the Fretilin and the national flag in its initiation ceremonies, thereby appropriating the history of resistance linked with both for its own goals (author's interviews, cf. Hohe 2002: 79).

The current coat-of-arms, meanwhile, was adopted in 2007 and differs from the previous one most notably through the inclusion of an AK-47 assault rifle, slightly reminiscent of the Mozambican coat-of-arms (Peake 2008). (10) The adoption of the new coat-of-arms came at a politically unfortunate time, as it coincided with the peak of widespread critique of the so-called 'Maputo clique' around former Prime Minister Marl Alkatiri (International Crisis Group 2007: I). The name stemmed from the fact that Alkatiri had spent much of the Indonesian occupation period in exile in Mozambique. His detractors, which included a significant number of MAG and RAG members, accused the 'clique' of trying to impose 'Mozambican-style communism' in the country--for which the changes to the coat-of-arms were paraded amongst the 'proof' (author's interviews, 2006-2007; Borgerhoff 2012).

The state as well as the MAGs, RAGs and veterans' organisations use rituals and symbols to affirm their legitimacy, and in many ways these mirror each other to the extent that the prerogative of the state to use a certain symbol is questioned. These rituals and symbols are linked to the harnessing power, be it the spiritual power of ancestors or the more mundane distributive and coercive powers of the nation-state. As with the case of the national flag and coat-of-arms, much of the contention is linked to a particular power, namely the power of defining who is or was part of the resistance and thus part of the founding myth of the East Timorese nation-state.


'To build the country we dream of we have ahead of us battles so hard and stringent as the battles we have had in the past ...'

--President Taur Matan Ruak, at the swearing-in of the Government, 08.08.2012

Given its long and bloody struggle for independence, it is not surprising that resistance plays a key part in the narrative of the state in Timor-Leste. Although internationally the country is considered to have become independent on May 20, 2002, this date is officially known as the 'day of the restoration of independence.' In the official reading of Timor-Leste history, independence was gained through the ritual act of proclaiming independence on November 28, 1975, nine days prior to the all-out Indonesian invasion. In the months prior to the proclamation, the shambolic and haphazard Portuguese decolonisation process had led to the emergence of new political parties, chief among them the left-leaning Fretilin (Frente Revolucindria de Timor-Leste Independente) and the conservative UDT (Uniao Democratica Timorense). With political tensions rising, UDT mounted an attempted coup d'etat on 11 August, 1975, followed by a counter-coup by Fretilin and a brief but bloody civil war (see CAVR 2009). Fretilin emerged victorious, but the scars of the conflict continue to reverberate until today.

The new state, as imagined by the young revolutionaries of 1975, drew heavily on the nationalist, leftist and anti-colonial narratives of the day (see especially Hill 2002). These imported leftist influences were mixed with autochthonous concepts, such as that of Maubereism, drawing on local tradition and custom. In the period of Portuguese colonisation, Maubere was a derogatory term for indigenous, 'backward' peasants; its political re-definition post-indepence has stressed the empowerment of the rural population and drawn upon (idealised) rural traditions of self-rule and mutual aid (see also Borgerhoff 2012: 47-49; Hill 2002: 75; Ramos-Horta 1987).

Following the Indonesian invasion, Fretilin/Falintil attempted to keep up the functions of the nascent nation-state in the areas under its control. To the extent it was possible, Fretilin also ran political campaigns in Maubereism, on women's equality and overcoming 'backward' rural traditions in these areas. More ominously, the party also organised purges and trials against those suspected of not showing enough revolutionary zeal. These efforts at upholding a state were however crushed in the early 1980s by the slow but relentless Indonesian military onslaught. The resistance movement ended up without any territorial sovereignty yet maintained the goal of restoring Timor-Leste independence and importantly its hold over the political imaginary of the nation. The armed struggle continued until 1999, importantly supported by growing civilian resistance (Braithwaite et al. 2012; Hill 2002).

Once the current Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao took over the leadership of the Falintil in 1980, the guerrilla slowly changed from being the armed wing of the Fretilin party to an armed wing of a much broader independence movement. A major step in this process was bringing the guerrilla under the command of the new umbrella organisation CNRM (Conselho Nacional da Resistencia Maubere--National Council of the Maubere Resistance) in 1987. The aim was to consolidate both Fretilin and non-Fretilin resistance groups in one organisation. As the term 'maubere' was seen as being ideologically too close to Fretilin, it was dropped in 1998 and the umbrella formation was renamed CNRT (Conselho Nacional da Resistencia Timorense--National Council of the Timorese Resistance). (11) It was under the CNRT banner that 78.5 per cent of the East Timorese population voted for independence in 1999. However, this re-labelling of the resistance was not accepted by all, as I will discuss below.

Following the restoration of independence, as the official history would have it, the new RDTL state defined itself largely through the narrative of the 'common' independence struggle, in which the veterans of the struggle play a key role. As Gordon Peake (2008: 12) puts it: 'One of the founding mythological narratives of the new state was the role of the resistance in securing its arrival'. The 'valorisation' of the resistance was enshrined in the new constitution (RDTL 2002). In addition to the prestige and honour of the 'veteran' status, the new state also promised financial and material benefits to the heroes of the struggle. The process of defining and registering of veterans has however been highly polarising and politicised (International Crisis Group 2011 and 2013; Roll 2011).

The memory of the struggle, its heroes and its sacrifices are constitutive of the state in a symbolic manner as well. Many of the streets of the capital are named after heroes of the resistance and numerous town squares have monuments commemorating the nation and its dead, which are also reflected in numerous national holidays. The memorialisation of the resistance not only serves to honour the fallen heroes and to form the narrative of the state, but also is a reminder to the living to live up to the lofty ideals projected onto this struggle, for example in commemorative speeches.

The resistance narratives of the RDTL state tend to resonate well with sentiments among the men and few women involved in the MAGs, RAGs and veterans' organisations. While many of the former members of the resistance who are active in these groups highlight the importance of the resistance to an even higher degree than the state itself, no small number of them feel marginalised by and disaffected with the post-conflict settlement (Myrttinen 201 la and 2011 b; Roll 2011; Sousa-Santos 2010). This paradox is especially apparent when looking at those who were members of the civilian resistance, who were of the younger resistance generation, or those who were politically marginalised through factional struggles within the Falintil--such as the members of the CPD-RDTL and the Sagrada Familia. They all demand recognition from the state and from society for their role in the resistance. In my interviews with members of these groups, almost inevitably the phrase that 'we have not received a cent from the state' would come up, followed by demands for financial compensation. (12) Above and beyond compensation and respect, veteran leaders have also used their status in attempts to rise above the constraints of law, e.g. in their business activities (International Crisis Group 2011 and 2013; Timor Post 2010).

These financial and material benefits are however not the only demand placed on the state; the demands are also symbolic. The influential Sagrada Familia, which sees itself as representing the interests of marginalised veterans, has been challenging the state's policy of recognising former combatants. Frustrated with what it feels is insufficient attention paid to former combatants, the group has begun collecting the remains of several hundred fallen Falintil fighters and storing them with a view to a later reburial. This practice has run against government efforts to honour dead independence fighters at a central location, thus contesting the RDTL's efforts to define the nation through its memory politics (author's interviews, Dili July 2012). (13) Given the importance of ancestral worship in Timor-Leste, however, the efforts go beyond merely the politics of symbols. Tanja Hohe (2002: 75) notes the political appropriation of the 'potent dead' (to use the term by Chambert-Loir and Reid (2002)) by Fretilin during its campaign ahead of the Constituent Assembly elections:
 This hero-cult is easily linked to the structure of an ancestral
 cult. Ancestors that have died during war activity are usually
 perceived as the most powerful and dangerous. To pay them respect
 and honour is to ensure support of their powers for the survival of
 society. The relationship of the living towards the ancestors is
 hence crucial. Conversely, the strong ancestors legitimize
 political authority.

Like the RDTL state, especially RAGs and veterans' organisations draw upon the independence struggle, its dead and living members, both for their legitimacy and for formulating demands in the present. This resistance struggle-centred discourse is however not only about recognising and compensating past efforts and sacrifices. Rather, the struggle is often not seen as being over.


Although the Falintil guerrilla was officially disbanded in 2001, many of the members of the veterans' groups do not consider this demobilisation as being valid. This sentiment came strongly to the fore publicly in August 2011, when the government announced that it would demobilise 236 members of the Falintil (International Crisis Group 2011: 13-14). In the ceremony, the leading figures of the armed resistance were given new uniforms and rank badges. (14)

While the 'demobilisation' of members of a guerrilla force which had already been officially abolished more than a decade earlier caused confusion, it also struck a raw nerve. The two main veterans' organisations CPD-RDTL and Sagrada Familia publicly denounced the ceremony. The essence of their criticism is caught in the phrase the Falintil shared with other lusophone insurgents: a luta continua, 'the struggle continues'. As Cornelio 'L-7' Gama, Member of Parliament and leader of the Sagrada Familia, put it: 'We [are] totally against this demobilisation program, because it is not the time to demobilise veterans or FALINTIL.' (Diario Nacional 2011).

The CPD-RDTL's rejection of the demobilisation has even deeper roots. It considers the 1998 reformation of the CNRM into the CNRT as having been illegal, considers the post-independence armed forces as being illicit and demands that the state goes back to the 1975 constitution, thus powerfully questioning the current constitutional order (International Crisis Group 2013; Myrttinen 2011a). The organisation demands 'real' independence, a demand which is also echoed by many of the RAGs and MAGs. The calls for 'real' independence are often linked with demands for withdrawal of the UN or with disquiet over the presence of formerly anti-independence politicians in government (author's interviews 2011 and 2012). Similar to widespread demands for 'justice', the demands for 'real independence' are vague in substance but nonetheless heartfelt. They are expressions of disappointment with a post-conflict settlement which did not live up to past high expectations of independence ushering in a new era of plenty and of equality (Kammen 2009; Myrttinen 2008). The struggle, therefore, must continue until these expectations are met (Myrttinen 2011 a). Following the loss of his seat in parliament in the 2012 elections, Sagrada Familia leader L-7, symbolised his readiness to do just that by returning to his constituency and hoisting the flag of the disbanded Falintil again (Author's interviews 2012).

It is however not only the non-state actors who perpetuate the language of the struggle--it is also embedded in narratives of state institutions and their representatives. Many of the slogans of the dominant pro-independence party Fretilin and the armed guerrilla movement Falintil (Forfas Armadas de Libertafdo Nacional de Timor-Leste) were adopted directly from like-minded national liberation movements of the time, such as the ubiquitous 'a luta continua' or the 'Falintil are the fish and the people are the sea'. (15) The latter is still used by the new national armed forces, F-FDTL (Falintil-Forcas de Defesa de Timor-Leste), which sees itself as the mantle-bearer of the Falintil, thus perpetuating the language of the continuous struggle. Like the many of the non-state groups, the F-FDTL draws upon the legacy of the struggle to claim for itself a special role in developing the future of the nation (Myrttinen 2011 a).

As was evident again in the 2012 Timor-Leste presidential elections, many of the key representatives of the state also continue to draw upon their role in the resistance for legitimacy. In predicting his victory, for example, former Falintil Commander and elected President Taur Matan Ruak explained to voters why he would triumph over his rival candidate Lu-Olo of Fretilin (Di'ak Ka Lae 2012):
 The President for the term 2012-17 is Matan Ruak (two sharp eyes in
 Tetum), Two Stars, Number two, Second Round. Why am I saying this?
 [...] I want to tell you, Brother Lu-Olo's time has not yet
 arrived. Before in the jungles I ruled over him, and now I will
 rule over him again. Because of this you FRETILIN people here, vote
 for the rooster that is the hero, not the rooster that has passed
 his time.

In the Timor-Leste context, the rooster is a potent symbol of masculinity (Hicks 2004: 105-108), and Taur Matan Ruak drew on his heroic resistance masculinity and his senior command position to cement his claims to the presidency. While Taur Matan Ruak thus pulled rank on his former subordinate, Lu-Olo did the same in the run-up to the parliamentary elections in July 2012. Following the emergence of a Fretilin faction called 'Fretilin Resitenzia', Lu-Olo stated that there was only one 'resistance', and that was the Fretilin party led by him (Timor Post 2012).

Both non-state and state institutions and the people involved in them thus use narratives of the resistance to legitimise their social and political positions, their demands upon society and their respective institutions--be it the Timor-Leste state itself, the F-FDTL or one of the RAGs or veterans' organisations. The assertion that the struggle is not yet over and that therefore the resistance fighters need to continue is also linked to visions of the future inherent both in the developmental policies of the state and the demands of non-state actors.


The two visions of the state and the non-state groups for the future of Timor-Leste share a common, often strong undercurrent of millenarianism. I use the term 'millenarian' here in the sense that political discourse in Timor-Leste is often imbued with hopes and yearnings for a complete and sudden transformation of society (e.g. material well-being, justice, cosmic harmony) which are projected onto the political project of the state. (16) As Kammen (2009) and Traube (2007) point out, these local expectations for a better future are often linked to messianic, charismatic figures. These can be local charismatic 'prophets' (Traube 2007), a charismatic RAG leader (Kammen 2009), the late, charismatic mutinying Major Alfredo Reinado (Myrttinen 2008; Nygaard-Christensen 2011) or the current charismatic Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao. What is striking about these millenarian hopes is that in all of these cases it is the state that is seen as the vehicle for achieving them: it is the state that must compensate the people for their sacrifices; it is the state that must provide justice; it is the state that must provide development. (17) The demands are, like the demands for 'real' independence, vague, comprehensive, and intense. They do not relate to, for example, justice in a particular case but rather in an all-encompassing way (author's interviews, 2007).

In the case of the RDTL state, images of redemption are mostly formulated in grandiose, petrodollar-funded development as well as the provision of peace and national unity exhorted in official slogans. (18) In many ways, these dreams and visions echo the Southeast Asian 'developmentalism' of the Suharto-era in Indonesia, Malaysia under Mahatir bin Mohamad and Singapore under Lee Kuan Yew. Outside of the state, the visions have a more local texture, even if the goals are similar. As described by Traube (2007) these can be general demands for a 'repayment' of dues for the sacrifices brought forth during the years of the struggle or more concrete demands for economic benefits and recognition by MAGs and RAGs for their role in supporting various sections of the political elite (Myrttinen 201 la; Pawelz and Myrttinen 2012 and Sousa-Santos 2010). The future should be one of justice, of material benefits and of inclusive social and cosmic harmony.


My argument in this article has been that both the Timor-Leste State and non-state actors share a common 'language of the state.' It is a language in which symbols and rituals, imbued with local meaning play a key role. This local meaning is on the one hand often linked to concepts of spiritual power that is read into the rituals and symbols and on the other hand to their historical link to the years of the independence struggle. Both the state and non-state actors subscribe to a founding myth of the nation in which the resistance and its role in the struggle play a central role. What remains contested, however, is who gets to define this myth and the symbols and rituals linked to it. This is not only a debate about the past, but also one about access to economic benefits, social standing and political power in the present. Importantly, however, the centrality of the struggle narrative and of its protagonists is also projected into the future: it is in the hands of the past, present and future resistance fighters to fulfil the dreams of a truly independent, just, harmonious, developed nation-state of Timor-Leste. Both the state and non-state actors thus speak, in many ways, the same language of stateness. What remains contested among them is whose prerogative it is to use and define it.

DOI: 10.1002/ocea.5021


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Henri Myrttinen

Mauerpark Institute, Berlin


(1.) The incident was recalled seven years later when the guard of honour at the 2009 Independence Day commemoration accidentally dropped the flag, leading to widespread fears of upcoming unrest--much as the awkward 2002 flag-raising was in retrospect seen as a portent of the violent political crisis of 2006-2008 (Lost Boy 2009; Notes from Abroad & Home 2009).

(2.) Author's interview with a RAG leader, Dili, October 2007. Interestingly, he placed the traditions in a national (East Timorese) context rather than tracing them to particular cultural or ethno-linguistic groups (e.g. Bunaq, Fataluku, Mambae, etc). As discussed elsewhere (Myrttinen 2010) in more detail, the 'traditional' elements can include many imported and contemporary elements.

(3.) The buildings in and of themselves are also a reflection of various stages of the political history of Timor- Leste, such as Portuguese colonialism, Indonesian occupation, interim UN administration or the increasing role of PR China in the post-independence period. A comprehensive politico-architectural history of the city is however beyond the scope of this article.

(4.) Prominent slogans over the past years have included "Timor Ida Deit' (There is only one Timor), 'Paz, Unidade ho Justisia' (Peace, Unity and Justice) and the English-language 'Good-Bye Conflict? Hello Development?'.

(5.) These can be as simple as the name of the organisation daubed onto a wall to more elaborate murals or representations of the 'mystical' (as several interviewees put it) symbol of the group, such as the 'sacred heart'-style motifs of Korka, Kera Sakti or PSHT. Often, the names or symbols are painted in conjunction with slogans or other graffiti, including depictions of idols such as Bruce Lee or Che Guevara.

(6.) These notions of what should and should not be the responsibility of the state tend to be informed by Weberian concepts of, for example, state monopoly on violence which bear little resemblance to the de facto role of the state, be it in the colonial past or the present. Nonetheless, this 'Westphalian straitjacket' (Buzan and Little 2001:24) still holds immense sway over the way national state actors, international state-builders but also local recipients of state services conceive of what the state should be doing.

(7.) Common elements of initiation rituals are oaths sworn upon flags, the use of lulik and Catholic sacred objects and animal sacrifice (author's interviews). The kakalok or 'numbers' groups such as 5-5 or 7-7 use ritual scarifications in which two rows of scars are made on the skin, corresponding to the number of the group, and 'magic' powder is inserted (Scambary et al. 2006).

(8.) In the context of Sierra Leone, Danny Hoffman (2011 : 67) links the identification of young men with these icons with 'the potential of male youth to seize power when the existing order denies them recognized forms of authority', connecting them to 'extraordinary powers that one might harness through imitation' (ibid.: 249)

(9.) In my own interviews with Colimau 2000 members, they stressed the 'deep spiritual nature' of their organisation, in which Catholicism was blended with local animist influences (Myrttinen 2010).

(10.) As the RDTL Government Website specifies, 'The set consisting of the automatic rifle (AK-47/Galaxi model), the rama inan (arch) [sic.--what is meant is a bowl and the diman (spear), symbolizes the values of centuries of resistance struggle for national liberation and the people's self-defense for the honor and dignity of the sovereignty of the State' (Governu Timor-Leste 2012).

(11.) The original CNRT should not be confused with the current political party with the same acronym, the Congresso Nacional da Reconstrcao Timorense (National Congress of Timorese Reconstruction), set up by Xanana Gusmao in 2007.

(12.) This may not need to be true in the literal sense, though, but was rather an expression of disappointment with the state of things. In 2011, the allocation of funds to veterans in fact amounted to around six per cent of the state budget (International Crisis Group 2011).

(13.) A possible compromise that came up in the interviews would be to inter the remains collected by Sagrada Familia in local ossuaries (ossuarios) which the state is planning to erect at the district level (author's interviews, Dili, July 2012).

(14.) In the event, four refused to be honoured as they did not agree with the ranks that were assigned to them (International Crisis Group 2011).

(15.) A variation of the classic Maoist dictum of guerrilla warfare on '[...] the relationship that should exist between the people and the troops. The former may be likened to water the latter to the fish who inhabit it.' (Mao 2000: 93).

(16.) The millenarian politics are, however, not merely home-grown. Both colonial masters, Portugal and Indonesia have historically had strong millenarian movements (e.g. Sebastianism and the trope of Ratu Adil, respectively) Both the socialism that influenced Fretilin and the 'developmentalism' of Suharto's Orde Baru can also be seen as essentially millenarian.

(17.) See also Alexander Loch (2007: 456-460) for a discussion of widespread demands on the state, which Loch sees as an attitude of 'governo tenke halo' ('the government must take care of it').

(18.) Presentations of state projects regularly include computer-generated images of high-rise buildings, suburban garden cities and multi-lane highways. See for example the graphic representations of the planned Tasi Mane development project at
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Date:Nov 1, 2013
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