Printer Friendly

The clash of paradigms: international administration and local political legitimacy in East Timor.


The paradigm of international intervention to rebuild states that have failed, or to build them where they have not existed, constitutes the Westphalian model with governing institutions developed as a result of European history, including a national executive, legislature, and judiciary. It was the standard of measurement of collapse in Somalia, and the basis of large-scale deployments in Cambodia and the Balkans. The end-state of such operations has invariably been an internationally supervised or organized and conducted "free" and "fair" election. This democratic impulse has become institutionalized in missions deployed in the wake of the Cold War, including its consideration as a human right. (2) However, the track record of these exercises, resulting supposedly in democracy, having taken hold after the international community withdraws, has defied their purpose.

The idea of the democratic state is that it functions as an entity in which the population participates. What seems to be frequently overlooked is the fact that most populations have never experienced a democratic state nor are their internal paradigms based on liberal-style democratic principles. This is even more true for populations whose paradigms, through which everything new is filtered, came into being in a non-state environment. Traditional society developed to be able to confront a different set of daily and political challenges from the "outside".

To conduct successful state-building, it is therefore crucial for the international community to understand local social structures and ideas of political authority and legitimacy--that is, the local paradigms. Based on this kind of knowledge, a new state-structure can be set up and the implementation of it can happen in a way that will gain local recognition. A government or state-bodies that do not fit with the population's ideas of political legitimacy might be in accordance with international human rights, but contradict local participation. The international community adheres to its own values, but the population ends up with a government and state-bodies that are not accepted within the worldview of the local population (though capable of formal recognition by the international community).

The recent attempt at state-building in East Timor illustrates this clearly. The Transitional Administration built institutions based on the assumption that there were no strong concepts and ideas existing on the local level, and that the population just had to be "taught" democracy. This ignored the fact that human beings grow up in a social environment with powerful ideas of how to classify and understand their world. Local perception of practices was perceived as cultural "folklore" and was not accorded much significance. Therefore, international attempts often failed or had marginal impact.

If planners had accounted for local paradigms, Timorese history, and the evolution of local power structures and political ideas, they might have realized the resilience and stability of local structures. The actual scale of the hurdles of democratization and state-building would have become apparent.

This story can be told through the prism of local political leadership in East Timor. Village and sub-district chiefs and political authorities on these levels are clashing on points of traditional ideas and modernity. These power-holders are the most influential and visible ones for the majority of the population. Hence, it is at these levels one can follow the fate of democratization. Social structures and concepts of political authority are the basic matrix on which the holistic socio-cosmos of the local populations is built.

Local Social Structures and Political Concepts

In traditional East Timorese societies, the kinship and marriage system forms an important basis of the social structure. The core concepts of kinship are formed through the idea of a group of people connected through "blood-relations", who make up a lineage or extended family. This group is perceived and defined through the idea of forming a "House". Members are related unilineally through either the father's or mother's side and they refer themselves back to an origin through common ancestors. These ancestors were the first ones to settle on the land. Often, they had separated themselves from another group in the past to establish a new "House", which is represented by an actual building, the "sacred house". The structure of the sacred house expresses socio-cosmic ideas. Heirlooms, sacred items of the ancestors, are kept in it. The oldest living representatives of the House guard these.

A House is an endogamous unit. A well-defined system of marriages connects Houses with each other. (3) It provides a House with "Wife Giver" Houses and "Wife Taker" Houses. This system is asymmetric and, therefore, no reciprocity between two Houses is possible--one cannot give a woman back to the same House that has given a woman. One's Wife Giver and Wife Taker Houses are well defined; they are remembered and play an important role in social life. Once a marriage relation between two Houses is established, it is expected to continue over the following generations. An asymmetric system requires at least three Houses to form a system that can function autonomously. Nevertheless, often more than three Houses are involved in marriage exchanges. New marriage relations between Houses are used to create a peaceful connection (for example, after war). The wider the circles of Houses involved in marriages, the greater the guarantee for peace or for many allies during a time of war. The disruption of peace establishe d by marriage is a social threat and punished by the most feared ancestral powers.

This system was especially important for the definition of a relationship between kingdoms. Timor was divided into a significant number of autonomous kingdoms, each consisting of several Houses located in a specific area. A kingdom was headed by a political ruler, the liurai. The territory was defined through ancestral land claims. Members of Houses mostly lived geographically separated, in the form of small settlements. Conceptually, all Houses of a kingdom were ordered hierarchically, according to their sequence of arrival on the land. The highest House was usually the one whose ancestors had either appeared on the land first or had migrated from another place to "open new land. The second and third Houses will have arrived afterwards but are mostly still seen as "old and sacred" Houses. Some of the subsequent Houses would have separated themselves from the older ones and are therefore described as "younger or smaller House of X". Some of them do not own a sacred house, as they are satellites of an older House.

The hierarchical order of Houses defines social relationships--for example, the marriage relationships among them. Older Houses are more likely to be classified as Wife Givers to younger Houses, because Wife Givers are closely connected with the value of fertility, crucial for the continuation of society (without fertile land and fertile women, society would cease to exist), and is usually classified in the category of "old/precedence/land/femaleness".

Within the hierarchical order of Houses, a distribution of tasks and responsibilities exists. The oldest House, with its close connection to the land and the first ancestors, is responsible for fertility. To assure society with fertility, close contact with the ancestral powers is required. The first House, therefore, holds ritual power and plays the most crucial role in all ceremonial activities. In opposition to these ritual tasks stand political issues. The second, or one of the Houses lower in the hierarchy, thus provides the king or the political head of a settlement. These political authorities are responsible for defining the borders of the land, for relations with other kingdoms, for conflict resolution, and all other political issues, such as conducting wars. (4)

Other Houses have minor tasks, such as the responsibility of drumming, acting as settlement chiefs, guarding the water, military power, and so on. These tasks cover all the important issues of life in traditional societies. The tasks are conducted by specific persons originating from the adequate House. They are mostly the oldest or the most capable person of a House. It is important to note that the character of a political leader is, therefore, less important than his origin. The legitimization for certain tasks derives from the "old mythical times" when the ancestors created and ordered society.

A main separation of tasks can be identified: the separation between ritual and political authorities. (5) In some societies, every House has an elder that represents ritual authority and acts on ceremonial occasions. In others, the highest House provides the main ritual authority for the entire kingdom. These ritual leaders are the ones that maintain contact with the ancestors, guard the sacred houses, and hold the ultimate responsibility for fertility. Political leaders occur in a binary opposition. They originate from designated Houses and either act as king or head of a village or settlement.

Ritual leaders hold all-encompassing power. Through their contact with the ancestors, they have the ultimate power to appoint political leaders. A political leader can only act with the support and legitimation of the ancestral powers. The basis for an ancestral agreement on a leader is that he originates from a "royal" House with political authority. If a political leader is not ancestrally legitimized (appointed by the ritual leaders), the population will suffer from ancestral punishment, misfortune will hit the community, children will fall sick, the harvest will be destroyed, hence a lack of fertility will rule society. If a House cannot provide a political ruler, the ritual leaders have to find another House as a substitute. In a ceremony, political power is then handed over (mostly symbolized in a stick as an insignia of political rule) to the new House. Ancestrally legitimized, the new House can exert political power without society having to fear ancestral punishment.

Impact of Foreign Rule


The first phase of Portuguese colonial rule (6) in East Timor can be characterized by its focus on trade in the geographical area of Dili. It was only in the second half of the nineteenth century that the colonial government decided on a better administrative system of the territory to promote economic development. The country was then divided into eleven districts. A Portuguese commander headed each district, with civilian and military tasks, and a small number of soldiers. The commanders were responsible for peace in their districts and had to work with the local kings. The idea was to strengthen Portuguese rule by influencing the local kings and pacifying them.

In the beginning of the twentieth century, the colonial government introduced the "head-tax" system for the Timorese population and stopped the tributes that the population had to pay to their kings. The kings now received part of the officially collected taxes. With these new measures, the Portuguese colonial government turned the kings into their "link" to the population. Finally, the choice of a new king had to be approved by the colonial government.

Eventually, the official power of most kings was abandoned altogether. Districts were then divided into sub-districts (posto), and these again into villages (suco), and hamlets (povacao). The Portuguese now appointed local village chiefs (chefe de suco) and hamlet chiefs (chefe de povacao) and used them as their link to the local population. The kings' position was now replaced by the Portuguese administration at the sub-district level. In some cases, the sub-district covered the former area of a kingdom, in others they differed. The sub-district chiefs worked right down to the village chiefs. These had to be literate and speak Portuguese. Every week they would come to the sub-district to receive their orders from the colonial government regarding conduct and work in the villages and pass them on to their population. They were held responsible for their communities. The village chief was now called liurai in some areas. The hamlet chiefs were active at the lowest level. They collected and passed on the taxes in their respective hamlets and had to watch the workers to make sure they were working well.

In the beginning of colonial rule, the internal social structure of a kingdom was not affected. Only at the very top level, the kings established relations with the Portuguese. The king was the local political authority and the representative of the local community to the colonial power. As his traditional role prescribes, the king was the one who had to negotiate or deal with the "outside" powers, as he held political authority (all legitimized by the ritual authorities within the kingdom). He entered into military treaties to fight the Portuguese, or he would ally with them. Therefore, the Portuguese were never in frequent contact with the local population (though some Timorese claim that the population was unhappy with the fact that the Portuguese were controlling their kings). As the "law" was also left to the kings, they were able to rule in their traditional way within their kingdoms.

When the administrative system was changed, the "official" power of the kings was abandoned, and village chiefs and sub-district chiefs were appointed. As some sub-districts covered the borders of former kingdoms, the king could easily be turned into a sub-district chief or a village chief. In other places, the Portuguese exchanged kings for more loyal people as sub-district chiefs. The kings who were released from their formal power, and were not appointed as sub-district chiefs, transformed into unofficial powers in their kingdoms. The official power was handed over in an adequate way to the new village chiefs, but on the informal level, there was no "loss of power". The powers of the kings remained and the people still adhered to them. The same happened with the village chiefs, who were appointed by the Portuguese in accordance with their loyalty.

In most cases, this did not seem to run counter to the local perception of legitimate political leadership. The important thing was that village chiefs and hamlet chiefs originated from the "right" "royal" Houses and therefore had ancestral legitimization for their role. If new appointees were from the "wrong" House, there was a way to ritually pass on the political authority to another family. If the person was from a "commoner" family, the appointment would cause conflicts. In contrast, a person from another area who was still of "royal" origin was acceptable. In some areas, the Portuguese rulers left it up to the local leadership to appoint a person. In these cases, the ritual leadership chose the person of the right descent.

Hence, the new administrative system was integrated into the local system of representations. The sub-district chief ideally had to be a descendant of the "highest sacred House", whereas the hamlet chief and the village chief had to originate from the following sacred Houses in hierarchical order. All positions stayed inherited and had the full acknowledgment of the local population, as they still had ancestral legitimacy. The traditional system continued and new introductions from the outside were neatly integrated into the existing structure. If contradictions evolved, they were dealt with in accordance with the local paradigm. The tasks that the official powers had to fulfil were fitted into the local perception of "political authority". These leaders were linked to the outsiders, the Portuguese Government, and hence still held judicial power.

Under Portuguese rule, the concepts of descent and customary law, conduct of ceremonies, or the position of ritual authorities were never challenged. (7) Ritual life remained strong, as it was perceived to be the "inside" of society, and had nothing to do with "outside" political issues.

The Portuguese strategic approach used respect for traditional institutions as a tool. Entering blood oaths was a local method to establish peace and worked well for the Portuguese in pacifying the local kings and to receive their support. They also married the local kings' daughters to establish important Wife Giver and Wife Taker relationships with the kingdoms. Through this strategy, some of the kings were tied into such strong relationships with the Portuguese that they had to help the Portuguese fight against other kings. (8)


With the Indonesian occupation, the Portuguese administrative structure was altered and adjusted to the Indonesian system. At the sub-district level, the government was composed of a centrally-appointed sub-district chief and other administrative officers in charge of civil administration, personnel, welfare, rural development, finance, and village offices. Like the Portuguese, the Indonesians had an interest in finding loyal people for these positions. Nevertheless, they tried to make use of the local system to receive local recognition of official positions. This led to a diverse picture. In some cases, former kings were appointed for the position (even better if they were pro-Indonesian), or persons from "royal" families who seemed loyal to the government were brought in from other districts. The local population often claimed that their ritual authorities were still involved in the appointments. The space that ritual leadership was given depended on how much resistance the governmental authorities faced i n a specific area. If former leaders were replaced, they often still held informal power and acted in conflict resolution. Nevertheless, most people state that the Indonesians did not honour the kings and village chiefs any longer.

The obvious change in the system of local leadership seemed to be the introduction of popular democratic elections for the position of the village chief. The Indonesian system prescribed that they had to be elected democratically. The attempt to introduce local-level democracy led to the official abandonment of power positions that depended on descent.

In 1982, the first five-yearly democratic elections for the position of the village chief were held. The elections of the village chiefs were prepared by the sub-district chiefs in co-operation with people at the village level, the hamlet chiefs, and the traditional elders. They were from two village councils, called LKMD and LMD, (9) and they selected two or three candidates for the elections. The main criteria for a candidate's eligibility were their origin from the village in question, knowledge about law, and ability to resolve conflict.

Asked about the process of elections, many locals described it as "democratic". However, this democratic appearance evaporates when one looks into the background of candidate selection. The power-holders of the village still made their decisions on the choice of candidates in accordance with the traditional power structure. Descent still played an important role. The method of selecting candidates was very traditional. A specific group of people sat together and discussed the choice of candidates until a consensus was reached. Therefore, different local powers had their influence on the actual outcome of the elections, not least the ritual authorities, which had to sanction the selection. After that, the people voted in the "democratic" elections for the "right" person. In their perception, the "liurai now became the village chief". A significant number of the population in the rural areas, and especially the traditional elders, still adhered to the idea that the village chief has to originate from a "royal" House that holds political authority. Thus, in many cases where there was no outside interference, the candidate of the "appropriate" family was elected and his informal power became formal power again.

The Indonesian Government and the armed forces then adjusted the election results to their own interests. In some of the politically sensitive areas, the Indonesian Government and the military are said to have put the village chiefs of their own choice in place. If this was the "wrong" person according to the local perception, there were several local coping mechanisms. The elders could excuse a change in power by claiming that people "just voted like that", because they did not know who was the right person to be the village chief. However, the elders feared ancestral sanctions if the "wrong" person sat on the cadera manas (hot chair). To avoid misfortune, the former leader had to keep his position in ritual functions. The new leader had to be ritually legitimized by the "royal" family by entering their sacred House and asking the proper king for permission to rule on his behalf. The descendants of the "royal" House would then pass on the rattan stick and appoint the member from the new family as their repre sentative. In other examples, the new leader was at least declared to be of "royal descent". Even when persons were put in charge who were closely connected to the pro-Indonesian forces, the ritual elders would still try to legitimize them by tracing "royal" blood in their ancestry, to avoid ancestral sanctions. Nevertheless, these village chiefs did not enjoy much trust from their community. They needed the official governmental power behind them to exert their power. The population in these cases would explain that they were only "transitional".

At the hamlet level, the appointments and the background of the hamlet chiefs were even more traditional, compared with the case of the village chiefs, since government interference here was not strong. The hamlet chiefs were not elected democratically, but appointed by the communal leaders through traditional methods. The elders, in agreement with the village chiefs, would gather to discuss who was the right persons for the position. If a village chief wanted to appoint someone from a "commoner House", the people would not agree. The person appointed to act as hamlet chief (kepala dusun) would usually originate from a "royal" House.

Regardless of this obvious continuation of local structures, the Indonesians considered the rulers as "democratically elected". On the surface, it looked as if a change in the power system had occurred, but in fact, the local structures continued to survive. Even in cases where the Timorese claimed that the Indonesian system was different and the ancestry of a leader was no longer important, the origin of the village chiefs in Indonesian times often still indicated that they were from the "political" sacred House. In other cases, it seemed that people took advantage of the new rule to get rid of a particularly unpopular ruler and to reduce his power to merely symbolic.

Clandestine System

Parallel to the Indonesian governmental system, a clandestine system for resistance against Indonesian occupation was put in place. The resistance was organized in three parts: as a military front (Falintil), an internal clandestine structure, and a political and diplomatic front that operated from outside the country. Falintil had two major functions: the political organization of the masses through the clandestine front, and military attacks on Indonesian positions through guerrilla strategies.

Through the clandestine structure, a large number of people supported Falintil and its struggle for independence after successful socialization. Falintil commanders were powerful and respected leaders in their communities. They set up a clandestine parallel system of governance to support the resistance fight. This network of key individuals was composed of the head of the village (nurep) and the hamlet leader (celcom). Their main tasks were to organize the population to support the resistance fighters and to establish an information system for the population. Although Falintil nominated nureps and celcoms in the early nineties, most of them had been actively involved in the resistance movement since the mid-eighties. The designation of the clandestine "power-holders" by Falintil at the local level was organized through a consultation process with community members. It took into account the relationship of the potential candidate with the population, his work performance, and particularly his trustworthiness. The clandestine sub-district chief (secretario de zona) was chosen by Falintil commanders.

How many of the nureps were actually from "royal" families is another point. (10) In many cases, the "Indonesian" village chief filled the "politically" classified positions in the village or hamlet anyway. Hence, on the political level, everything was in accordance with traditional requirements. Nevertheless, in some cases, the nurep was also from a "political family" (for example, his older brother might be the village chief).

The clandestine resistance was not officially recognized and thus, in local perceptions the clandestine powers were not classified as traditional political authorities. The backgrounds of the clandestine leaders reveal that the population, in their work and deeds, mostly trusted them. Here, another traditional idea of "capacity as a warrior" comes into play. The character of the person was emphasized. This trust is very different from the belief that a specific person has to hold the political chair in order to avoid sanctions from their ancestors. The clandestine movement supported Falintil as "warriors" and not necessarily as people in the traditional position of political authority. Even nowadays, Falintil fighters without a "royal" background are honoured and respected by the traditional elders, but they deny them a position as political leaders. On the other hand, famous warriors with the appropriate family background can be expected to become the new political leaders of the country. (11)

Under the Transitional Administration

After the vote for independence in 1999, militias reduced East Timor to ashes, the Indonesian population left the country entirely, and many East Timorese were forced to flee across the border to West Timor. After the rampages had ceased, the former Indonesian administrative system was entirely destroyed. The international community perceived this situation as a "power-vacuum". Therefore, the United Nations received the mandate to provide a transitional administration over the territory. Somewhat "unofficially", the former resistance movement immediately restructured the country from the national to the lowest hamlet levels.


The United Nations Transitional Administration in East Timor (UNTAET) in its early days chose to retain the system of the former Indonesian administration. In addition to a central authority at the national level, it set up district administrations in, what had become under Indonesian rule, thirteen districts. The main links of these district administrations to the lowest levels of society were through the international District Field Officer (DFO), who consulted with the population at the sub-district level and co-ordinated governmental matters with the village chiefs. The DFOs, therefore, played a crucial role in forming the local perception of UNTAET at the local level. They were mostly respected because of their "high" position, but many people felt that they did not have sufficient cultural knowledge. (12) At the same time, a parallel local structure was re-established by the Council for National Resistance in Timor (CNRT), (13) based on the existing clandestine structure. At the district, sub-district, village and hamlet levels, representatives were recruited mainly through the leaders of the former clandestine and Falintil structures.

Many sub-district chiefs or village chiefs of the transitional period were not elected democratically but appointed by Falintil, the CNRT, and village elders. There was, in most cases, an agreement between the CNRT and Falintil about whom to appoint. In conjunction with this, the village elders gathered to discuss the appointment according to the local concept of political authority. Village elders stated that the appointment was decided by them, but had to be confirmed by the CNRT and Falintil. The criteria used were the person's descent, his activities in the clandestine movement, former communal activities and possible detainment by the TNI, and his ability as a leader in conflict resolution.

In probably six out of thirteen districts, Fretilin's Internal Political Front (FPI) conducted their own elections for village chief in the name of the CNRT. The sub-district representative was responsible for the campaign, and the population was briefed about the process. A census of the village population was held to identify the number of voters. Candidates were selected through the hamlets. The selection at the hamlet level was conducted by the traditional elders and heads of the Houses. Thus, the ritual authorities could exert their influence for the "right" candidate. The same procedure is said to have been followed by the village chiefs, for the election of the hamlet chiefs. In the selection of the hamlet chiefs, not many "outside powers", Timorese or international, seemed to have been involved.

If one looks at this system parallel to the UNTAET administration, the sub-district chief was often still of "royal" descent. When asked, however, the Timorese claimed that they were closely connected with the fight for independence, and that the clandestine structure and their descent was no longer that important. The same was true for the majority of the village chiefs, who mostly still had the "right" descent, or at least, the elders tried to find a link in their genealogy to a "royal" House to justify their positions. In those cases where the village chief did not have the "right" descent, two opposing groups of opinions existed. The traditional elders and a big part of the village population found several reasons to explain why the leader was "wrong". He was perceived as only "transitional" until the right person could be found, or the former chiefs would work closely with the Indonesians and militias, and still hold ceremonial functions. Thus, if for very pragmatic reasons, the "right" family could no l onger rule, it was still given a ritual position. The other group rejected the importance of descent and wanted to turn to a modern system. They either emphasized the deeds of the leader in the resistance movement, his personal capability, or that it was the people's choice.

Even recently, the main powers at the local level were still with the village chief, the hamlet chief, and the traditional elders (which now had become "unofficial" because of UNTAET). The village chief remained a very central figure, as he was the junction where clandestine powers, traditional political concepts, and the modern world collided with one another. He was still the crucial point of contact for the relationship between the "inside" and the "outside", between the local level and the government. UNTAET also empowered the village chiefs, although not formally, by inviting them to meetings and by co-ordinating all issues with them. Hence, the village chief retained the monopoly on information about government, development, and all issues that had to do with life "outside" the village, which confirmed his position as the traditional political authority.

Conflicting Realities

After more than a year of the Transitional Administration, the DFO, now established at the sub-district level, received a Timorese counterpart. The idea was to train a Timorese in this position so that they could finally hand over authority to him as the government representative of the sub-district. (14) There was no formal plan to turn the CNRT sub-district leader into the new official sub-district chief (in some cases, however, the district administrations did promote the former CNRT person whom they had unofficially worked with for more than a year).

For the position of the sub-district chief, Timorese were encouraged to submit their curriculum vitae to the central Civil Service and Public Employment Service (CISPE). (15) Here a combination of international staff and Timorese would select the person with the best qualifications for a position that they perceived as "administrative". The main criteria were education and working experience. From an international perspective, these qualities were seen as most appropriate for "administrative" tasks. In contrast, the local perception attributed this position with much wider political power as it covered the area of a kingdom/sub-district. It therefore had to be ancestrally legitimized.

The official candidates were also much younger because of the educational background required. They were not chosen with regard to their origin, their influential personality, or their capability in conflict resolution, one of the main functions of the local political authorities. For the local population this was hard to accept, as it contradicted with the local paradigmatic principles of seniority and leadership. An older person was regarded as superior, and therefore commanded more respect and was imbued with more authority. A young person in a position of "political authority" would only be acceptable if he was the last available person from a specific family carrying "political power". Apart from this, in some places the new sub-district heads originated from other sub-districts/districts. This was also difficult to accept; even more so if the person was not of the "right" descent.

In areas where the former CNRT sub-district leaders were hired, (16) the "recognized" person remained in his position. In nearly every area with a different leader chosen by the authorities in Dili, there was often protest from the local population because they felt that the former CNRT leader should be rewarded and honoured for his deeds during the resistance. Instead, he was disregarded and replaced by a younger person. Furthermore, the criterion applied in the selection of the former CNRT leaders--namely, their deeds during the resistance fight--was also not considered when the appointments of the new sub-district chiefs were made. Thus, the new sub-district leaders had a difficult time gaining acceptance and their authority was very limited, overshadowed by the traditional/clandestine leaders.

In contrast to the employment of sub-district chiefs, the Transitional Administration never became involved in the choice of village chiefs (with the exception of some DFOs who were requested to assist in the local village chief elections). For most of the period, the CNRT-appointed/FPI elected village chiefs remained in their positions. They played a crucial role as the link between the activities of the local population, the Transitional Administration and the nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), during the period of reconstruction of the country. They were continuously consulted by international and national actors. Although UNTAET never formally acknowledged them, it always maintained a working relationship with them. The village chiefs often claimed that they continued in this volunteer position because they felt responsible for their people and were called upon, and there was no way they could refuse. In contrast to the newly selected sub-district co-ordinators, the local population never questioned th eir authority.

In June 2001, the CNRT dissolved itself in order to create a political arena for the Constituent Assembly elections to be held less than three months later. At their Congress in Dili, the idea of dissolution created confusion among all the CNRT district and sub-district representatives who had travelled to the capital. There was opposition and a lack of understanding for the dissolution. This was not surprising as the traditional concept of "unity" was very important for the maintenance of peace and stability. Finally, the CNRT president, Xanana Gusmao, gave the order to dissolve, to which nobody protested, as it was an order from the top. Yet, representatives went back to their districts to pass on the new order without understanding the reasons.

The message caused even more confusion at the village level, where the CNRT-appointed village chiefs lost their "legal" basis of power. Yet, backed by their traditional legitimacy or because of the transitional character of the period, most village chiefs remained, although in some cases the village chief's authority was questioned as a result of the loss of the "legalizing" umbrella to work under. He was still asked to work for his community and frequently used by international actors, while opponents started to use the new "legal" vacuum to undermine his position. The CNRT dissolution, therefore, opened the door for the appearance of traditional local factions, or factions that had emerged during the resistance fight along traditional structural lines. (17) In the wake of the "unity" brought by the CNRT, factions now had the opportunity to revive. As a result, local communities stopped respecting the "unwanted" village chiefs, or one faction would work against him. Factions were also disguised as representa tives of political parties or organizations.

Fretilin had started in March 2001 to elect party representatives at all administrative levels, from the hamlet up to the national level. For the majority of the population, Fretilin was the only party they had ever heard of. The CNRT village chief was also confirmed as a Fretilin representative. Yet, in some places a new Fretilin representative at the village level suddenly emerged as an opposition to the former CNRT candidate. Traditionally opposed groups would then support different leaders; this increased local tensions. Some Fretilin representatives misunderstood the idea of a multi-party system and requested the UNTAET district administration to stop working with the former CNRT representatives, and to co-ordinate with them "as the whole village is Fretilin anyway".

Apart from local tensions, international aid also exerted some pressure on the village chiefs. On the top of some village chiefs' list of complaints were humanitarian aid projects. One important example that was mentioned by many village chiefs across the country was the "Food For Work" projects, run by the World Food Programme (WFP). Villagers were also encouraged to clean up their houses, clear roads, or do other communal work for monetary payment. This kind of communal activity had always been the duty of each society member in a village or a hamlet. It used to be the village chiefs' task to co-ordinate this work. As humanitarian aid projects had now started to pay people to do exactly the same kind of tasks, the idea of voluntary communal work was undermined. The community no longer heeded the orders of the village chiefs. Many chiefs felt discouraged and their position undermined (apart from the fact that the projects had stopped and these tasks were not done any longer). In other cases, the projects inc reased the power of the village chiefs, which compensated them for a possible lack of political legitimacy.

The different civic education efforts had their own impact. The spontaneous idea people got after some civic education campaigns was that: "we have democracy now, and therefore do not need to listen to our village chief anymore". These statements led to village-level anarchy and were used whenever convenient by any person who wanted to act independently without the agreement of the village chief or any local authority.

In general, the important position of the village chief remained a traditionally legitimate one, although it suffered from factionalism. Confusion was caused through the introduction of material payment. The establishment of a multi-party system, independence, and democracy, were all understood and used in accordance with the local paradigm. Only in a few urban centres were things different. The position of the village chief in the urban environment was either no longer a traditional one, or his communal identity was still linked to the original rural area. Migrants in the capital still adhered to the system in the home village. As tradition in the city was not available as a back-up, the dissolution of the CNRT ended the power of these village chiefs. Hence, village chiefs began to request for official status and reimbursement for their work. This was after nearly two years of voluntary work, at a time when many people had lost all their belongings. They had support from the Timorese leadership at the nation al and district levels who had a better understanding of the salaries paid to national and international staff. The main argument was that the village chiefs under Indonesian rule had been paid modest amounts as reimbursement.

The village chiefs in the rural areas also asked for official/outside acknowledgment of their political authority to reinforce it. (18) They requested an official letter from the government to clearly state their position and to legalize it among the population, as well as to receive recognition for their work. Others just wanted support against the above-mentioned political threats and their opponents. The Cabinet member for internal administration thus issued a letter to the village chiefs in June 2001, asking for the continuation of their service but adding that there would be no financial reward for the time being. The letter was sent to the district administration to be conveyed via the DFOs to the village chiefs. This resulted in disappointment on the part of the local leadership who had wanted an issued and stamped letter in their hands.

The Clash of Paradigms

According to local perceptions, political leadership had to be based on ancestral legitimacy, otherwise the continuation of society was threatened. Throughout the many years of external pressures, the local system of ideas and values have proven to contain the mechanisms for the integration of foreign influence. (19) "Outside" powers were always classified in a certain way according to the local value system. Their attempts to change this system were never really successful. The heart of society lay in its ritual life, which was superior to the political authorities it appointed. The ritual leadership was never a target of campaigns by foreign rulers, as its importance was never fully realized. (20)

Nevertheless, "modernity" had been introduced during these years of foreign rule. A Portuguese-educated elite, people in the diaspora and those who had been educated under the Indonesian system, began to question traditional paradigms. These individuals dealt mainly with the international world in the most recent period of Timorese history. In the rural areas, local systems of ideas and values were still strong, and this was where the majority of the population lived--a population that should be participating in the new state and be represented in the government.

The positions of the village chief and the sub-district head were located along the line where the traditional world met the modern-state administration. They were important powers in the daily life of the community (compared with national level politicians). Hence, at this level, paradigms clashed. The central government-appointed sub-district leaders faced difficulties as they were in opposition to the leadership that enjoyed legitimacy in the eyes of the local population.

The most crucial and difficult decision on how to handle the role and appointment of the village chiefs has been left to the new Timorese government. The democratic state-paradigm has prescribed that local leaders should be: (a) selected by a trusted state-body in accordance with their capacity, or (b) democratically elected by the population.

The selection of local leaders by a state body requires trust in the state. Yet, the system of local leadership has evolved and functioned in a non-state environment. Kingdoms were autonomous entities involved in specific relations with each other, but were not set up to operate under a state entity with state bodies. A division of power operated along entirely different (hierarchical) lines: the ritual versus political issues. The concept of a state with citizens who enjoy equal rights and with state bodies that are divided along executive-legislative and judicial lines is quite outside the traditional system. It is also impossible to create instant trust in state bodies, and it is difficult to generate trust in leaders that are not intimately connected with sacred items and ancestral legitimacy. (21) Such a state body then selects the local "political leadership" instead of the choice being made by the core society (ritual leaders).

The conduct of democratic elections for a government (that is, theoretically to form trusted state bodies) or even for local leadership is based on the idea that every individual is equal and should therefore be represented equally in the government or local leadership. The local system was holistic, consisting of hierarchical relationships. The dualistic relation of ritual and political authority was context dependant, but always hierarchical. Political power was ultimately legitimized by the superiority of ritual authority. The same hierarchical structure applied for the Houses/families within a kingdom. The Houses were hierarchically ordered with tasks according to their position, all well-defined by ancestral legacy and dangerous to question. The kingdom formed the ultimate autonomous entity that had to enter into relationships with other kingdoms for its survival. Again, relations between kingdoms were defined in a hierarchical way, either through kinship terms or through marriage relations. This hierarc hical nature contradicted profoundly with the set-up of a democratic state, which is based on the notion of equality (not that they always operate in this fashion).

In the light of the perpetual stability of the local systems and their isolation from the internationally applied paradigm of democracy, it becomes apparent how international intervention is limited for as long as it does not integrate local paradigms.


The example of East Timor dramatically indicates that state-building and democratization through international intervention require rethinking. Local ideas can only be transformed with the full consideration of the existing systems to either: (a) avoid the creation of anarchy or the collapse of a social system, or (b) avoid the failure of the intervention because it has no influence at all. The population's trust in state-bodies has to be fostered and the puzzle of how to overcome paradigmatic differences in terms of local governance has to be solved.

Most important for the reform of the local system (if the international community has ethically decided to do so) is to understand it as a holistic entity. Local cultures have to be understood as "systems", and not as a bundle of diverse cultural aspects. These are not anarchical societies which have to learn the pure idea of democracy, but complex systems that define the world and that are holistic in the combination of their elements. They have proven their effectiveness over a long period of time. They form the people's paradigm, the way they order and categorize their lives and events. One cannot introduce only single aspects from a different paradigm. They will either not be accepted or they will cause the holistic system to crash or transform itself unpredictably. The population cannot participate in political life on a democratic basis, while closely connected issues, such as ritual life, remain based on a different paradigm for folkloric purposes.

As the population needs to truly participate in the state and must therefore understand the idea of a state (as opposed to a new power elite running a country based on the ignorance of the local population), social changes have to occur as transformations from within society, from the epi-centre of the system. International actors can only support changes but not inflict them.

State-building can reaffirm international notions of democracy to make a state compatible with the international world. Nevertheless, local governance should be a system that gives space to both paradigms--the indigenous and the democratic one. If this space is neglected, the population will not recognize the new "official" local leadership or national state-bodies. If a leader has no recognition, he is left to rely on state-bodies as a source of his legitimacy. Yet, traditional society does not trust in state-bodies. If local leaders now use state-bodies to enforce their legitimacy, state-bodies will never gain popular acceptance.

A better way to establish local governance is to create a modern system that leaves space for local ideas to: (a) give local leaders acknowledgement if necessary and, (b) let society slowly but profoundly adopt/transform into a state system.

Local level democratic elections should be conducted, but not be seen as "training for democracy". The people should be left to decide on a ruler, adhering to whatever paradigm they desire. The concept of local leadership can then transform "naturally" into a society that is based on democratic principles, or remain as it is.

In the meantime, international efforts should focus on the population's access to education and information, to promote reconciliation between the two paradigms. Civic education and school education are crucial starting points in which international actors can become active. Still, traditional paradigms are the starting point to explain differences and to give the effort a meaningful outcome, otherwise international educational efforts will fail for the same paradigmatic reasons.

Only an approach in which all paradigms involved are taken into consideration and paradigmatic differences are acknowledged, would leave people with a genuine "choice".



Most of the data for this article was drawn from primary research material gathered during an assessment of local governance issues conducted for the United Nations and World Bank in 2000-2001, as well as field experience before and after. The author would like to express her gratitude to all the East Timorese who had taken the time to explain their views to her. She is also grateful to Nicolas Garrigue, Robert Rubinstein, Dietrich Rueschemeyer and Jarat Chopra for their comments on an earlier draft of this article.

(1.) Tanja Hohe served for two and a half years in East Timor, including as a District Electoral Officer for UNAMET, and a District Field Officer and Political Affairs Officer for UNTAET. She also co-authored for the World Bank its Final Report on "Traditional Power Structures and the Community Empowerment and Local Governance Project" (2001).

(2.) Thomas M. Frank, "The Emerging Right to Democratic Governance", American Journal of International Law (1992), p. 86.

(3.) See Sofi Ospina and Tanja Hohe, Traditional Power Structures and the Community Empowerment and Local Governance Project, Report prepared for the World Bank and UNTAET (Dili, 2001). p. 20.

(4.) Ibid., p. 23.

(5.) See E. Traube, Cosmology and Social Life. Ritual Exchange among the Mambai of East Timor (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986).

(6.) For an account of the Portuguese history in Timer, see M. Schlicher, Portugal in Ost Tim or (Hamburg: Abera Verlag, 1996).

(7.) The latter was challenged by the church, rather than by the colonial government.

(8.) See, for example, the Manufahi War (1911-12).

(9.) The Indonesian Government had formed village councils: LKMD or Lambaga Ketahanan Masyarakat Desa (Council of the Village People); and LMD or Lembaga Musyawarah Desa (like the Council of the Elders). It is claimed that the LKMDs worked in a very nepotistic and corrupt manner. Most of the council members were government workers, sometimes coming from other areas and not local villagers. They were sometimes blamed for using development money for themselves. The head of the LKMD in the village could make his own decisions because he did not have to report to anyone. The population was not free to complain and there was no transparancy.

(10.) In some cases, the conflict was neatly solved when the older brother from the royal line functioned as village chief, while his younger brother was a clandestine nurep.

(11.) Such as the chief of the new East Timor Defence Force (ETDF), Brig. Gen. Taur Matan Ruak. Here, local concepts can create a real danger for state-building, as they do not separate the role of the army from political involvement. There was no reaction when Taur Matan Ruak explained that the defence force would support Xanana as a candidate for presidency. "FDTL dukung Xanana jadi presiden TL", Suara Timer Lorosae, 4 December 2001, Dili.

(12.) In some sub-districts, the DFO was called administrador by the local Timorese, as the sub-district chief was called in Portuguese times.

(13.) The council was established in 1998 to serve as an umbrella organization for all resistance parties and organizations.

(14.) This new authority came under the East Timor Transitional Administration (ETTA). ETTA was established in July 2000 to gradually take over the governance and public administration sectors from UNTAET.

(15.) This came under the ETTA structure.

(16.) This happened after the dissolution of the CNRT in June 2001. Therefore, the former CNRT leaders were not in any recognized power position.

(17.) The emerging new factions appeared to structurally resemble former traditional hostile relationships, such as between kingdoms. Relationships between kingdoms were defined either through kinship or marriage relations, or through hostility. With the "loss" of the importance of kingdom borders, social rifts appeared along other lines, yet on a similar structural basis. During the resistance movement, for example, some hamlets were pro-Indonesian while others supported Falintil. These hostilities partly confirmed former entities that were entangled in a hostile relationship under Portuguese rule. Nowadays, the same entites adliere to different political parties or organizations. Often, these rifts seem to occur along the lines of hamlets (confirming a family), or other traditional entities, and so there seems to be a strong dialectic between traditionally opposing parts that "naturally" entangle with opposing groups.

(18.) External recognition is an important part of the socio-cosmic system. The Portuguese flag became, in this context, a symbol for external recognition, and was kept in many Houses as a sacred item.

(19.) The capacity to integrate foreign influence was first mentioned by van Wouden as one of the core features in the structure of Eastern Indonesian societies. Sociale structuurtypen in de Groote Oost (Leiden/The Hague: KITLV, 1935).

(20.) Only ritual authorities were targetted by the church as they seemed to contradict Christian ideas. Ironically, the church only became powerful in the political context of the resistance movement.

(21.) That is why elders try to connect leaders such as Xanana to their royal descent to justify their present position.

TANJA HOHE is currently a Visiting Fellow at the Thomas J. Watson Jr. Institute for International Studies, Brown University.
COPYRIGHT 2002 Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (ISEAS)
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2002 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Hohe, Tanja
Publication:Contemporary Southeast Asia
Geographic Code:9INDO
Date:Dec 1, 2002
Previous Article:China's expanding maritime ambitions in the Western Pacific and the Indian Ocean.
Next Article:Australia's peacekeeping role in the post-Cold War era.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2020 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters