Making modernity in Timor-Leste

8 Nov 2007

The focus given to the 2006 elections in Timor-Leste by non-Timorese commentators, both in terms of resources and also analysis, was staggering.

In the various commentaries the State has been seen as either the source of the violence or as the panacea for the republic's problems. Such a focus and emphasis only occurs when commentators transfer onto Timor-Leste their own sense of what is socially legitimate. In a sense, what they are looking for is a point of socio-cultural equivalence that will allow Timor-Leste to become 'legible': open to interpretation and judgement. By contrast, non-state or non-institutional social activities are held largely to be beyond the scope of political consideration.

A problem with this approach is the emphasis on the state is disproportionate to its role in East Timorese society.

In recent decades, those educated under the Indonesian regime and those who have entered the circuits of power in Dili today - highly literate, educated, trained, workshopped, capacity-built, networked, multi-lingual - have formed a new elite whose modernist views tend to overlap significantly with those of the international commentariat. These are the people whose views tend to be accepted as a sensible interpretation of the country as a whole, and yet it is possible that they only represent a small portion of the population.

When analysis draws in a comprehension of the ways in which the tribal-traditional systems play an important regulatory role in Timor-Leste, it becomes possible to understand other social processes - such as urban drift - in terms of their political consequences.

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