Timor Leste is no Failing State but 11th ASEAN Member-in-Waiting

June 8, 2018

Timor Leste is no Failing State but 11th ASEAN Member-in-Waiting

by Bobby Anderson


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Dili Waterfront Monument to East Timor’s Independence

After nearly a year of political deadlock following the 2017 parliamentary elections, on 12th May Timor-Leste’s citizens elected a new government, with Xanana Gusmao the likely new Prime Minister. The parliamentary power his Change for Progress Alliance coalition might wield is little different from the power it was prohibited from wielding under the previous government.

After the 2017 polls, the Fretilin party—having bested Xanana’s CNRT by a few fractions of a percentage point—ultimately refused to convene parliament to face a majority Xanana cobbled together from smaller parties, claiming that because Fretilin received the largest number of votes for any single party, it possessed the “majority”. By this logic parliamentarians exercising their authority would be undertaking a coup d’état. It remains to be seen whether this same illogic will emerge again. Xanana, for his part, surely has promises to keep, and we can anticipate new ministries so that coalition partners might be rewarded. In the near term we can anticipate so many overseas “study tour” junkets that they may necessitate a brand new ministry to organise them.

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Kayrala Xanana Gusmao.

This is all grist to the mill for many a Timor-watcher who has consigned the country to an “arc of instability” alongside Papua New Guinea, Vanuatu, and the Solomon Islands. The picture painted is one of a failed state, according to Foreign Affairs, or a still-failing one, according to a La Trobe University lecturer, with the long-exasperated neighbour Australia at any moment exposed to the fallout of potential collapse in the form of civil conflict or irregular migration.

Except, of course, that it’s not true.

The view from Dili

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Cristo Rei of Dili, Timor Leste/East Timor

After Timor-Leste’s independence in 2002, the United Nations Temporary Administration in East Timor (UNTAET) built Timor-Leste’s institutions of government, but political violence resulted in another peacekeeping mission in 2006. Since 2013, the country has achieved stability through petroleum revenue-funded “reconciliation” between political elites.

Certainly, viewing Timor-Leste through a political economy lens and then extrapolating that view across the multiplicity of sectors and layers that constitute local government and public service delivery makes for dark viewing. In recent years, while conducting field research on service delivery in the country, I heard the dire pronouncements of many a Dili-based NGO or donor representative, or a Timorese health, education, or other line ministry official, and these coalesced around a key assumption: a lack of civil servant capacity in remote and inaccessible hinterlands results in low health, education, and other human development indicator measurements which set the stage for another generation of development assistance. This is usually followed by a melancholy “we are a new country” caveat. Hearing enough of this in Dili, one can be forgiven for assuming that everyone in the countryside is uneducated, hungry and dying. This perception surely underlies Singapore’s objection to Timor-Leste’s membership of ASEAN.

Mount Ramelau (Photo: Bobby Anderson)

But this dark view evaporates as soon as one leaves Dili. Let’s begin with bromides concerning low human resource capacity outside of a few towns. Across Timor-Leste’s rural areas where the majority of Timorese reside, civil servants can be found at their posts and doing their jobs in a challenging environment—one in which little attention is received from the centre.

Decentralisation has in some imperfect manner occurred, with schools functioning autonomously and health services improvising to provide services. These civil servants may often be under-qualified—the teachers may only have high school diplomas—but they are there. Anecdotally, service standards are higher in rural Timor-Leste than in much of remote eastern Indonesia.

“Remote” is also relative in Timor-Leste. Iliomar, often mentioned as one of the most remote areas of the country, can be reached in nine hours from Dili by car, with a nearly uninterrupted 3G phone signal across the entire journey; by no standard of measurement is this remote, especially compared to areas of nearby Indonesian Papua that are up to a week’s walk from a road, with complete network absence. No area of Timor-Leste that I am aware of suffers a lack of services and corresponding ill health, high mortality, low school attendance and student performance due to remoteness. Claiming that geography inhibits service delivery is disingenuous.

State failures, but not a failed state

Timor-Leste’s problems are bureaucratic, not geographic. The biggest obstacle rural civil servants identify is not “remoteness” or “human resource capacity”: it is “Dili”, an often insular centre that lacks understanding of, and experience in, the rural areas where most Timorese live.

The new state’s problems are many, but they are surmountable, and they are concentrated in Dili. They involve ineffective logistics, haphazard supply chains, a lack of facilities standardisation and maintenance, top-down budgeting that takes no account of local conditions, lengthy delays in payments and financial acquittals, and so on. This in turn stems from less-than-competent senior management and politically-driven appointments. While the centre does host committed and effective senior technocrats, they are exceptions.

Centralisation of fiscal policy and procurement is justified by an alleged lack of capacity in the countryside. But the way such matters are handled in the capital would be laughable if it wasn’t so harmful. For example: Government tenders for vehicle maintenance are awarded where all repairs are done in Dili only. Repairs can take over a year, and work can be shoddy: in Lospalos, an ambulance repaired a year after delivery broke down on the drive back. Fuel provision contracts are awarded in such a way that vehicles must drive to Dili to fill up their tanks. To cope with this absurdity, sub-national administrators utilise other budgets to purchase fuel locally. Some ministries have such a bad reputation among potential private service providers with regard to delayed payments that only the worst contractors bid for their tenders. Most damagingly, civil servant salaries can be collected only in municipal capitals. This takes administrative post health, education, and other officials out of their posts for two days to a week every month.

Graffiti targeting an ex-finance minister in Dili (Photo: Bobby Anderson)

Individual civil servants, including those in Dili, strive to distinguish themselves from the Indonesian state structure they replaced. However, they are disempowered from acting independently, and are hobbled by the focus of the bureaucracy on paperwork and “accountability”—such as the requirement of undue amounts of signatures for the release of funds, one of the worst aspects of New Public Management superimposed by UNTAET.


Middle managers defer decisions upwards; they receive few rewards for good performance and face fewer consequences for poor performance. A lack of managerial accountability is found throughout: for example, a preventable death from an obstetric emergency will result in no investigation or administrative sanction to the civil servants responsible for a particular shortage or lack of maintenance that led to the death. A junior civil servant may be dismissed for absenteeism, but their manager will not be dismissed for failing to provide the supporting structure that made it impossible for that civil servant to do their job in the first place.

These problems are hardly unique to Timor-Leste. They are found across the developing and developed world. And yet Timor-Leste is described as at risk of collapse, even though it lacks the violence, insurgency, and debilitating corruption of other failed and failing areas: as though it possesses the political equivalent of a genetic predisposition. But contemporary observable conditions in the countryside fly in the face of the dire pronouncements of the centre, mostly backed by old data. Most current human development indicators available from donor and agency sources demonstrate improvements in the last 10 years but even these might be unduly pessimistic.

Invented problems

So why does this image of failure persist? The root cause is that national-level civil servants and development workers speak for a grassroots that they don’t understand. Also to blame is the repetition of biases and application of expired heuristics across decades. In the 1970s, Timorese diaspora opponents of Indonesia’s invasion, and their threadbare foreign supporters, spoke of the tragedy of an invasion of a nation already left behind by hundreds of years of Portuguese neglect, then subjected to horrendous levels of violence and social engineering schemes, dying from neglect or from intention.

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Much of this message was encapsulated in the imagery of emaciated children in relocation camps, and that image has never left us. It is implanted in the minds of government and NGO staff who easily absorb those images and aid in their recycling. The unthinking continuity of this image supports the unthinking elements of the development industry; it is the reason why many a salary is drawn (including the salaries of underpaid local enumerators who are expected to feed doom up the line to their superiors) and many a study tour and per diem is taken. Local government and NGO workers I’ve spoken to across Timor-Leste offer numerous examples of enumerators filling in household surveys with exactly the results they expect to find.

Another cause is that many government and NGO workers in Timor-Leste have never worked elsewhere. It’s easy to believe conditions in Timor-Leste are the same as Afghanistan or the Congo if one knows absolutely nothing about those failed states.

Some of Timor-Leste’s problems seem to be invented. For example: the small stature of many Timorese is often classified by donors and NGOs as “stunting”, childhood malnutrition which can result in diminutive size, cognitive deficiency, and ill health. Undoubtedly the diminutive stature of many Timorese is caused by childhood malnutrition; some foreign-funded nutrition projects are needed, and welcomed, but all too many of them assumed that the problem is a lack of food, which they then attempted to address through food distribution.

But malnutrition in Timor-Leste is not caused by a lack of food so much as it is caused by a lack of knowledge—of nutrition, of breastfeeding and supplemental feeding, of sanitation and food storage. And also, some people are just shorter than others. The articulation of stunting comes with a laundry list of negative physical and mental outcomes offered as though they are inevitable to all Timorese below a certain height. This is insulting and racist: diminutive stature does not mean that one is stupid, but the small stature of many a Timorese is re-cast as a dire epidemic of mental imbecility and physical frailty —a problem from the worst excesses of the Indonesian occupation, reinvented in order to open a funding line and respond to something that cannot be defeated because it mostly doesn’t exist.


Timor-Leste has enough palpable problems; one need not resort to the past or one’s imagination. Youth unemployment is high, economic opportunity is lacking, education is sub-par, maternal and child mortality are high, and malnutrition is prevalent. Violence against women and children is unacceptable at any level, much less the level found in Timor-Leste. The government’s political decisions impede policies to improve the lot of the majority of Timorese in favour of expenditures such as the Oecussi Special Economic Zone, the Tasi Mane petroleum corridor, exorbitant pensions to insurgent veterans and their offspring, and so on. These short-sighted expenditures are often funded by Petroleum Fund draw-downs which impact that fund’s Estimated Sustainable Income levels.

Government employment is an erroneous form of social protection. Even the official status of Portuguese is wasteful, with local civil servants dependent on the translations of Portuguese “advisors”. Most importantly, Timor-Leste has the highest birth rate in Asia: this will degrade all human development progress made in the near term. Family planning underpins nearly all positive outcomes in maternal and child health and family health in general—physical, economic, and so on. It is foundational to gender equality.

Building on what’s there

Despite myriad problems, it is worth repeating: things aren’t so bad. In rural Timor-Leste civil servants are struggling to provide services with little support; children are in school, being taught by teachers who are mostly present; health posts are open and relatively clean, and pharmacies have stocks of some medicines. Civil servants know what their duties are, feel obligated to undertake them, and understand the support they need to execute those duties optimally. They freely offer prescient criticisms and suggest solutions.

The countryside is direly under-developed in terms of infrastructure, but the government has responded through the National Program for Village Development; communities select and action their own infrastructure needs, and the results and impact are impressive. That program—one of the most successful implemented by the state—reveals the capacity that exists in ordinary Timorese. And the bonds of reciprocity found across the multiplicity of Timorese cultures which constitute society become apparent in discussions with everyone from volunteer teachers to ambulance crew members. Yes, conflict and violence exist, but this is still a society made cohesive by shared experience of occupation and resistance: a transcendent sense of membership, even amongst those in conflict with one another, exists.

Timor-Leste’s most pressing issues are as tedious as they are solvable. The imagery of boatloads of stunted Timorese washing ashore in Australia’s Northern Territory as the country burns like a Yule Log so big it can be seen from space is a delusion. Timorese won’t kill one another in large enough numbers to touch off such a crisis. They don’t even have enough boats. Approaching a country from the perspective of its impending demise likely doesn’t lead to good assistance. A new paradigm by which to approach development in Timor-Leste is needed: one that builds upon the solid foundations one can find if only one manages to look and listen beyond the capital. Timor-Leste has a new government, and with it arrives new opportunities.

The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own. Readers may also be interested in the Australian National University’s 2018 Timor-Leste Update, which will be held in Canberra on 21/22 June.


Misunderstanding ASEAN

March 29, 2018

Misunderstanding ASEAN

by Bunn Nagara@www.thestar.com.my

“SO when is China going to join ASEAN?” a foreign news editor asked me in the early 1990s by way of introduction at a luncheon meeting in Tokyo.

He had asked when, not if, seeming to assume it was just a matter of time. There was no talk or even rumour of such a prospect at the time, so he must have just dreamt it up.

It was so ludicrous as to seem like a trick question.

Shouldn’t a foreign news editor be better informed about ASEAN and China than to even think of asking such a question? And yet so much about ASEAN remains unknown even among some of its national leaders.

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Turkey in ASEAN?– You must be joking, Mr. President
Last year Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte advocated ASEAN membership for Turkey and Mongolia. The Philippines at the time held the rotating chairmanship of ASEAN, and Duterte must have thought he could do as he pleased.
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Jokowi wants Australian Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, to keep him company in ASEAN. What a ridiculous idea.

This year it was the turn of Indonesian President Joko Widodo to dabble in the ridiculous. On a recent trip to Australia he told the media that Australia should join ASEAN.

Nobody else in ASEAN took either remark seriously, even if those statements made the news throughout the region. In case of lingering delusions resulting from these statements, some history may help.

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South-East Asia has had more than its share of regional organisations through the decades.

During the Cold War, the US and its allies fashioned the South-East Asia Treaty Organisation (SEATO) as a bulwark against international communism. It was basically a military grouping to turn the region into a Cold War zone. SEATO was a misnomer from the start, with six of its eight members from outside South-East Asia. Even the two members from this region, Thailand and the Philippines, were allies of the US in a Western-directed Cold War scheme.

Indonesia and Malaya (later Malaysia), which wanted no part of the Cold War, stayed out. So did most other countries in the region including Cambodia.

The Association of South-East Asia (ASA) was another attempt at regional identity politics. But with only three members Thailand, Malaya and the Philippines, it lacked credibility and purpose.

MAPHILINDO comprising Malaya, Philippines and Indonesia was yet another attempt by South-East Asian countries to create an organisation of the countries of the region themselves. MAPHILINDO came on the eve of Malaysia’s formation, with the undeclared purpose by Macapagal’s Philippines and Sukarno’s Indonesia to thwart the creation of Malaysia. Indonesia had its confrontation (konfrontasi) policy against Malaysia, while the Philippines pursued its claim to Sabah. Thus MAPHILINDO was diplomatically worded to favour Malaya over the others.

Still that did not work. With MAPHILINDO’s hidden purpose known to Malaya, it suffered from neglect and died an early death.

Soon after that Malaysia was born (September 16, 1963) with Sabah, Sarawak, Singapore and Malaya coming together to form a new federation.

Meanwhile, historic change was underway in Indonesia. Rebellion erupted against Sukarno’s rule, he was stripped of his life presidency, and konfrontasi against Malaysia ended when General Suharto assumed power in 1965.

Malaysian officials and their Indonesian counterparts had worked feverishly behind the scenes to manage an emerging situation with a fledgling new Indonesia. Within months, ASEAN was born in 1967.

Thus began a slow but steady process of regional institution building to ensure peace, stability and prosperity through fraternity. Since then, ASEAN has been at the heart of this process.

The other three co-founding members of ASEAN were Thailand, the Philippines and Singapore. With ASEAN, the dormant Philippine claim to Sabah stayed dormant between governments.

Since Indonesia, the Philippines and Malaysia had been locked in disputes over territory and Sukarno’s aggression, ASEAN had to come by way of a neutral partner country: Thailand.

So the Bangkok Declaration of August 8, 1967 saw the formation of ASEAN, following much spadework by Thai officials to ensure agreement. Malaysia acknowledged the hard work put in by Thai Foreign Minister Thanat Khoman, awarding him the title of “Tun” for his efforts.

However, right from the start, disparities existed among ASEAN member countries. There was a hulking Indonesia next to Singapore, while differences in economic development made for more variations.

For ASEAN to work, all members had to agree to certain basics: all members were equal regardless of size or wealth, decisions would be made by consensus, ASEAN chairmanship would be by rotation, none shall interfere in another’s internal affairs, and disputes had to be resolved peacefully.

Even as Thailand and the Philippines continued to host US military bases, these would only be temporary and never to be used against another member country. The ASEAN region would equate peace with freedom and neutrality, while rejecting all manner of nuclear weapons.

The spirit and essence of ASEAN is non-alignment. Today all 10 ASEAN members are in the Non-Aligned Movement, with Thailand, the Philippines and Brunei the latest to join in 1993.

When Duterte championed Turkey and Mongolia for ASEAN membership, many in the region were taken aback. Aung San Suu Kyi asked if he had considered geography and he said he had, showing instead how he had failed to grasp the subject and the question.

Neither Turkey nor Mongolia is in South-East Asia. Besides, Turkey is a member of NATO and is hoping to join the EU.

When Jokowi advocated Australia’s membership of ASEAN, he seemed to have lacked the luxury of thinking before speaking. To be fair he was probably prodded into a rash answer, or something must have been lost in translation.

His apparent enthusiasm has not been supported by his colleagues in government, among Indonesia’s elites or anyone else in ASEAN.

Australia is not in Asia, much less in South-East Asia. When Paul Keating was Prime Minister he insisted Australia was in Asia, but when he moved to a solemn academic post he admitted it wasn’t. Neither is Australia a non-aligned country, nor likely ever to be one. It is comfortably set in the US strategic alliance. Yet some senior Australian figures and establishments like the Asia Society Policy Institute recommend Australia joining ASEAN in 2024 together with New Zealand. Clearly, it is not just a deficiency in geography that is at issue.

One or even a few ASEAN leaders do not make decisions for a grouping that operates by consensus. When ASEAN was being formed in 1967, Malaysian Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman reportedly favoured Sri Lanka’s membership.

Singapore opposed it, while the other three members were not particularly motivated either way. A decade later Papua New Guinea applied to join and ASEAN has kept it waiting ever since.

Some reports suggest even Pakistan and Bangladesh had been keen to join. Again, a better sense of geography and geopolitics would help to keep things in perspective. In 2011 Timor Leste applied to join ASEAN with the official support of Indonesia and Cambodia. Unlike the other hopefuls, the territory and people of Timor Leste had been in ASEAN before independence as part of Indonesia and as Indonesians.

No country joins ASEAN without a formal invitation, with that invitation resulting only from a consensus among all member countries. However, consensus is more accessible than unanimity.

Bunn Nagara is a Senior Fellow at the Institute of Strategic and International Studies (ISIS) Malaysia.

East Timor’s “Red Rosa”

October 1, 2017

East Timor’s “Red Rosa”


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Rosa “Muki” Bonaparte Soares

When East Timor gained its independence in May 2002, after a 24-year struggle against Indonesian occupation, how to compensate those who fought was one of the first decisions the new government had to make. By September of that year, two commissions had been established to register veterans of the armed struggle. Almost 40,000 people registered at the time, and a further 76,000 registered when another commission was established two years later. Veterans’ benefits are a sensitive issue in East Timor. Misgivings about favouritism were partly behind the 2006 violence that spread throughout the nation, while a significant chunk of the state budget is still today handed over for pensions, not without politically-motivated reasons.

But more aggrieved than most were the women of East Timor. In the first two commissions, out of 36,959 registered individuals only 13 were women. At the 2004 commission, which was intended for those who had fought in the clandestine resistance, 10,337 of the 76,061 registered were women—roughly 13%. This is despite some estimates that as many as 60% of the clandestinos (as they are known) were female.

On August 6, 2010, Lourdes Maria Alves de Araujo, Secretary General of the Popular Organisation of East Timorese Women (OPMT), brought attention to this issue. “It is now ten years since we have restored our independence but the leaders have forgotten the contribution and values [that women brought to the independence struggle],” Araujo began. Did the legacy of the women who died during the independence struggle die with them, she then asked, and will their recognition be only that “as the wife of a deceased combatant or cadre? If so, this is unfair, particularly when we want to create a complete history of our people.”


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When I visited Dili in 2015, an idle afternoon provided me the time to wander the city. Under a sedulous sun, I stopped to rest in a small, unassuming park that I later discovered is dedicated to Rosa “Muki” Bonaparte Soares, a little known but important figure of the early nationalist movement. Back home, I consulted the books I own on East Timorese history: Bonaparte’s name arose only in either a long list of other names from the period or as a passing reference to her stewardship of the OPMT. Academic essays bore more fruit. Perhaps the finest exploration of Bonaparte’s life, and of the East Timorese women’s movement during the 1970s, is Hannah Loney’s essay, “The Target of a Double Exploitation: Gender and Nationalism in Portuguese Timor, 1974–75”, published in 2015.

“Previous studies of early East Timorese nationalism have not adequately accounted for the roles and experiences of women within the formation of nationalist ideology and in practice,” Loney wrote, adding that when these experiences are assessed, women’s “participation is an aside to the wider nationalist movement and to the unfolding story of Indonesian oppression”.

While undeniably true, Bonaparte also best embodies the problems faced by female participants in the independence struggle—first against Portugal, then Indonesia—for the simple reason that she knew sectarian issues (namely women’s emancipation) were at the same time hindering and intrinsic to the struggle.

Bonaparte was born in Manatuto, a small city on the northern coast, about 70 kilometres from the capital. (I am unable to locate her date of birth though it must in the records in Dili). After graduating from a Canossian school she earned a scholarship to study in Lisbon in the early 1970s. At the time East Timor had been under Portuguese colonisation since the beginning of the 18th century. Completing an introductory course in commerce, she gravitated towards political activism, joining the Movimento Reorganasative de Proletariat Portuguese (MRPP), a Maoist group dwarfed by Soviet-backed Portuguese Communist Party. The East Timorese student population in Lisbon, at the time, must have been claustrophobic. Forty at the most, many lived together in a house in the city’s suburbs they named Em Casa Timor. Here, the Timorese students, including Bonaparte, met regularly to discuss politics and anticolonial activism, often joined by dissidents from other Portuguese territories, like Angola and Mozambique.

Life, however, was interrupted on 25 April 1974, when military officers ousted the Portuguese leader Caetano in what became known as the Carnation Revolution. It was clear from then on that the sun was finally setting on the Portuguese empire. The Carnation Revolution allowed, for the first time, East Timorese political parties to come out in the open as legal entities. One, the Timorese Social Democratic Association (ASDT), took up the mantle of autonomy and independence. The Timorese Popular Democratic Association, however, favoured integration with Indonesia, while the Timorese Democratic Union preferred continued relations with Lisbon.

Bonaparte returned home in September 1974, the same month the ASDT changed its name to the Revolutionary Front for an Independent East Timor, or FRETILIN. She was among many former Em Casa Timor students who took part in FRETILIN’s grass roots mobilisation and, known for her oratory skills, participated in the negotiations with the Portuguese Decolonisation Commission in Dili in May 1975. It has been said that on 28 November 1975, when FRETILIN made its proclamation of independence from Portugal, Bonaparte was the one to unfurl the brand new flag of the Democratic Republic of East Timor.

Bonaparte was one of only three women—along with Maria do Céu Pereira and Guilhermina Araújo—to be part of FRETILIN’s original 50-strong central committee. And, on 28 August 1975, she was named Secretary General of the first East Timorese women’s organisation, the OPMT. It wasn’t long before organisation chapters spread across the half-island nation, with 7,000 members within weeks. Free classes were provided to illiterate women and, for the first time, taught in the Timorese language, Tetum, and crèches were established for child-care.

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However, Bonaparte’s life, like East Timor’s first taste of independence, was cut short. On 17 December 1975, Indonesian forces invaded. The following day, Bonaparte and a colleague, Isabel Barreto Lobato, the wife of Nicolau Lobato, were taken to the waterfront in Dili and shot. Jill Jollife, an Australian journalist who witnessed the invasion, wrote:

“They [the Indonesian soldiers] were dragging women on to the barges. One woman wouldn’t go. She was Muki… Small, intense, very Timorese, the Portuguese called her “the petite revolutionary” and “Rosa Luxemburg” for her contribution to the talks. When she resisted the Indonesians she was shot on the wharf and her body thrown into the harbour.”

Of the few photographs of Bonaparte that exist, by far the most illustrative is one taken by Jolliffe in 1975. Standing alongside Mari Alkatiri, Nicolau Lobato and Mau Laka—the senior figures of FRETILIN—Bonaparte stares off in the distance, her head covered by a small white hat. Most of the surviving photos from this period are of men in action, with prim fatigues and rifles dangling from the shoulder, but in this photograph they are motionless and defiant more. Bonaparte stands as tall as Mari Alkatiri, making the “petite revolutionary” moniker slightly more patronising, and clichéd, than heartfelt.

Interesting, too, if Bonaparte was ever known affectionately as “Rosa Luxemburg” it would have been as much a compliment as an encumbrance. A Polish-born communist, Luxemburg was one of the most original Marxist thinkers of her time, so much so that people would once deemed themselves to be Luxemburgists. She too was killed before her prime, shot dead by the German Freikorps in 1919. And, with an instance of history’s unfortunate repetition, her body was also dumped into water: Berlin’s Landwehr Canal.

While Luxemburg left behind a considerable body of work, Bonaparte’s surviving oeuvre consists of a few articles written for the Jornal do Povo Maubere, the FRETILIN newspaper, and another, first published in a Trotskyist journal, which was later reprinted by the Australian solidarity movement bulletin, East Timor News, two years after her death. However, her finest words are found in a manifesto she published on 27 September 1975, for the OPMT. Entitled “Analysis of the Situation of Timorese Women”, it was the only known document which established a theoretical basis for the struggle of East Timorese women at the time. She wrote:

“It is incredible that in a country where more than 50 percent of the population consists of women, that they would not take part in the liberation struggle…To participate in combat does not just mean to take up arms, though this is superior. The participation of Timorese women in the fighting takes various forms: gather information about enemy movements, their fighting potential, and so on.”

Here, of course, she was not talking about the resistance against the Indonesian occupation (she knew only one day of that) but of the struggle against Portugal and for FRETILIN’s survival in power. Nonetheless, she was prescient for what was about to come. FRETILIN, itself, was divided about the “proper” role women should play in the independence struggle. Rogerio Lobato, a FRETILIN Central Committee member and Commander-in-chief of FALINTIL, its armed wing, said in a 1978 interview:

“Many people cannot understand that women should take up arms against the Indonesians. They see women as only in traditional roles; looking after the house, rearing children, and so on… But women form half the population and they must be involved in the struggle on all fronts, including the armed struggle.”

As mentioned earlier, Bonaparte acknowledged that armed combat was a “superior” form of participation. Nonetheless, she thought women’s participation in the armed resistance was not just a means of relinquishing their traditional roles, but that the struggle was a way in which traditional roles would be expunged altogether. An emancipatory consciousness would be found through the struggle and emancipation achieved once national freedom was assured. However, as with other women engaged in nationalist activity, her thoughts were sensitive to questions of priorities and the possibility of sectarian values interfering with the common goal. In her 1975 manifesto, she stated:

“The principal objective of women participating in the revolution is not, strictly speaking, the emancipation of women as women, but the triumph of the revolution, and consequently, the liberation of women as a social being who is the target of a double exploitation: that under the traditional conceptions and that under the colonialist conceptions”

Here, it is not clear what “revolution” she was speaking about: a ‘national’ revolution for independence or a ‘socialist’ revolution. She almost certainly had Marxist sympathies, given her political education in Lisbon in the mid-1970s when she joined the Maoist MRPP, and her participation with the leftist FRETILIN (though it would only formally adopt a Marxist-Leninist platform in 1977, supposedly from pressure by Roque Rodrigues and Antonio Carvarinho, also members of the MRPP in Lisbon).

Still, Bonaparte was correct that Portuguese colonisation enforced strict gender roles in society. Before the Europeans’ arrival, distinctions between work and housework (or male work and female work) were hardly existent, though this isn’t to say in pre-Portuguese Timor there was genuine equality. But the gendered division of labour was enforced early by Portuguese missionaries and, come the era of Fascist Portugal, only worsened. Timorese men were conscripted into labour forces, Bonaparte wrote, separating women from their husbands, leaving them to care for the children and without the means to raise them. By removing colonial powers, she thought it would also expel the mindset the colonialists had instigated, allowing for the blossoming of a new culture. However, as many East Timorese women know today, it was possible for colonisation to be defeated without traditional concepts of gender also being erased.

Something else that catches the eye is Bonaparte’s view on the actual praxis for bringing about gender consciousness among East Timorese women. A number of the MRPP activists in Lisbon supported the beliefs of the Guinea-Bissauan intellectual Amílcar Cabral, who, in what he called “class suicide”, believed that the bourgeois revolutionary should destroy all vestiges of his or her own class. It was pure Maoism. But as only one of three female members of FRETILIN’s original central committee, Bonaparte might, in modern parlance, be described as an “elite”. Indeed, she was of relatively privileged birth and fortunate enough to be educated at the women’s schools run by Italian Canossian missionaries. (The first school for women in Portuguese Timor was opened by the Canossians in 1902 in Ainaro, a small mountain town on the southern coast.) She also received a scholarship to study in Lisbon, an opportunity available for only a few dozen Timorese at the time.

In her 1975 manifesto, she wrote that it was the responsibility of “the more active and conscious women” to “awaken those [women] who are passive and submissive.” This vanguard theory of female political awakening reflected in FRETILIN’s vanguard position of the independence struggle (another indication of Marxist-Leninist roots). It has a lasting legacy in the modern day discussion on gender equality in East Timor.

Despite boasting one of Asia’s highest percentages of female parliamentarians (38% at the last count, though it likely increased at last month’s general election) many have put this down to affirmative action laws that require a percentage of female candidates to stand in elections. A law introduced in 2006, for example, requires political parties to nominate one woman for every group of four candidates at national elections. Does this, some ask, just merely create an appearance of progress?

In a 2011 paper, “Hakat Klot, Narrow Steps”, Sara Niner, an anthropologist at Monash University, wrote, “although Timor has one of the highest levels of female parliamentary participation in the world, many of these women are often ineffective and viewed merely as token representatives (possibly forced on the Timorese by the idea of a foreign quota system).” Moreover, Niner added: “There is often tension within the women’s movement about… priorities and a divide between less-educated rural women and middle class urban women with a more feminist agenda.” Bonaparte was not one to confuse compassion with patronising. She was clear: it was the duty of the more educated to raise the consciousness of the lesser-educated. Backwardness and tradition were the impediments to emancipation of women and just as essential to be expunged as the vestiges of colonisation, she thought.

Perhaps—too Marxist in her overtones; too concerned with nationhood than gender identity; too utopian—her words and thoughts appear somewhat atavistic today. Though, by no means are they to be ignored nor overlooked. And in plaintive awareness of what Perry Anderson once called the “history of possibility”, one cannot read Bonaparte’s writings without the fanciful imagination of what she might have been able to add to the struggle against Indonesian occupation (and East Timor’s democracy today) if she wasn’t one of its first casualties.

David Hutt is a journalist and writer based in Phnom Penh. He is also the Southeast Asia Columnist for The Diplomat, and a contributor to numerous regional publications. You can follow him on Twitter at @davidhuttjourno.


Timor Leste as 11th ASEAN Member any time soon?

June 20, 2017

Timor Leste as 11th ASEAN Member any time soon?

by Kavi Chongkittavorn


Image result for Dili's wellknown landmark
Cristo Rei–Dili, Timor Leste

BANGKOK, June 15 (Reporting ASEAN) – By the time ASEAN turns 50 years old next year, Timor Leste could already be its eleventh member state. After filing its application six years ago, Timor Leste is poised to join ASEAN under the chairmanship of the Philippines, which is very keen to bring the region’s young democracy into its embrace.

Image result for Indonesia and Timor Leste

Indonesia’s President Widodo Jokowi with Timor Leste’s President  Taur Matan Ruak 

What made headlines regarding the admission of Timor Leste, or East Timor, was the comment by Rahmat Pramono, Indonesia’s Permanent Representative to ASEAN, that ASEAN was closer to welcoming Dili. This was, after all, the first time a senior ASEAN official revealed the status of ongoing discussions on ASEAN’s fourth enlargement.

“In 2011, when Indonesia was the head of ASEAN, Timor Leste submitted an application to join ASEAN. The ASEAN member countries agreed to conduct a feasibility study of the new country,” Pramono said. Earlier, Timor Leste’s prospects for gaining membership had been blocked by Jakarta, which said that the country was not ready due to political instability, weak economic infrastructure and insufficient human resources to engage ASEAN. These assessments were shared by other member states at the time.

But a change of heart came about as the bilateral relations between Indonesia and Timor Leste improved under the administration of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. Today, Jakarta is actively pushing for Dili’s inclusion in ASEAN. New ASEAN members such as Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos and Myanmar are likewise inclined to accept Timor Leste.

Looking back, Timor Leste had expressed its intention to join ASEAN as early as a year after its independence in 2002. At the time, Thailand and Cambodia were the only two countries backing the young nation’s bid to join ASEAN right away. They thought that the best way to help was to include it in the ASEAN family as soon as possible. As a young democracy, Thailand at the time also viewed ASEAN’s expansion as a way to strengthen openness and democratization in its member states.

But other ASEAN countries were reluctant about Timor Leste’s entry. Among the old ASEAN members, Singapore was very succinct in its position that Timor Leste needed some time to prepare for membership in ASEAN because it lacked the capacity to join the economic community. The island republic feared that Timor Leste’s entry would slow down the grouping’s community-building progress.

The feasibility studies done as part as of processing Timor Leste’s membership application looked at three aspects by which to evaluate the country’s overall qualifications as ASEAN’s 11th member. These three are the pillars of politics and security, economy and socio-cultural issues. The political and security as well as economic aspects have been assessed, while the socio-cultural assessment is expected to be completed soon by Malaysia’s Institute of Strategic and Security Studies.

The two completed studies on the politics and security pillar and the economic pillar concluded that Timor Leste must improve human resource development and undertake capacity-building in order to boost its economic growth and skills. When the ASEAN Community was launched at the end of last year, all members pledged to implement new action plans in the three pillars under the new framework from 2015-2025.

In July this year, the ASEAN foreign ministers will meet in Vientiane to discuss whether Timor Leste can join the regional organization by next year.

Earlier this year, in a surprise move, Dili agreed to host a meeting among the ASEAN-based civil society organizations because Laos, ASEAN chair in 2016, was reluctant to do so. Since 2005, as part of the effort to transform ASEAN into a people-centred community, ASEAN leaders have been having an interface with representatives of civil society organizations. But so far, these dialogues have been held irregularly, and often depend on the ASEAN chair’s decision.

When ASEAN admitted new members in 1995, 1997 and 1999, these new members – Vietnam, Laos, Myanmar and Cambodia – were admitted without any pre-conditions or preparations. They learned from daily engagements with their ASEAN colleagues, gradually absorbing the ASEAN way. In meeting after meeting, they worked together with officials from other member countries, at all levels. Within a short period, they mastered the ways and means to interact with the rest of ASEAN family.

To prepare for its membership in ASEAN, Timor Leste has opened foreign missions in all 10 ASEAN member countries and dispatched officials to be attached to the Jakarta-based ASEAN Secretariat. Since there remain few Timor Leste officials who speak or write in English – Tetum and Portuguese are the country’s official languages – quite a few other ASEAN countries have been diligently helping them out in English-language communication.

Currently, ASEAN has 10 members comprising Brunei Darussalam, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Thailand, Philippines, Singapore and Vietnam. (END/Reporting ASEAN – Edited by Johanna Son)

*Kavi Chongkittavorn is a columnist with ‘The Nation’ newspaper, and senior fellow at the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok, Thailand.



Book Review: ASEAN, Sovereignty and Intervention in Southeast Asia

April 17, 2017

ASEAN, Sovereignty and Intervention in Southeast Asia

Book Review by Malcolm Cook

ASEAN, Sovereignty and Intervention in Southeast Asia. By Lee Jones. Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan, 2012. Hardcover: 262pp.

Lee Jones’ new book on ASEAN and the states of Southeast Asia is refreshingly iconoclastic. It tackles one of the core tenets of ASEANology that has been intellectually reinforced by the Constructivist turn in the analysis of this regional organization. The icon that Jones’ book takes aim at is the scholarly near consensus “on the absolute centrality of the non-interference principle for ASEAN states” (p. 2). A consensus that Jones’ correctly notes echoes the official rhetoric of ASEAN and its member states.

Image result for ASEAN, Sovereignty and Intervention in Southeast Asia. By Lee Jones

There are three steps to Jones’ argument that this consensus is misplaced. First, he establishes that a range of Constructivist, Realist and English School scholars of ASEAN uphold this consensus despite their intellectual differences and debates over other aspects of the organization.

Second, he establishes the case that ASEAN member states have repeatedly intervened in Southeast Asia both in the Cold War and post-Cold War periods in apparent contradiction to ASEAN’s commitment to non-interference. Where he sees other scholars of ASEAN as downplaying or ignoring these interventions, he makes them the empirical core of his argument.

Third, Jones posits a theoretical explanation for when member states uphold ASEAN’s “cherished norm” of non-interference and when they violate it. He adopts the multi-variable critical political economy approach that Jones argues, for Southeast Asia, “was pioneered by scholars based at or linked with the Asia Research Centre at Murdoch University, Perth” (p. x). Befitting this social conflict approach’s Marxist roots, Jones focuses on state-capital relations in the different member states of ASEAN and the role of the state and state institutions in supporting powerful owners and managers of capital in their domestic conflicts and transnational expansion.

This approach sees “state managers” in the ASEAN member states invoking the non-interference norm and its purported centrality to ASEAN as a “technology of power” to hinder external interventions in favour of domestic marginalized groups such as the people of East Timor (Timor Leste) when it was under Indonesian control and communist rebels and their sympathizers in the Philippines [End Page 303] and Thailand.

These managers violate the same norm when they perceive external threats to their states such as during the invasion of Cambodia by communist Vietnam during the Cold War or threats to foreign market access such as Western pressure on ASEAN over Myanmar’s membership.  In the case of Cambodia, both in the Cold War and post-Cold War periods and Myanmar in the post-Cold War period, it has not only been ASEAN member states that Jones argues have violated this “cherished norm” of ASEAN but ASEAN itself.

Jones links Myanmar’s decision to seek ASEAN membership, ASEAN’s acceptance of Myanmar and ASEAN’s subsequent pressure on the junta to reform politically all to dominant state and capital interests. The junta was interested in joining ASEAN to benefit from the protection of ASEAN’s non-interference norm while providing more economic opportunities for state-linked firms. Myanmar’s membership benefited dominant capital interests in ASEAN states as shown by the rapid increase in Thai and Malaysian foreign investment in Myanmar. However, Western disdain at ASEAN’s acceptance of Myanmar and the importance for ASEAN member states and dominant capital interests of continued good relations with Western powers, particularly after the Asian financial crisis, strongly underpinned ASEAN pressure on Myanmar to reform politically.

ASEAN, Sovereignty and Intervention in Southeast Asia is most effective at establishing the existence of this near consensus in favour of the ASEAN commitment to non-interference and this consensus’ empirical and analytical shortcomings. This definitely is a worthwhile independent contribution to the literature and our understanding of ASEAN’s development.

The author repeatedly shows how the most quoted scholars of ASEAN, particularly those of a Constructivist bent, downplay examples of interventions as isolated or, counter-intuitively, as supporting the general principle of non-intervention. In the second half of the book that looks at the post-Cold War period, Jones insightfully analyses how ASEAN’s rhetorical embrace of good governance, democratization, human rights and ASEAN community building all.

Timor Leste–The Easy to Forget 11th ASEAN Member

April 6, 2017

Timor Leste–The Easy to Forget 11th ASEAN Member

by Khoo Ying Hooi@www.newmandala.org

The longer Timor-Leste’s membership is delayed,it will only reflect negatively on ASEAN’s decision-making process, writes Khoo Ying Hooi.

Image result for Timor Leste

2017 is a pivotal year for the Association of Southeast Asia Nations (ASEAN) as it celebrates its 50 years since its founding in 1967. Among the puzzles that need to be solved is whether Timor Leste will be formally accepted as the regional bloc’s 11th member.

As the newest country in Southeast Asia, Timor Leste and its place in the region is often overlooked. Timor-Leste is vulnerable not only as a small and relatively young state. The fact that it has suffered an Indonesian occupation that destroyed its economy and infrastructure prior to the restoration of independence in May 2002, means it faces various post-conflict challenges, including having its voice heard in regional and international forums.

Image result for cristo rei of dili

Cristo Rei of Dili

Timor-Leste expressed its desire to be part of ASEAN right after the restoration of independence in 2002. In July 2005, it became a member of the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) and it signed the ASEAN Treaty on Amity and Cooperation in 2007. As outlined in its Strategic Development Plan 2011-2030, Timor-Leste’s aspiration to join ASEAN is based on geographical location, the wishes of the country’s leaders and people, and its cultural affinity with its neighbours.

Timor-Leste officially applied for ASEAN membership in March 2011 during Indonesia’s chairmanship after a number of years as an ASEAN observer. An ASEAN Coordinating Council Working Group (ACCWG) was then set up and tasked to assess Timor-Leste’s readiness to be part of the regional grouping, and the implications for ASEAN if it did join. It has been almost six years now since its official application in 2011.

With its domestic challenges, some questioned Timor-Leste’s aspiration for ASEAN membership, as well as the benefits and costs of membership.  For Timor-Leste’s part, ASEAN membership is hoped to provide access to an established forum where important issues such as security, economic development and integration, and socio-cultural matters can be pursued.

Timor-Leste has indeed come a long way. The nation’s independence came at a high price. Now, the country is gradually moving from fragility to a country that is consolidating and strengthening the necessary foundations of a state. But that is not without obstacles.

In ASEAN’s 50th year, many are hoping that the Philippines will use its chairmanship to accelerate  Timor-Leste’s formal membership to  the regional bloc. Under the theme of “Partnering for Change, Engaging the World” as announced by President Rodrigo Duterte last September 2016 in Laos, it is hoped that ASEAN could live up to its inspiration as a model of greater regional integration when it comes to Timor-Leste.

The longer Timor-Leste’s membership is delayed, it will only reflect negatively on ASEAN’s decision-making process that has often being criticised. It is time to demonstrate ASEAN’s commitment to a region made prosperous through the spirit of cooperation and integration, and most importantly, as a people-centred organisation.

Khoo Ying Hooi (PhD) is Senior Lecturer at the Department of International and Strategic Studies, Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, University of Malaya, Malaysia.