Traube, Elizabeth (2011) “Producing the People”

In East Timor, the people have their own unique myths and animistic beliefs. These may shape their interpretation of things and/or be used by the people to justify certain interpretations to challenge or support things such as Western colonialism, Indonesian rule and East Timor nationalism.

Myth of the origins of colonial rule contributed to the acceptance of foreign colonialists like the Portuguese. This myth links political order to an encounter between an indigenous ruler and a newcomer from overseas (Malaia). Consequentially, the newcomer will be installed as the ruler (“stranger king”) and the original lords retain ritual or spiritual authority. This myth made the East Timorese see the foreign Portuguese colonialism as natural and acceptable. However, it is also important to note that foreign rulers were seen as only a single trunk while the Hohul and Raimaus people (the East Timor people) were the guardians of the trunk, which authorized them to legitimize new successors to office. This affirmation of the East Timorese’ position partly contributed to their acceptance of the Portuguese.

In addition, the myth of human ancestors and the portrayal of the Indonesians as the first child, Au Sa, instead the Malaia (who could assume the status of “stranger king”) and that they are incapable of rule meant that it was difficult for the Timorese to accept Indonesian rule and provided the Timorese the symbolic resources for critique. Furthermore, the Indonesian government appeared to only be concerned about the land, not the wellbeing of the Timorese. This showed that local sentiments and local beliefs complement, reinforce and strengthened each other.

The myth of origins of colonial rule legitimized outsider-rulers but made it difficult for nationalism that is led by the ruling elites in East Timor post-independence years. Local ruling elites portrayed as stupid, as seen from the bickering as they engage in politics, while “the people” (ordinary non-elites) are uneducated but have the smartness as seen in their unity in understanding the need for inclusive unity (national needs) and to be unified in their demands of the state to help secure their livelihood through agriculture.

This echoed the past distinctions between by political and spiritual leaders but the latter replaced by the people who embody the “interiority” Given the failings of the state in improving their lives, “the people” defines their suffering as the price of the national flag and the notion of suffering together becomes a form of nationalism in its own right. This is significant because it is not merely commonality per se (such as in terms of race) but the common experience and memory of suffering that unites people and allow them to imagine themselves as one community. The discrimination and/or oppression by Portugal and Indonesia are also a part of the system of shared meaning among the people. They facilitate the creation of senses of belonging and identity required of a community, allowing for what Benedict Anderson calls a “political imagination” of a nation-state. It is highly remarkable that these ordinary people can embody nationalism because in contrast, Singapore nationalism is top-down rather than bottom-up. Nation-building efforts had to be deliberately implemented by the state to encourage Singaporeans to have a sense of togetherness and by educating them the vulnerabilities of Singapore and the difficult times we had. For instance, the Japanese Occupation during the World War II was taught in schools under the National Education (NE) for students of the younger generation to have a common ‘memory’ and understanding of the war and the need to protect our nation. Nonetheless, regardless of whether nationalism is bottom up or top down, it worked on the same principles – the political imagination of community that is facilitated by shared meanings through common ‘experience’ or ‘memory’.

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