24 December 2012
Witchcraft, Conflict and Resolution in Timor-Leste
ETLJB 24 December 2012 [Updated 07 January 2013] - ETLJB's Guest Poster is Matthew Libbis BA (Hons), Anthropology - I comment on the report of the murder of an alleged witch in Maubisse reported on Radio Timor Leste 21 December and in The East Timor Law and Justice Bulletin online on 22 December, and which follows on the debate between Wright and Herriman, and builds upon Harrington’s accurate capturing of the dispute mechanism process.
An old woman is accused of stopping a nursing mother from lactating. The people beat her to drive out evil. When she is confronted with the allegation, and asked if she is a witch, she replies yes; similarly, when asked if she had stopped the mother’s milk, she admits that she has. This is her role in society; she fulfils that function, and accepts her beating to drive out the evil.
On a charge of witchcraft, an entire family and lineage may be killed (Schulte Nordholt 1971:367). It was believed that witches passed their craft down through their daughters.
As East Timor’s justice system and Police Service (ETPS) was forming, existing dispute resolution mechanism may have been more respected and held more legitimacy locally; but summary justice is not acceptable on legal or human rights grounds: there are some cultural practices which are universally not on - and some which are made up.
Change cannot be instituted immediately; it requires a generational shift. The rule of law is now established in Timor-Leste which can deal with alleged cases of witchcraft that can be tried in court according rules of evidence that satisfy the requirements of that system.
At present, UN police have a specific mandate, which as it prepares to leave has been reduced to an advisory role, so the UN officer (Wright 2009) would have been correct in the current context, and the complaint referred to local police; however, the reference is from 2000 (Edgerton), in the early days for the UN in Timor, with little knowledge of the place.
So to dismiss the complaint does seem inappropriate, and there was not yet then even the semblance of a nascent police. In its formative stages, the role of the Timorese police was somewhat confused: there is the oppressive and corrupt examples from Portugal and Indonesia, and the police had never been incorporated into the social structure. That some police had come from the Indonesian system confounded the whole thing.
During the Indonesian occupation, the Timorese people had no real recourse to justice in the state system, either because perpetrators of state violence were effectively immune from prosecution; or for those in the resistance, a parallel system existed, and the use of customary law to settle disputes between Timorese thrived.
There is no traditional role of police as such; it is a community responsibility, and regulation – proscription as well as prescription - is by way of tara bandu. Any other institutional framework is not recognised. Some police try to assert authority, others defer to respective roles in community.
Land is the most common cause of conflict, and while the belief in witches is real, and the cause of death and illness is attributed to witchcraft (or speaking the words of the lianain without the ritual authority), often the accusation is cast to give solemnity to the situation and exacerbate the blame attributable to antagonists involved in the dispute.
In one instance, the UN police were conducting the investigation, with ETPS acting as interpreters. A person had returned to land on which coffee was growing, title for which his family had been granted by Portugal and acknowledged by Indonesia.
The Timorese considered it communal land, and during the interview with locals, the Timorese police left out of their translation the detail about chasing the owner with machetes and burning down his house. ETPS said the dispute should be settled by traditional methods, and believed traditional ownership rather than title should prevail.
The acceptance of people back into the community follows the traditional methods for
resolution, and it is interesting to observe whether the same processes can be adopted as an adjunct to the justice system at a state level. After 1999, there were reconciliation processes to accept returning militia; and after the 2006 Crisis, a Simu Malu process was implemented to reintegrate people into communities.
There was always the problem of political appropriation of defence and police, as well as former combatants and clandestine expecting or demanding roles in the current structure. The lack of jobs, and the physical hardship and psychological trauma these people have suffered as a result of their sacrifice meant that they may not be fit for the scarce positions in the new security sector; and having trained in an atmosphere of opposition to an occupying force, how would they make the transition to democratic civilian rule?
This case of permanent hostility is itself a dyadic system, an acknowledgment that peace cannot exist without war, ‘that life would be impossible if this relationship were broken’ (Schulte Nordholt 1971:388). McWilliam (1989:155) notes that disputes ‘are an endemic feature of social life’. If you don’t have a problem, then create one, such as blaming someone of – or deflecting blame to – witchcraft. War and death are a condition for life and marriage (Schulte Nordholt 1971:331, 356). And as someone who is married to a Timorese, I can vouch that war is indeed a condition of marriage, and that blame is part of being: going to work is construed as having an affair (I’m not the only one!)*
People ‘may use the opportunity of a land dispute to vent their anger over other silent feuds’ (McWilliam 1989:252). If an enemy burns your house down, the land is considered cursed; for example, a sacred house that was burnt to the ground 1999 was rebuilt, then collapsed (this may be more to do with the fact that the house was rebuilt using green wood, which is subject to mites). However, if a friend burns down you house, then it’s quite safe to rebuild on the same site.
A dispute concerned a stockpile of Teak from a barge washed ashore in 1998. Fields nearby were strewn with logged teak, and sale of teak had been banned, so ownership and disposal became an issue of contention, and a dispute resolution meeting was called.
The Minister for Agriculture made the point that as it was Portuguese land, which the Indonesian government had taken over, concluding that ownership of the land should pass on to the East Timorese government. The people disagreed, insisting that it is community land, and complained that the government does not treat the people with the same respect that it expects for its laws and demands from them. Furthermore, they added that the government should not be able to dictate what is legal or otherwise regarding the use of land and disposal of trees or wood or goods from people’s land.
The difference between the state and customary systems, most noticeably in criminal matters, is that in the traditional mechanism, restitution must be made to the victim, whereas the state will merely punish the perpetrator, and pocket for itself any fines it may impose.
An argument in favour of the state system over the customary law is that the state protects all its citizens. On the other hand, the customary system may be seen as quicker and cheaper alternative to the cumbersome and overloaded state system, so that justice may give way to expediency.
More serious problems arise where someone who might want a case brought before the courts is coerced into accepting local mediation. This is more likely with more vulnerable members of that community, such as rape victims. If the laws and decisions of the courts reflect the views of the influential people in society, rather than community standards, the result may be similar to the problems encountered in the customary system. A problem the UN police found it mentoring the local force was that they would ask a woman about the assault leading up to, but out of respect for the victim, not ask about penetration.
Lack of confidence in both the police and the courts has not only resulted in continuance of local dispute resolution systems, but has caused some groups to form their own security organisations, but in effect are sometimes no more than standover thugs, whose activities range from protection rackets to threatening to kidnap judges unless a suspect is released. Some of the gangs forming out of resistance said that they were doing so to honour their parents who had fought for freedom. There have also been cases of armed standoffs; one in which the inadequately armed UN forces reverted to slingshots to defend themselves. In another case, a lone UN police officer tried to intervene between dozens of members of rival gangs throwing stones at each other by firing a warning shot in the air; both gangs then descended on him, and he had to lock himself in the car and wait for back up.
Dispute resolution used to involve gift exchange, but now it’s just a matter of sitting and talking (nahe biti). Decisions are made by sitting by the families sitting with the elders, who have authority to adjudicate; the church is sometimes involved, but I’m yet to hear of a case of exorcism in Timor. Usually it’s just a case of beating or killing the witch.
A more positive perspective is perhaps provided in the way that the community in Manufahi decided to choose its representatives to the Commission for Reception, Truth and Reconciliation. Firstly, there should be a gender balance. Secondly, representatives shall be chosen from legitimate members of the former resistance groups, which were in the process of transforming into the incipient civil society.
A personal perspective
When my daughter became ill with seizures at 2AM I ran to the clinic to get an ambulance; when I returned, I was surprised to see an accumulation of thongs and an ensuing throng inside who blocked me from taking my daughter to hospital while they administered traditional medicine, which to me was obviously not only useless, but deleterious – what I consider to be witchcraft.
My wife led the charge, telling me I was a stupid malae and didn’t know anything and should go back to Australia. Her sister argued that if I took her to hospital, they would give her an injection which would kill her; I countered that her not having the injection would kill her.
After a prolonged standoff, we got to hospital, and as the paediatrician was trying to stabilise my daughter so she could fly to Darwin, my wife’s father insisted on taking my daughter home. The doctor explained that if she were to stay at the hospital, she might live; if she were to go to Australia, she might recover; but if she were to go home, she would certainly die; but my wife’s father was adamant that he was the grandfather, and what he said is what would happen, and that when she died, he would bring her back ‘pronto’ - the use of Portuguese supposedly lending some credibility to local utterances.
We went to Darwin, then Adelaide, where my daughter had neurosurgery to remove a tuberculoma from her right hemisphere, and three months intensive physiotherapy to learn to walk and use her left side to see, hear, chew and smile again (she still has only limited use of her left arm). I had brought my daughter and her mother to Australia before, and have since. My wife has returned to Timor with our daughter; so now I worry that my daughter with her white skin and seizures may well be considered a witch.
Edgerton, Robert B.. “Traditional Beliefs and Practices –Are Some Better than others?” in Laurence E.
Harrison and Samuel P. Huntington, eds. Culture Matters. How values shape human progress (New York: Basic Books, 2000)
Harrington, A, 2006 ETLJ 7 Institutions & the East Timorese Experience
Herriman, N, 2009 ETLJ 7 The Case to Intervene and Stop East Timorese Killing ‘Witches’
McWilliam, A (1989), Narrating the gate and path: place and precedence in southwest Timor, Canbera: ANU
Schulte Nordholt, H (1971), The Political System of the Atoni of Timor, The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff
Wright, W, 2009 ETLJ 6 Witchcraft and Murder in East Timor 2009 ETLJ 6
Wright, W, 2012 Murder and Witchcraft in Timor-Leste, East Timor Law and Justice Bulletin, http://easttimorlegal.blogspot.com/2012/12/murder-and-witchcraft-in-timor-leste.html, 22 Dec 2012
*My wife was in Santa Cruz cemetery, aged nine, when the Indonesians opened fire in 1991, and fled Dili on foot in 1999 to escape marauding militia, and in 2006 had to flee once again the violent confrontations that divided east and west. She is afraid of witches. And ducks, and insists she has seen witches hovering in the night, a common thematic representation.
Author: Matthew Libbis.
Post Script: The author also notes that there are several causes of seizures in Timor, whether it be from epilepsy, TB meningitis, neurocysticercosis or cerebral malaria, but they are often construed as either being possessed or cursed, or being a witch oneself, depending on the status of the person.
Author Bio: Matthew Libbis conducted anthropological fieldwork from 2000 to 2002 in East Timor, focusing on how the population was making the transition from occupation into independence. In addition to exploring socially sustaining institutions such as marriage, ritual and customs, his research was guided by prevailing issues that most concerned and affected the community, such as tensions between food production and participation in the formal economy, as well as more pressing issues of housing and reconciliation. He returned to East Timor from 2006 to 2008 following the Crisis that ripped the country apart to work in rebuilding the shattered civil society and governance structures. He has more recently been working in community resilience, social inclusion policy implementation, and humanitarian and disaster management, mitigation and recovery. He may be contacted at malibbis-at-gmail.com
ETLJB Editor's Note: For further corroboration of the association between witchcraft and elipsy in East Timor, the East Timor Elipsy Assocation recounts the story of Dulce, an 18-year old girl from Ermera in Ermera District dated July 2005. The title of the report is "Epilepsy—a major cause of burns in East Timor" and Dulce's story is recounted as follows:
In 2002, Dulce developed epilepsy. As soon as she had the first bouts of seizures, her life dramatically turned for the worse. Suddenly Dulce was hated by her father and he used the slightest excuse to beat her. Her stepmother (her mother is deceased) called her a witch and in order to prevent her transmitting epilepsy to others burned her clothes and even her primary school certificate!
Dulce’s father and stepmother continued mistreating her, starving her and not allowing her to attend school, until finally a distant relative, Manuel, took pity on her and took her into his home. Manuel obtained traditional Timorese medicines for Dulce but they gave her no relief from seizures that she had as often as two to five times per day.
Two months ago, as Dulce was trying to get warm by a fire on a cold morning, she had a seizure during which her right forearm fell into the fire. She received a second degree burn extending almost to the elbow before Manuel pulled her out of the fire.
Dulce was admitted to the district hospital where she was diagnosed with epilepsy and anti-epileptic medication commenced immediately. After discharge she was followed up by a district mental health nurse and since then has not had any more seizures.
Webpage: Australia East Timor Friendship Association (SA) Inc http://www.aetfa.org.au/nl/etea-appeal.html. Accessed by ETLJB 24 December 2012.
Further reference: Epilepsy Today (Epilepsy Action Australia) at www.epilepsy.org.au/sites/default/files/Epilepsy%20today.pdf which shows that the phenomenon of associating epilepsy with witchs is not unique to East Timor. Accessed by ETLJB on 24 December 2012, an excerpt of which reads: "Since the first recorded case of epilepsy 4,000 years ago, many inaccuracies have been believed: that it was contagious, a mental illness, caused by demon possession, a sign that a woman was a witch or an indication of genius.
Of course, it should not be inferred that witches and witchcraft are phenomena peculiar to East Timor. Beliefs in witchcraft have historically existed in most regions of the world. This was notably so in Early Modern Europe where witchcraft came to be seen as part of a vast diabolical conspiracy of individuals in league with the Devil undermining Christianity, eventually leading to large-scale witch-hunts, especially in Protestant Europe. Similar beliefs have persisted in some cultures up to the present, mostly in Sub-Saharan Africa (e.g. the Bantu witch smellers), and have occasionally resulted in modern witch-hunts. The concept of witchcraft as harmful is normally treated as a cultural ideology providing a scapegoat for human misfortune.
The continuing belief in witchcraft in some societies such as Timor-Leste should, however, be of concern to lawyers and jurists, human rights defenders, health care workers, the institutions of state as well as those dedicated to the emancipation of women from social, economic and political repression - not to mention the alleviation of the unnecessary pain, suffering, social ostracism, violence and murder of persons accused of witchcraft - and it is for those reasons that ETLJB continues to draw attention to this problem in East Timor. It is, of course, necessary for the state as well as the religious institutions to develop policies, laws and strategies to promote a rational analysis of social problems informed by experience rather than the supernatural to annihilate the torture and murder of persons accused of witchcraft and to punish those who perpetrate those acts.