09 January 2013

Governance and Authority in Timor-Leste

ETLJB 09 January 2013 Guest Poster: Matthew Libbis BA (Hons) Anthropology* - East Timor has its own system of governance structures that are consistent across different regimes and ethno-linguistic groups. The resistance to Indonesia was built upon these, and added a few of its own. The incoming government also sought to draw upon customary authority as well as positions in the resistance as a basis for civil society along with local non government organisations.

The traditional authority roles include the liurai, king or overlord, liman badain, healer, matan dook, seer and lianain, the keeper of the words, or storyteller, who may also look after the sacred house, the uma lulik, in which sacred rituals are conducted, and sacred goods kept.

The keeper of the sacred house may be called katuas lulik nain or katuas do fukun (the famliy’s central house, where their ancestral goods are kept). The ritual leaders are responsible for the tara bandu, which proscribes certain activities and prescribes others, There is also the katuas ai kemili, the keeper of the sandalwood, in areas where it still grows. In the past, all produce from the land was owed to the liurai of the area. People also had to perform service for him.

Resistance organisations included Organização Popular de Mulher Timor (the Popular Organisation of East Timorese Women, OPMT), Organização de Mulher Timor (Organisation of East Timorese Women, OMT), Renetil, the Resistencia Nacional dos Etudantes de Timor Leste (National Resistance of East Timorese Students), OJETIL, Organização da Juventude e Estudante de Timor Leste (Organisation of East Timorese Youth and Students) and the Student Solidarity Council.

As well as the command structure of the resistance army, there were also community positions, such as coodinador jeral, head of security, and apelo, which was a card carried by the go between from the village to the guerrillas, the carrier of which also going by that title. People in the villages knew who held these positions, and those people held continued influence in the community. The United Nations security forces continued to consult with the security chief until they handed over administration to the Timorese in 2002.

Each suco, village, has a chief, as will each aldiea, hamlet, within the suco. The priest also has a significant and influential role in the community. There is a history of ritual sacrifice to crocodiles (Capell 1944:212), and although it is no longer practiced, it still provides a way of rationalising or understanding such an attack.[i] As an example of how people incorporate old ways into the new, when a child was taken by a crocodile, the village was able to explain this as the village being cleansed of its sins.

On the eve of independence, there  was talk of a tax on cockfights. Much discussion took place in the community about whether the amount of U$1 would be levied for the whole event, or if it would be for each fight, in which case would it be the winner who was liable to pay it. Further debate ensued about whether the money should go to the central government or the district administration. Some of the senior men, sitting beneath coconut palms drinking tua mutin (palm wine), considered that the collected tax should remain within the suco, or the subdistrict, if people from other suco were participating in the event.

The liurai of Timor met in Dili in 1911 to formulate a plan in which they were to invite the Portuguese to leave and assume self-rule amongst themselves. The liurai of Manufahi returned home to find that his uncle and aunty had been arrested for beheading the local administrator. According to oral histories, they did so because the administrator had molested their daughter.  Boaventura led a rebellion against the Portuguese. He did not seek to be king of all of Timor, only of his domain alongside his brother liurai.

The brothers, however, were not united, and helped the Portugal eventually crush the rebellion. The colonial government  revoked any vestiges of power that the king may have had, and even abolished the district for a time. When he died, Boaventura  had one daughter, and to assume regency, she would have to had married another liurai. This did not happen, so even without the Portuguese intervention the succession stopped according to indigenous law.

Boaventura’s daughter did marry and have children. When the Fretilin party stepped in to fill the void left by a hastily decolonising Portugal, they consulted her about what the liurais plans were for independence.  Indonesia tried to cajole her children into taking positions with them to lend the occupiers some local legitimacy. At independence, many locals wanted the offspring to assume their rightful role, but they just wanted to continue on the path towards democratic independence. Even then, there was some dispute over who was the legitimate heir, so any attempt at succession would have been fraught to invite trouble.

Marriage is the predominant regulator of the social system, with who is to marry whom, and where they shall live, and which village the children of the marriage will belong to being negotiated at length before an arrangement can be made. Marriage determines who will help whom in times of sickness, crisis or war. Marriage alliances forge obligations to help with house building, provide buffalo for ceremonies, or food during a famine, and carry out other ritual functions. It may mean killing a person who has wronged the family, or paying for a funeral.  Any breaches of these protocol are punishable by ostracism.

Not adhering to expected governance norms attracts consequences, with accusations of witchcraft, instances of conflict and a resolution required. A man who held the belak (breast plate) in the uma lulik had died, and the belak was transmitted to the son, who had moved out of the village and into his wife’s village when they married. The belak cannot leave the uma lulik; rather, the son should move into the house, as it is the house that preserves the lineage of the family, not the person. He did not want to do this, and when he took it to his home, there was a furore that this would bring bad luck to the village, and he had to return it and make reparations to the community.

Another man who tried to help corn grow by throwing dirt from a certain place amongst his crops, as his grandfather had shown him, was accused by his neighbours of black magic, of causing the death of their son by throwing soil from a place in the cemetery where the ground is sacred. After a three hour mediation, it was resolved that the man should return the soil to the cemetery and sacrifice a buffalo. The man refused, and offered a pig, but the aggrieved complained that this would not be enough to feed everyone.

When returnees from forced repatriation returned to their homes and found people living in their house, those people knew that they would have to leave, but were incensed that the owners wrote a letter to Xanana to have them removed rather than going through the correct procedure – the process of eviction should be handled at suco level: they were not perturbed about having to move, but in the way it was done.

With the dismantling of the resistance, people started forming their own organisations, or making the transition from resistance cells to civil society, often to honour their parents’ sacrifice to free their country. It became apparent in the lead up to independence that these groups were being joined by disaffected people with nothing to lose who were open to political manipulation by opportunistic politicians, and others who may be wealthy or influential, who teach them what their rights in a democratic, free and independent country are, but not what to do with those rights, or what obligations go along with those rights. These groups were not accountable to anyone: their potential was fulfilled with the Crisis of 2006.

The authority structure is elected now, although people still tend to vote the liurai into office of any way, as that is the natural order; unless they really don’t like him, which gives them a voice. There is a quota for a number of positions for women to hold office, which sits well with the groundwork laid by OMT and OPMT, who had by now begun setting up sewing and tais (textile) workshops for women, as well as English language classes. In the traditional authority structure, the liman badain for fertility is a woman, usually the liman badain’s wife.

A major problem was that the lianain had been killed without proper succession having occurred, as it is handed from father to son. Everyone knows the stories, but may not repeat them unless they are the designated owner of the words, or else they will become ill, or a member of their family may even die. The community overcame this dilemma by utilising the newly introduced mechanism of election, and voted for a new storyteller, which bestowed official authority on that person to perform that function.

In an example of self fulfilling self determination, a truck that was heading along the southern coastal road at sunset to set up for the following day’s market was overloaded with boxes and passengers, with people piled on top of produce, all unsecured,  to stop it from falling off the truck. The police stopped the truck. The UN police explained, through the East Timorese police acting as interpreters, the principles of road safety. They then let the truck continue; the people on the back of the truck, however, left laughing and hooting, to which the UN police commander took exception. He pursued the truck, and instructed the Timorese commander to tell everybody to get down from the truck, and that the driver could take the five strongest men to help unload the truck and return to collect the others. No-one moved.

The commands were repeated, with the addition that no-one would be going anywhere until everybody had gotten down from the truck. The UN commander was also explaining his reasoning to the Timorese police, that it was an exercise in respect, professionalism and leadership, and not a personal vendetta nor an abuse of power. This was not translated to the people on the truck. The UN commander told the driver that he could not go anywhere with these people on the truck, but repeated that he could take five men to unload then return for the others, and gave him U$5 for the petrol.

Eventually the driver coaxed the people down from the truck, and took off with women and children.  The UN commander followed the truck to make sure it did not stop around the corner to reload the other people. While waiting there, a number of the young men approached the East Timorese police and complained of the abuse of power, that they are now free from oppression and that the UN should not be treating them like this.  The UN commander returned and again explained through the Timorese police that it is a matter of respecting the police, and that this is an exercise in safety, and handed cigarettes around. By this time, it seemed that the Timorese commander was grasping what the UN commander meant, and explained the concept to the young men.

Their earlier response of hooting and jeering apparently had been to one of the Timorese officers who had taken an abrasive tone, a personal attack which they felt warranted a derisory response.  They complained that they would have to walk all the way to the market, because the women and children that the driver had taken with him could not unload the truck, and that by the time they got there it would be dark, which would make it more difficult, in addition to which the police had imposed a curfew on activity in the market after dark because of drunkenness and fighting.

Eventually the UN commander told the biggest men to get in his car and he would take them to the Market where they could help unload the truck. He was back five minutes later. The truck had stopped not far up the road, its load spiling over: the only way to keep it on was for the men to sit on it until they got it to market. So they did.

[i] Capell, A (1944), ‘People and languages of East Timor’, Oceania, 14:191-219

*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

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