Alternatives to “timor pessimism”

In thinking about what Portugal and Australia has in common in relation to Timor at this point in time, I think growing “timor pessimism” is probably the most shared feeling. Take, for example, this comment on Xananarepublic:

So…, what’s new in Dili: The same old sh-t of course! They did it in 1999, in 2002, 2006, and here they go again in 2007. It can’t always be the Indonesian’s fault.

I know we’ve kicked this subject around ’till we’re blue in the face, but…, there is no hope for these people; at least not in my lifetime, and after 4 years in ET, I knoweth of what I speak. (They don’t want your help unless it’s cold hard cash, and don’t even think of advising them how to spend it!) But, being the good friend that I am, I will refrain from saying I TOLD YOU SO!!

Africanists have long lamented the impact of inconsistent and decontextualized reporting from Africa. I believe it was Mamdani who coined the phrase “afro-pessimism,” revealing its origins in the colonial era. So as to trace the sources of “Timor pessimism” let us start in Africa. The contemporary “Portuguese experience” in Africa can be summarized as the following:

  • the experience of drawn-out, unpopular colonial wars (1961 – 1974): three concurrent wars proportionately killed more Portuguese than Americans in Vietnam
  • the rapid handover of the colonies in 1975 (Guinea Bissau, Angola, Mozambique, Cape Verde and São Tomé)
  • only the islands saved themselves from decades of civil conflict. War lasted in Angola until 2002, and in Mozambique until 1992. Portugal de facto supported the “winners” in both cases. Guinea Bissau experienced various coups and is presented as “basket case”
  • intermittent reporting on conflict in Guinea Bissau and Cabinda (the disputed enclave of Angola, which possesses huge off-shore oil reserves). Very little reporting on impressive economic growth in Angola and Mozambique

In otherwards, like in most of the West, Africa is presented as one desgraça and miséria after another, the qualitative difference is the trauma wrapped up in the colonial wars. Which brings us to Timor, where there was no war between the colonizer and the colonized.

The Portuguese felt a certain guilt surrounding the “abandonment” of Timor in 1975. This was reflected in the exaggerated outpouring of emotion in 1999, when Portuguese put white sheets outside their windows, marched to the American embassy dressed in white and called for international intervention in Timor in black September. People say it was a civic mobilization not seen in this country since the Revolution in 1975. For more, see Miguel Vale de Almeida‘s essay in An Earth Colored Sea.

Even today, in a montage of images for the 50th anniversary of the state broadcaster, RTP, the last image was of Xanana Gusmão at the independence celebrations in 2002 (incorrectly captioned 2003). Timor, as of today, also left the headlines, can we assume because it is both only “reportable” in small doses.

On the street in Lisbon, the “pulse” is distinctly different. Besides the most politically engaged here, who tend to believe the crisis is result of an Australian imperialist plot, those comment on Timor do so along the lines of “after all we did for them.”

A complacent, middle-aged father whose son did not remember him “marching for Timor” said, when asked about Timor, Já dei para esse peditório (literally, “I already gave to that collection [at mass]”). One woman at my institution said to me, during her undergrad time, she was “unimpressed” by the Timorese scholarship students, they had taken very little advantage of the opportunity given to them. (They are now known as the “Grupo de Trezentos,” I leave their story for another day.)

Things are not well in Timor, it is true. But I also believe this crisis situation is the making of a couple of hundred thugs, the political elite, and is not the will of the vast majority. And we cannot excuse repeated misteps and opportunism of the international community — including the Australian government.

Allow me to step away from my role as biased observer. This post is directed to those who care even when it hurts, some would call us “activists.” To combat Timor pessimism, we need information and perspective. The two come together. Charlie Schiener, a long-time friend of Timor says it best,

One of the most challenging tasks of a victorious anti-colonial struggle is transforming people’s relationship with government from resistance to ownership, and neither international civic educators nor Timorese political leaders have been effective in this area. […]

Self-determination and independence means that the people of Timor-Leste are responsible for their own destiny. However, solidarity activists, giving personal reparations for our governments’ complicity in their past oppression, continue to stand with the Timorese people. We can offer perspectives and information, advice and support, and work with them in challenging violations of human and political rights.

Timor-Leste’s people will overcome the current crisis, but it will take hard work and time.


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