Tumults and brinks

I feel an unavoidable heaviness triggered by the unrest. I remember reading the ICG’s blog entry of July 9

Concerns that the formation of a new coalition government might give rise to violence, as occurred following the 2007 elections, now look misplaced

And thinking, well that’s a bit premature. In 2007, the tumult came after the announcement of the coalition. 

Who knows what will happen this afternoon. As I have mentioned before, Timor has an eerie way of going “to the brink” and stopping.

If there is any pattern in relation to urban/political violence in Timor, to start, it is that the international community (and English-speaking media) always seems somehow completely taken aback, as though it was completely blind-sided. Continue reading


The little prince

Here I hope to bring to a wider audience the tragic and compelling story of a Topass “prince” from the island of Timor who was essentially kidnapped by a Dominican priest and abandoned in France in 1750.

Pascale Balthazar, the 12 year old son Topasse ruler Gaspar da Costa was taken with a couple of dozen slaves to Macau. There his charlatan “protector” Dominican Father Ignácio sold most of his slaves in Macau and his nice clothes in Canton, after which time they continued on to France, in a journey which took about nine months. During the journey, the priest convinced the boy not to reveal his status or walk around freely on the ship, as the French sailors were monsters and would eat him.

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Prison island and boat people

On the issue of a detention center in East Timor for those seeking asylum in Australia: continued insensitivity by both sides, especially in what relates to the eventual location. One Timorese minister has suggested what he deems to be a “win-win” idea to resolve the impasse – put them on the Island of the Island.

What follows is some historical perspective on the island that is the namesake of this blog, prisons and boat people.

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Placenta up a tree

I did not know it on arrival, but I learned that the tree outside the house I am staying in has a placenta hanging in it. (In Timor, in different regions people save placentas in different ways. They are not something to be simply discarded or ignored.)

The placenta came with a baby delivered in Dili Hospital after nearly a 24 hour labor. During this time those accompanying the young mother had to buy sarongs for her to lie on during childbirth, as apparently the room where women give birth is BYO linens.

On Tuesday, as I was dealing with the consequence of an excessive amount of water and coffee I drank that morning in a subdistrict not far from Dili, I looked over at the fetid water in the tiled mandi tank next to me, which I knew for a fact to be little over a year old.

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Lauf Neno, a woman living by herself

I am writing a paper in which I attempt to make sense of some of the (colonial) anthropology that has come before me. Schulte Nordholt is a fascinating figure because among other things he was an administrator in West Timor before and after World War Two. His interest in history, but inability to grapple with “Timorese” perspectives on history, is particularly compelling and troubling at the same time.

I came across this quote, from a rather dry (literally) section of “The Political System of the Atoni” on agriculture, which I found so incredibly haunting and sad.

During the famine of 1930 the people of Amfoan sought help from Lauf Neno (Van Alphen, 1933), a woman living by herself in a shack in a river valley. Her only clothing consisted of a loin-cloth, and she had no other belongings than a cooking-pot and a sirih purse. She had been discovered in 1927, when there was also a food shortage, and was reputed to have descended from heaven on to the Mutis, so that she was a neno aman, or celestial child. Others said she came from Kauniki where Sonba’i, the great son of heaven, once lived. She was said to have attended school and speak many languages. People brought her quantities of sacrificial gifts, such as hens, pigs, cloths, beads and sirih pinang, in order to bring on rain. Her fingers were deformed, except for the index fingers and thumbs. She had the appearance of an old woman, although she was probably not much older than 30. It was believed that if she opened her right hand the drought would continue for a very long time to come, and if she opened her left hand many people would die. The fetor (district head) decided to send her to Kupang, but when she became aware of his intentions she was literally struck dumb and wept so much, for days on end, that the fetor, prompted by apprehension, released her. But a few months later she was conveyed to Kupang after all, on the orders of the Netherlands East Indies Government. Here people continued to bring her sirih pinang to her in jail. She was charged with fraud and died a month later. She had opened the fingers of her left hand before her death, and was buried with her hand in that position. And many people died, for the drought continued. (75-76)

Part of what I find disturbing about this tale is the voice of the narrator(s). Strange, to start, that he does not seem extremely up front about the source(s) of all of the information. Schulte Nordholt has a borderline empathetic voice, and yet by telling the story the way he did, he seems to somehow endorse the colonial version. She was “discovered”? By colonial authority I am assuming.

He concludes “popular imagination places a lonely and disfigured person in the sphere of the hidden world […] The woman herself probably had no part in this at all.” (Highly speculative, isn’t it?)

Anthropology still often seems to operate on this level – make sense of, even empathize with but, when push comes to shove, the analysing seems to somehow explain away very personal struggles and hidden histories. As an object of study she has meaning. As a woman who died in prison she is either absurd or tragic.

The scarlet letter(s)

On Monday, making my way to work at quarter past 8 the city struck me as quiet. At the City Courts of Dili, however, the GNR packed into its small parking lot, with two vans. At least three UNPOL cars as well. Soon the street was shut off, causing mass disturbance to the city’s traffic.

Not this much security or attention was paid to the trial of the Tim Alfa militia from Lospalos, whose members were accused of ambushing and killing nuns and priests.

This week the trial for the alleged conspiracy leading to the February attack on Ramos Horta began.

On TVTL Monday night Angela Pires appeared calm but focused, wearing a tais dress. Newspapers reported she was barefoot – which they interpreted to mean she had come ready to fight. (I do not know what to make of that.) The other defendants, dressed in what can only be described as Guantanamo Orange jumpsuits, looked more the part of people accused of plotting to kill the President.

This morning on the way to Cristo Rei, I biked over some fresh graffiti in large capital red letters “Viva Lia Los. Viva Justisa. Viva Alfredo no Angie.” This is the first graffiti I have ever seen with Angie included. The message was tailor-made for the trial, and cleverly painted in a place where the President would be forced to walk past to continue his morning exercise routine to the beach.

Later in the day, I tripped over some of the bigger conspiracy theories, which seem hyperbolic and indicative of a huge distrust for the two most powerful people in the country. I did not realize, for example, that a great number of people doubt that Ramos Horta was ever shot. They are actually waiting for him to show his wounds at the trial to prove that he was actually attacked! Moreover, some believe that Alfredo’s mate fatin was not on the pavement at Ramos Horta’s house. They believe his body was dumped there. I asked around, to know if these ideas are “regional” but the first person who told me this was indeed from Oecusse, which I imagine defies regionalism. All asked said these ideas are widespread and not limited to one group.

Dili, as in Portuguese colonial times, remains addicted to the whisper. The rumor. It does not help that the major sources of information, daily papers and TVTL are either at best too weak to cover events (let alone investigate), or at worst putty in the hands of a quite aggressive government.

This culture of rumor has serious consequences, one need only to look at 2002 and 2006. TVTL news coverage can be expanded, and from the sounds of it, people want to see Ramos Horta on the stand, and they want him to show his wounds. After all, haree hanesan fiar.

Let’s hope JSMP (whose website desperately needs updating) and some of the weekly papers can provide more information for the public.

Access to information aside, I have started to wonder whether these ema boot can ever regain the trust of a great number of people.


It has not been a couple of good weeks for Timor in what relates to reports and opinions from the wise “international community.”

The World Bank’s Poverty Report was circulated in Dili, indicating that poverty has risen since independence, and is particularly bad in the more populated central, mountain districts. (It has yet to be made available officially.)

Then the US decides not to select Timor as a “compact” country of the Millennium Challenge Corporation, a massive fund for bilateral aid created by the Bush administration. (Let me say, as a disclaimer: I have serious doubts about the MCC.) The MCC sets up multi-year “compacts” to pump in massive amounts of money, often for infrastructure programs, based on a country’s performance in governance and poverty reduction. The indicators for governance (called “Ruling Justly”) are taken from the World Bank Institute and the right wing think tank Freedom House.

Leaving out the Freedom House indictators, we can see that Timor dropped in from 07 to 08 in the World Bank Institute’s estimation.





President Ramos Horta lashed out at the World Bank recently, probably in response to these studies. He said that he was tired of “geniuses” and “einsteins” coming and measuring Timor. He said “We are always getting beat up for not implementing programs,” and that “sometimes more money is spent on evaluation than on programs.”

Ramos Horta asked reporters late last month, “And how much do they claim to have put here? Maybe it sums in the hundreds of millions, or I venture to say billions of dollars. Why is it that poverty continues to persist in our country?”

This follows a virulent attack by Xanana’s office against Oxfam Australia for its food security assessment released in October.

Something perhaps both the supercilious donors and Timorese elite should take on board: money cannot buy “development” or rule of law.