[Warning: this is quite out of date, representing my thinking in 2007]
Many anthropologists dismissed this “East”/”West” thing in the weeks after the first disturbances in late May. Many said that this was merely an invention of the Portuguese, who came up with derisive names for westerners and easterners (kaladi=calado=silent and firaku=vira-cu=(literally the “ass-turners”). But these terms are quite likely actually indigenous, kaladi coming from the Malay “keladi” for yam, and firaku coming from Makassai meaning “like us.”
The division between East/West, most alive in Dili, is not something to be so easily dismissed. According to Jill Jolliffe, early on, central members of Fretilin were worried about the “lorosa’e” vs. “loromonu” divide. Mau Lear, Fretilin’s Deputy PM wrote a treatise on the matter in 1975, called “The Establishment of New Relationships in East Timor.”
Also, questions about the effectiveness of the Community reconciliation process of the CAVR in Baucau in the past couple of years raised the specter of regionalism: would it be that true reconciliation was a task overwhelming placed on the “West”?
In 2006, the dichotomy, seemingly antique and unfelt to the foreigner, has taken on a dangerous life of its own.
But Timorese are facing the crucial question: what is the “glue” that holds Timor together? Why is Timor-Leste a nation? The “struggle” alone cannot convince youths who do not remember it. (And in the end the legacy of the “struggle” is the power struggle the world has witnessed within F-FDTL.) The Portuguese language, family names and Catholic religion cannot hold the country together.
What are the things that are essentially East Timorese? There are many things, some related to the Portuguese and the Church, other related to geography, ways of living, and indigenous (and creolized) languages. But the government has been frightened to deal with the elephant in the room, history.
With poverty, and poor health indicators, and now structural weakness of key government institutions, it may not seem like a priority to build that “horizontal” understanding between Timorese, to build a consensus of the (documented and felt) historical connections between kingdoms and regions.
(The past in the new teacher’s manual, blank.)
But Timor desperately needs to define what it means to be East Timorese, and give young people a stake in not only the economy, but the construction of a vibrant, inclusive and peaceful national identity. In May 2002, there was a brief moment of euphoria, a vision of this. Groups like Bibi Bulak, Arte Moris, radio stations both community, government and church sponsored, and certain sporting teams have contributed a great deal to this end.
In the meantime, with a great deal of the population of Dili living in fear and rehashed trauma, worries about the police force, military and justice system predominate. Certain neighborhoods of Dili remain no-go zones, largely because of a couple of hundred “youth.” Some in Dili claim that squatting and land conflicts are behind much of the violence. Many of the “youths” involved are recent migrants to Dili. And many of the neighborhoods in question grew dramatically post-1999.
Dili and Baucau are over-populated, and create impossible expectations in young people. The massive UN missions dating from late 1999 made Dili the only place to find opportunity. Criticisms of the UN’s slow steps to empower/finance the districts and subdistricts are not only correct in terms of systemic political concerns, but in terms of the devastating demographic/migratory effects of a centralized UN Mission.
This generation of adolescents who grew up in the slums of Dili, watching fancy white cars go by, seeing foreigners (and Timorese illuminati) full of gadgets, with exciting night lives, designer clothes, and satellite MTV, seems doomed to dissatisfaction. Moreover, the emphasis by the first government on education and health services over agricultural and private sector initiatives meant that these guys were a low priority. (See the work of Richard Curtain for more on this argument.)
Medium-term what is needed more than anything is economic opportunity and a more general hope for the future in the districts, remoter rural regions. Services need to be strengthened, as well as infrastructure and communications, to lure people back to the districts. Most of all, local growers need access to markets (specifically Dili or eventually international ones).
Let’s not forget that the majority of Timor lives outside Dili. The Bishop of Baucau said in mid 2006 that things are quite normal and peaceful in Baucau. Seen from the districts, Dili is not a very nice place, not only for the now endemic gang violence, but for its noxious political class. Most in the districts, while not happy about the instability in their country, are just looking to keep things together, and looking for small improvements in the day-to-day.
As of February 2007, with the rice shortage destablized even these most humble hopes in drought-stricken areas.
And the heightening in tensions between the government and Alfredo’s men in the west added to the food shortage has destabilized Timor even further. In the mountainous west, with the surge in popularity of Alfredo, his escape will become legend and beatification as an anti-Dili figure inevitable. At this point, the government has very little credibility in the districts.
After three technically sound elections, and what seems to be a voting of the Timorese conscience, I think stability is riding on the ability of the Timorese political elite to come together and work to assemble a viable and representative government. Too many promises have been made on all sides and parties must be honest with the Timorese people about their limited ability to execute budgets and expand delivery of basic services.