The organizing committee of the Timor-Leste Studies Initiative Workshop scheduled to take place at The Timor-Leste Studies Initiative Workshop was scheduled to take place at the 2020 Association of Asian Studies Annual Conference in Boston, USA. Due to the restrictions on mobility and public gatherings caused by the Covid-19 pandemic worldwide, the organizing committee decided to take the workshop online. The Timor-Leste Studies Initiative Virtual Workshop was held between June 1st and June 12th 2020. Given the complexity of working across time-zones and languages, each day panelists and participants focused on one paper which was made available online for reading and comments.
Summary of Presentations
Virtual Panel I: Writing History in Timor-Leste
The first panel “Writing History In Timor-Leste” focused on the production on historical knowledge in Timor-Leste today. Antero Benedito da Silva’s highlighted the relationship between literacy and politics past and present and the central role of younger generations in promoting and supporting popular education in the struggle against ‘obscurantism’. Takahiro Kamisuna examined the role of youth and clandestine movement noting the value of drawing on Indonesian sources and the experiences of East Timorese youth engaged in both the struggle for Independence and democracy for Indonesia to better understand the so-called Gerasaun-Foun (new generation). Rogério Sávio Ma’averu explored another ‘hidden’, or overlooked history, that of Timorese women engaged in the struggle against Portuguese colonialism and the Indonesian occupation. Through a focus on the everyday, Sávio’s paper allowed us to see the role of daily lives in Timorese histories. In telling women’s stories and the tale of collecting those stories, he challenged us to see the gendered nature of historical narratives, and to remember those who are forgotten. Amy Rothschild picked up on Rogerio Savio’s work to expand the circle of voices used our understanding of Timorese histories. Her paper posited three narratives of how the Timorese past is remembered, with the dead of the Indonesian occupation period remembered as ancestors or as heroic martyrs. She concentrated on a third category, the dead as victims, and discussed the way this narrative plays out in Chega! the report of the Timor-Leste truth commission. She then considered the continued power and political value to some actors of the official state narrative that has grown in power since independence. This narrative has upheld and empowered certain “heroes” of the older generation and given less agency to younger Timorese and to victims or survivors of mass violence.
Tsuchiya Kisho offered us a paper that is part of a larger project of understanding Timorese history using a “longue durée” approach rather than limiting our understanding of Timorese pasts to shorter periods. He gives a close reading of the poetry and political thought of the poet Fernando Sylvan during the period when Sylvan was loyal to the idea of a global multiracial Portuguese empire. In Kisho’s reading, the perceptions and borders of the Timorese nation shift over time. David Webster described how contrasting notions of development shaped and were shaped by international political interests towards Indonesia during the Occupation. Contemporary debates over development in East Timor reveal many of the same struggles between externally inspired and locally driven experiences. Marisa Gonçalves’s paper once again opened up another under-researched topic in Timor-Leste’s recent history, that of the role of African solidarity movements and relationships between former Portuguese colonies. As Marisa points out, much of the focus of scholarship has been on solidarity movements based in places such as Australia, Portugal, USA, Canada, Japan and other European countries, while many politically critical relationships were forged with African nations who often facilitated access to the East Timorese ‘Diplomatic Front’ on the International stage.
Finally, Vannessa Hearman’s paper explored the lived reality of young people in Dili during the occupation. Dili under the Indonesian occupation was a city transformed by displacement and urbanisation, a transformation that also facilitated the rise of clandestine networks by creating a set of common experiences and conditions of life for a generation of children and youth. Deeply informed by both Indonesian and Timor-Leste studies, Vannessa’s paper looks at spatial arrangements and co-existing realms of old and new in Dili.
To view abstracts click here
Virtual Panel II: Current Trends in Research on Timor-Leste
The second panel centered on current trends in Timor-Leste studies and included papers by East Timorese scholars Maria Madeira and mica Barreto Soares, as well as Li-li Chen, an academic based at the National University of Timor-Leste (UNTL), and Susanna Barnes (University of Saskatchewan. Maria Madeira opened a window into the role of art, and especially women’s art, in the Timorese struggle and in Timorese identity. The women artists she discussed have been less noticed due to state favour flowing more to male artists, but they have played an important role in bridging modern and traditional representations. Women artists became “forerunners in bridging the gap between generations” and between Timor-Leste, the Timorese diaspora, and the outside world. In a sense, artistic expression can be seen as a form of “soft power” in the Timorese independence struggle. mica Barreto Soares considered the Covid pandemic to be not only a crisis for China, but also an opportunity. China leaped first and fastest to provide Covid-related medical support to many countries, including Timor-Leste, and has played a leading role in aiding the (relatively successful) Timorese efforts to tackle the pandemic. Mica argued that China has enhanced its “soft power” and global status as a result of its Covid response outside China’s own borders. China may even be reinventing the concept of soft power. Li-li Chen has also written about Covid in Timor-Leste, but in this paper she returned to points about gender and silencing raised earlier by Maria Madeira. Li-li‘s paper is a timely examination of security discourses and a killing by police officers that proposes alternatives to dominant narratives. Examining informal popular discourses through graffiti and interviews, she found a demand for changes to policing, calling for reform on the systemic rather than individual level. Finally, Susanna Barnes examined the impact and implications of land formalisation practices on local understandings of land.
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