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1313 words

The crocodile and the wafer

17 December 2018

Books | The interaction of traditional beliefs and Catholicism has helped shape Timor-Leste since the 1500s


Productive overlay? Catholic devotee touches a painting of Mary holding baby Jesus during Palm Sunday celebrations in Dili in April 2017. Antonio Dasiparu/EPA

Productive overlay? Catholic devotee touches a painting of Mary holding baby Jesus during Palm Sunday celebrations in Dili in April 2017. Antonio Dasiparu/EPA

Nation-building and National Identity in Timor-Leste
By Michael Leach | Routledge | $62.39 | 259 pages

The reptilian shape of the island whose eastern half comprises the first new nation of the twenty-first century accounts for one of three Creation myths that sustain its people today. In this nuanced and insightful analysis of the emergence of Timor-Leste as a nation, Michael Leach recounts the story its young are still told of the little crocodile with big dreams whose life is saved by a boy. Years later, they travel the oceans together, until the day the crocodile, sensing that death is near, promises to turn himself into a beautiful island to support the boy and his children unto eternity.

Leach, a professor of politics at Swinburne University of Technology, conveys very well the syncretic nature of East Timorese belief. Since the most enduring legacy of four-and-a-half centuries of Portuguese colonial rule is that 97 per cent of the people call themselves Catholic, these two myths — together, not in opposition — are powerful nation-unifying forces.

As Leach’s work is not an anthropological but a political study, most of his analysis needs to explain division rather than unity. If not for centrifugal forces, nationhood might have come to the Land of the Crocodile many decades before it did, and without nearly so much blood in the water.

Here is one of Leach’s insights: it was the Catholic Church’s adherence to the interests of plantation owners, supported by a Portugal that from 1926 came under the sway of the dictator António Salazar, a near exact contemporary of Franco, that stifled the spirit of freedom and retarded the development of an independent national character.

In chronicling the significance and interplay of protean ethnic beliefs and the overlay of Catholicism from the 1500s through to the 1900s, Leach covers territory already well traversed by Jill Jolliffe and a host of other writers. Where he strikes out in a new direction is in examining the political faultlines, the hidden fractures of the body politic from the early twentieth century right through to the post-independence convulsions of 2006 and an apparent healing of old wounds in the middle of the present decade.

If it is division that explains politics — or, as Nobel prize–winning writer V.S. Naipaul puts it, quarrels among “contradictory sources” that supply in “propaganda, alliances, betrayals” the raw fabric from which society is woven — then Leach traces so many skeins in 232 pages of text that long before the end you marvel at the improbable fact of this nation’s very existence.

One of the basic lines of division is linguistic. It’s a four-way split — English, Portuguese, Bahasa and Tetun — and it’s orthodox sociology to posit a common language as one of the building blocks of nationhood. Timor-Leste’s best-known resistance group, Fretilin, doesn’t get a free ride — at no point does Leach fall for the myth that rebel leaders who would portray themselves as Cuban-style defenders of the masses took the right path at every turn — but he does give it credit for ordering an early program of study in Tetum (as it was then spelt), the lingua franca regarded as inferior by the networks of power until the Catholic Church adopted it for liturgical purposes in the 1980s.

In a process mirroring India’s elevation of Hindi after independence, East Timor had to recognise that linguistic splintering wasn’t carried ashore by the Portuguese: its tendrils were indigenous. Leach dives deep into the jungle of ethnolinguistic conflicts between Firaku (eastern) and Kaladi (western) clans on “the half-island,” traced all the way back to the 1700s.

India also came to mind, for this reviewer, on reading of an abortive uprising on such a scale — as the Mutiny of 1857 had been — that the bitterness of defeat, once swallowed, appears to have made the insurgents’ grandchildren’s generation even more ferociously determined to win their freedom. What was previously written off as the Manufahi Rebellion of 1908–12 — quashed by a Portuguese state in the throes of its own political upheaval in which it overthrew the monarchy — is regarded by historians in our century as at least a full-dress rehearsal for the ultimately successful war of independence.

This book is particularly good in recording the battle for two more powerful symbols of nationhood — a flag all can rally round and salute, and an anthem all can sing and stand for (or, if you’re Australian, at least sit through). Particularly persuasive is the notion of people looking for a “stranger king” — another piece of mythos at odds with the notion of a people instinctively striving to regain their sovereign unity lost in the mists of time.

The belief that these white men in boats might be a prodigal branch of the family tree floating home on the waves after a long separation is redolent of an illusion held by many indigenes who recorded first contact with Europeans. But not all have submitted to the idea of a benign foreigner, the colonialist, predestined to rule over, and assuage the fractious divisions between, one’s own people. (And before we sneer, let’s not forget that’s one of the arguments Australian monarchists still use for the alleged superiority of a system where we owe our formal allegiance to an English-born queen — or king, as the case would be.)

Another important unifier — or divider, as every sabre worth rattling must be double-edged — is the National Day. Like Australia, Timor-Leste has more than one contender. Fretilin’s decision to reinstate 28 November, anniversary of the short-lived independent state it proclaimed on that date in 1975, meant little to the younger generation, let alone those of their elders who had long harboured misgivings about Fretilin’s agenda.

Youth’s preference for the anniversary of the 1999 independence referendum — 30 August — was endorsed by an organisation that retained its initials (CNRT in Portuguese, NCTR in English) after transforming itself the previous year from the National Council of the Timorese Resistance into the National Congress of the Timorese Reconstruction.

In a three-way split decision, Timor-Leste honours both these dates with public holidays — 30 August is Popular Consultation Day and 20 November, Independence Restoration Day. First among equals, Independence Day (marking the foundation of Fretilin’s parent body) is observed on 20 May, when in 2002 Timor-Leste officially joined the family of nations.

This democratic three-in-one fix seems a perfect fit for such an overwhelmingly Catholic nation, where the Trinity is not a stumbling block but an article of faith to so many.

Above all this book is a work of realism, paying due attention to the perceived need to “valorise” the resistance, by which Leach means making it coterminous with heroism, even though — as in any independence struggle — there were excesses and shameful acts that the nation will try to push under the carpet and never speak of in the presence of strangers.

Timor-Leste’s long trek to nationhood was as tortuous as it was torturous. After all the pounding of war drums, and the compounding of everything from international neglect to decimating brute force, what we see before us are two undeniable forces: Timor-Leste’s strong national spirit (which enabled it to defy the might of its shamefully exploitative eastern neighbour to have its sovereign rights upheld by the world’s paramount court) and a third Creation myth, that this nation of 1.3 million is a model of unity, always thinking and acting as one.

One timeless function of myth is to provide a refuge from reality. A nation with these three myths will be stronger than many larger ones that have lost touch with their identity. But, when all is said and done, myths aren’t reality.

Leach has done all who wish our neighbours well a service by acknowledging the myths that sustain them while facing up to the realities of their national life. He is a reliable guide to the ravines, cul-de-sacs and thickets any historical explorer following in these footsteps must expect to encounter. •

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