Indonesia: Unity Is Essential For The Future Of East Timor


Dr George Quinn

What will happen in Timor if Indonesia breaks up?

There is an outside chance, but a real chance, that current stresses will tear the nation apart. If this happens, the new state of East Timor will find itself the star player in a whole new regional ball game. But it may not be on the winning side.

East Timorese intellectuals and activists, whether they are pro-independence or pro-Indonesia and now living outside East Timor, have agreed for years that the break up of Indonesia will make it possible for the island of Timor to reassert its primordial unity.

For both groups, the possible emergence of a unified Timor is a disturbing prospect. It will destroy the delusions that lie at the heart of their respective nationalisms. For pro-Indonesia East Timorese the dream of a prosperous, autonomous place within Indonesia, like Goa’s place in the Indian Union or Macau’s in China, will vanish once and for all. For the pro-independence East Timorese a unified Timor will demand reversal of their nationalist myth that East Timor is culturally distinct from West Timor and other adjacent areas of today’s Indonesia.

In the old Timor, networks of trade, ritual and kinship once knitted the island into a single cultural and economic domain. There were no borders. Of course, as far as is known, in pre-colonial times the island of Timor was never a single state. It was a patchwork of small polities, interacting in a dynamic, constantly shifting configuration of alliances and enmities. But it is also clear that, despite its internal diversity, Timor constituted a coherent culture area bound by common elements of grassroots culture and, most especially, by trade. Goods and people moved freely from market to market from one end of the island to the other. In coastal areas the Malay language (today called Indonesian) was significant as a lubricant for the flow of commerce up and down the island and even over the straits to neighbouring islands.

When the Dutch and the Portuguese hacked a border across the belly of Timor they ruptured a number of trade paths – in particular the ancient route along which sandalwood and other products had been transported from the eastern part of the island to the port of Atapupu in what was to become West Timor. The Portuguese nursed an almost pathological distrust of the Dutch. Under their rule, East Timor sank into isolation. Knowledge of the Malay language dried up, top-to-toe trade across the length of the island likewise withered.

But the memory of Timorese unity never died. The vigour of this memory is one reason why East Timor’s new elite, many of whom are strongly stamped with the outward trappings of Portuguese culture, feel compelled to set about resurrecting a pseudo-colonial image of East Timorese distinctness. The most extreme manifestation of this is the decision to assign a role of prime importance to the Portuguese language. Given that no more than two or three percent of East Timorese have (or ever did have) a communicative command of Portuguese, this will be a huge, long-term, potentially divisive imposition on the new state.

Paradoxically perhaps, the preservation of Indonesia’s unity is essential to the development of a culturally distinct East Timor.

WATCHPOINT: If Indonesia breaks up and pan-Timorese primordialism emerges, East Timor as it is presently being shaped may well disappear too.


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