Southeast Asia

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Southeast Asia
Timor Leste: Instability continues, despite 19 years of independence

  Anju Joseph

The legacies of the Portuguese colonial era and the Indonesian occupation continues to keep the contemporary political and ideological process of Language policy formulation rolling in the nation.

The recent political crisis started when the coalition government failed to pass the budget in Parliament. This has set the ground for the economic contraction as Timor-Leste’s economy remains highly dependent on government expenditure. But the problems are more than just the coalition government and economy.

Structural issues
On 20 March 2002, Timor Leste, also known as East Timor became the first state in the 21st century to be a fully-independent, sovereign and internationally recognized. 19 years since the restoration of independence, Timor Leste is left with a cloud of instability hanging above its future. 

The lapses in the semi-presidential system have been the root for the repeated failure of East Timor’s experimenting with coalition governments. Its hampered developmental prospects given its geographic location combined with poor infrastructural growth to attract investments hinders its economic growth. 

Widespread poverty with more than 41.5 per cent living under deplorable conditions, a health sector crisis with weak health infrastructure unable to manage a critical condition, dependence on foreign aid, illiteracy, unemployment, food insecurity, income inequality and governments ineffective response to the vulnerabilities of climate change and natural disasters faced by the region are the clouds on the horizon. 

The political leadership has repeatedly failed to secure ASEAN membership, which is a key foreign policy issue for the country, given the potential of membership to chalk up economic security, geopolitical interests, regional identity of East Timor as a Southeast Asian country. Even though the issues on the political, economic and social fronts are more challenging considering the present and future, two major issues on the cultural front can be seen as continuities of history. 

Fault lines of history
Timor Leste has experienced twenty-four years of occupation by Indonesia (1975-1999) after more than four centuries of Portuguese colonial rule for the sixteenth century. August 30, 1999 referendum marks the cementing of Timorese nation-building and identity, with 78% of the total favouring an Independent East Timor. Even though the bitter history of occupation and violence seems to be settled in the present as a result of renewed relationship by both countries, fault lines of history insinuate to rouse the tensions of language and identity in the post-colonial society of East Timor. 

The internal disaccord arising between the majority of independence supporters and a minority of pro-integration in the country are issues of identity and culture that remain unresolved. The struggle for reorganization, the acknowledgement of suffering and contribution among various political groups, in the making of the East Timorese nation is another issue that paves way for internal conflict especially in the formulation of a national historical narrative.  The conflict that arises out of the above-discussed matters of contention takes an intra-elite as well as an elite-populist nature.

Politics of language
The complexity of the politics of language is ineludibly in nation-building when it comes to a multilingual and multi-ethnic society like Timor. The legacies of the Portuguese colonial era and the Indonesian occupation continues to keep the contemporary political and ideological process of Language policy formulation rolling in the nation. Tetum, Portuguese and Indonesian circulates across different sectors of institutional life today. Tetum has played an indispensable role in closing ranks of different ethnic minority groups and has been spoken by a majority of the population. Literacy in both Tetum and Portuguese served as key communicative resources during the years of the Resistance against Indonesia.  Later on, this reflected in the constitutional commitment by adopting Portuguese and Tetum as co-official languages in the Constitution of the Democratic Republic of East Timor.  Portuguese which is spoken by five per cent of the population receives diverse forms of institutional support as a result of the commodification of the Portuguese language.  The Indonesian language still retains linguistic importance in various sectors. Even though there has not been a systematic act of imposition of any language, there is resilient tension that stems out of this complexity. 

To conclude, experiencing 19 years of the restoration of independence or its impressive evolution as democracy has not helped Timor Leste to assure a “stable” polity and economy nor has let cultural issues of identity and language to settle. 


Anju Joseph is a postgraduate scholar at the Central University of Kerala. She is currently a part of the “Contemporary Peace Process, Thinkers and Theories and Peace Research”, conducted by the School of Conflict and Security Studies, NIAS.

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