Thinking East Timor, Indonesia and Southeast Asia

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Armando Marques GUEDES, Lusotopie 2001 : 315-325

Thinking East Timor, Indonesia and Southeast Asia

Timor is an ethnolinguistic cauldron but unfortunately it is not a melting pot. Its population includes successive overlays of immigrants, the great majority of whom are speakers of Malayo-Polynesian languages added onto pre-established groupings of Melanesians who assimilated into them. In this, East Timor resembles Indonesian West Timor. But also added to this mix are many Chinese, a few Arabic, some Indian and some African traits as well as a few more Western ones mainly among elites of an often mixed European (mainly Portuguese) ascendancy. In this the population is distinguishable from their neighbours in Nusa Tenggara Timur. Such a cauldron, naturally, is the result of a turbulent history. Many of the Indian traits grew out of the ancient commercial emporia (the mysterious empires of Srivijaya and Madjapahit) which, from the 7th and 13th centuries onwards, placed Timor and the rest of the archipelago within their sphere of action, albeit marginally (particularly the later empire). From the 12th century onwards, Arabic merchants replaced them and thrust into insular Southeast Asia, moving west up to and including what we now call Malaysia and east and north as far as Manila, in what is nowadays the Philippines. The Africans mostly arrived as slaves or conscript soldiers, with both groups brought into the territory by the Portuguese colonisation (beginning at an unknown date somewhere between 1512 and 1520 when a small flotilla led by Fernando Serrão anchored off the island on a trip from Malacca to the Mollucas). The Chinese component is more recent : it involves an influx of people, today numbering many thousands, which established itself in small surges. In this, Timor resembles by and large what we today identify as Southeast Asia. A complex panorama.

An Unavoidable Political Fact

One fact may serve us as an opening : Timor Loro Sa’e is to be independent. This may appear to be nothing but a simple, linear and rather non-problematic assertion in all but the concrete materialisation of this independence to come. The change in status of East Timor is a political and a historical event ; something we can (and indeed should) celebrate, a victory for Portuguese diplomacy (which needs one badly), a step towards an international system more concerned with people, justice and human rights and less tied to cold correlations of strength between States tout court. And after so many years, so much suffering and so many grievances, the inde­pendence of Timor will come, perhaps above all, as an enormous source of relief1 to the East Timorese peoples themselves.

The material difficulties to be faced to achieve such a change in status seamlessly are legion, and there is really no point in burdening the reader with their enumeration. But hidden behind the more obvious concrete hardships lies another stumbling block, and one with a perhaps even wider reach and a greater number of implications. An abstract leg of the journey. A notional barrier. For Timor to exist, we must first be able to imagine it2. And there are various unavoidable prior conditions for East Timor to be thinkable of as a country, a unit, or at least as a discrete entity. As we shall see, and whatever the good intentions we might profess may be, this is not a self-evident achievement. It is more than that. The problems raised at this level somehow repeat themselves when we attempt the converse operation – that of casting East Timor as part and parcel of the regional context into which it is inserted. And that, in turn, is intrinsically interesting.

In order for us to postulate that Timor, the islands included with it, Ataúro, of ethnographic fame and military infamy, for example, and the Oé Cussi enclave (in other words, the elements which make up its territory) be included within the « Indonesian region » or into a wider Southeast Asia, some prerequisites must be fulfilled from the very outset. First of all, one has to be capable of establishing what K.N. Chaudhuri (1990 : 28), called « a train of thought ». This is based on an identification-acknowledgement of both similarities and differences between that which we conventionally call « Timor » and that which, consequently, we take to be « the rest ». One has to intellectually implement a model which somehow gives substance to the conviction we share (and that therefore justifies it) that all such categories are, somehow, linked to one another as members of the same set. In other words, there is a mental operation which is previous to any identification we actually carry out3.

Let us start by remarking that this general question is very à la page. As I shall endeavour to argue in what follows, conceptualisations of Timor Loro Sa’e as a « regional anomaly », as an entity with distinctive peculiarities so marked that its pure and simple integration into the region is not very convincing, already underlie the representations of it construed by the large majority of Timorese (the popular consultation carried out under the aegis of the United Nations can profitably be regarded as a statistical-sociological gathering of data as to this question), the Indonesians and even the international community itself (perhaps in this last case for mere pragmatic reasons, for coldly calculated motives). But the fact remains that, whether we like it or not, the circumscription of East Timor as a discrete entity is an unavoidable political fact.

Far from solving anything, this creates a responsibility : that of understanding how this was notionally carried out. It depends on us to try to achieve its rational reconstruction. One of the purposes of this present brief introduction is precisely that of giving substance, in politico-cultural terms and against the background of the short draft I shall attempt to sketch of its historical progression, to the position of comparative anomaly Timor assumes in the general regional context in which it is placed, happily or unhappily, perhaps both happily and unhappily, and whether we like or dislike it. And furthermore I shall try to suggest some of the implications of this rather complex state of affairs.

Many Social Spaces

In generic terms, the problems are not new. On the contrary, in one or another form they build on matters which have preoccupied all those who endeavoured to carry out research on the region. Thus, for instance, a question which has insistently been faced concerns what has been called « the autonomy of Southeast Asian history (Smail 1961) », « the structure of Southeast Asian history (Benda 1962)”, « the integrity of Southeast Asian history (Hall 1973)”, or « the structural identities of Southeast Asian civilisations (Chaudhuri 1990)”. The quandary which has been approached in one way or another in all these studies has been that of determining how justified, or even feasible, it is to treat Southeast Asia, from a comparative point of view, on a par with China, India, or, more arguably, Islam. Ultimately, the plight is created by the hypothesis that there is at some level a unity and a cohesion within it which renders it possible for us to envisage it as a whole.

If confronted inside out, so to speak, the question is not so easily raised since the ecological diversity of Southeast Asia (peninsulas, islands, seas, rivers, mountains, the contrasts between coast and inland, highlands and lowlands), the multiplicity of peoples and cultures, the variety of religions, the profusion of languages and linguistic families, of economies and of political forms are all factors which clearly distinguish the region from the adjacent ones (China and India) that delimit it. But if looked at inwards from the outside, to retain the metaphor I proposed, the distinctions are not that clear. And this is true from many points of view.

No fixation of internal or external limits to the impressionistic image of Southeast Asia which we may spontaneously come up with is by any means obvious – as opposed to India and China, which are both entities which apparently circumscribe regularities that are very marked at the deepest levels of social structures, of shared worldviews, of the cosmologies and eschatologies with which they orchestrate themselves and even in relation to dress, adornments and modes of subsistence. In the territory which separates them (and that we call « Southeast Asia »), it is not so. Here there is not one « social space » ; there are many such. And when we try to identify the territory, when we attempt to circumscribe it, we find that what we have actually isolated is in effect a multidimensional variety of units and objects, expressed on a host of different simultaneous planes.

Augmenting the resolution of our ethnographic images, it is perhaps worth listing a few of the reasons for separation to emerge from that very complexity. To highlight differences, I shall do no more than enumerate some of the more obvious ones. A single political form does not pervade the region ; many do. The entire spectrum, or so it seems, is charted out : there are divine monarchies (from Thailand to Bali to Cambodia) shoulder to shoulder with tribal, clan- and lineage-based organisations (mostly in the highlands of the region and a bit everywhere in the south from Malaysia to the Philippines and on to Borneo, passing by Eastern Indonesia), commercial coastal kingdoms and sultanates (around the Straits of Malacca, but also all along the Indonesian insular arc), nomadic bands of hunter-gatherers (everywhere but essentially in the most mountainous interior regions) ; there are semi-sedentary slash and burn agriculturalists (in the highlands) side by side with farmers tilling enormous irrigation rice plains, fishermen and pirates (in the famous Sulu Seas and beyond). And at yet another level, we encounter Peoples’ Democracies (from Vietnam to Laos and Cambodia in parallel with Burmese « Asian socialism ») on a par with the « tigers » of financial capitalism (Malaysia and Singapore, yesterday Indonesia, tomorrow maybe Vietnam).

Some of the existing States, today, in some cases, reduced to mere regions, came out of British colonisation (Burma and Malaysia), others from French tutelage (Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia), others still from Dutch (Indonesia), Spanish (the Philippines), Portuguese (Malacca, Ternate, Tidore and Flores, among others), Japanese (essentially, and in the context of the notorious Greater Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere, the entire region), North American (the Philippines, the sole formal colony in the history of the United States) and even, somehow, Chinese or Soviet (the whole of the old French Indochina in the northeast) direct or indirect control : a real microcosmos of the history of colonisation. One of the local States, Thailand, is one of the very few states in the world which has never actually been anybody’s colony. This was no doubt because of its geographical position as a buffer zone between the French area of influence to the east and the British one to the west.

Some of the groups hold Buddhist convictions (from Burma to Thailand to Laos and Cambodia, Java and Bali) ; others are Muslim (Malaysia and, above all, Indonesia, the most populous Islamic country in the world) ; there are those belonging to Christian confessions (some, like the Philippines, are mainly Catholic while others like Vietnam, Malaysia or Indonesia mix this with substantial numbers of affiliates of various Protestant denominations) whilst many others are « animists » (again, these are found everywhere but mostly inland, namely in Malaysia, the Philippines and Borneo). In the large majority of cases, what we do actually encounter are ecumenical mixtures of two or more of these religious affiliations, with Burma, Laos, Cambodia, Bali and Java being of course paradigmatic examples of precisely this.

It is certainly not worth my while to further insist that at various different levels and on a diversity of planes the multidimensionality I alluded to earlier is indeed omnipresent. Southeast Asia is like a mosaic. Rather than the comparatively monotonous regularity patent in its great neighbouring blocs, diversity seems to be, under various names, the general rule in this territory-enclave. But this is not, however, an amorphous plurality : it is a diversity which, on the contrary, displays some hints of a structural bipolarity.

In order to glimpse this, it is enough to look attentively at the region, but from a distance, so to speak. Differences are above all detectable at a sociocultural level. Some of the groups, such as the Malays, the Javanese, the Filipinos, the Borneans or the Sumatrans, to name but a few, are distributed as though in a sprinkled pattern in arcs along the southern continental region which is immediately adjacent to its insular portion. They tend to crystallise the identity they display in their cultural representations as a function of their places of settlement and of their locales of origin, and they fervently claim to follow their order of arrival at the place where they live in the tenuous social hierarchies they establish among themselves. As if engaged in « sociological variations on a theme », these speakers of Malayo-Polynesian languages form groupings which exhibit other distinctive traits : they include lunar as well as solar rhythms in the conceptualisations they engender about space and they articulate relatively undifferentiated social structures and kinship groupings with intense but rather diffuse ritual practices.

Other somewhat more formalised groupings, however, such as the Thai, the Khmer, or the Mon, who are speakers of North-Austronesian languages, are nowadays distributed along a wide continental belt which cuts across the north of the region from Burma to Vietnam, passing through Thailand, Laos and Cambodia. Their members often prefer to construct their identities, in terms somewhat akin to those of their Chinese and Indian neighbours, in less egalitarian fashions around dead ancestors, in relation to whom they place and organise themselves as descendants usually according to more linear kinship systems. They live in territories which are quite separate from one another, and they tend to order their life rhythms according to solar calendars, punctuated by moments which tend to incorporate a ranking of sacred events around comparatively formalised public rites.

This division into two great sociocultural families is indeed quite unmistakable. This has led many scholars in the direction of models which underline penetration influxes into the Southeast Asian enclave (let us call it that) of, on the one hand, Sinic populations who, it is claimed, would have progressed southwards over the mountain chains that reticulate its northern frontiers ; and, on the other hand, Malayo-Polynesian peoples whose entry would have taken place along the many valleys and hydrographic basins of the region. To these influxes one must add the establishment of groups of Indic origins, coming in from both land and sea, and flows such as the Muslim, European, North-American and Japanese, all of which along maritime routes. All of this notwithstanding, these are not entirely unmixable ethnolinguistic families since culturally there are strong mutual superimpositions which render any attempts to trace clear or stable lines of demarcation among them complicated.

From one point of view, it would definitely not be too abusive to characterise the progressive intellectual build-up of the conceptual object Southeast Asia as a succession of responses to the kind of questions this tremendous complexity poses. Obviously, none of this remained unnoticed by the researchers, in the large majority Dutch, French, British and American, who took an interest in this enormous territory lying between China and India. And as could be expected, alternative types of explanations have been put forward both in terms of the patent comparative diversity and in relation to the bipolarity which is so visibly and evidently impressed upon it.

Some of the specialists, namely G. Coedés (1968 [1948]) from the École Française de l’Extrême Orient, an expert on Indochina, saw this as the result of differentiated processes and ones with variable efficacy in what was called the « Hindouisation » of little known autochthonous populations. For others, in particular H. Otley Beyer (1979 [1921], 1925), an American archaeologist specialising in the Philippines, the rationale was to be found in an earlier chronological period and in a somewhat more hybrid fashion. It would all be better thought of as a reflex of successive « waves » of migrations which, in the long period following the last glacial period (the Würm glaciation which ended some twenty thousand years ago), overlay the first mobile settlements of Negrito pygmies (and, in the southeast, less itinerant Melanesians) with sociocultural layers of, first, « Malay peoples » and then « more advanced Indonesians » coming in from the north. Still others, following the trail blazed by the great British regional historian, D.G.E. Hall (1955, 1962, 1968), preferred to substitute those historicist vantage points, which were largely speculative anyway, with more solid historical and sociological ones ; they did this by simply setting forth the regularities which can be effectively perceived in a series of areas adjacent to one another, thus delimiting what we take as being Southeast Asia. It was, however, maybe as a side-effect of the Second World War, and in particular of the political-military delimiting of combat zones between the Allies (mostly North-Americans in coalition with British and Australian troops, together with scores of local « native troops ») and the Japanese invaders, that the war scenario Southeast Asia, an entity with an essentially geographic design, crystallised in a consensual manner ; and it was then that this entity became common currency (at least from the point of view of analysts) as a conceptual object deemed to have its own structure and integrity.

Whatever our preferences might be as to the best way of fitting into one another and « ranging » the many external dynamic elements which gave rise to the pluralism which characterises the region we now call Southeast Asia, it would nevertheless be a gross mistake to presume that those processes could wholly take into account the realities in the terrain. And this for a simple reason : the reception of these various layers was far from passive. Probative instances of this abound and are easy to adduce. Notwithstanding the clearly « Sanscritic » style and colouration which throughout the region display notions such as those of soul, birth, reincarnation or even ideas of number or agriculture, it remains that the way in which they are used in Southeast Asia is by no means reducible to the original models. The Sinic layer too was deeply modulated : the Buddhism practised in the region, for example, is easily distinguishable, if only given its sui generis syncretic ecumenism, as much from its base matrix in South Asia as from the versions implanted in China or Japan. And neither is Islam in Southeast Asia a simple variant of any of the Middle Eastern or Central Asian orthodoxies, nor is Westernisation, in its various European or North-American variants, readily understandable as straightforward transpositions of any prototypical recipes. In all these cases there is, as if underneath or behind those layers, a very discernible southeastasianness (in a tide of concept creation) which it is difficult not to recognise even on the most superficial of contacts.

The So-Called « Maubere People »

To reiterate : it is in this enormous region, so diverse and multi­dimensional but at the same time (and paradoxically) so unitary, that Timor can be found. A part of a larger island, East Timor lies right at the extremity of the long Indonesian volcanic arc, on the edge of its southernmost and easternmost corner where Southeast Asia is confined by the great islands of New Guinea and Australia. Timor Loro Sa’e, as a large number of its inhabitants nowadays seem to prefer to call it, is at one and the same time an integral part of Southeast Asia yet distinguishable from it. Paradoxically, it is simultaneously a zone with obvious affinities (ethnolinguistic, sociocultural, historic, geographical-ecological) with the wider and partially adjacent region made up by the east of the archipelago we conventionally call indonesian, and an entity clearly distinct from its neighbours. From many points of view, East Timor is portrayable as a piece of a wider puzzle. But nothing hinders our picturing it as an entity, the specifics of which could make it preferable, and even easier, to allow for its association with other eventual sets.

As we have had the opportunity of verifying, none of this is particularly surprising, exceptional or even difficult to understand. In a region which exhibits the complexity of Southeast Asia (a complexity, as I underlined, induced as much by external pressures as by internal forces), this type of distinction, or anomaly, as I called it, is far from uncommon. Quite the opposite. There are other cases (the Philippines, Vietnam or Burma, for example) which, for one reason or another, or by virtue of a combination of them, are in structurally equivalent situations of relative eccentricity as pertains to the regional entities we may want to constitute. Timor is by no means, at that level, anything but one of various examples in a set which is somewhat diffuse as a result of its relative lack of a linear notional cohesion.

I cannot but ascertain with vehemence that to put forward those ambivalent characteristics of the nature itself of the entity we call Timor is much more than expressing an abstract scientific curiosity or than enunciating assertions with only a methodological reach. The point is to underline that, as far as Timor is concerned, there are structural characteristics I deem to be crucial for us to equate if we really want to understand much of what has happened, much that will certainly still happen and surely a great deal of what the future has in store for us, and, above all, if we intend to act wisely upon its destinies.

Let us note, at any rate, that it has been precisely on the basis laid within the framework of such an ambivalence that the regional and political indissociability of East Timor has come to be advocated : it was (and unfortunately still is) precisely that complexity which subtends the model and frame of the coordinates upon which the assimilationist « anticolonial » Indonesian theses have been built and elaborated. It was on that very « board » (and the rules of the game which it defines, or at least circumscribes) that the notorious « integrationist » pretexts of the militias were fabricated and that many drier academic discourses have been construed4. The material effectiveness of these possible theses, their political reach, for instance, needs no comments.

Happily, and like all ambivalences, this one too has two sides, two faces. By virtue of the extant patent anomalies, it has also always been possible to argue, with a great deal of elegance and all too often against the current5, that it is only with a lot of taxonomic juggling that Timor could be conceived as party to an Indonesian set, and that this was exactly the barrier which effectively rendered its permanent annexation unimaginable to the Indo­nesians themselves. It is easy to verify the extent to which this concep­tualisation, complementary as it is in relation to the earlier one, has also produced non-trivial political (and other) outcomes : as quickly as they emerged, any images of loss, or « amputation », resulting from the autonomy of East Timor submerged, or so it seems, in Indonesian public opinion. I do not think the material inefficacy of ideas which are not watertight requires great efforts at demonstration.

To recap, without repeating myself, I would like to say that, as is the case in relation to that wider set today conventionally called Southeast Asia, the identity of East Timor can be generated6 by means of two different types of conceptual operation. In a descending order, we can try to « discover » East Timor within the larger whole made up by Southeast Asia, somehow finding it, in those terms in which it is identifiable, as one of its natural units. Or instead we can, in an ascending order, « invent » East Timor by adding elements initially different from one another and then integrating them into a unified structure on whatever terms we may endeavour to achieve this in a more stable, and therefore more convincing, manner. These twin processes are, ultimately, complementary. They are indissociably paired up and, in all probability, that is how they will stay for a very long time.

The first process (the descendent one, the one working inwards) was that which, rightly or wrongly, I tried to carry out here. As to the second process, it should be noticed that it is an ongoing construction effort, moving outwards, and one that has been attempted as a political project by many « Timorese » since long before the referendum : a project which amounts to the sedimentation of a people (the so-called « Maubere people »7) from a background of many dispersed, and often antagonistic, identities. And it is a process that also involves the naturalisation of this « people »8 as the population of a territory, itself in the throes of a process of reification as a sovereign State : « Timor Loro Sa’e ». In other words, a mechanism in which we try to achieve, in peace and in the internal descending order, what the Indonesians did not manage to do through violence, in the external ascending order9.

The stubborn and courageous resistance of the Timorese populations lined up the questions, bestowing on them a definite direction. Portuguese support, after a long interval of vacillation and much toing and froing10, put them on the table. The international community, once the essential regional (the assent of Australia) and global (the consent of the United States of America) backings were finally assured, forced a solution.

What now aligns itself on the horizon is much more down to earth. Are the internal tensions and cleavages which exist in Timor reconcilable ? Will it be possible to transform the cauldron into a real melting pot ? Is the existing endogenous diversity amenable to reduction ? The lines of fracture visible between networks of multiple clientelisms which are difficult to render compatible, among diverse ethnolinguistic identities whose communication is not easy, between enemy and long resentful political-ideological groupings, between ex-militias and the rest of the population, between « active resistance fighters » and « passive civilians », between those who stayed and those who left, among generations, between a State and a Church with competing hegemonic propensities – can they be repaired ? Can all these potential antagonisms actually be corrected ? And, if so, at what price ?

The structural problem is not new, nor is it particularly Timorese or Southeast Asian. At any rate, it is not easy to make any predictions as to future developments. Up against a series of worrying recent happenings, some disquiet is surely justifiable. Eric Hobsbawm reproduced, back in 199211, an extraordinary quip of Massimo d’Azeglio, voiced right after the successful 19th century Garibaldi-led unification of what is today Italy : « We have made Italy. We must now make Italians. »

It worked, even if only after some serious accidents along a turbulent road. Let us hope that in this case it will too.

June 2001

Armando Marques GUEDES

Faculty of Law, Universidade Nova de Lisboa

And Portuguese Centre for the Study of Southeast Asia/Cepesa


Anderson, B. 1991, Imagined Communities. Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, London,Verso.

––– 1998, « Nationalism, identity and the logic of seriality », in The Spectre of Comparisons. Nationalism, Southeast Asia and the World, Verso, London, New York.

––– 2000, « Imagining East Timor », Lisbon, Cepesa, Cepesa Working Papers, 2 : 1-9. [1st publ. 1993 ; see also this issue of Lusotopieï]

Benda H. 1962, « The structure of South East Asian history », Journal of Southeast Asian History 4 (2) : 159-168.

Otley Beyer, H. 1925, « History of racial movements in the Pacific », Proceedings of the Institute of Pacific Relations, Honolulu.

 ––– 1979, « The Philippines before Magellan », in M. Garcia (ed.), Readings in Philippine prehistory, Manila, Filipiniana Book Guild : 8-35. [1st publ. 1921]

Lameiras-Campagnolo M.O. & Campagnolo H. 1992, « Povos de Timor, povo de Timor : diversidade, convergências », Estudos Orientais, Lisbon, Universidade Nova de Lisboa, 3 : 259-266.

Chaudhuri K.N. 1990, Asia before Europe. Economy and Civilisation of the Indian Ocean from the Rise of Islam to 1750, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

Coedés G. 1968, Les États hindouisés d’Indochine et d’Indonésie, Paris, de Boccard. [1st publ. 1948]

Comaroff J. 1996, « Ethnicity, Nationalism, and the Politics of Difference in an Age of Revolution », in E. Wilmsen & P. McAllister (eds), The Politics of Difference, Chicago, The University of Chicago Press.

Escarameia P. 1993, Formation of concepts in International Law. Subsumption under self-determination in the case of East Timor, Ph.D at Harvard Law School, Lisbon, Fundação Oriente.

––– 2001, Reflexões sobre Temas de Direito Internacional, Timor, a ONU e o Tribunal Penal Internacional, ISCSP.

Gomes A. 1995, « Timor-Leste e o imperativo de uma política de direitos humanos », Política Internacional, Lisbon, I (10) : 111-121.

Hall D.G.E. 1955, A Short History of South East Asia, London, MacMillan. [reviewed and enlarged in 1962, 1968]

––– 1973, « The integrity of Southeast Asian history », Journal of Southeast Asian Studies (Singapore, MacGraw-Hill Far Eastern Publishers), IV (2) : 159-168.

Roever A. de 1998, « The partition of Timor : an historical background », in M.J. Schouten (ed.), A Ásia do Sudeste. História, cultura e desenvolvimento, Lisbon, Vega : 45-56.

Smail J.R.W. 1961, « On the possibility of an autonomous history of modern Southeast Asia », Journal of Southeast Asian History (Singapore, University of Malaya), II (2) : 72-102.

Sylvan F. 1995, « Presente e futuro da palavra Maubere », in A. Marcos (ed.), Timor Timorense, Lisbon, Colibri : 181-187.

Thomaz L.F. 1975, O problema político de Timor, Braga, Pax.

1. Although, as Lurdes Carneiro de Sousa very perceptively made me notice, that relief will very probably be rather short-lived. The leaders who were abroad and for so many years shone in international political fora will lose much of the protagonism they had ; students with scholarships in Indonesia or Portugal will see their situation worsen ; the militias will return home only to find themselves with a non too enviable status ; and once the contingents of international workers of all types who have been one of the principal sources of income for the local economy depart, the population at large will have to face up to a crisis of potentially dramatic proportions for which it most probably can not count on any Indonesian support.

2. On the role of « imagining a community » in the historical progression of processes of national construction, it is essential to read Benedict Anderson (1991). For more detail, it is useful to read Benedict Anderson (1998).

3. Historical and sociological objects are constituted according to given perspectives, and these depend on categorial impensés over which we mount, or patch, the conceptual constructions we elaborate. The entity « Southeast Asia » is no exception as ell as the circumscription of East Timor, a discrete historical, cultural and political entity.

4. For instance, the very interesting article by Arend de Roever (1998). Against a background of an assumed full sociocultural continuity between East Timor and West Timor, de Roever deconstructs the (temporary) partition of Timor as a conjunctural strategy of the Portuguese and the Dutch in the mid-19th century. Both powers were then betting on the very profitable control of the sandalwood commerce and on simultaneously maintaining a level of peaceful coexistence between themselves. For an excellent historical (but also political) introduction, see Luís Filipe Thomaz (1975).

5. B. Anderson (2000). A short and brilliant article in which Anderson fishes out from various speeches and declarations of Indonesian authorities and media what he sees as a radical incapacity of the Indonesians themselves to conceive of « East Timor » and « Indonesia » within a unified conceptual framework which could thereby anchor nationalist represen­tations which would be, from my point of view, in a stable equilibrium. I would like to stress that to enounce conditions of thinkability (as I here attempt to do and as I believe B. Anderson and K.N. Chaudhuri, from other perspectives, also did) does by no means spell a form of idealism. On the contrary, and since all human actions can be characterised as accompanied and enformed by conceptual representations which are precisely what gives them meaning, I think we are following a more realistic and effective strategy than if we ignored this dimension.

6. See Chaudhuri (1990 : 68), for a discussion of these two alternative modes of construction of historical objects.

7. For the evolution of this vocable and of its semantic field, see Sylvan (1995).

8. For a detailed ethnographic and linguistic approach to this question, see Lameiras-Campagnolo & Campagnolo (1992).

9. An imminently political question. Anderson (2000), in a notable article on the Timorese question in which he applied the theses earlier developed in his Imagined Communities, faces up to precisely this point. According to Anderson, the main reason for the demise of the Indonesian military project of annexation and integration of East Timor would be the outcome of the Indonesian lack of capacity to conceive of Timor as an effective integral part of their country as they imagine it. What I raise here bears obvious affinities to that. What I think is now essentially at stake is to ascertain if the Timorese themselves will be capable of imagining an effective and viable national identity. The drama is that the Timor so far imagined seems largely to have been imagined by the Portuguese and by the Catholic Church, and then « transferred » to the Timorese, or at least to some of the members of some of the Timorese elites. The « autochthonous imagination » seems to me to spend itself largely in a mere esprit de corps produced lock, stock and barrel as an understandable (and hopefully not too temporary) reaction to the unspeakable brutalities perpetrated during the Indonesian invasion and occupation.

10. For a critical approach to the successive phases in the activities of Portuguese diplomats in relation to the occupation of Timor, see Gomes (1995). José Manuel Pureza, Álvaro Vasconcelos and Carlos Gaspar have all published some brief notes on the recent evolution of this diplomacy. The jus internationalist background of many of the issues raised has been looked into in a very detailed manner in Escarameia (1993). See also, Escarameia (2001), for a collection of vivid discussions on related themes.

11. This justly famous quotation, unearthed by Eric Hobsbawm, and which has made its way into the context of contemporary studies on nationalism, was repeated by J. Comaroff (1996 : 176) in a famous article on ethnicity and nationalist constructions.


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