Academic journal article SOJOURN: Journal of Social Issues in Southeast Asia

Nation, Transnation, Diaspora: Locating East Timorese Long-Distance Nationalism

Academic journal article SOJOURN: Journal of Social Issues in Southeast Asia

Nation, Transnation, Diaspora: Locating East Timorese Long-Distance Nationalism

Article excerpt

This article explores the complex transnational dimensions and trajectories of East Timorese long-distance nationalism (Anderson 1998, p. 73) (1) and reflects on the implications of interconnections with "outside" groups and discourses. Based on four years of research with the East Timorese exile community in Sydney between 1998 and 2002 I begin by mapping some of the "imaginative resources" of long-distance nationalism which have contributed to the collective imagination of the East Timorese community in the diaspora to describe some of the primary content of what Appadurai (1996, pp. 21-22) and Werbner (1998) have called the "diasporic public sphere". (2) In addition to mapping the "cultural products" and symbolic production of the East Timorese diasporic public sphere, I want to understand both the intercommunal and transnational links entailed therein and the implications of these on the shape of East Timorese diasporic identity.

East Timor is the tiny half island territory which lies one hour to the north of Darwin, Australia, and at the southeasternmost tip of Indonesia. The western part of the island of Timor was part of the Dutch East Indies, while East Timor was a Portuguese colony until 1975 and the fall of the Portuguese Caetano regime. Two main political parties in East Timor were established: the Revolutionary Front for East Timor (FRETILIN) and the Timorese Democratic Union (UDT). Following a brief but bloody civil war between the two, FRETILIN unilaterally claimed independence for the territory in November 1975, fearful of Indonesian intentions towards the territory. The Indonesian military subsequently invaded, thus beginning 25 years of brutal occupation. Following years of struggle, East Timor finally won its independence in May 2002, precipitated by the referendum of August 1999 following the fall of Soeharto. Somewhere in the vicinity of 20,000 East Timorese people have come to Australia since the Indonesian occupation, more than 10,000 to Portugal, and a few to Macau, Mozambique, Canada, the United States, Ireland, and other parts of the world. The early 1975 refugees came to Australia by ship from Dili to Darwin in Northern Australia. Later arrivals came via Portugal, often spending a number of years there before applying to come to Australia to join family and be closer to East Timor. Some later arrivals after the 1991 Santa Cruz massacre in Dili were students in Jakarta, taking a complex route out or entering embassy compounds there. Others came via places such as Thailand. Although small, this diaspora group has maintained strong transnational ties with their national and international counterparts.

Transnational human mobility and social ties have been a central point of reference for transnational studies (see, for example, Smith and Guarnizo 1999; Basch, Schiller, and Blanc 1994). All of these routes put sets of diasporic relationships in place. In the Timorese case, the strongest links are between those in Australia and Portugal, with much shuttling back and forth, particularly by those who were involved in the political sphere. East Timor was virtually dosed to the world until 1989, making visits home, and the maintenance of social, cultural, and family ties extraordinarily difficult. However, in the 1990s, visits home began to be possible, following the policy of Indonesian reformasi. (3)

There are two striking features about the East Timorese diaspora: the extent to which their collective fight to free East Timor from Indonesian occupation figured in their collective imagination and the number of symbiotic political alliances developed with the "outside". By symbiotic, I refer to dialectical, or dialogic forms of alliances which are both mutually constitutive and mutually beneficial. These important characteristics form the backdrop to this article. Diasporas are, like nations, imagined communities (Anderson 1991). Imagined communities require "imaginative resources" (Appadurai 1996) to create and maintain a sense of collective identity. …

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