Academic journal article Journal of Southeast Asian Studies

Myth, Resistance, and Identity in Timor-Leste's Nino Conis Santana National Park

Academic journal article Journal of Southeast Asian Studies

Myth, Resistance, and Identity in Timor-Leste's Nino Conis Santana National Park

Article excerpt

Since the end of the brutal 24-year Indonesian occupation of Timor-Leste in 1999, there has been a significant revival of local cultures and identities in public life. While an East Timorese national identity that arose under occupation has found its most public expression through the constitution and political parties of the new nation-state, (1) for many, particularly rural East Timorese, the freedom to practice ceremonies, reclaim customary lands and re-establish local institutions and relations curtailed under Indonesian rule has proven equally significant. (2) In this article I discuss aspects of identity and culture among Fatuluku people, a linguistic and cultural group some 35,000 strong, in relation to a recent development in the shifting landscape of culture and politics in the Fataluku homeland of Lautem distric--the establishment of the Nino Conis Santana National Park in 2008. My intention is grounded in the problem of how to translate into a functional reality what is at the moment a park in name, but little else, in an area that remains intimately bound up with the lives of some 15,000 Fataluku people. By sketching some of the ways in which local people are approaching the national park as a new reality in their lives, I aim to show how local reactions to this government-initiated protected area are grounded in practices seen to be inherently connected to being Fataluku, while simultaneously mirroring broader cultural patterns in Timor and the Eastern Indonesian archipelago.

In exploring how Fataluku people engage with this new setting in ways that reflect what could be called culturally specific attitudes and values, particularly those relating to social and political change, I argue that Fataluku cultural and historical stories provide both a sense of the strength of Fataluku tradition as a basis for their status as an autonomous and sovereign group, while simultaneously providing a legacy of intercultural negotiation and alliance that helps today to justify and maintain a degree of integration and cooperation with the new nation-state. I draw on my own enquiries in Lautem, (3) a growing body of ethnography that has emerged since Timor-Leste's independence that explores this re-emergence of local customs and traditions in public life, as well as an established body of anthropology relating to Eastern Indonesia and the wider Austronesian world. Through this I extend the broad territory of numerous scholars, most notably in the Timorese context Andrew McWilliam, Elizabeth Traube, Lisa Palmer and Miguel de Carvalho, who explore the tendency for marginal communities to assert their cultural autonomy while simultaneously claiming rights and benefits from the state. (4)

With independence still a recent event and allegiance to a sense of common purpose and identity still a powerful notion, one particularly interesting aspect of the East Timorese case is that stories of the past that have long mediated intercultural relations are today being deployed in debates over the role and legitimacy of the fledgling East Timorese state. Questions surrounding Timor-Leste's diverse cultural groups' relations with and within the new nation-state may well be usefully understood then within these more lengthy histories of cultural interaction, exchange and adjustment. That traditions and histories deployed by actors in the ebb and flow of their contemporary settings necessarily bring about their re-evaluation and reinterpretation, and that 'the transformation of a culture is an aspect of its reproduction', (5) brings a further element to this discussion. If the accounts provided here can indeed be viewed as a reinterpretation of Fataluku culture in this new social and political context, I suggest then that it supports a carefully maintained stance, allowing for the possibility of cooperation while also asserting resistance to blanket assimilation into a post-independence mainstream.

I will begin with the park itself and some developments in its still youthful history, before exploring aspects of Fataluku culture in a regional context, particularly in relation to some of the park's more prominent cultural heritage sites. …

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