Academic journal article Journal of Southeast Asian Studies

From Fretilin to Freedom: The Evolution of the Symbolism of Timor-Leste's National Flag

Academic journal article Journal of Southeast Asian Studies

From Fretilin to Freedom: The Evolution of the Symbolism of Timor-Leste's National Flag

Article excerpt

The recent nature of Timor-Leste's internationally recognised nationhood has prompted much discussion of the construction and consolidation of an official, independent national identity, as part of the ongoing nation-building project. This issue has been particularly pertinent since self-determination in 2002, given the centuries of foreign occupation, first by Portugal (from the early sixteenth century to 1974) and then by Indonesia (from 1975 to 1999). As such, since 2002 national identity construction has been at the forefront of Timor-Leste's political agenda. The collective identity that has emerged in the post-independence state is one founded on the core concepts of funu (struggle) and terus (suffering) in the name of self-determination. (1) In 2002, the then Minister for Education, Armindo Maia, outlined this idea:

We have a common history of resistance; first against the Portuguese.
There's a long list in [the] history of rebellions against the
Portuguese. Then we have the history of resistance against the
Indonesians. This unifies us. And I hope it will cement our
determination to fight for a better future, to fight for a better life
and society. There is broad support for this simple version, or notion
of funu. (2)

Thus, after only sixteen years of independence, this aspect of state and nation-building continues to be a central area of national politics, and hence, scholarship.

Flags and other symbols in Timor-Leste constitute a significant area of underdeveloped research, despite their centrality to the creation and representation of national identity. (3) In Timor-Leste, flags are a particularly powerful cultural sign:

Although flags have a common and conventional place in democratic
political processes almost everywhere, in East Timor they seem to take
on a heightened significance.... The symbolic capital of flags also
resonates with much older associations from colonial East Timor when
the possession of a flag was a symbol of jural power and authority. (4)

As the processes of nation-building and national identity construction in Timor-Leste continue to be debated, the critical importance of flags as identity symbols is therefore worthy of further consideration. This article attempts to situate the national flag of Timor-Leste within a discussion of symbols and collective identity, as part of the ongoing nation-building project.

Informed by ethnographic fieldwork that I conducted in Timor-Leste in 2012, (5) my analysis centres on its national flag, created in 1975, and draws pertinent visual and symbolic parallels with the official flag of one of the largest political parties, Frente Revolucionaria do Timor-Leste Independente (Fretilin). As two of the most widely recognisable symbols in Timor-Leste, with common origins in the struggle for independence, I explore the extent to which both flags can be seen to embody tenets of East Timorese nationalism and represent the national 'imagined community'. (6) Benedict Anderson's notion of 'imagined communities' is particularly useful here, as it is applicable not only to the largest and smallest of 'nations', but also to communities whose nationhood is not internationally recognised, as was the case for East Timor until 1999/ Crucially, this theory places great emphasis on the act of 'imagining', which is precisely the process through which identity symbols are attributed their meaning and become a common locus of identification for members of a collective, thus gaining their symbolic power. Ewan Morris affirms that 'groups of people become nations by identifying with common symbols, and individuals become aware of their membership in the nation as they become conscious that they share their attachment to certain symbols with others'. (8) By tracing the symbolic meanings attributed to the national flag of Timor-Leste (together with the Fretilin party flag), it is possible to demonstrate this process, to elucidate how the recent past has influenced and changed its symbolism, and to explain how the national flag retains its legitimacy in the post-independence state. …

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