Academic journal article Journal of Southeast Asian Studies

Representing Timor: Histories, Geo-Bodies, and Belonging, 1860s-2018

Academic journal article Journal of Southeast Asian Studies

Representing Timor: Histories, Geo-Bodies, and Belonging, 1860s-2018

Article excerpt

This article provides an outline of the historical construction of Timorese (East Timorese and Indonesian West Timorese) 'geo-bodies' and their sense of belonging from the mid-nineteenth century to the present time, thereby reconstructing the origins of many 'national imaginings' amongst the Timorese people. Following the work of Benedict Anderson and Thongchai Winichakul, this article treats 'nation' as an 'imagined community', and 'geo-body' as a nation's space--that is, a mixture of territory, an imagined geography enabled by certain technologies, and a spatial object of collective actions and emotions. (1) Thereby, it situates the Timorese case within the literature of state formation, identity politics, place studies, and nationalism in Southeast Asia. (2)

The entire article is based on the following three propositions: place is a social product; (3) a sense of belonging and representation of space reinforce each other; (4) and the same place has different meanings for separate groups of people. (5) Within this conceptual framework, the article produces a genealogy of the ways in which various Timorese 'communities of interpretation' have expressed belonging and affiliation in diverse contexts. (6) My analysis draws on nineteenth and twentieth-century official, literary, scholarly, political, and advocacy texts in Portuguese, English, French, Japanese, Indonesian, and Timorese (Tetun).

The key contributions of this article follow three main trajectories. The first is a reminder of the way in which political identity and resistance have been understood by international commentators. I argue that knowledge production of 'East Timor' within both Cold War and post-Cold War perspectives resulted in the image of the East Timorese as a homogeneous nation with a victimised population that is racially, historically and culturally distinct from Indonesia. The second thread of the article takes readers deeper into the past to demonstrate how various notions of Timorese identities and geo-bodies were much more malleable and fluid in reality, drawing from Southeast Asian and South Pacific ethnicities, religions, languages, and cultures that would be distilled by international commentators in the late 1970s. In particular, the article traces 'Indonesia' as a historically important spatial category for Timorese identity-making, and situates the term in relation to others. Finally, the article alerts readers to the political role of place-making by showing how different communities socially constructed different understandings of Timor to reflect the meanings, values, and worldviews that most suited their interests. (7)

A discovery of this study is that the spatial representation of Timor has been contested and constructed as a sub-region of other places (as a part of the Indonesian or Papuan worlds, a colony of Portugal, the 'Cuba' of Southeast Asia, and Indonesia's twenty-seventh province), and has been inseparable from regional and global place-making. Hence, when the representation of Timor was altered at various times, it also affected the representations of connected spaces such as Portugal, Indonesia, Southeast Asia, and the South Pacific. Such productions of space have continued since Timor-Leste's independence in 2002 as the country seeks to renew its national space, strives to consolidate its national territory in relation to neighbouring countries, and negotiates its membership in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and other regional and international organisations.

Present notions of 'East Timor' and 'Indonesia'

Before exploring the past, it is appropriate here to introduce present notions of independent 'East Timor' and 'Indonesia'. In the past four decades, the historiography of Timor has been predominantly framed by the 'East Timorese vs Jakarta' perspective. (8) In this historical narrative, East Timor is represented as a politically and culturally coherent nation which is distinct from Indonesia; the term 'Indonesian' has functioned as an important negative identification to describe who 'East Timorese' are not. …

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