Education and Nationalism in East Timor

By Arenas, Alberto | Social Justice, Summer 1998 | Go to article overview

Education and Nationalism in East Timor


Arenas, Alberto, Social Justice


In the last 23 years, the Indonesian government has used a variety of strategies to impose Indonesian identity in East Timor, while at the same time eliminating any cultural and political manifestation perceived as a threat to the integrationist agenda of Jakarta. The strategies have included heavy military repression, the transfer of thousands of Javanese and Balinese "transmigrant" workers to East Timor, the implementation of large development projects, and the establishment of a widespread educational system designed to inculcate in children respect and admiration for Indonesia's values, beliefs, and practices.

These strategies have failed to achieve their avowed purpose and instead have stimulated greater resistance. East Timorese nationalism is stronger than ever and each strategy has only fueled more rage against the Indonesian government (Anderson, 1995). While Indonesia tries desperately to show the world a facade of acquiescence and even contentment among East Timorese, the resistance movement, both local and international, is growing day by day. The liberation movement has been successful in propagating symbols, histories, and forms of communication that constitute the core of East Timorese nationalism as a means of rejecting the ethos imposed by Indonesia. As Benedict Anderson (1993: 25) pointed out, the East Timorese do not "imagine" themselves as citizens of Indonesia, but as victims of a colonial order that seeks to impose an alien way of life on them.

Of the nonmilitary activities, Indonesia implemented a large-scale educational system unprecedented in the history of East Timor (Mubyarto et al., 1991: 40). Indonesia has used education as the cornerstone of its assimilationist policy for two reasons. First, it wanted to show the 750,000 Timorese(1) and the international community the purported benevolence of its presence. Second, it knew that through education the Indonesian government could resocialize the younger generations. Through the imposition of the Indonesian language, the national Pancasila ideology,(2) the respect for typical Indonesian symbols of patriotism such as the flag and the national anthem, and the dissemination of a new version of history, Indonesia sought to ensure that young Timorese could eventually come to view themselves as full-fledged Indonesian citizens. Moreover, schools would become the main sites of interaction between Timorese and the children of transmigrant workers - Indonesians who voluntarily decide to migrate to East Timor in search of better economic opportunities. The Indonesian government hoped that through close contact among students, potential animosity between the different ethnic and religious groups would dissipate over time.

The failure of the assimilationist enterprise is most evident precisely in the educational system. Although one full generation has gone through Indonesian schooling, children as young as eight years of age all the way to university students resist the presence of Indonesia by speaking and chanting songs in Tetum (East Timor's most widely spoken indigenous language), holding secret and illegal political meetings, becoming fervent practicing Catholics, passing onto the younger generations local legends and a different narrative of history - widely different from the one they receive at school - and actively and passively opposing their Indonesian teachers. Indonesia's efforts to create a loyal citizenry among the newer generations are collapsing because, ultimately, a Timorese national identity has been created in contraposition to the political and social understandings predicated by the Indonesian government.

This article is based on extensive interviews conducted in 1994 and 1995 among East Timorese political refugees living in Portugal.(3) Due to the extremely sensitive political situation in Timor, researchers are often forced to gather their information outside the island, mainly among the refugee communities in Australia, the Netherlands, and Portugal. …

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