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What's the difference?

Dr Mark Byrne*

Meeting Place, Uniya newsletter, 1(1) Winter 2006

Coming from the “wide brown land”, it is a shock to approach a country that can be crossed by a small plane in just ten minutes, with the north coast visible in the distance as soon as the south coast is reached. I was reminded of the famous “blue marble” photo of the earth, a shimmering blue and white sphere floating in the blackness of space, taken from Apollo 17 in 1972. Here, likewise, a tiny island of humanity floats between the vast land mass and archipelagos of Asia and the even more vast island-specked ocean of the Pacific.

Or rather, a half-island. In a mountainous country that has absorbed Austronesian, Indo-Malayan and Latin Catholic influences, there have always been real clan and linguistic differences that have sometimes erupted in warfare [1]. Historians differ about whether or not Timor was a united state before Portuguese explorers arrived in the early sixteenth century [2]. Either way, it was divided into two early in the seventeenth century, after the Dutch East India Company took control of the western half [3].

The Timorese – east or west – had no say in that division, though the East Timorese mounted a ragged but dogged campaign of resistance to the more recent Indonesian attempt to reunite the island under its control between 1975 and 1999.

That occupation is likely to have resulted in the deaths, directly and indirectly, of a quarter of the population – a genocide comparable in recent times with Pol Pot's Cambodia and the slaughter by Hutu extremists of Tutsis in Rwanda [4].

And now, with so little justice achieved since 1999 for past crimes against humanity [5], the half-island seems, amoeba-like, to be turning in on and dividing itself again, this time under the banners of Lorosae and Loromonu, Easterners and Westerners.

Numerous interpretations have already been offered of the reasons for the present crisis, but a psychological perspective might be relevant, too. According to Freud’s theory of the “narcissism of minor differences,” we often need to fight the hardest against those most like us in order to affirm our individual identity [6].

For instance, Michael Ignatieff, the noted Canadian academic and writer on modern warfare and ethnic conflict, recounts a conversation he had in the early 1990s with a Serb soldier in which the soldier tried to explain the difference between Serbs and Croats. The assertion of difference was the only real difference: a Serb is a Serb because he isn't a Croat. In his desperation, it came down to which brand of cigarette each soldiers smoked [7].

According to Ignatieff, religious and cultural differences are common in most nations, but are usually unimportant when there is a strong state (and a healthy economy, he might have added). When state authority collapses, however, these differences become paramount, because they provide a way for people to “circle the wagons” and inhabit a world of relative safety. “If you/they won’t look after me,” it is a way of saying, “then I/we will!”

Lorosae and loromonu are translated from Tetum as “sunrise” and “sunset”, and were traditionally applied to the eastern and western ends of the whole island, thereby distinguishing the people of the Portuguese colony from those of its Dutch counterpart. It has come as a great surprise to many East Timorese to find the terms applied to divide up the new country along supposedly ethnic lines, since they do not correspond to the old clan and linguistic divisions.

The idea of an east-west cultural divide within East Timor itself was promulgated by the Portuguese. Because westerners did not actively oppose them, they became known as kaladi (friendly or passive), whereas the easterners were more defiant, so were known as firaku (strong or hotheaded) [8]. According to some, this distinction, which affected the way some parts of Dili were settled, was reinforced by the Indonesians,[9] presumably under the principle of “divide and conquer.”

Now that the old enemy has left, these Portuguese markers of difference are being invoked to classify “us” and “them”, mostly by the use of the terms lorosae and loromonu rather than firaku and kaladi. But few would argue that the current east-west divide, which started with some disaffected soldiers and spread to the smouldering suburbs of Dili, is the main one in the new country. It is more a case of who has benefited from independence (not many, as it turns out), and who has languished in poverty and powerlessness.
Because some soldiers from the west believed they had been discriminated against by the military leadership, which came more (but by no means exclusively) from the east, and there was debate about whether those from the east or the west had contributed more to the independence struggle, this divide became a flashpoint for grievances.

The east-west faultline may also have opened up so quickly because too little has been done to heal the old wounds caused by internecine political brutality in the 1970s as well as by the violence and oppression of the Indonesian occupation. Lacking justice as well as economic opportunities, and receiving cold comfort from the country's leaders on both of these fronts, it can be easier to see an enemy next door than to face the enemy within – that is, to acknowledge that if things aren’t working, it’s “our” fault, not “theirs.” This can be too much to take on for people who have already suffered unbearably.

By showing us the preciousness and fragility of life on earth, the "blue marble" photo is credited with galvanising the modern environmental movement [10]. Although the East Timorese may not all have the opportunity to see their beautiful island from fifteen thousand feet up, whatever we might do to help them recover a sense of wholeness and connection, within and without, will help.



[1] Although warfare was apparently traditionally often of a ritualised naure. See, eg, the reference to Geoffrey Gunn’s work in "Timor lives, perhaps, its first post-colonial war”, interview with Paulo Castro Seixas, a Portuguese anthropologist, published in the daily Portuguese newspaper Publico, translated by Nuno Olivera and republished in the blog timor na nafatin, timorbanafatin.blogspot.com, 11 June 2006, accessed 6 July 2006. See also Michael Leach, History On The Line: East Timorese History after Independence, History Workshop Journal 61, Spring 2006, 236, n 11.

[2] According to anthropologists H.G. Schulte Nordholt and James Fox, it was based on the kingdom of Waiwiku-Wehale in the south-east of the island (from the unattributed History of Timor at pascal.iseg.utl.pt/~cesa/History_of_Timor.pdf, ch. 1, 6 July 2006).

[3] The two halves of the island were known at that time as Belos or Belu (the east) and Vaikenos or Serviao (the west). This division was not formalised until the Treaty of Lisbon was signed between Portugal and Holland in 1859.

[4] See, eg, Executive Summary, Chega!, Report of the Timor-Leste Commission for Reception, Truth and Reconciliation (CAVR).

[5] For a brief introduction to the justice processes since 2000, see Sue Harris-Rimmer and Effie Tomaras, Aftermath Timor Leste: reconciling competing notions of justice, Australian Parliamentary Library, 26 May 2006, accessed 6 July 2006 (www.aph.gov.au). There have been fuller reports from the International Centre for Transitional Justice, the Judicial System Monitoring Program, the UN Commission of Experts, Professor Geoffrey Robinson of UCLA, and others. On the relationship between trauma and transitional justice in East Timor, see, e.g, Mark Byrne, The traumatic birth of a nation, www.uniya.org.

[6] Freud discussed “the narcissism of minor differences” in “The Taboo of Virginity” (1917) and “Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego” (1922), but see also n. 4 below.

[7] Michael Ignatieff, The Warrior’s Honor: Ethnic War and the Modern Conscience, London, Vintage, 1999, 34-71.

[8] On the firaku/kaladi rivalry, see www.etan.org, which summarises the relevant chapter from Dionisio Babo Soares’ 2003 unpublished PhD thesis at ANU, Branching from the Trunk: East Timorese Perceptions of Nationalism in Transition.

[9] Sr Susan Connelly, Crisis in East Timor, Ba Ami Nia Belun Sira (For Our Friends) Newsletter, Mary MacKillop East Timor, 13, 2, June 2006, www.mmiets.org.au, 6 July 2006

[10] This is asserted, eg, by Al Gore in the documentary of his global warming presentation, An Inconvenient Truth.

Dr Mark Byrne is Uniya's Senior Researcher.

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