On Cultural changes and development of democracy
Thursday, July 29, 2010 at 12:31am
Here is an important contribution to every Timorese debating about cultural changes and their affect on democratic development. This discussion is centred on a picture which I posted on May 31, 2010 (
http://bit.ly/9TySYA). I would like to keep this discussion alive, specially in light of the recent statement made by Timor-Leste Women's Movement (http://bit.ly/9M39Lk). Although this discussion revolves around a different issue, the direction which Fidelis has taken touches on a very important debate current to Timor-Leste. What is the East Timorese culture? Who defines this culture? Where is this culture going? I have reproduced Fidelis' comments below in its entirety.

By Fidelis Magalhaes

On culture:
Even though I found defending one’s argument by appropriating a supposedly absolutist version of culture interesting, I nevertheless, have to disagree. My disagreement concerns two streams of arguments. First, the practice is acceptable because it is a part of our culture, and second, such practice is not part of our culture because it is something else, i.e. colonial, Indonesian, etc.

My disagreement with these two views derives from my observation that if we focus on the two lines of argument then we miss the whole point—culture is flexible, fluid, produced and reproduced, and hence changeable.

I thus would like to point out why I disagree with the first point of view. The first point of view assumes that culture is given, absolute, static and deterministic. Without wanting to speculate on the intention of the proponent of this argument, the reality is that this view easily falls within the logic of colonialism and imperialism (including eco-imperialism), in the sense that the so called indigenous (local) culture is pure and hence needs to be preserved. This view denies culture the possibility to fully realize it’s truly cultural quality—flexibility. And, instead it frames culture within a given “pure” boundary and thus prohibits forces that occur for changes within the culture itself. In fact, the very intention of this discussion is one that proposes a more critical analysis into our culture because within it lies different power structures that hinder the functioning of a democratic state.

Therefore, if we aspire to have a democratic society then changes must take place. This is because beyond anything else democracy is essentially an institution in which ideology and culture play roles as the legitimizers. In other words, when we scream out loud claiming that we want democracy we should also understand that democracy implies instituting a different set of political and cultural logics. So democracy itself necessitates cultural adaption of the new and changes to the previous one. The same applies to the concept of nation-states, which is a modern construct.

Now move on to the next argument that carrying politicians are not in the Timorese culture. This in essence suggests that our culture is perfect and does not have this kind of practice. This also falls into the cultural purist trap. Sadly what I have seen so far is otherwise. I saw many times, as a kid and now, how political and religious leaders were granted the same treatment. In fact this was practiced by Liurais and colonial masters alike. Obviously the link is dubious whether it was instituted by the colonial power or was already there before. Regardless, the point I try to get across is that this is fait accompli that we Timorese also practice, and sustain the continuation of such a practice (often justifying it as culture). Moreover, our cultural practices were not all great and respectful of equality of rights on a “tropical paradise”. Instead, like all societies we, too, had internal wars, fight for power, despots and subjugation by one ruler over others, but also true we also had orders and methods of controls. The “traditional coercion” and culture oppression of our own people is evident in the fact that Liurais never built good water system for the “povo” because the liurai always had people to fetch him water. So why bother!

In this context, if anything, what makes our culture strong is not its untaintedness but instead its capacity to adapt to new changes and ensure the survival of the people until now. Then in this light democracy is simply an addition to the culture where we learn new social, cultural and political arrangements. For this to work, however, we need to acknowledge our social and cultural practices that promote inequality and other forms of subjugation and change them.

To sum up this part, what I have tried to illustrate is that we do have practices that are anti-democratic and which are the products of a long and dynamic process. Some are conducive to our new democratic arrangements and some are not. Hence, the point now is to change it and one way to do it is to debate about it, and practice in our daily lives. In this I am also glad that politicians are also participating in the debate and are denouncing the practice. In a larger sense, FRETILIN was born to revolutionize the society and one way to do it was to put an end to these practices.

Why do I resent this picture?
What makes me resent this photo the most is the fact that this is Xanana Gusmao, the person through whose mouth I first heard the word equality and liberty, foho-ramelau, kaer rasik kuda talin and the dream of liberation. So perhaps this is because after all they did not teach me to “sae rasik o nia kuda” but to only” kaer rasik kuda talin”. Along the same line, the same argument applies to Mari Alkatiri and other FRETILIN leaders had they also done it. In such a case they need to be reminded of the meaning of the word Revolução.

In the case of Bishop Belo, I could perhaps understand for despite his fight for justice, etc. he was still a bishop of a rather conservative religious establishment that, notwithstanding its good deeds, is the successor of a colonial establishment which appropriated the logic of culture to enhance its sphere of influence. For example, the fact that priests in Timor are called Amu Lulik represents just that. The transformation from a “padre”, a largely European in terminology and discourse, was replaced with Amu Lulik which is linked to pre-catholic religious practice and which embodies a more direct reference to power. Whereas a padre is seen as alien and whose authority to punish deals largely with life after death (the sinner does not die immediately. He can still enjoy a long and fruitful life), an Amu Lulik, on the other hand, embodies the authority of lulik which may end one’s life immediately. Another example of this is the view that priests in Timor have the power kill by cursing somebody through raising his left hand. Comical indeed! But, this shows that as a whole these practices are allowed to flourish by the church exactly because of their coercive and discpinary potentials.

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