Trajectories of State transformation – political community in East Timor

M. Anne Brown, December 2009


  • state transformation
  • political community
  • military
  • state collapse
  • State
  • East Timor

This paper considers the broad trajectory of State transformation or, more accurately, State formation in East Timore following the end of the long period of violent occupation by the Indonesian military (1975-1999). The discussion focuses on what is argued to be a deep tension between formal State-building processes in East Timore, pursued by the international community and East Timorese elites, and the dynamics of political community on the ground, referring to those processes that largely shape people’s everyday experience of security and economic life, social order, and justice. This tension points to the need for serious rethinking of the ways in which the international community understands and undertakes its role in what are explicitly or implicitly ‘State-building’ exercises.

The recent history of East Timore exemplifies key aspects and dilemmas of dominant international approaches to State transformation following violent conflict. Establishing functioning liberal States as a response to violent civil conflict or collapse has been a ‘central objective of international assistance,’ particularly peace-building operations, and is regarded as ‘consistent with emerging best practices for working in fragile State situations.’ As East Timore’s struggle was explicitly for independence, the goal of statehood in important ways matched the desires of the local population. Despite this match, however, the drive to ‘build a State’ has in significant ways failed to engage with what political community means for people in local communities. Narrow, mechanistic models of the State have been promoted, where ‘the State’ is equated with institutional structures and divorced from society. For East Timore, this has meant that (despite important exceptions) State-builders have sought what is to much of the population an alien discourse of political community, in which local customary forms of social order are effectively cast as ‘backward’ and static. This contributes to divisions between government and the largely rural population and between local efforts to rebuild community and the public discourse of political life. Such divisions weaken potential for effective government and governance and threaten to effectively disenfranchise much of the population. They work against the emergence of the inclusive political processes vital for the emergence of national political community and legitimate government. Such trajectories of State transformation can themselves create conditions for future crisis.

Despite this, there are ongoing efforts at experimentation and adjustment, particularly at the ‘middle’ and grassroots levels of East Timorese society. Here customary and ‘new’ village authorities, elders, district administrators, regional police commands, regionally based bureaucrats from central government administrations, and other community members work with the reality of different governance systems – sometimes competing or conflicting, sometimes collaborating, but always requiring negotiation. As with many other countries undergoing intensive processes of State formation, to see this as ‘a struggle between essentially “traditional” and “modern” processes is to abstract and fix these categories far too rigidly, while to pit local patterns of social life and value against liberal institutional models is to view events – and conceive of policy – in terms of an unwinnable and mutually diminishing conflict.’

This reflection on East Timore raises questions that can only be partially explored here. How do we understand the role of local culture and experience, values and authority structures in the emergence of functioning States following crisis – in particular, in the emergence of relatively peaceful political community? How do we envisage a State that is to a significant extent borne on the back of international intervention – as many post-conflict or post-colonial States are – that nevertheless speaks to local understandings of what is fundamental to social and political relations? How do we work towards a political order that pays attention to the local, which in this case requires taking customary modes of governance seriously, but that also draws on the institutional forms and processes that are in practice fundamental to contemporary State operations? How do we – and here ‘we’ refers explicitly to the Global North and our leading institutions – engage in exchange with others from profoundly different cultural and political orders and imaginations about what might constitute political community and agency? These questions raise the challenge of how to support the emergence of States that are broadly participatory or inclusive, directed towards people’s well-being, with accountable government legitimate in the eyes of the population – that is, that are oriented towards what are generally represented as liberal democratic public goods – in political, social and economic circumstances and exchanges that are far from the conceptions of liberalism. These questions represent significant dilemmas for international efforts to support peace-building or State formation; they can require rethinking some of the dominant approaches to State-building and demand that, if we are to undertake these operations at all, we enter into, not one-way training exercises or technical missions, but fuller relationships with the people making up the societies concerned, their values and experiences, and their institutions.

Such questions reach well beyond East Timore. Nevertheless, not all aspects of this discussion are so widely applicable. While the dynamics of local political, social and economic life are surely always fundamental to State formation, customary governance practices are certainly not relevant in all post-conflict or post-colonial environments. There is also significant variation between local customary orders in different parts of the world – the discussion here is oriented to East Timore. (It is worth noting that East Timore is itself characterised by different language and culture groups that nevertheless share significant family resemblance.) Decades of war, invasion and trauma also have profound effects on social relations. Such pressures can be the context for the emergence of deeply violent articulations of political ‘order’ of whatever kind; some of these draw on customary idioms, while having more in common with revolutionary ideologies or criminal organisations.

Customary or traditional governance structures are understood here as adaptive and evolving. While almost by definition conservative in orientation, customary approaches can also be focused on community survival in rapidly changing circumstances, and remarkably flexible in practice. Customary practices have been responding, well or badly, to changing social, economic and ecological demands and reconfiguring over centuries in interaction with others and in the face of colonialism, evangelism, capitalist expansion and globalisation. Struggles for independence, battles for control over State power and entanglement with State processes have all reshaped local practices, just as local practices have often reshaped and indigenised fundamental aspects of State operations. There is no sealed boundary dividing what constitutes ‘indigenous tradition’ from what is exogenous; rather processes of resistance, assimilation and transformation mark their interface.

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The full article can be found in the publication “Rethinking these Foundations of the State” (forthcoming 2010)