Nation-building across the Urban and Rural in Timor-Leste

Gender, Justice, Peace and Security, Development and Governance: A Conference to Reflect on 10 Years of Nation-Building in Timor-Leste

8 July - 10 July 2009, Dili, Timor-Leste

This conference provided an opportunity for East Timorese and people from around the world to reflect, discuss and debate the nation-building process in Timor-Leste since 1999. In this context, nation-building in Timor-Leste is taken to mean the many different attempts since 1999 to ensure the political, economic and cultural integration of the population within the territory so as to fulfil the ambition of self rule in a stable and ongoing way. 

Ten years after the 1999 vote for independence, this conference considered how nation-building is being experienced and responded to across urban and rural communities in Timor-Leste. Broadening the discussion beyond that of ‘state-building’, at the core of the conference was a consideration of the myriad ways the new republic has been ‘built’. Here ‘nation-building’ is considered not only in terms of policy and programmatic initiatives but also grass roots experiences and perceptions of how Timor-Leste as a nation is seen and understood. 

At this conference, nation-building was discussed in terms of what appears to be one of the most significant characteristics of contemporary Timor-Leste, namely the sharp distinction found between the urbanised capital and the rural communities where the majority of the population live. Dili has emerged as the centre for economic and political power in a way that is extraordinarily disproportionate with the remainder of the country, while rural areas often remain highly isolated and continue to be dominated by subsistence agriculture. Differences in access to services— running water and electricity, communication networks, adequate roads and transport, schooling and health—are among the more obvious differences alongside a lack of access to paid work or opportunities for business development. The distinction between the ‘centre’ and the ‘periphery’ is found in everyday discourse in Timor-Leste, where it is the norm for people to speak in oppositional terms about ‘Dili’ and the ‘foho’ (literally meaning mountain but used to refer to non-urban communities). 

While acknowledging the sharp distinctions, the conference looked beyond assuming a straightforward urban/rural disconnect. Nor did it seek to understand this relationship simply from the ‘centre’. Firstly, this conference explored how rural communities have actively responded to the challenges of nation-building on their own terms. Secondly, the conference attempted to consider the ways in which the urban and the rural in Timor-Leste interconnect with one another, not just in terms of the movement of people or economic interaction, but also in terms of how national identity and culture is understood and projected. 

During the conference discussion groups produced a set of recommendations based on each of the conference themes. To see these recommendations please see Nation-Building Conference Recommendations-English

Held in conjunction with the Timor-Leste NGO Forum, RMIT University and Australian Volunteers International, with Charles Darwin University and Caritas Australia, and support from AusAID, ARC Asia Pacific Futures Research Network, and Airnorth.