Timor-Leste: the other Catholic country of Asia

Filipinos have much to learn and ponder about from the history of the second Catholic country of Asia, Timor-Leste.

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A recent column by Dr. Michael Tan about Southeast Asian relations made me search the Internet about Timor-Leste, a nation which up to that point merely lurked at the fringes of my awareness.

The trigger for me was Dr. Tan’s statement that “the Philippines can no longer claim to be the ‘only Christian’ or even ‘only Catholic’ country in southeast Asia.” It turns out that the claim of being the only significantly Christian nation in this region of the world, an idea that surely provides many of us Filipino Catholics a sense of import, has been inaccurate for thirteen years now. (I am quite sure that much of the media coverage of Pope Francis’s visit to the Philippines earlier this year involved parrotting this statement.)

The following is my own summary, in very broad strokes, of Timor-Leste’s history according to their own government’s website plus a BBC.com profile:

  • The island of Timor, at least the eastern section, was colonized by the Portuguese in the 16th century.
  • The territory was invaded during the Second World War by the Japanese, who held control until 1945. Tens of thousands of East Timorese were killed as they fought with the Allies against the invaders.
  • A disturbance in the colonizer’s (Portugal) homeland in 1974 led to initiatives for self-determination of the East Timor territory. The next year, the Portuguese withdrew from the colony, leading to a local political party to declare independence. Note that between Portuguese withdrawal and the declaration of independence, there was a brief Timorese civil war.
  • Within the same year, Indonesia invaded the new nation under the justification of protecting their citizens in Timor-Leste territory. The land is named the 27th province of Indonesia.
  • Twenty-four years pass. Twenty-four years of Timorese nationalist struggle led to a referendum in 1995, backed by the United Nations, on independence for the territory. More than 90% of the Timorese participated, with 78.5% voting in favor of independence over autonomy (autonomy “with integration into Indonesia”).
  • The referendum was immediately followed by widespread violence instigated by pro-Indonesia militias. International outrage at the murderous events ensued. The government website highlights an interesting fact that links the events to the Arab Spring and other 21st-century upheavals: “For the first time, the Internet was strongly used for broadcasting pro-Timor campaigns and encouraging a harsh UN intervention.”
  • UN peacekeeping forces were deployed to the emerging country, and they successfully supported a period of transition and rebuilding. On May 20, 2002, Timor-Leste’s Constitution became effective; this day is now called Restoration of Independence Day.
  • Unfortunately, the nation today is still politically unstable, and many countries have travel advisories in effect against the territory.

Filipino-Timorese parallels

While reading the history of Timor-Leste, I was struck by parallels with Filipinos’ own history.

First, both Filipinos and the Timorese had to declare their independence twice. As an expat at my workplace once said, on the occassion of the June 12 Philippine Independence Day holiday, this fact of Philippine history is “interesting”; I am sure he would find Timorese history fascinating too.

Second, both nations suffered what can be perceived as opportunism by would-be imperialists, carried out right at the moment of gaining independence. Timor-Leste gained freedom from the Portuguese, only for it to be promptly taken back by the Indonesians. It is an unfortunate repetition of what the Filipinos went through when they liberated themselves from the Spanish, only to be conquered by the Americans.

Third, there is the shadow of three colonizers. Timor-Leste went through centuries under Portuguese rule, followed by a few years of Japanese wartime occupation, and finally decades of Indonesian annexation. Similarly, the Philippines experienced centuries of Spanish colonization, decades of American rule, and the same few years of World War II suffering under the Japanese.

The longest of these phases, the Portuguese occupation, naturally had the largest impact to the Timorese people’s identity. It is in fact this distinct, Portuguese-cultured Timorese identity which is the primary motivation for a Timorese state separate from the much-larger Indonesian nation, which was a colony of a different, non-Catholic European power—the Dutch. Meanwhile, in the Phiilippine archipelago only a few seas away, a nation thrives under an identity first constructed under Spanish colonial rule.

Lastly, both Timor-Leste and the Philippines experienced, and continue to suffer, violence due to differences in its own people’s collective political aspirations. The wave of chaos between pro-Indonesian and pro-independence residents that followed the 1999 Timorese independence referendum is a reflection, at a smaller scale, of the decades-old Mindanao conflict in the Philippines, the latter partly caused by differences in identity and peoples’ political will (the “Moro Problem”).

Perhaps this last point is the most important point for reflection of the Filipino who studies Timorese history: at which point do differences in culture and identity necessitate a completely politically-independent state for a people? The Timorese differ from Indonesians in at least language and religion; the Moro differ in similar fashion from non-Moro Filipinos, but the extent is arguably less. Sometimes the degree of differences seem to dictate the degree of political independence required: for the Timorese, it is complete sovereignty; for the Moro, if the proposed Bangsamoro Law were to be followed, it is autonomy within an ultimately Filipino nation.

The “other”

I have to point out my use of the word “other” in this piece’s title, which to sociologists is a loaded term, because its use in describing cultures implies the inherent bias of humans with regards to cultures and histories.

For the longest time I believed that the Philippines is indeed the only predominantly Catholic country in Asia. ‘Discovering’ Timor-Leste, a nation with only a hundredth of the population of the Philippines, was a revelation to me; it was a virtual culture shock.

There is much to learn about this country, so I hope for the time when Filipinos do not have to ‘discover’ Timor-Leste. Although, I wish it was easier to learn from the Timorese themselves. I found it difficult to find websites online from Timorese natives; if online resources have poor accessibility, what more with other sources?

We have to hear the voices of the Timorese; we would love them to teach us more than the insights I came up with on a cursory study of their history; we need them to speak more loudly, and we need to listen more intently, so that they would be more than just the ‘other’ Catholic country of Asia.

Further reading

Knight, A. (2015 August 5). Timor-Leste: what it’s like to travel in a land without tourists. Retrieved October 2015, from http://www.theguardian.com/travel/2015/aug/05/timor-leste-what-its-like-to-travel-in-a-land-without-tourists.

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