Timor: Viewing from the Eye of Researchers

Guteriano Neves

 Since 1999, Timor-Leste has become a subject of study for scholars. Its experiences of resistance against the Indonesian army, its experiences in building a nation and a state, its memory of the past, development dynamics, and its culture still intact have become interesting subjects of scientific exploration among scholars. Indeed, more than a few scholars have come to Timor-Leste, and spent some time doing research on these topics. Their works have resulted in considerable knowledge production about Timor-Leste; viewed from the scholars’ eyes. In certain ways, their works also help to shape public perceptions about Timor, and also existing public policy. The researchers’ experiences in doing research in Timor are examined here. This is a summary based on interview with some researchers on their experiences in Timor.

Among researchers that I interviewed, they first encountered Timor from various sources, such as the news, lectures, or even friends. Amy Rothschild for example first encountered Timor through Max Sthal’s video about the Santa Cruz Massacre; or Judith Bovensiepen who encountered Timor through the news. It is different with Michael Leach, who first time encountered Timor in meeting Jose Teixeira – both of them attended the University of Queensland. Some Australian scholars even took part in student activist movement. Sophia Close, for example, took part in Australian student activism in 1998, and was part of the students’ solidarity movement.

Their first impressions about Timor also vary. Many of them did not know much about Timor. For some researchers, their first impression of Timor was of war and conflict. For others, it is more about struggle, or geographical features. Sara Currie, an Australian researcher imagined Timor-Leste from a geographical standpoint, as a tropical country. American researcher Amy Rothschild’s first impression of Timor was from travel and history books; which emphasized the history of resistance and occupation. Michael Leach’s impression, when he first travelled to Timor in 2002 was that Timor was a “UN Colony”. But he was also impressed with the Timorese character, which he saw as “friendly, proud but poor.”

The question of how and why they came to do research on Timor is an interesting one. There are various reasons that underline their motivations to choose Timor as a subject of research. For Sara Currie, who did research on Tourism, the reason is practical. She already worked in Timor-Leste, and had connections with people in decision-making capacities, and believed that her research could contribute to making change. For Judith, it was mix of reasons. But her interests in history and anthropology were the main reasons. And for Hannah Loney from Australia, it was her interest in the history of Southeast Asia and of Women, particularly the experiences of ordinary women under military rule, that led her to chose Timor.

Researchers’ experiences in Timor are also interesting. In all their cases, their experience of doing research in Timor has been rewarding, and life-changing. It has helped them to learn more about the topics they research. Timor, in a way offers a window for them to experience a typical post-conflict society; a society that is struggling to build its nation; a society that is different from where they live.

But it is not only about ‘hard’ knowledge. Their experiences have also helped them view the world differently. Their direct experiences of staying in Timor, of interactions with Timorese, and living in a defining moment of building a nation and state offer experiences which alter their world view.

Susana Barnes always considers her experiences in Timor to be “fantastic.” People’s generosity is something she feels “overwhelmed” by. Moreover, her experiences in Timor taught her a lot about the “importance of mutual respect and trust.” Sophia Close, who is from Australian National University, considers researching in Timor as something “extremely personally and professionally rewarding.” It has allowed her to engage in more profound discussion about the topics that she was researching. Furthermore, it gave her “great hope for other communities who are struggling to transform from periods of conflict.”

For Amy, who researches on history and memory, her experience of living in Timor was a “life-changing” experience. While she ackonwledges that Timor is not the only post-conflict country she has visited; she has never been to a country where “war was as widespread as it was in Timor.” She was particularly struck by the optimism of Timorese at that time. Experience doing research on Timor also provided different experiences for Sara Currie; whose time in Timor “broadened her perspectives about development, its advantages and pitfalls, and learned about a culture that is very different from her own.”

In a more specific context, Michael Leach believes his experiences in Timor highlight the importance of the non-economic goods of self-determination, democracy and human rights. Experiences in Timor have also helped him understand the challenges of building a nation and a state, building a political system, the semi-presidential system, traditional governance and authority, and its place in political stability.

“It made huge impact on my life and on the way I view the world. It showed me that things are always a little bit more complicated, not as black and white as they seem” Judith stated. At the personal level, her experiences in Timor also taught her about love; that each one of us can “love certain people deeply even we do not agree with some of their actions and views.”

The studies that these researchers are doing, directly or indirectly contribute to shaping knowledge about the specific issues they are researching, in the university or around the world. For Judith at least, while doing research is an integral part of her work, her students have been fascinated by Timor’s experiences. While it has to be admitted that research on Timor represents a small fraction of academic papers worldwide, it is expected that their research will contribute to shaping specific policies.

Doing research in Timor, while offering a window to view the world differently, also posseses certain challenges. The cost of living is something that considered to be one of the main challenges. Another issue is getting to Timor. This relates to the cost of airfares. Another issue is establishing contact with the right people. This is a particular challenge for the new researcher. Meeting and organizing appointments with people is also challenging due to the fact that interviewees might change their schedule frequently.

Based on these interviews, researchers’ experiences in Timor have been professionally rewarding, and personally life-changing experiences. Timor offers a window for these scholars to view the world differently from where they come from. Doing research in a country in the initial process of building a nation and a state, these researchers have witnessed the fighting spirit of Timorese, the optimism that they still have, sense of mutual understanding, and other qualities that Timorese have. Its people, its fascinating history, and unspoiled nature are other factors that these researchers value. At the end, the study, asked if they would recommend Timor to their friends to visit, and all the researchers replied “YES.”