A democracy’s first breath is the preamble of its constitution. Expressed in this sparse prose is a spirit that transcends the articles and sections, reaching the very institutions and structures of government. However, though all democracies champion such “universal” principles as freedom and equality, their preambles speak to something deeper than broad ideologies. Consider the preamble of South Sudan, which addresses laying “the foundation for a united, peaceful and prosperous society” while that of Timor-Leste praises an “armed front… whose historical undertaking is to be praised” and proclaims a “Maubere Motherland.” The former suggests a fractured nation finally healing; the latter a historical solidarity continuing. This is but one example of a global pattern of variation in democracies recognized by sociologist Orit Ichilov over twenty years ago: “Democracy has had so many incarnations… and it elicits such a variety of meanings for individuals and groups… that one really should speak of democracies rather than democracy.”
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Yet, the contrast between Timor-Leste and South Sudan, and even the pattern identified by Ichilov are confounding when placed in the context of a globalized world, wherein “flows” of “goods, capital, information, people, ideas, and images” have resulted in the emergence of “transnational and international networks,” chief among them organizations such as the United Nations. The emergence of international government networks in particular has contributed to what Kate Nash calls the “internationalization” of the state – the creation of a “world society” and the “diffusion of norms concerning how political life should be organized.”
It would seem that the onus of adhering to this “world culture” would fall heaviest upon the shoulders of democratic nations, especially those that are newly emergent like South Sudan and Timor-Leste. Indeed, Larry Diamond in the introduction to Political Culture and Democracy, speaks of “cooperativeness and overarching commitments to the system” as being critical to a stable democratic process. It follows that these dispositions should lead democratic nations to join themselves to a world culture, wherein, according to Nash, “it is very difficult for those without authority to challenge the assumptions of the leaders of Western states about who and what is important.
However, even though both Timor-Leste and South Sudan are without any authority on the world stage, we see in their preambles that at their very inceptions what they consider important is profoundly shaped by something deeper than overarching political structures. This something deeper is what Ichilov calls “particularistic orientation”and what Larry Diamond considers a determinant of political culture: it is a society’s identity mirrored in its unique culture and history. A democracy’s history especially informs its identity, contributing to “grand ideological narratives” that shape political events. Expressed in these grand narratives is a nation’s subjective interpretation of its past – its living, collective memory. Here, we find that a people’s collective memory is ultimately linked to its democratic character. Moreover, this collective memory carried upon narratives of historical experience can be appreciated as a form of intangible heritage insofar as it is “transmitted from generation to generation,” is based upon “their interaction with nature and their history, and “provides them with a sense of identity and continuity.”
Larry Diamond and Orit Ichilov orient us in the right direction, but we will need to go further in elucidating the roles of collective memory and historical experience and their relationship to identity, at times possibly qualifying their arguments. In doing so, I will continue the investigation of Timor-Leste, first drawing upon the scholarship of Qi Wang and Anna Green in clarifying collective memory, then considering in detail a formative episode of Timor-Leste’s history. From there I shall consider the ramifications of the interpretation of that history, finally returning to a theoretical discussion of determinism. In this paper I argue that even in the globalized political atmosphere of the 21st Century, a people’s collective memory and narrative of its historical experience shape its identity and political culture and consequently inform the structure and function of its government.
Collective memory at once presents us with the challenge of clarifying the relationship between the individual and the group. There is often a tendency to conceptualize collective memory as a transcendent mind that “floats” above the society; however, a quick glimpse at Timor-Leste – or any nation – tells us this is not the case. Anna Green calls to mind these difficulties, stating that, “a major problem for the field of memory studies lies in expanding the idea of memories beyond the individual” and that “the problem… has been the conceptual incorporation of personal memory into collective memory.” Qi Wang provides an appropriate means of addressing these problems, suggesting that collective memory is a “social shareable memory system that encompasses constructive processes.” That Wang alludes to construction is critical in this instance because it suggests that there is an agency present in the process. This allusion to agency is reinforced when Wang refers to collective memory as a “dynamic cultural practice” and a “social practice.”
The suggestion that collective memory is a constructive process begins to resolve the problems raised by Green when we consider that construction intimately links the individual to a broader collective. In this sense, collective memories can be seen as manifest in narratives, which serve as “interpretative devices” that are “always in a dynamic state of mutual construction through cognitive processes, linguistic practices, and mediated social activity and interaction.” Consider, as both a linguistic practice and a social activity, the rendition Timor-Leste’s National Anthem “Patria”:
“Fatherland, fatherland, East Timor our Nation
Glory to the people and to the heroes of our liberation
Fatherland, fatherland, East Timor our Nation
Glory to the people and to the heroes of our liberation
We vanquish colonialism, we cry:
Down with imperialism!
Free land, free people, no, no no to exploitation.
Let us go forward, united, firm and determined
In the struggle against imperialism,
the enemy of people, until final victory,
onward to revolution.”
Opening with a chorus passionately crying “Fatherland, fatherland,” it instantly generates an energy that links its singers to a broader collective; furthermore, just as the Timor-Leste Constitution references the “Maubere Motherland,” so too does the national anthem immediately establish a sense of long-standing patriotism. Yet, beyond generating a sense of historical unity, the national anthem explicitly alludes to powerful historical experiences: “we vanquish colonialism, we cry:/ down with imperialism!” And just before the particularly emphatic “no, no no to exploitation,” there is a dramatic pause that builds tension and emotion. Taken in its entirely, the national anthem of Timor-Leste presents a titanic conflict pitting the “heroes” and “free people” of East Timor against foreign “imperialism” and “exploitation.” This is the sort of dynamic constructive process that underlies the narrative; moreover, it functions in a way that links personal and collective memories in either direction.
It is important, however, to distinguish between our “global” narrative of the conflict alluded to in the national anthem and that of the Timorese themselves. The difference is far more than a matter of perspective: it is a matter of heritage. The global community recognizes Timor-Leste as a nation devastated by foreign intervention and forced to endure horrific human rights abuses during the latter part of the 20th century. The Commission for Reception, Truth and Reconciliation report commissioned by the United Nations and constructed over the course of over three years details this history, estimating that the Indonesian military could be responsible for as many as 183,000 Timorese deaths. For the broader world, Timor-Leste is a nation without power, subjugated and oppressed for the better part of three decades.
For the Timorese, however, the narrative of this conflict is marked by a spirit of resilience and strength “during the fight against the occupiers.” The government of Timor-Leste identities this time as “Timorese Resistance” in its chronology of Timor-Leste’s history, stating, “the Timorese Resistance progressively consolidated itself.” Even the UN Commission itself is subject to this “particularistic” interpretation, being called in 2006 by then Timor Leste-Prime Minister Jose Ramos-Horta an “encyclopedia of [their] history.” And yet, the external representations of this history presented in The Archives & Museum of East Timorese Resistance attribute a great deal of agency to the Timorese, detailing their correspondences and episodes of armed resistance. The Archives serve to reinforce the “interactive” constructive processes of narrative building by externally representing the manifest memories, and the narrative that is ultimately erected speaks to national perseverance, resistance, and “final victory” rather than victimization.
In fact, this particular narrative is so central to Timor-Leste’s subjective interpretation of its history that it finds voice in the very first words of its constitution’s preamble: “Following the liberation of the Timorese People from colonisation and illegal occupation… by foreign powers.” That such an explicit reference to a historical experience is not only in the preamble, but at the start of that preamble suggests that its influence on Timor-Leste is as strong as any “universal principle” of equality or liberty: it is the very beginning of Timor-Leste’s first breath. This is even more startling when considering that Timor-Leste gained independence under the care of the United Nations, suggesting that this narrative is unaffected by the norms of a homogenous “world culture.” Indeed, Section 11, aptly-named “Valorisation of Resistance,” gives perhaps the best account of this narrative and of its being solidified in the nation’s memory: “The Democratic Republic of East Timor acknowledges and values the historical resistance of the Maubere People against foreign domination and the contribution of all those who fought for national independence.”
The “valorisation” of this historical resistance is also present in more salient national symbols that serve as tangible “interpretation devices.” In the national emblem we see that this valorization is considered among the “basic values of politics and moral underpinning.” In the black region of the inverted crest is centered an assault rifle, bow, and speared signifying the “struggle for national liberation.” Just beneath the crest is the national the motto – “UNIDADE, ACÇÃO, PROGRESSO” –whichtranslates to “Unity, Action, Progress,” again reinforcing the narrative of historical struggle and eventually victory [Image 1]. Even the national flag is visual chronology of Timorese history [Image 2]. It is dominated by a red field signifying “the struggle for national independence.” To the left there is a yellow triangle referencing the vestiges of colonialism and a black one, symbolizing “obscurantism.” Finally a white star of peace points away for these colors and the history they represent. Sequentially, it mirrors Timorese history, right to left. It is, however, the red field that dominates the flag, impressing upon its viewers the magnitude of the struggle and its relative importance as a constituent of national identity.
The narrative is indeed a constituent of identity, and, according to Wang, the collective memories that it evokes and reinforces “sustain a community’s very identity.” As we have seem, the narrative “incorporates the personal memory into the collective memory” through a plethora of cultural symbols and social interaction; it is “neither solely ‘out there’ in the material world of cultural products or historical artifacts… or ‘in there’ in the human mind.” Instead, narratives are “performed and lived” and, as narratives are manifest in identity, “we live our identities by constructing personal narratives.” This seemingly reciprocal relationship between narrative and identity occurs because both are predicated upon experience, what Green calls “historical consciousness,” and insofar as this is the case, they are inseparable and, in such cases as that of Timor-Leste, indistinguishable.
On the national political scale, if the historical consciousness underpinning both the narratives and identity of a people is “lived,” its influence should be evident in the political culture of that nation, and perhaps even the structure and function of its governments. Indeed, a narrative of disparate resistance and an identity based upon the struggle against a highly centralized institution – the Indonesian military and its international backers – seems to have consequences for the actual structure and function of Timorese Democracy. In a 2014 address to an international conference, Timor-Leste Prime Minister Kay Rala Xanana Gusmao remarked, “for 24 years, we fought a war without any external military support, while developed nations supplied weapons, tanks, aircraft and training to the occupying forces.” His words allude to a narrative of asymmetrical conflict in with the Timorese contended against large and organized governmental structures. Accordingly, since 2003, The Ministry of State Administration of Timor-Leste has been working toward decentralization and local governance with the vision of establishing “a strong, democratic and efficient local governance system.” While all democratic governments push for decentralization, the section detailing “the principle of decentralisation of public administration” is fifth of the 170 sections of the Timor-Leste Constitution, suggesting is relative importance is much greater. It would seem paradoxical that a nation struggling with underdevelopment and still recovering from decades of brutal oppression would so strongly advocate for a decentralized government lacking a high degree of efficacy, but when viewed in light of an historical consciousness informed by struggles against such institutions, it becomes understandable.
Along with the tendency to decentralize, the preeminence of the National Parliament of Timor-Leste seems to be shaped by a historical consciousness that praises the valor and strength of the common people. Though Timor-Leste’s government is a modified version of the Westminster system, both its Prime Minister and President are secondary in status to the National Parliament, which is the “organ of sovereignty… that represents all Timorese citizens.” This legislative body, unicameral and elected by popular vote every five years, serves as the executive body, giving, in theory, a great degree of political efficacy to the average Timorese citizen, in accordance with a political culture that praises their historical deeds. The power of the Timor-Leste parliament is such that on October 24, 2014, is passed a resolution to “terminate all existing contracts of international judicial officers,” giving rise to concerns over the separation of powers. In a world increasingly reliant on the unilateral actions of executives, the preeminence of Timor-Leste’s legislative body is certainly at odds with the current norm, but it may be understood as the consequence of a political culture seeking to give agency to its people – an agency reflected in their narrative of the Indonesian occupation.
However, we must not overly-simplify this relationship by ascribing to it what Diamond calls a “causal determinism.” Firstly, political culture does not necessarily “predetermine” political structure or political behavior; secondly, to assert that a people must possess a single identity or even a single political culture is a step too far in the essentializing direction. Though the relationship is far more dynamic, even Diamond agrees, “political culture does shape and constrain the possibilities of democracy.
However, Diamond understates the extent to which historical consciousness, embodied in narrative and identity, shapes political culture. Consider again the words of Prime Minister Gusamo, who as recently as September 25, 2014, in a speech to the United Nations General Assembly proclaimed: “Timor-Leste knows only too well the consequences and the scars of war… we also witnessed the near complete destruction of our country.” Speaking in the third person, Prime Minister Gusmao is expressing the predominant sentiments and beliefs of the people of an emerging democracy – that is, he is expressing what Diamond calls their political culture. This political culture seems to be almost singularly informed by the historical consciousness of the Indonesian occupation. And in another speech in 2014, Prime Minister Gusamo lauded the Timorese people for their “strength and resilience” while speaking of the struggle during the Indonesian occupation. Whereas Diamond considers “historical experience” to be one of many factors in the formation of a political culture, when viewing the tangible national symbols, cultural artifacts, governmental agendas, and political rhetoric of Timor-Leste, historical consciousness appears to be the primary determinant of political culture.
Furthermore, the “particularistic” political culture of Timor-Leste is in stark contrast to the “world culture” dominated by Western powers, which is all the more remarkable when considering the influence of those powers in the development of Timor-Leste’s democratic government. As late as 2012, there were international observers in Timor-Leste monitoring its parliamentary elections, and according to United States Ambassador Frank Wisner, Timor-Leste is a country “born of international care” in 2002 that was “supervised” by the United Nations for over a decade. Despite its being plunged into the currents of a world political culture and even being guided by the norms of that culture, Timor-Leste stands as a distinct democracy and as a testament to the powerful role of historical consciousness in shaping the narratives and identities that inform political culture. In its uniqueness, Timor-Leste resembles every other democracy inasmuch as they all respond to unique historical experiences, building collective consciousnesses through narratives that ultimately shape their identity and constitute an element of their intangible heritages.
Whether it is South Sudan struggling to create national unity after decades of brutal ethnic conflicts or Kosovo contending with a legacy of communism, all democracies find their image in the narratives of their collective experiences. It is why there is such variation in democratic form despite the emergence of a world political culture: the uniquely-constructed narratives and identity of a nation express its historical consciousness, and it is these narratives and identities that exert the strongest influence on political culture and perhaps even the structure and function of government. Yet, though we have spoken at length of the collective, we cannot remove the individual from this dynamic; insofar as narratives are constructions, the actions of individuals are critical. Whether it is the “capacity of individuals” recognized by Anna Green, the “[co-construction] of narratives” by citizens suggested by Hanne, or variation in “basic cultural biases” argued by Diamond himself, the individual is instrumental in constructing the narrative, living the identity, and responding to the evocations of the collective memory. And just as the disparate memories of individuals contribute to historical consciousness, so too do the historical consciousnesses of entire nations contribute to the “world culture.” In both cases, their breaths are of different cadences, and the words they speak are not those of a monolithic order, but of an organic and varied recognition of self – a self mirrored in symbols, in action, and in narrative.
Appendix 1. National Symbol Images.
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