Who tells Timor-Leste’s stories?

Felix and I were at Nari’s, the Korean restaurant, for dinner last night. We were eating dumplings on the balcony and catching up on our days, and I mentioned to him with not a small amount of pride that I’d had some good feedback on the freelance piece I’d written for the Interpreter about last weekend’s elections.

“What did you write about?” he asked.

“Kind of how the election result is good for stability but it’s come at the cost of young people having opportunities,” I replied, dunking a fat dumpling into a puddle of chilli oil.

Just Timor-Leste’s fifth parliamentary election since the country regained independence in 2002, Saturday’s vote has been regarded free, fair and largely peaceful by international and Timorese observers.

But, I argued in my piece, the likely re-installation of 73-year-old national hero Xanana Gusmão to the prime minister’s role (a chair he occupied between 2007 and 2015, after serving as the country’s first president) should stem celebrations a little. The stability provided by a decisive result and a peaceful process is comforting, but it’s something of a false victory: that stability comes at the cost of systemically shutting out hundreds of thousands of young people from making decisions and influencing the country they’ll soon inherit.

Seventy per cent of Timor-Leste’s population is under the age of 30, and half of its electoral roll is under 25. At 26 years old, I’m middle-aged here.

So why is a globe-trotting septuagenarian leading the country into the future?

“You don’t understand,” Felix replied. “For us, stability is paramount.”

Timor-Leste emerged in 1975 from 450 years of neglect from coloniser Portugal to a brief week of independence before a brutal invasion by Indonesia, hell-bent on annexing the country as its 27th province. Twenty-four years of violent occupation followed, against which guerrilla war waged, and an independence referendum in 1999 saw the country’s independence restored and heroes like Gusmão rightly celebrated for decades of fierce resistance. Following three years of United Nations administration, the country finally emerged as the 21st century’s first new democracy on 20 May 2002 — exactly 16 years ago this weekend.

In those 16 years, Timor-Leste has rebuilt itself completely from scratch: an estimated 70 per cent of the country’s infrastructure was destroyed by retreating Indonesian forces, and hundreds of thousands of citizens were displaced. In 2006, a conflict between Timorese soldiers from the country’s eastern districts and those from the country’s western districts ruptured, and the military and police descended into chaotic in-fighting. Months of unrest followed, the prime minister was forced to resign, and violence only stopped after former president José Ramos-Horta was shot in a failed assassination attempt.

Remarkable progress, then, to have me barely a decade later eating dumplings under dim lighting at sleek ol’ Nari’s.

My instinct was to retaliate. Felix was being stodgy, old and worried. It wasn’t necessary. But listening to him explain to me things he shouldn’t have had to hit me in the gut. What am I doing?

I’m embarrassed to say I started to cry. Panicky, snivelling tears blotted unsuccessfully with a scrap of napkin.

I felt so ashamed. Guilt burned fire in my gut.

Why didn’t I think of that?

I was so caught up in my own pride and excitement about having the article placed that I didn’t for a second think about who should be telling that story. Why was it me?

What right do I have to share my thoughts and comments on a country I know so little about, whose history to me is merely a Wikipedia paragraph? What right do I have to criticise the thousands who endured so much? And what right do I have, with my safe white Australian mind, to undermine and distrust the value of stability to a country whose story can’t be untangled from destruction?

And why am I crying fat, self-pitying tears to my Timorese boyfriend, sitting patiently on the other side of the soju bottle, explaining to me something I should already know?

I thought I was better than this.

I thought I was one of those sensible foreigners who did the right thing.

Who tries to learn Tetun, instead of saying well everyone knows English anyway so why bother. Who lives in a normal brick house, not a palatial gated expat compound. Who buys in-season vegetables at the markets instead of visiting air-conditioned Timor Plaza for imported chicken and frozen New Zealand broccoli. Who writes work Facebook posts in Tetun first and who knows you can’t decide anything without a Timorese person in the room. Who tries to lean into being uncomfortable in a new environment, instead of making it all about me and my discomfort and my change.

But last night, I made it all about me.

And Felix had to fix it.

It’s a lesson for me that comes at a burden to him, and I’ll do it justice by leaning into it, and accepting, and listening.


7 responses to “Who tells Timor-Leste’s stories?”

  1. I’m sure it’s a very normal reaction Sophie – from someone who is just trying to “make the world right. I think you are far too harsh on yourself. Love Mum xxx


  2. […] I finally started pitching the freelance articles that scare me, and I’m thrilled to share I have three published bylines! Thank you to the Lowy Interpreter, Southeast Asia Globe and New Naratif for publishing me, and thank you to Felix for dealing with the existential crisis I had after submitting the Lowy piece about whether I was really the best person to write it. […]


  3. […] talked at length on this blog about anxiety, perfectionism, who tells and discomfort, and how my life in Timor-Leste exacerbates my natural tendencies to fret, to […]


  4. […] questions I don’t know the answers to in a new context: Who tells Timor-Leste’s stories? and What do you do when a stranger on the street asks you for […]


  5. […] unnecessarily judgemental. Quick to show how much I know and how big I am. Making the story about me; forgetting it’s just harder than we think it is; not […]


  6. […] and knowing that we don’t necessarily have to take them all ourselves (this is one I’m still struggling with; the delicate balance between a story that wouldn’t be shared if I didn’t write it, and […]


  7. […] Who tells Timor-Leste’s stories? […]


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: