What's the difference?
Dr Mark Byrne*
Meeting Place, Uniya newsletter, 1(1) Winter 2006
Coming from the “wide brown land”, it is a shock to
approach a country that can be crossed by a small plane in just
ten minutes, with the north coast visible in the distance as soon
as the south coast is reached. I was reminded of the famous “blue
marble” photo of the earth, a shimmering blue and white sphere
floating in the blackness of space, taken from Apollo 17 in 1972.
Here, likewise, a tiny island of humanity floats between the vast
land mass and archipelagos of Asia and the even more vast island-specked
ocean of the Pacific.
Or rather, a half-island. In a mountainous country that has absorbed
Austronesian, Indo-Malayan and Latin Catholic influences, there
have always been real clan and linguistic differences that have
sometimes erupted in warfare . Historians differ about whether
or not Timor was a united state before Portuguese explorers arrived
in the early sixteenth century . Either way, it was divided into
two early in the seventeenth century, after the Dutch East India
Company took control of the western half .
The Timorese – east or west – had no say in that division,
though the East Timorese mounted a ragged but dogged campaign of
resistance to the more recent Indonesian attempt to reunite the
island under its control between 1975 and 1999.
That occupation is likely to have resulted in the deaths, directly
and indirectly, of a quarter of the population – a genocide
comparable in recent times with Pol Pot's Cambodia and the slaughter
by Hutu extremists of Tutsis in Rwanda .
And now, with so little justice achieved since 1999 for past crimes
against humanity , the half-island seems, amoeba-like, to be
turning in on and dividing itself again, this time under the banners
of Lorosae and Loromonu, Easterners and Westerners.
Numerous interpretations have already been offered of the reasons
for the present crisis, but a psychological perspective might be
relevant, too. According to Freud’s theory of the “narcissism
of minor differences,” we often need to fight the hardest
against those most like us in order to affirm our individual identity
For instance, Michael Ignatieff, the noted Canadian academic and
writer on modern warfare and ethnic conflict, recounts a conversation
he had in the early 1990s with a Serb soldier in which the soldier
tried to explain the difference between Serbs and Croats. The assertion
of difference was the only real difference: a Serb is a Serb because
he isn't a Croat. In his desperation, it came down to which brand
of cigarette each soldiers smoked .
According to Ignatieff, religious and cultural differences are
common in most nations, but are usually unimportant when there is
a strong state (and a healthy economy, he might have added). When
state authority collapses, however, these differences become paramount,
because they provide a way for people to “circle the wagons”
and inhabit a world of relative safety. “If you/they won’t
look after me,” it is a way of saying, “then I/we will!”
Lorosae and loromonu are translated from Tetum as “sunrise”
and “sunset”, and were traditionally applied to the
eastern and western ends of the whole island, thereby distinguishing
the people of the Portuguese colony from those of its Dutch counterpart.
It has come as a great surprise to many East Timorese to find the
terms applied to divide up the new country along supposedly ethnic
lines, since they do not correspond to the old clan and linguistic
The idea of an east-west cultural divide within East Timor itself
was promulgated by the Portuguese. Because westerners did not actively
oppose them, they became known as kaladi (friendly or passive),
whereas the easterners were more defiant, so were known as firaku
(strong or hotheaded) . According to some, this distinction,
which affected the way some parts of Dili were settled, was reinforced
by the Indonesians, presumably under the principle of “divide
Now that the old enemy has left, these Portuguese markers of difference
are being invoked to classify “us” and “them”,
mostly by the use of the terms lorosae and loromonu rather than
firaku and kaladi. But few would argue that the current east-west
divide, which started with some disaffected soldiers and spread
to the smouldering suburbs of Dili, is the main one in the new country.
It is more a case of who has benefited from independence (not many,
as it turns out), and who has languished in poverty and powerlessness.
Because some soldiers from the west believed they had been discriminated
against by the military leadership, which came more (but by no means
exclusively) from the east, and there was debate about whether those
from the east or the west had contributed more to the independence
struggle, this divide became a flashpoint for grievances.
The east-west faultline may also have opened up so quickly because
too little has been done to heal the old wounds caused by internecine
political brutality in the 1970s as well as by the violence and
oppression of the Indonesian occupation. Lacking justice as well
as economic opportunities, and receiving cold comfort from the country's
leaders on both of these fronts, it can be easier to see an enemy
next door than to face the enemy within – that is, to acknowledge
that if things aren’t working, it’s “our”
fault, not “theirs.” This can be too much to take on
for people who have already suffered unbearably.
By showing us the preciousness and fragility of life on earth,
the "blue marble" photo is credited with galvanising the
modern environmental movement . Although the East Timorese may
not all have the opportunity to see their beautiful island from
fifteen thousand feet up, whatever we might do to help them recover
a sense of wholeness and connection, within and without, will help.
 Although warfare was apparently traditionally
often of a ritualised naure. See, eg, the reference to
Geoffrey Gunn’s work in "Timor lives, perhaps, its first
post-colonial war”, interview with Paulo Castro Seixas, a Portuguese
anthropologist, published in the daily Portuguese newspaper Publico,
translated by Nuno Olivera and republished in the blog timor
na nafatin, timorbanafatin.blogspot.com,
11 June 2006, accessed 6 July 2006. See also Michael
Leach, History On The Line: East Timorese History after Independence,
History Workshop Journal 61, Spring 2006, 236, n 11.
 According to anthropologists H.G.
Schulte Nordholt and James Fox, it was based on the kingdom of
Waiwiku-Wehale in the south-east of the island (from the unattributed
History of Timor at pascal.iseg.utl.pt/~cesa/History_of_Timor.pdf,
ch. 1, 6 July 2006).
 The two halves of the island were known at that
time as Belos or Belu (the east) and Vaikenos
or Serviao (the west). This division was not formalised
until the Treaty of Lisbon was signed between Portugal and Holland
 See, eg, Executive Summary, Chega!, Report
of the Timor-Leste Commission for Reception, Truth and Reconciliation
 For a brief introduction to the justice processes
since 2000, see Sue Harris-Rimmer and Effie Tomaras, Aftermath
Timor Leste: reconciling competing notions of justice, Australian
Parliamentary Library, 26 May 2006, accessed 6 July 2006 (www.aph.gov.au).
There have been fuller reports from the International Centre for
Transitional Justice, the Judicial System Monitoring Program,
the UN Commission of Experts, Professor Geoffrey Robinson of UCLA,
and others. On the relationship between trauma and transitional
justice in East Timor, see, e.g, Mark Byrne, The traumatic birth
of a nation, www.uniya.org.
 Freud discussed “the narcissism of minor differences”
in “The Taboo of Virginity” (1917) and “Group Psychology and the
Analysis of the Ego” (1922), but see also n. 4 below.
 Michael Ignatieff, The Warrior’s Honor: Ethnic
War and the Modern Conscience, London, Vintage, 1999, 34-71.
 On the firaku/kaladi rivalry, see www.etan.org, which
summarises the relevant chapter from Dionisio Babo Soares’ 2003
unpublished PhD thesis at ANU, Branching from the Trunk: East
Timorese Perceptions of Nationalism in Transition.
 Sr Susan Connelly, Crisis in East Timor, Ba
Ami Nia Belun Sira (For Our Friends) Newsletter, Mary MacKillop
East Timor, 13, 2, June 2006, www.mmiets.org.au,
6 July 2006
 This is asserted, eg, by Al Gore in the documentary
of his global warming presentation, An Inconvenient Truth.
Dr Mark Byrne is Uniya's Senior Researcher.
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