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East Timor: new President, same problems for women

The recent election of José Maria de Vasconcelos, or Taur Matan Ruak as he is known, to the Presidency of Timor-Leste is not good news for women in that country. Adding yet another member of the male military…

Jose Maria Vasconcelos (or Taur Matan Ruak) is the new president of East Timor, but will he do more for the women in his country? AAP/Antonio Dasiparu

The recent election of José Maria de Vasconcelos, or Taur Matan Ruak as he is known, to the Presidency of Timor-Leste is not good news for women in that country.

Adding yet another member of the male military elite to a position of great prestige and power will not increase the political participation of women nor add to a culture of gender equity.

Justice and gender were listed last in his ten point election manifesto which concentrated instead on assisting veterans of the resistance struggle (those recognised as such are overwhelmingly male) and increased militarisation of the country – he favours a policy of mandatory military service.

A history of conflict

Ruak bravely fought from 1975 until 1999 against Indonesian occupation with Falintil, the Timorese guerrilla army. He rose through the depleted ranks to senior positions close to Xanana Gusmão (now the Prime Minister of the country). He became Commander in 1998.

After independence, when the national army was set up, he retained the position as the nation’s top military commander, only resigning to run for President.

It is male elites from the resistance struggle, like Taur Matan Ruak, who now head the government, military and police, and the contemporary society they have shaped is heavily influenced by military thinking and behaviour.

These men have been engaged in a brutal and bloody war for most of their adult lives and suffered a variety of ill effects, including displacement, imprisonment, torture and loss of family, fellow soldiers, close friends and colleagues. They have made dreadful sacrifices for independence.

Just as disturbingly, their mothers, wives and daughters were often victims of sexual abuse at the hands of the Indonesian military or its militias, often because of their relationship to the fighters.

Front row left to right: Taur Matan Ruak, Xanana Gusmao, Command Lere (circa October, 1999) Author/Kirsty Sword Gusmao

It is conflict within this leadership which led to the 2006 national political crisis and shattered the process of reconstruction. While these kind of events are common in post-conflict societies sorting out new political systems and hierarchies, such ongoing cycles of trauma, violence and conflict are also attributable to persistent militarisation such as that which exists in Timor-Leste.

Keeping women out

The absence of women in the 2006 crisis, in its causes and in its solution, emphasised their lack of influence in political and security affairs.

It was largely the male political elite at the forefront of this violence, but these gender dynamics have rarely been analysed by political commentators or in development and security reports on the period.

In a recent International Crisis Group report into Timor’s veterans this dimension was missed entirely, as it has been in most of the political commentary on the recent elections.

Ongoing conflict, such as the 2008 shooting of the President, and an aggressive political culture, favours a type of strong, militarised masculinity that marginalises women and has a negative effect on their status and political participation.

Military mayhem

The dominance of men in contemporary Timorese society can be traced historically but is also re-enforced by a persistent militarisation, left by the Indonesian army and enduring after the conflict.

The National Commission on Truth, Reception and Reconciliationnoted that under the Indonesian occupation, the militarisation of the East Timorese male population was as comprehensive as it was systematic.

The plethora of gangs and militias that created the mayhem and violence of 1999 made their presence felt again in 2006 and remain powerful in Timorese society.

Indonesia also militarised the next generation of civil society through organised sporting activities and youth groups. Martial arts groups became popular and have become a contemporary problem. According to a June 2005 World Bank Youth Social Analysis Mapping and Youth Institutional Assessment there are approximately 20,000 registered martial arts members and as many as 90,000 unregistered members in Timor-Leste.

A violent or aggressive model of masculinity is promoted within such groups.

Gender blindness

Ruak, however, is of another era and does not display the hyper-masculinity of younger men such as the late Alfredo Reinado.

The older generation of male leaders, like Ruak and Gusmão were inculcated with a mix of colonial Portuguese and indigenous values which appear somewhat more modest.

Even still, there is a real gender blindness and lack of consciousness about gender issues amongst them that may be unyielding but can be challenged.

Gender equity and the right to equality has penetrated a collective consciousness and has been incorporated in the institutional discourses of government and many civil society organisations. This has led to a tension between symbolic and concrete actions and policies to enable increased economic, social and political well-being for women.

In concert with every country and community around the world on the journey toward the ideal of gender equity, men and women in Timor have myriad perspectives that often jar and clash in a difficult post-conflict environment. This makes their journey a particularly difficult and bumpy one.

The new President won’t be able to avoid being part of that journey.

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4 Comments sorted by

  1. Brett Inder

    University Professor

    Good comments Sara. I especially agree re the militarisation of the political leadership. There was one woman candidate for President in the current election, so that is a small step forward.

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  2. Joao Noronha

    logged in via Facebook

    Thanks Sara for this article, which is interesting for East Timorese, and I found in a discussion group in facebook, called ‘Emerging Leadership’, members are debating or sharing opinions regarding this article.

    What I would like to suggest is that it is important to also look back at the times, when TMR was the top commander of FDTL. It’s important to look at his leadership, and particularly how women in military were really considered for some important positions in the FDTL structure. What…

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  3. Jim Della-Giacoma

    South East Asia Project Director, International Crisis Group

    A delayed response but for the record, Dr. Niner is wrong to assert that "in a recent International Crisis Group report into Timor’s veterans this dimension was missed entirely, as it has been in most of the political commentary on the recent elections."

    The second paragraph of the report this posting links to quite explicitly defines veterans broadly as those in the armed, diplomatic and clandestine fronts as well as noting that they were "men and women". In the first paragraph on the second page "the population as a whole, including women and youth, played in supporting the fight for in-dependence". On page three we observer how "women played key roles in clandestine activities as well (a smaller number fought in the armed front), drawing on the legacy of the Organização Popular da Mulher Timorense (OPMT), the women’s arm of Fretilin".

    Rather than ignore women's role in the independence struggle, we make the point up front that they were integral to it.

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    1. Sara Niner

      Research fellow, School of Political and Social Inquiry at Monash University

      In reply to Jim Della-Giacoma

      Dear Jim, It made me sad to read your comment and understand that you believe that those small mentions could encompass female veteran experiences in Timor and how they have been treated in the veteran process. Women’s organizations have been struggling to write new histories that include their stories. It has been confirmed in independent research that women veterans were generally highly regarded in their communities but felt their contributions have not been satisfactorily recognized. Their treatment…

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