“Politika Taka Malu,” Censorship, and Silencing: Virtuosos of Clandestinity in Timor-Leste

By Jacqueline Aquino Siapno

Excerpted from Flowers in the Wall

This chapter explores the paradox of being asked to examine “the truth” when the methods used during the clandestine period were to have no history of records (i.e., leave no trace behind)—a negation of the work of historians and historiography (while keeping in mind the paradox and irony that some of the clandestines were historians—both Timorese and “international”).

What happens when memory fails? What if one remembers selectively? What if silence and having no history is not only a strategy, a plan—rigorously executed, the blueprint to a life—but an identity, even a kindred spirit network of being and belonging?

Clandestinity was a method that worked so well during the resistance towards colonial occupation, but in post-independence, “free” and “democratic” Timor-Leste, senior ministers, MPs, and other key decision-makers remained virtuosos of clandestinity and refused to change and/or adopt new identities or new methods of learning, not to mention a so-called “free press” that is not
really that free at all. In some cases, the clandestine identity is stronger and more dominant than the “real” identity. In other cases, the clandestine identity and fictive name has become embedded into the “real” name. Some ex-clandestines even argue that transparency and honesty are “foreign/Western values,” as some ex-Falintil-guerrillas-turned-MPs informed us when we interviewed them about their thoughts on civilian oversight of the military and police, and in relation to strengthening transparency in public financial administration and anti- corruption.

What are the consequences of this politika taka malu (covering up for each other) for truth commissions and activists, for struggles of gender justice, access to basic services, the democratization process, anti-corruption initiatives, and accountability in public financial management and economic development?

In music, a virtuoso is someone who isn’t just technically proficient, but also spiritually gifted and talented, someone who embodies the music itself: the musician is the music (not something outside or separate). In war, the virtuoso of clandestinity embodies the same identity as the musical virtuoso. It is someone who doesn’t just put on multiple masks for winning
the war and running the resistance struggle in an instrumentalist kind of way, but someone who has embodied this way of knowing and being, someone with the unusual skill, gift, talent, even identity, to blend with one’s worst enemies, and with the skill set for self-preservation and defending one’s privacy from unnecessary and unwanted intrusion. It is a soft power by which the enemy is defeated not with violence, guns, or weapons, but by other means—including living with them close by, working behind the scenes, blending in so that they have no idea that you are even there, writing and using one’s pen. Such were the survival skills of the clandestine virtuoso during the resistance against colonial occupation.

Paradoxically, in the post-independence, post-conflict era, some people who do not want to understand or appreciate this longue durée history dismiss clandestinity and secret identity as a weakness, a flaw, even a liability, possibly a crime; they mostly blame individuals, but not the structures, societies, and environments that engender this way of being, operating, and networking. Being duplicitous, hiding truths, operating in secret networks, protecting one’s privacy from intense public surveillance are now considered by certain sectors as unacceptable, if not dangerous to nation-building and economic development. Publicly, some people condemn it as killing development (“hamate desenvolvimento”) and not good for the nation (“laduun diak ba nasaun”), but at the level of everyday politics, something else happens.

What happens when war veterans who have never sought psychological support for unpacking and processing their old attitudes and methods of doing things are now suddenly being told that
they have to throw away all their past history to begin a new life, to start telling the truth, to start doing “civilian oversight on their close friends in the military and police,” and to open up? How might they react?

Clandestinity is an ongoing modus operandi, a chosen identity especially in an environment that is riddled with brutal (but subtle, hidden) inter-party and intra-party violence (cloaked by a thin public veneer of “coalition” and “harmony”) and a weak judicial system. Trust is the highest casualty. The importance of psychoanalysis in trying to comprehend the psychology of the state and its character and actors is both underestimated and under-studied. One telling example is the rhetoric of doublespeak, if not hidden meanings: only other clandestines can figure out what is really being said (by analyzing the irony and the silence in the speech act—i.e., what is not being said). For example, a TV Timor-Leste interview with Fernando La Sama de Araújo, in Tetun, on how his “boss” makes solo decisions in government. Referring to Xanana Gusmão (president, subsequently prime minister), he captures in a quintessentially “clandestine style”—very funny, yet subtle, not really saying anything directly, but saying a lot (to those who can read the silences)—Xanana Gusmão’s “art of governing.”

Read the full text from Flowers in the Wall via University of Calgary Press: Politika Taka Malu, Censorship, and Silencing: Virtuosos of Clandestinity and One’s Relationship to Truth and Memory