TL Initiative


The new website for the Timor-Leste Studies Initiative is online here: 

Indonesia and Timor-Leste Studies Committee
Southeast Asia Council | Association of Asian Studies

With generous support from the Henry Luce Foundation, the Southeast Asia Council’s (SEAC) Indonesia and Timor-Leste Studies Committee (ITLSC) at the Association of Asian Studies (AAS) has recently launched a new initiative to raise the profile of Timor-Leste studies in North America. In addition to calling greater attention to Timor-Leste in institutions of higher learning, the initiative aims to establish sustainable participation of Timorese scholars in the wider academy.

The study of Timor-Leste’s history, culture and society is woefully underrepresented in North America, and this initiative will be an important step in developing the competencies and networks required to ensure a sustainable future for scholarship on this important member of the Southeast Asian family of nations.

As a first step, SEAC and the ITLSC organized a series of panels, workshops and exhibits at the annual meetings of the AAS in Toronto (2017) and Washington DC (2018). We are now working toward a prospective second period of funding. Additional information on the initiative will be posted on this page as it becomes available.

Program of Events, Washington DC 2018

The pre-conference workshop for 2018 took place at the conference site on Thursday, March 22, from 9am to 5pm. A program for the day’s events can be downloaded here.

In addition to a series of more open-ended discussions, there were three organized panels, including:

1. Current Trends in Research on Timor-Leste
Chaired by David Hicks
In contrast to the lengthy research-poor period during which Timor-Leste was under the successive colonial governments of Portugal and Indonesia, a great deal of research is now being conducted in this independent nation-state. So it now seems the time to assess the nature of this work, and the results it has produced. Accordingly, this panel considers current research, and that conducted in the recent past, by scholars in a range of academic disciplines, but also by practitioners, officers of national and international organizations, and others. The research domains to be dealt with embrace an extensive array of topics—including national, regional, and local politics; administrative issues (national and local); economy and finance; NGOs; religion; democracy; local traditions; health; and demography. Presenters include Susana Barnes, Josh Trindade, Kelly Silva and David Hicks.

2. Archives and Source Materials for Timor-Leste Studies
Chaired by David Webster
Although long neglected in scholarly studies of Southeast Asia, Timor-Leste has begun to receive more academic attention in recent years. Building on insights from last year’s pre-conference workshop in Toronto, this panel will examine the growing base of source material available in Timor-Leste studies by examining archival sources and the role they play in historical memory. We will attempt to map future strategies to compile archival and other pertinent source materials. The panel will also survey those materials likely to be valuable in advancing the study of Timor-Leste in North American universities. Presenters include Hugo Fernandes, Susana Barnes, Clinton Fernandes, Trudy Huskamp Peterson and John Miller.

3. Historical Justice: Issues and Questions
Chaired by Michael Leach & Elizabeth Drexler
Fifteen years after the restoration of Independence, historical justice remains a key issue in Timor-Leste’s political life. Though post-independence governments have favored good relations with Indonesia over justice for victims, some progress has been evident in recent months with the establishment of the Centro Nacional Chega!—a successor body to the CAVR (Commission for Reception, Truth and Reconciliation), which will become a permanent human rights record and archive. This panel will explore issues of historical justice in contemporary Timor-Leste, examining the positions of the state, victims’ groups, legal associations, the Church and other actors. It will also examine the way issues of historical justice affect broader nation-building issues of school curriculum development, and influence themes in popular culture, and in political campaigns. Presenters include Elizabeth Drexler, Hugo Fernandes, Michael Leach and Maria Manuela Leong Pereira.

Program of Events, Toronto 2017


Download the program of events for our pre-conference workshop in Toronto here.

Read the review of our 2017 Toronto workshop on #AsiaNow, the online AAS newsletter.

The formal program for 2017 centered on two main events, including a pre-conference workshop (program available here) on Timor-Leste studies, and a SEAC-designated panel on The Transformation of Religion, Culture and Society in Timor-Leste. The latter included presentations from Lisa Palmer (University of Melbourne), Michael Leach (Swinburne University of Technology, Melbourne), Josh Trindade (Office of the President, Timor-Leste) and Rui Graca Feijo (Universidade de Coimbra), with David Hicks (Stony Brook University) acting as Discussant, and Richard Fox (University of Heidelberg) as Chair. The abstract for the panel read as follows:

FRIDAY, 17 MARCH 2017 | 3:00 PM – 5:00 PM
Since its formal recognition as a nation-state in 2002, Timor-Leste has undergone a series of profound transformations cutting across political, economic, social and cultural life. How are Timorese responding to these changes? This panel brings together Timorese and non-Timorese scholars, and public intellectuals, to reflect on ‘modernization’ and its effects across a range of overlapping domains. We see in the domain of religion, for example, how the revival of animism in a nominally Catholic country has posed challenges for social scientific narratives of rationalization and ‘progress’ as much as it has raised vexing questions for the Church. Here the construction and reconstruction of ritual houses runs counter to the demands of more economically-minded Timorese, who argue resources would be better directed to developing public services, such as education and healthcare. Similarly, in the political realm, revival of ‘the ways of the ancestors’ defies the policies of government leaders, who are striving to transform those they deem parochially-minded villagers into citizens of a modern nation-state. Here the national government’s efforts to ‘modernize’ local administration at the suku level, and to arrogate villagers’ loyalties from their local and traditional councils to what the government considers a more ‘modern’ judiciary system, create problems for government and villages alike. In addressing these and related issues, the panelists will reflect on a range of factors, from the role of international organizations (e.g., USAID and related NGOs), to the rise of print media and its effects on national community, independence and belonging.

Pre-Conference Workshop | 2017

Preceding the AAS conference itself, the first year’s workshop took place on Thursday, March 16, 2017. The program of events included panels on (i) Economy and Politics, and (ii) Religion and Values. While the former included inter alia papers on migrant labor, the Japanese occupation of Dili and economic relations with China, the latter explored transformations in ancestor veneration, water rites and the sometimes problematic interaction between the Catholic Church and indigenous religion.

We also organized two photographic exhibits. The first centered on materials marking 2017 as the 30th anniversary of Timorese activism in Toronto, linking local practices of advocacy to global developments in politics and policy (organizer: David Webster). The second exhibit was called Fataluku Death and Life, and it was divided into two parts—the first examining tombs, with a primary focus on traditional funerary posts and Christian crosses; the second exploring Timorese martyrs’ graves and monuments (organizer: Rui Graça Feijó). A musical exhibition was also presented, drawing together materials from several ethnomusicological projects (including, e.g., the Heritage Inventory of Suai-Camenaça). This featured audio and video recordings, and related documentation, aiming to give a picture of current research on traditional musical practice (organizers: Aaron Pettigrew and Philip Yampolsky). The day concluded with a roundtable discussion centered on new developments in Timor-Leste studies, with an emphasis on how these developments might be highlighted – and further cultivated – at AAS through our 2018 program.

Planning Committee

Richard Fox (Chair)
Professor of Pacific and Asian Studies, University of Victoria, Canada

Susana Barnes
Adjunct Professor in Archaeology and Anthropology, University of Saskatchewan

Elizabeth F. Drexler
Associate Professor of Anthropology, Michigan State University

David Hicks
Professor of Anthropology, Stony Brook University

Michael Leach
Professor of Politics and International Relations, Swinburne University of Technology

Bradley Simpson
Associate Professor of History, University of Connecticut

Alicia M. Turner
Associate Professor of Humanities & Religious Studies, York University

David Webster
Associate Professor of History, Bishop’s University

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