The Summer of 1999

IN the summer of 1999, three young men and one woman came to the Summer Peacebuilding Institute to participate in a two-month long program on various issues concerning the question of peace. Their presence at such a historic time created excitement and several story-telling sessions were initiated to enable them to share about their experiences, hopes and dreams. They were not just an ordinary group of people; they were committed community leaders who had just completed a training to assist the United Nations for the East Timor referendum on independence. Their desire to overcome the chains of bondage and to build a nation of peace was overwhelmingly steadfast in resolve.

Through the 60 days, they articulated their visions and hopes to build a new East Timor, one in which the people could freely exercise their right to self-determination. They were excited and had clarity in purpose, and were confident that the people would vote for independence. They had no doubt about what the outcome of the referendum would be; they were more concerned about the transition period to independence. And sure enough their concerns turned real when the innocent people were being killed as pro-Indonesian militias took to the arms. Our four friends were fortunate enough to survive the encounters, though they did loose family members.

Their dreams for an independent East Timor was fulfilled later that year through a referendum, and then became a fully established country in 2002 after the UN administrative period came to an end. I can still vividly see the expressions on their faces as they talked about how they would build their country based on values that were essential for their existence. Their spirit was contagious to all who heard the stories and yearnings to live with dignity. But they were also very clear in the perception that much hard work and strategic planning was needed to build a nation that was neglected for so long; and one that was reeling from the scars of trauma. Independence, they said was only a means to have a better life.

It now eight years; and from a distance, everything seems to be going wrong for East Timor; and is in danger of being labeled a ‘failed state.’ I still recall how East Timor symbolized for every person who believed in the values of dignity and justice, a ray of hope; an opening; a possibility for humanity to make a departure from the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia that defined and defiled the political imagination to a limited concept which we now call, State. What then is going wrong with East Timor? Have their revolutionary leaders failed them; has outside interferences and international interventions limited their space to make contextual decisions; or was it simply lack of foresight and strategic planning that when independence did come they simply had not given adequate importance to the imperative idea of an alternative transition phase. Perhaps it is all of them, and even more.

All struggling peoples have lessons to learn from the experience of East Timor. All too often too much emphasis is given on the resistance dimension to freedom, while not much focus is made on planning out for the future. Everything seems to be focused on the past and the present; and maybe this is one reason, why it is so difficult to even take small steps forward. More fundamental, is the conditioning of the mind to such perceptions which I would like to draw out from an experience. A couple of years ago a good number of Nagas comprising of church, educationalist, academicians, social entrepreneurs and individuals that advocate their love for the Nagas, met in a school premises for a half-day workshop facilitated by a group of people genuinely concerned for the well being of the Nagas.

In one of the exercises, we had to envision the future about how we wish to build a new Naga nation and what it would require of us to realize the envisioned aspiration. It was shocking that the group could not engage in discussion beyond issues that were only concerned and caught in the past; even talking about the present seemed to come with some difficulty. As for the future, it was consistently brushed aside by statements like, oh, once we realize our rights, we will then build our society, our economy and so on. This indifferent attitude towards engaging with the future has been the downfalls of many a great revolution in the world; and it will be fair to say that it is this indifference that prevents movements from taking steps forward.     

Indeed the experiences of East Timor should be a learning lesson for all struggling peoples. It is unwise to not talk about a possible future and to determine ways in which the possible future becomes real. For too long struggling peoples have consistently been trapped in the confine of the past, it is time to overcome the past and to build upon new learning and experiences that has opened new possibilities to enable change. The future cannot be perceived only as an end; the future needs to be approached as a means to make new life possible. I know the four East Timorese were committed to what they believed in and have adequately demonstrated that, but from their experience we have also learned that nation-building needs more than just commitment. 

We Nagas much look beyond our past and we need to dialogue about our future and how what it should look like, so that we can start working our way towards it!