Democracy, Nationalism, and Ethnic Identity: The Philippines and East Timor Compared

By David Wurfel. In Democratization and Identity: Regimes and Ethnicity in East and Southeast Asia, Susan J. Henders ed. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2004.


It is our purpose here to compare two countries in Southeast Asia so disparate in size and recent history that they are rarely regarded as comparable. Yet we will also find surprising similarities, which will help us explore the connections between ethnic and religious make-up, national identity and democracy. For the Philippines the question is: what has made possible the modest success with democracy despite a multi-ethnic society? For East Timor we are curious about the degree to which similarities with the Philippines are likely to produce similar political outcomes. This chapter asserts, using these two examples, that ethnic conflict occurs in authoritarian as well as democratizing, and democratic polities, and that democracy is compatible with inter-ethnic harmony in some circumstances. It identifies as crucial variables shaping the strength and ethnic inclusiveness of national identity under democratic and democratizing regimes: “balanced diversity,” the strength of the national identity to emerge during colonialism, and post-colonial religious, political, social, and economic institutions that cross ethnic lines.

The differences between the Philippines, today a state of about 80 million people, and East Timor, with less than one million, are obvious. The geographic contrast is as great as the demographic: the Philippines has more than 300,000 square kilometers and East Timor less than 15,000. East Timor is only half of one of the smaller islands in the Indonesian chain, while there are more than 7,000 islands in the Philippine archipelago.

Historically the Filipinos were the first people in Southeast Asia to throw off colonialism —if in the first instance only temporarily— and the Timorese are the last. The level of development in the two countries is also sharply different. Whereas literacy in the Philippines is reported at more than 90 percent, in East Timor it is probably less than 30 percent. The per capita GDP in the Philippines is more than five times that of East Timor, where unemployment, at least in the towns, has hovered at about 80 percent for the first few years since Indonesian withdrawal. Whereas agriculture in the Philippines contributes less than one-quarter of the GDP, for East Timor it is the overwhelming majority (World Bank 1998: 181). Altogether, East Timor’s society is more traditional than that of the Philippines.

National identity has also emerged in East Timor much more rapidly than it did in the Philippines. The process began in the Philippines in the 1870s and is still evolving today; ever since Rizal the intelligentsia have had an important role in “imagining” the nation. In East Timor, however, talk of an East Timor “nation” only started in the 1970s, as some of the educated elite began to return from abroad. From the time of the Indonesian invasion, however, nation formation was dramatic and intense and involved the local elite in only a relatively minor role, unlike cases cited by Anderson (1991). The sense of national identity was born of the shared suffering by all the people; one third of them perished. For those who were not fighting the Indonesians in the jungles, the daily insults and oppression meted out by the Indonesian overlords — who consistently called the local residents, not by their ethnic categories, but “East Timorese” — consolidated that identity. These differences, demographic, geographic, economic, and historical, are not insignificant when trying to understand the respective polities.

Yet the similarities between these two very unequal entities, while less well known, may be more important for a political comparison. The first and longest colonial regime in both was Iberian. Thus-though the causal link in East Timor is actually quite complex-both are today dominantly Catholic countries; the figure of 85 percent of the population is most often used in both places. Much more recently in East Timor, Christianity displaced, or at least overlay, animist beliefs and practices. It helped form a relatively cohesive multi-ethnic elite. Though the historical role of the Church has been quite different in the two during the twentieth century, as we shall note later, the religious affinity has been recognized by both sides in the last few years, leading to closer civil society contacts between East Timor and the Philippines than East Timor has with any other Southeast Asian country. Moreover, Catholicism played an important role in the democratization of both.

The avoidance of violence in inter-ethnic relations-with the exception of Moro-Christian conflict and the much more limited fighting in the Cordilleras (Northern Luzon mountains)1 — was also, of course, a result of the fact that the Filipino elite was first heavily Hispanicized, then even more intensely Americanized, just as the East Timorese were brought together by the Portuguese and Indonesian colonial impact. Common educational experiences, first Catholic then later also secular, contributed powerfully to elite cohesion, also a prerequisite of democracy.

The two societies are also heavily influenced by the values and relationships of patrimonialism, though the intrusion of bureaucracy and the rule of law today has been sufficient to earn the overall societal label of “neo-patrimonial” for the Philippines, and now probably also for East Timor (Wurfel 1988: 153) (the differences of degree within that category will be explored later). Patronage networks interlace ethnic identity and tend to dilute it by abetting a tendency to factionalism, as Brown also points out in this volume. Some intra-ethnic factions discover beneficial alliances with other factions outside the ethnic group. In both countries local patrons have needed to bargain with larger patrons elsewhere. On the eve of independence, both peoples chose democracy, which strengthened the bargaining position of clients and local patrons vis-à-vis central patrons. So democracy in both societies has been and will be infused with patron-client networks, a sign of an incomplete democracy. It survives in conditions of great inequality, where the poor and weak find little or no protection in the rule of law or from the actions of an honest and independent bureaucracy. For the weak client, patronage serves as the substitute source of security, but itself constitutes an obstacle to progressive change.

It is also probable that the culture of bargaining in the Philippines, which was essential for the maintenance of patronage networks based on calculations of mutual benefit, contributed to the avoidance of violence in inter-ethnic relations. For instance, it had been agreed that the members of the pre-1935 Senate would be elected by regions-some of which were ethnically homogenous-to ensure adequate representation for each. Party tickets for president and vice-president were balanced between north and south. After 1946 in elections for the Senate from a national constituency, representation of each region on the ticket was the first principle for both major parties. Patronage networks encourage inter-ethnic and inter-linguistic bargaining in East Timor as well.

What is probably the most important similarity to note in the context of this volume is the fact that in neither society is there a “majority culture” defined in ethnic terms. The Philippines is the only country in Southeast Asia having prolonged experience with democracy —albeit with the Marcos interruption— that also has a multiplicity of ethnic groups. There are more than 87 distinguishable languages. This very multiplicity, and the fact that no one group has more than 25 percent of the population has been crucial in the ability of Filipinos to develop a supra-ethnic national identity. East Timor, despite its small size, has more than 15 distinct ethnolinguistic groups, representing two different language families, Austronesian and Papuan. Four languages cover most of the territory, but data on number of speakers does not seem to be available (Wurm and Hattori 1981: Map 40).

Some analysts have argued that state-wide ethnoreligious homogeneity is essential for democratic stability (earlier it was said to be essential even for nationhood). It has certainly facilitated nation-building in Thailand and contributed to the rapid growth of Thai democracy in the last generation. But if the “ethnic arithmetic” is diverse and balanced-what we might call “balanced diversity,” with no one group assuming the right to control — a supra-ethnic national identity can and does emerge. The consequences for democracy may even be more beneficial than in the case of ethnic homogeneity, since a culture of inter-ethnic, then inter-group, bargaining is encouraged.

Also helpful for national unity in the Philippines was the fact that the largest ethnic group was not located around the capital. This is in contrast with Indonesia, where the Javanese, while little more than 40 percent of the population, were at the center and thus believed that they had the right to dominate —and had done so in earlier historical periods. They constituted the “majority culture,” even without a numerical majority. In fact, the Javanese have been nearly as confident about their destiny to rule as have the ethnic Burmese in Burma (Myanmar), who constitute around 70 percent of the population.

In early 1947, Aung San, the widely trusted national leader of Burma, had made a deal with the ethnic minorities (Tin Maung Maung Than 1997: 172).2 It was actually a rather awkward deal, with “self-governing” states for some minorities and not others. When Aung San was assassinated, just prior to the January 1948 independence, the glue of trust dissolved, and ethnic rebellions soon broke out. Minorities have been repressed by the military for decades in the name of “national unity.” The ethnic Burmese have remained unwilling to relinquish tight control over minority peoples; they also believe it is their right to impose their language and religion. This is a major obstacle to democracy even within the “majority culture.”

Another configuration of “ethnic arithmetic” is found in Malaysia, where “Malays” (broadly defined) constitute a narrow majority, followed by the Chinese and the Indians. Any tendency of the Malays to exercise unwanted control over the immigrant groups, which are geographically scattered, is slowed by the economic importance of the Chinese; without their capital and entrepreneurial skills the economy would founder. So a consociational policy has been followed, with the ethnic elites working out mutually acceptable political arrangements. Within Southeast Asia only Malaysia has an ethnic mix that would make this possible. And it does not always work; sometimes Malay rule has been oppressive as Judith Nagata’s chapter discusses. But it has certainly avoided the tragedy of inter-ethnic warfare experienced by Burma or Sri Lanka. In the latter case the minority Tamils are for the most part geographically isolated and do not have the economic clout of the Malaysian Chinese.


To be sure, the Philippines has had to deal with an ethnic rebellion in the Muslim portions of Mindanao and in Sulu off and on for thirty years. However, these struggles have had little impact on the nature of the central regime, which has been both authoritarian and democratic in this period. Muslims were on the geographical, cultural, and thus political periphery of the state, demonstrating that democratization can take place alongside ethnonationalist rebellion in such circumstances. The Moros (a term first used by Spaniards), a religious minority encompassing three major ethnic groups as well as smaller ones, had never been fully subdued by the Spaniards. Only in the American period did they begin to be integrated into the national society. By the 1950s many in the Moro elite were fully participant in patronage politics, even at the national level, but this was disrupted by the declaration of martial law in 1973. In the meantime Muslim religious education had grown remarkably (McKenna 1998). From the Moro viewpoint there was a “majority Filipino culture” — a Catholic one, though ethnically diverse — and it was a real threat. The rebellion continues to simmer because the economic and cultural threat is still formidable, because rebels get some external support, and because the military, ever since the Marcos era, is arrogant, abusive, and ineffective —all at once— creating more enemies than it subdues (Wurfel 1985). The Manila elite cannot reach a consensus either on basic policy reforms to undermine the rebellion or on a massive military campaign to crush it (as if that were possible). Conciliatory gestures by President Macapagal-Arroyo, though encouraging, have been inconsistent and thus probably not adequate.

A comparison between the Moro struggle for independence and that in East Timor is instructive. Even though it diverges somewhat from the theme of this chapter, this comparison demonstrates that ethnonationalist rebellion can and does occur under authoritarian and democratizing, as well as democratic regimes, and the regime type alone cannot explain its incidence. The first lesson is that massive and ruthless military might cannot subdue a nationalist rebellion (President Estrada never had at his command the military capacity that Suharto did, but still imagined in 2000 that he could “crush” the rebels). Neither can an assimilationist policy succeed. In East Timor its imposition merely caused a strengthening of Catholicism as a reaction and pushed church leaders as well as guerrilla fighters to embody nationalist goals. In Mindanao and Sulu the threat of assimilation stimulated a Muslim revival-now heavily fundamentalist.

In both the East Timorese and Moro resistances the fear of cultural genocide, made credible by a policy of assimilation from the center, was a major factor motivating continued struggle. In Mindanao and Sulu a policy of assimilation alternated from time to time with offers of, and feeble attempts to implement, autonomy both by authoritarian and democratizing governments. Other than the elites and their clients who cooperated in the “autonomy charade,” there was little or no benefit to Moros. The failure of real autonomy merely reinvigorated the demand for Moro independence, as under the present leadership of the MILF (Moro Islamic Liberation Front). In East Timor when the offer of autonomy finally came in 1999, it was too late; Timorese could not trust the Indonesian government. Though the nationalist leadership in East Timor had earlier considered the possibility of autonomy during a transitional period, by 1999 they had been given the hope of an internationally supervised referendum on self-determination and, thus, the possibility of independence. Autonomy was much less attractive.

There were two other important differences between the two areas, firstly in the “ethnic arithmetic.” In East Timor there were more than 14 different linguistic groups, none large enough to claim hegemony and each splintered by the sway of more than one liurai, a chieftain or “king.” The half-island wide nationalist leadership was not riven on ethnic lines. In Mindanao and Sulu, while the Muslim population was also divided by a variety of languages, major and minor, three linguistic groups were sufficiently large, politically well-organized, and historically self-conscious to imagine that they could lead all Moros. In fact, the factions within each Moro nationalist grouping and differences between each organization were most often explainable in terms of Tausug, Maranao, and Maguindanao rivalries. This facilitated manipulation of Moro elites from Manila. The ethnic boundary between Moros and Christians was, nevertheless, very important, reinforced by religious identity.

Secondly, the demographic realities in the two areas were quite different. Indonesian migration to East Timor was overwhelmingly urban, to take up jobs in commerce and government. It was also fairly recent, mostly since the 1980s. For most Indonesians within East Timor, “home” was another province. Thus the political strength of ordinary Indonesian colons — to use an Algerian term — was not itself a major obstacle to genuine autonomy (in fact, most of them fled before the referendum in August 1999). Indonesian nationalist pride, especially within the military, was a more important reason, as was the economic interests of the Jakarta elite. All reinforced the fear of Indonesian break-up if the Timorese “lynch pin” were removed.

The migration of Christian Filipinos to Moro areas, however, had been going on for nearly a century. It occurred both as a direct result of government policy and without any government assistance, simply because of land hunger in other regions of the Philippines. A very large portion of the migration was by farmers taking over Moro land, most often illegally. The largest Muslim province before the war, Cotabato, had a non-Muslim majority already by 1948. The province of Lanao, which had a two-to-one Muslim majority in 1948, was split in two in the 1950s, with one of the resulting provinces becoming overwhelmingly Christian (Gowing 1980). In the l960s and 1970s more and more previously Muslim municipalities elected Christian mayors. Thus little by little the area where Moro independence or autonomy could be fairly or effectively asserted was shrinking. Muslim fear of demographic and, thus, cultural genocide intensified, just as successive Manila governments, authoritarian, democratizing, and democratic alike, have found it more and more difficult to gain national political support for genuine Moro autonomy. The resistance of Christian Filipinos in Mindanao to Moro independence grew even stronger. The ingredients of a stalemate were evident and factors that could break it are not at all evident.

In sum, religion has played an important role in both areas in forming national identity, though the cultural and historical depth of Muslim identity in Mindanao and Sulu was deeper than in Catholic East Timor. And, because military repression of East Timor was much more severe, the Indonesian government did not have the options for manipulating local elites that Manila did. The outcome of the struggle in East Timor was also significantly influenced by the quality of international pressure, a reaction partly to the severity of the repression. In the Philippines, on the other hand, while a few Muslim countries aided the rebels, the effectiveness of the Islamic Conference in exerting pressure on the Philippine government was limited by the fact that Indonesia, the largest and closest Muslim country, was reluctant to see too much international intervention on behalf of separatist rebels for fear that it would set a precedent for Aceh.

The similarities between the Philippines and East Timor that we have highlighted-the presence of “balanced diversity” instead of a majority (non-religious) ethnic culture; the emergence of elite cohesion fostered by common educational experiences and Catholicism; and the prevalence of patronage networks fostering a culture of bargaining across ethnic lines-all help prevent ethnic conflict at least of a non-religious nature. They thus provide some grounding for democracy. Timor is at a much earlier stage of modernization, which carries its own problems. Nevertheless, on balance, East Timor would seem to be launching its ship of state with more favorable conditions for democratic stability than those in Indonesia today. Timorese conditions are in some ways more similar to those in the Philippines a century ago.

Having introduced the major similarities and differences between the two countries, and the general conclusions that might be drawn from them, let us next describe in more detail the parallel developments in the two polities during two periods: (1) colonialism, Iberian in the first stage, and either American or Indonesian in the second; and then (2) independence and the preparation for it. This will preface a fuller elaboration of the impact of these developments on democratization in the Philippines and prospects for it in East Timor, particularly in light of ethnic diversity.

The Colonial Era

The Philippines

While both Spain and Portugal ruled their Southeast Asian colonies for more than 300 years, Spanish rule was much more direct. In its origins it was also more Church-centered. Thus though native animism was the belief system of the great majority of East Timorese until the mid-twentieth century that stage had already been passed by the eighteenth century in the Philippines, where the Church expended tremendous effort to proselytize and then participate in colonial rule. Catholicism thus played an early role in the formation of Filipino national identity.

On the other hand, the manipulation of traditional elites was the mechanism for Portuguese dominance until after 1912, when the colonial government crushed an extensive rebellion, which those elites had mounted. In the Philippines such indirect rule ended in most areas in the seventeenth century. Traditional elites there had either been eliminated or co-opted into a system of direct Spanish administration. Already by the 1870s the wealthier and more ambitious families in the new multi-ethnic elite (especially Chinese mestizos) were sending their sons to Manila and to Europe, especially Spain, for higher education.

The result of these differences was that nationalism, first voiced as a desire for equality with Spaniards, burst forth in the Philippines in the 1880s clothed in sophisticated European language, nearly one hundred years before the same development in East Timor. While the early nationalist movement was disproportionately Tagalog, in the vicinity of Manila where the political and economic impact of Spanish rule was the greatest, by 1898 it also had its adherents among the elites of most major ethnic groups. So, when the Revolution was launched near Manila, there were also some uprisings in other provinces (Constantino 1975: 212ff).3 Where it could be linked to agrarian unrest, the nationalist movement also had a mass base, an element repeated in East Timor in 1975.

The Revolution in Cebu has been carefully chronicled by Resil Mojares (1999). He found that, as in Luzon, the war against Spaniards, then Americans, was fought for diverse reasons by various segments of society. Foot soldiers were often more motivated by religious imagery or social discontent than by nationalist aspirations. But the fact remains that the uprising in Cebu in April 1898 was instigated by the Katipunan-which had triggered the first uprising near Manila-and organized by agents from Luzon. Until his capture in 1901, the leading Cebu rebel acted in the name of the Philippine Republic headed in Luzon by Emilio Aguinaldo, within the framework of his policies and, when possible, under his command. Those who fought for independence had their commitment strengthened by Spanish brutality in 1898 and by bloody American repression later. Ethnic tensions did sometimes erupt between Tagalogs in Luzon and those Cebuanos who joined in the struggle. However, given the paucity of their common experiences before 1898 and the difficulties of communications between them at the time, what is more notable is the degree of their cooperation in the nationalist cause.

Yet the Filipino elite, whether in Luzon or Cebu, which briefly rallied to the anti-colonial cause when revolutionary chances seemed good, was quickly co-opted by the Americans when the nationalist army was routed. After 1902 American rule offered social stability and local self-government, amidst talk of eventual independence. Local elites were soon given full control over municipal government. By 1907 the election of representatives to a national legislature under the banner of specifically nationalist parties-within the context of patronage politics-helped to create a moderate, accommodationist nationalism. Teaching about Jose Rizal was promoted in the American-run public schools, where English became the language of instruction.

Pardo de Tavera, a leading member of the elite who quite successfully survived the transition from Spanish to American colonialism, commented in 1928, “Each day tribal differences are being erased; and by means of facilities in communication, by our system of education… and principally by the extension of the Spanish language and now of the English, we have seen how local differences have passed away… how the idea of nation is gaining ground” (Abueva 1998: 169).

When a new constitution was framed in 1935 for the Philippine Commonwealth, Tagalog was voted “the national language,” even though the working language of government, education, and business remained English. Fortunately for nation-building, that “national language” was not pushed hard enough to produce a strong hostile reaction from non-Tagalog regions. Its usage expanded because Manila was the center of commerce and of journalism. Even more important was the fact that the Tagalog movie industry dominated the Philippine screen. It was already becoming a lingua franca before the enforcement of the use of Tagalog in public schools after independence.

The common experience of American administration (which greatly expanded education), the nationalist rhetoric of politicians-in full flight at election time, helping to keep alive, at least dimly, memory of the Revolution-and, thirdly, the constant growth of inter-island trade permitted the gradual strengthening of a Filipino national identity in the American period. However, since most Filipinos did not regard themselves as anti-American, especially after fighting alongside Americans against the Japanese, by the time of formal independence in 1946 many Asian neighbors regarded Filipino nationalism as “weak.” In fact, many Filipinos were themselves conscious of this perception. Said one writer, “Unlike the Indonesians and the Vietnamese, we Filipinos did not regain our independence on the battlefield, which would have given us a strong sense of nationhood. Instead our independence was restored almost on a silver platter…” (quoted in Abueva 1998: 227).

East Timor

In comparison, the period of anti-colonial nationalism in East Timor was brief-a few years under the Portuguese and 24 years against Indonesia-and intense. However, the beginnings of Timorese nationalism were not so different from those in the Philippines and overlay ethnic divisions every bit as numerous. There was no university in Dili, so by the 1960s the sons of the elite began to go abroad, often to Portugal. Those who went to Portuguese colonies in Africa, either exiled or by choice, got a particularly strong dose of anti-colonial nationalism, with a large portion of socialism mixed in (Joliffe 1978: 56ff). However, the vigilance of the Portuguese political police was such that when they returned home nothing could be said or written publicly about their nationalist aspirations.

Nevertheless, when the dictatorship was overthrown in Portugal in April 1974, so much nationalist political activity boiled to the surface so quickly that it was obvious that the underground had been active. Three major political parties were formed: the União Democrática Timorense (UDT) in early May 1974 and, less than two weeks later, the Social Democratic Union (known as FRETILIN (Frente Timorense de Libertação Nacional)). Both supported independence. Some of the founders of both parties were in the 2001 Dili cabinet. The third party was the Indonesian-backed APODETI (Associação Popular Democrática Timorense), already committed to integration with Indonesia. Most leaders of both UDT and FRETILIN were Catholics. However, while the anti-Communist UDT retained close links with the Church hierarchy, the younger FRETILIN leaders were at odds with the Church as an arm of the Portuguese administration, even though several had trained for the priesthood (Joliffe 1978: 70)-just as Rizal and the leaders of the 1898 Revolution had opposed the Spanish church in the Philippines. Notably, then, EAST TIMORESE parties expressed ideological rather than ethnic divisions.

The newly progressive Portuguese government launched a decolonialization process, which was well under way by the end of 1974. At the same time FRETILIN organized agricultural cooperatives and literacy programs using Tetum (the most widely used indigenous language in villages around the country. Agreement was reached on formation of a transitional government in October 1975. Under increasing threat from Indonesia, UDT and FRETILIN formed a coalition to work toward independence. Early 1975 was a time of hope (Joliffe 1978: 109).

But friction between UDT and FRETILIN was growing, sometimes triggering street fights. “Communist” charges against FRETILIN by UDT and the Church multiplied-with Indonesian back-up, even inspiration. In May UDT withdrew from the coalition. Then, in August, after some of their officers had visited Jakarta, they launched a coup against the Portuguese colonial regime. Many of FRETILIN’s local leaders were killed. Some Portuguese troops sided with UDT. But within days FRETILIN regained strength and by August 19 launched a counter-coup, also gaining the support of elements in the colonial army. By September they were in control of almost all the half-island. The Portuguese civil servants fled, and FRETILIN took over the administration.

In the next three months, though faced by increasing Indonesian threats and incursions, FRETILIN won widespread support from the population and continued to build agricultural cooperatives and village schools. There was a functioning administration in some ways comparable to parts of the Philippines in 1898. But the Indonesian invasion of border areas and finally the November 27 capture of Atabae, on the road to Dili was a turning point. In order to try to get the international attention that it had found so difficult to secure, the FRETILIN regime declared independence the next day. On December 8 the long-feared event happened: the Indonesian army launched a full-scale attack, including the dropping of paratroopers on Dili (Taylor 1999: 62-5). The major powers looked the other way. After bitter fighting with heavy casualties, colonialism was reimposed, though it took years for the Indonesian National Army (TNI) to control most of the countryside.

In 1974-75 the role of an educated elite “imagining East Timor” had been quite important. The dominant party helped spread its national vision to the countryside with a mass literacy program. Through the Dili media and by policy decisions, FRETILIN leaders were also able to disseminate their concept of economic nationalism, which was clearly distinct from the policies of the UDT. But in the subsequent 24 years of Indonesian military oppression, it was the common experience of that oppression, and the people’s reaction thereto that formed a nation in a crucible of fire. Elite images, despite moving rhetoric, were insignificant in comparison to the fact that virtually every citizen had had a family member killed by the TNI. Even the limited good done by the Indonesian occupation, especially the expansion of the school system, deepened the formation of a nation. Though the introduction of Bahasa Indonesia gave Timorese another common language, its forcible imposition, along with the doctrine of Pancasila, intensified student opposition to the occupying power.

In time-honored scorched-earth tactics the Indonesian military burned villages and crops and relocated farmers to virtual concentration camps along roads, trying to destroy traditional social structures that might form the basis of opposition. One third of the population died. By a cruel twist of fate this Indonesian brutality was largely responsible for creating a nation out of a mélange of linguistic and tribal groups, a process barely begun by the nationalist elite in 1975. Mass movements of population, whether under TNI orders or under FRETILIN leadership escaping the TNI by going deeper into the mountains, contributed immensely to the formation of a national identity, atop surviving traditional values and social networks. The tactical necessity for the guerrillas to find a means of communication among their units that was generally unintelligible to the TNI also contributed to the process. For that means was Tetum, used in the mountains by the guerrillas and in the towns more and more by the Catholic Church.

A segment of the elite that made a substantial shift toward assisting nation formation in this period was the Church hierarchy. As we noted, the Church had been widely viewed, even by devout Catholics, as an arm of Portuguese colonialism. In fact, in 1975 the Portuguese bishop was taking a stronger stand against FRETILIN than some of the progressive military officers representing Lisbon. But even the conservative Dom Jose Joaquim Ribeiro could not tolerate the slaughter of innocent civilians going on around him, so in 1977 requested retirement (Taylor 1999: 152ff). His assistant, Martinho da Costa Lopes, was named to replace him. Costa Lopes, formerly a member of the National Assembly in Lisbon, was the first Timorese —though obviously a fully assimilated one— to hold this position. Receiving regular reports from his priests in the countryside gave him a good understanding about the course of the war. At first he tried dialog with the Indonesian commanders. When this failed he turned to public criticism.

Costa Lopes became sufficiently successful as a spokesman for the Timorese people that Indonesian pressure on the Vatican brought the bishop’s forced “early retirement” in 1983 (see Lennox 2000). He was replaced by a young Timorese priest, Carlos Belo, who had spent thirteen years in Portugal and Rome. Many of the Timorese clergy, presuming he would be an Indonesian tool, boycotted his inauguration. But the Indonesian military were soon disappointed. Within five months of arriving Bishop Belo protested vehemently against Indonesian violence. His ongoing reports on the details of TNI massacres produced a sympathetic response from the Portuguese hierarchy, but alienated the Indonesian Catholic leadership. In February 1989 Belo wrote to the UN Secretary General calling for a referendum on independence. Meanwhile priests were frequently beaten and churches entered by the military to arrest parishioners. Major Prabowo, President Suharto’s son-in-law and an officer active in East Timor, warned, “the church… threatens East Timor’s integration with Indonesia. The people must turn against it.” But the Indonesian tactics were clearly counter-productive.

As John Taylor points out (1999: 157), “[The Church’s] opposition to the forcible Indonesian annexation marked the culmination of the process of growing institutional rejection” throughout East Timorese society. He notes that, “the differentiated social structure of the pre-invasion period,” marked by cleavages between urban and rural, rich and poor, assimilated and indigenous, and distinct linguistic groups, “converged politically and ideologically because of the military occupation.” The Church benefited from its nation-building role: the percentage of East Timorese who were Church members more than doubled in the years of Indonesian occupation. Prabowo was right, but, as a result of his regime’s policies, the people turned even more toward the Catholic Church. Ironically, there was a period in the 1980s when the Indonesians had decided, “if you can’t lick ‘em, join ‘em,” and built, at government expense, a number of large new churches, hoping to win over the priesthood. It was to no avail. TNI slaughter of innocent civilians in the countryside continued.

Though FRETILIN and the Church were fierce competitors in 1975, divided by charges of “communist” on one side and “colonialist” on the other, the struggle against the Indonesian occupation brought them together, just as it healed the bitter rift between FRETILIN and its political rival, UDT. Such reconciliations did not happen automatically, however, but were in part a product of enlightened leadership with an inclusive view of the nation, especially that of the charismatic Xanana Gusmão. By 1981 he had become president of both FRETILIN and its guerrilla arm, FALANTIL. Soon afterwards he took the lead in the creation of a broader nationalist coalition, Conselho Nacional de Resistencia Revolucionaria (CNRR), which brought segments of UDT under its umbrella. FALANTIL too was widened to include UDT elements.

Though he had made overtures to the Church even earlier, in May 1986, after Bishop Belo had already displayed his nationalist mettle, Gusmão wrote a long letter to East Timorese Catholic youth, revealing considerable movement since the heady days of FRETILIN Marxism in the late 1970s. Said Gusmão, himself an ex-seminarian (Gusmão 2000: 123ff), “The Church in East Timor… has been the moral support in the struggle of our people, a precious helping hand that has eased the pain of our people during their resistance to the vile and cowardly Indonesian aggression….” He added, “A Church like this is a church of and for the people!” He also noted the similarity in the role of the Church in bringing the overthrow of Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines. But he concluded with another important point, helping to maintain unity along another dimension: “FRETILIN is a movement of liberation in which a militancy of Christians, as well as non-Christians, co-exists.”

Clearly to a much greater degree than in the Philippines, it was the nationalist struggle itself, against terrible odds that formed an East Timorese nation. In 1993 Benedict Anderson admitted that his emphasis, in earlier writing on nationalism, on the confluence of the spread of capitalism and printing was not appropriate for East Timor (Anderson 1993). But he could not bring himself to see the overwhelming importance of the experience of struggle in shaping identities.

The Post-Colonial Era

The Philippines

There are those who doubt if colonialism has really past in either country. In the Philippines, as long as the presence of US military bases dominated the country’s external relations, a type of neo-colonialism persisted (neo-colonial attitudes helped facilitate the renewed US military role after September 11, 2001). Though the American economic presence is still powerful, it is balanced by the cooperative/competitive role of Japan (Wurfel 1988: 197-201). The American cultural hangover from which Filipinos have not yet recovered is now the primary, and still very noticeable, colonial residue.

A number of nationalizing tendencies continued, for example, the spread of Tagalog, or Filipino, even to the point of being used in university classes and state addresses as well as pervading the media. Consciousness of national identity was intensified by the campaign against US bases in the l980s, culminating in the Senate’s rejection in 1991 of a treaty extending their tenure. Most important to remember is that there has been no revival of ethnic identity among the various Christianized linguistic groups since the transition to independence, or since the restoration of democracy in 1986. This is a tribute to the cultural cohesion of the elite and a political system that did not impose a “majority culture,” except in the view of the Moros.

To be sure, Muslim unrest in the South spread under authoritarian rule in the 1970s, as we already noted. However, it has not been extinguished since the fall of Marcos. Even though a series of negotiations with the Moro National Liberation Front finally produced a second cease fire in the early 1990s (the first, only temporary, was in 1976) and the cooptation of its leaders, true autonomy was not granted. Thus a new, more militant group emerged to continue the armed struggle. Meanwhile Christian incursions on Muslim land and culture continued. Because it does not spawn other separatist movements in other parts of the country, Filipinos imagine that they can “afford” to neglect finding a solution to the Moro rebellion. The mirage of normality as viewed from Manila is sustained in part by the fact that election to national offices continues in Muslim areas, confirming Filipino cooptation of a segment of the Moro elite into the majority vision of a democratic nation.

In the Philippines more generally, one could argue that the electoral system based on patronage networks preempted any tendency towards regional linguistic chauvinism. Patronage was indeed a potent characteristic of the system. Even the emergence of the Marcos dictatorship did not eliminate, but only centralized it. In the post-Marcos democratic transition patronage was again decentralized. One small step toward undermining the patrimonial impact-and strengthening the nationalizing one-was taken in the adoption of the 1987 Constitution, which called for 20 percent of the House of Representatives to be elected by the party-list, or proportional representation, system. But Congress, unfamiliar with it and a bit worried that it might actually be able to achieve its intended goal-since members were already immersed in patronage politics-did not pass implementing legislation until 10 years later, legislation which has caused as many problems as it solved (Wurfel 1997). So the party-list election in 1998 was poorly carried out. Even so, it brought into the House of Representatives some new blood with a national perspective, more attentive to policy issues and the interests of the ordinary Filipino. After the May 2001 election an even larger number of reformist, and in a few cases, revolutionary, faces appeared in the House. They are able to ignore local and emphasize national, supra-ethnic issues to a degree impossible for those elected from single member districts.

During the martial law period, the Marcos dictatorship sparked a revival of the role the Catholic Church in the formation of national identity that had not been seen for centuries. As in a number of other authoritarian countries-including East Timor under Indonesian occupation-when secular political opposition was crushed, religious institutions took on more political roles. Under the leadership of Cardinal Sin in the mid-1980s the Church not only provided crucial direction to the anti-Marcos movement at the elite level, but opportunities for mobilizing mass support. This latter function was much like what was beginning to go on in East Timor at the same time. But within a few years after the return of free elections in the Philippines, the Church’s leadership had been dissipated by the many pressures of patronage politics, and it resumed the relatively minor role it had had before the 1970s.

East Timor

Though East Timor was liberated from Indonesian colonialism with the arrival of the International Force for East Timor (INTERFET) in September 1999, and the takeover of civil administration by the United Nations Transitional Administration for East Timor (UNTAET) a month later, the UN itself operated a kind of colonialism in the eyes of many East Timorese. UN employees lived apart from the local people, were often haughty in their dealings with them, and enjoyed a life style far above that of the local economy. In the interim, before East Timor gained juridical independence in 2002, political institutions were formed which will largely determine the characteristics of an independent East Timor, often with little consultation with East Timorese. However, one advantage of “UN neo-colonialism” is that its negative stimulus may have helped sustain Timorese national consciousness and discourage ethnic distinctions.

Crucial elements of this interim regime were both beneficial and detrimental to stable democracy. The most obvious factor was negative: the UN’s very slow pace in reconstructing the devastated economy. With urban unemployment remaining near 80 percent, the potential for social conflict, and its exploitation by every form of chauvinism, continued. In fact, gang fights in Dili and the second largest city, Baucau, multiplied in early 2001.

The second negative factor, which cannot be blamed on the UN, is the psychological letdown after a long struggle, the full consequences of which are not yet known. A whole generation of East Timorese put private gain and family happiness on hold for the sake of national resistance. A revival of personal priorities is almost inevitable. It has, for instance, become a major factor in the national psyche and behavior patterns of the Vietnamese since their series of wars against the French, the Americans, the Chinese, and the Cambodians ended in 1990. One saw the same phenomena in the Philippines among those who emerged from the underground struggle against Marcos in the late l980s.

Alongside personal priorities it is possible to note a revival of indigenous cultures and the patrimonialism that pervades them (this is not diluted as much by education, urbanization, or NGO activism as in the Philippines). While we have said that patronage networks may crosscut ethnic identities, it is not yet clear whether a part of the traditionalist revival, which certainly includes a reassertion of the community leadership of the liurai, will also strengthen first-language identity. It was over-ridden by an East Timorese identity for more than two decades of struggle and has even now been given little positive institutional reinforcement.

The positive indicators for East Timor’s future as a democracy relatively free of ethnicized conflict are to be found in the institutions and leadership, which are now emerging. Bishop Belo, who recently resigned, was more restricted in his political role by the emergence of competition from civil society and political parties. However, the Church remains the dominant national institution outside government and a major force for integration across ethnolinguistic lines.

Xanana Gusmão, who for a while headed the National Council (an appointive body representing all segments of East Timor’s society, which advised UNTAET), as president remains a strong voice for national as opposed to ethnically particular priorities and against corruption, though not all his friends are above reproach. He helped speed up the planning for independence-though his personal decision-making style is not always democratic. He has championed reconciliation with Indonesia and its East Timorese friends.

Gusmão endorsed what appears to have been the idea of European experts in UNTAET: a constituent assembly/legislature elected primarily from a nation-wide constituency through proportional representation. In fact, 75 out of 88 seats were chosen in this way on 30 August 2001, with only 13 elected from each of the administrative districts. Sixteen political parties presented lists of party candidates for the national constituency.4 In order to win, parties had to present linguistically balanced tickets. In so far as the political parties that gradually emerge are differentiated on ideology and policy, this system will weaken patronage politics as well as linguistic identities. The initial winner was clearly FRETILIN, which dominated the resistance movement for many years. It won 57 percent of the votes and 62.5 percent of the seats. It also won seats in all but one of the districts, indicating that its support was well distributed geographically, and thus linguistically, and that it would be most unlikely to favor any particular linguistic group.5 Nowhere else in Southeast Asia has a dominantly proportional representation electoral system been introduced. Hopefully, it will be hailed as a bold move for national unity. It was particularly appropriate to select in this way the body that drafted the nation’s constitution, as it allowed ten smaller parties to be represented alongside the dominant FRETILIN.

Unfortunately, on one dimension Gusmão’s leadership has been divisive, on his backing of Portuguese as the “official language” and the language of education. Given that probably less than 5 percent of Timorese have a working knowledge of that language, almost all in the older generation, this has split the people of East Timor on generational lines. High school and university students, who have so far been educated entirely in Indonesian, have been particularly vocal in opposing the introduction of Portuguese. Even judges have been resistant to the idea. The vice-president of the Dili court has told the press that judges expected to continue to use both Tetun and Indonesian for another fifteen years. Said he, “The courts will not risk using a language that is not understood.”6 But a primarily generational cleavage which cross-cuts ethnicity is hardly a threat to the most vulnerable dimension of national unity.

There was also a negative side to the rapidity with which independence preparations moved. Administrative institutions after independence were not ready to handle the tasks they face, made all the worse by the systematic way in which the Indonesian army destroyed all types of records (the destruction of land ownership and tax records may have been the most devastating). The establishment of a civil service was slow to begin. Departments and bureaus were handed over to the East Timorese, most of whom had no previous administrative experience, when the ink was hardly dry on the relevant regulations. To bring massive, but much needed, international funding for rehabilitation into this situation will be a formula tailor-made for widespread corruption, undermining the legitimacy of new national institutions.

Following the end of international aid will come a very substantial royalty from the Timor Gap oil field, exploited jointly with Australia, which is estimated at several billion dollars for East Timor over the next two decades.7 This could soon result in annual revenue more than three or four times the present yearly budget (The long-term returns would be much greater if Australia would agree to a maritime boundary consistent with precedents in international law). Some analysts believe that this will be a greater challenge to the growth of stable democracy than ethnic conflict, because of the widespread corruption that it may well engender (Ross 2001). East Timorese leaders are aware of the potential dangers and are talking about investing a large portion of oil and gas revenues in something like the Canadian province of Alberta’s Heritage Fund. Whether this will really be a solution remains to be seen. Thus, while the prospects for ethnic separatism appearing in the midst of East Timorese democracy are slim, the other problems are sufficiently daunting to make any analyst very cautious about predictions.


While this volume has recognized that ethnic conflict may emerge in both authoritarian and democratic contexts under certain circumstances, the East Timor/Philippine comparison emphasizes the potential by harmonious compatibility of ethnic diversity and democracy. This is true even when democracy is defined primarily in terms of free and competitive political institutions. When democracy has been “deepened,” that is, extended to socio-economic relationships as suggested by Rankin and Goonewardena, then the prospect of inter-ethnic conflict, intermingled with class warfare, is even less.

The comparison which is our focus recognizes that there are three important conditions which must exist to permit democratic development amidst inter-ethnic harmony: the proper “ethnic arithmetic,” that is, “balanced diversity”; a colonial experience that creates a supra-ethnic national identity; and post-independence institutions, both governmental and non-governmental, which strengthen that identity, or at least prevent its erosion by ethnic loyalties. Let us recapitulate the importance of those conditions.

Ethnic Balance

The percentage of the population that each ethnic group constitutes in a multi-ethnic society is a more important factor than much of the literature recognizes. Where one group is large and powerful enough to assume the right to dominate the others, and does so, the outcome is particularly damaging to inter-ethnic harmony, whether under democratic or authoritarian auspices.

In the Philippines and East Timor, there are not only numerous ethnic groups, but also no one that constitutes more than about 25 percent of the population. And in neither country is there a history of a large grouping controlling nearby ethnicities. Thus to reach national decisions, the necessity exists for inter-ethnic bargaining, a process compatible with democracy. In both cases the language of the capital region emerged to “national language” status, but was not imposed on non-native speakers without a period of commercial and cultural diffusion that expanded the number of “national language” speakers on a largely voluntary basis. In the Philippines Tagalog did not become the actual lingua franca until about a generation after independence, displacing English, which is still an “official language.” According to President Gusmão, Portuguese will remain the “official language” in East Timor for at least another decade, while the use of Tetun expands-but what this means in practice remains to be seen.

Colonial Experience

Colonial rule created, as a reaction, super-ethnic national identities within the boundaries of both polities. But the intensity and social levels of that identity varied widely. In the Philippines under Spain, self-identity as “Filipino” was largely limited to the elite, many of whom studied at European universities. During the American period the social basis of nationalism widened due to the rapid expansion of English education, in which there was some coverage of the history of Philippine nationalism and the rise of specifically nationalist political parties. The brutality of the Japanese occupation spread it still further.

In East Timor under the Portuguese, as under Iberian rule in the Philippines, national identity was limited to a small elite. But the ferocity of Indonesian conquest and occupation, resisted under the leadership of young nationalists, quickly created an awareness of East Timorese identity in the countryside as well as in cities. The best evidence of the width and depth of that identity was in the referendum of August 30, 1999, when nearly all registered voters turned out at the polls and voted for independence, despite considerable coercion by the militias to stay at home and moreover, even though many feared terrible violence would follow-as it did.


Because identities can change over time (see Gorenburg 2000) and are significantly influenced by institutions, the nature of institutions, both governmental and non-governmental, after independence is crucial. Without appropriate institutions the national identity that emerged from the independence struggle can be eroded. In both East Timor and the Philippines, religious, political, economic, and civil society institutions have served, or may serve, to consolidate a supra-ethnic national identity. The importance of religion can be seen in Mindanao, where a religious divide helped foster the emergence of a separate identity.

The most influential consolidator among political institutions in the Philippines has been the national constituency to elect the President and Senate, which has spawned national, not regional, political parties. In East Timor the August 2001 elections were dominated by the competition in nation-wide constituencies for the Constituent Assembly, making it very difficult for any party with strength only in one linguistic region to win seats. Nor is there yet evidence that cleavages of political ideology reinforce those of ethnicity. In any case, an electoral system that requires parties to make inter-ethnic alliances is likely to overcome any tendencies of this sort.

The significance of economic institutions, i.e. the accepted process for accumulating and distributing wealth, have long been recognized in the building of secessionist movements. For instance, if the territory of an ethnic minority is endowed with mineral wealth over which that minority has no control, a powerful motive for separation is apparent. But even before a secessionist movement has been formed, national/regional disputes over resources may be very contentious, as between Canada and Alberta. In the Philippines, oil is not a factor and mineral wealth is, fortunately, rather evenly distributed throughout the country. Even then, the centralization of revenue collection from mineral development causes center/periphery friction. But such friction is, except in Mindanao, not peculiar to an ethnically defined region. Land is also a basic resource, and particular peoples are tied by tradition to particular lands. The inability of the Moros to prevent Christian encroachment on their land is the root of the Moro rebellion. In matters of wealth distribution, the effectiveness of public administration in implementing the law honestly and fairly is crucial. The Philippine government in Mindanao failed particularly in regards to land law.

Economic institutions in East Timor are just now being formed, and these for controlling oil revenue is by far the most important. Fortunately the Timor Gap oil field, being undersea, is not located in any particular district, though related onshore facilities will be. Yet royalties will apparently accrue to the national government. Thus on these grounds there could be some friction. As noted, oil wealth may also breed corruption and, thus, undermine the legitimacy of the national government, as in Nigeria. Again the effectiveness of public institutions in responding to popular demands for fairness and proper legal procedures will be crucial.

Strong bureaucratic institutions, the legacy of British colonialism, have been said to constitute a potent constraint on ethnic conflict in India and Malaysia. This is undoubtedly true. But neither East Timor nor the Philippines entered independence so blessed. In Dili it is only in the last two years that Timorese have begun to get experience in the higher civil service. Furthermore, civil service rules are still incomplete, and there is almost no experience in applying them. If strong bureaucratic capacity were an essential prerequisite for ethnic harmony and democratic development, then East Timor is a born loser. Of course, the Philippines was better off at independence. Yet the Philippine bureaucracy is itself much more corrupt and less effective than that in Malaysia. By 1946, in the former polity, there had already been a generation of patronage politics during which elected legislators brought civil servants under their control. Despite several waves of reformist verbiage since, no major change has taken place. An honest, independent bureaucracy may not be essential for a modicum of democratic development, but more and more Filipinos are now recognizing what an advantage it would be.

Civic associations in the Philippines-where the number per capita is the highest in Southeast Asia-are more important than bureaucracy in weaving a network of national identity. Despite the fact that many work at the local level, there are also many national federations. However, again, the Christian/Muslim divide in Mindanao prevented civil society from playing an integrating role there; in Moro society there are very few civic activities not linked to Muslim institutions. In East Timor, on the other hand, secular civic associations, suppressed in the Indonesian period, have emerged since 1998. Now mostly inter-ethnic in character, they have become quite numerous, but may still be dwarfed by the extent and influence of traditional networks based on patrimonialism. As noted above, those networks, usually village-based, do not constitute a nationalizing force, but are more likely to fragment than consolidate ethnic groups, which extend over many villages.

Religious institutions do not contribute as much today in either country to the formation of national identity as they did earlier. However, since the dominant institution in each country is the Catholic Church, with highly centralized and well-articulated communication patterns, the contribution to national unity is still great. Furthermore, since in both countries the Church has demonstrated that it is willing to become a channel of citizen protest if the regime becomes authoritarian, this religious institution is also beneficial to the preservation-or, if necessary restoration-of democracy. In both countries identity as a Catholic and even, simply, as a Christian is closely associated with national identity. Whereas among Moros religious identity is broader than ethnic, among Christians ethnic identity is a much weaker, sub-national phenomenon.

In addition to the demographic, historical, social, institutional, and economic factors we have entered into the explanatory equation, one more cannot be ignored-leadership. This is hardly quantifiable, and thus unpopular in some circles. To be sure, it is a factor that has often been overemphasized, without sufficient analytical rigor, by traditional scholars. Nevertheless, it cannot be disregarded. The role of nationalist leadership in winning and/or consolidating independence has been especially prominent in the literature on Burma, Indonesia, Vietnam, and India. That it was much less important in the twentieth-century Philippines is also deserving of note. The Philippines reaches back to the 1890s for its most celebrated national heroes, who were nevertheless unsuccessful in their struggle against Spain and the US. Potential national heroes just before and just after independence in 1946 were often tainted by their performance in government. Marcos was certainly a very strong leader, but hardly a “hero.” The partial success of national unity and democratic development has not depended significantly on Filipino leadership rising above contextual factors.

It is yet too early to give an unequivocal assessment in East Timor. President Gusmão is undoubtedly a charismatic figure, a quality derived in large part from his skillful and heroic leadership of the resistance against Indonesia even while seeking a negotiated settlement. Given his lack of peacetime experience when he was released from prison in 1999, he has played an especially constructive role in the preparation for independence. Though his record is not spotless, the presidency was his for the asking. After showing considerable reluctance to do so, he finally agreed to run and was elected overwhelmingly. Without him, without his inclusive vision and healing touch, East Timor would be in even worse difficulties than it is. Meanwhile, the Constitution has set up the office of Prime Minister as a formidable competitor to the role of the President. It remains to be seen whether the initial rancor of this competition will abate.

Though Philippine stability has been threatened in recent years by increasing economic inequality, corruption, and military and revolutionary adventurism-all compounding a process of institutional decay, within Christian areas at least ethnic conflict has not contributed to instability, making the Philippines more fortunate in this regard than several other Asian countries. East Timor has some of the same factors impinging on the prospects for democracy there. Inter-ethnic conflict is not likely to be a serious threat, but corruption and economic inequity, not to mention Indonesian machinations, could become serious problems (though Indonesia as a continuing external threat will serve to strengthen national unity). In both countries, history, demography, institutions, and socio-economic structures will have a profound impact on political developments. However, in both, as well, there is likely still to be a crucial role for the exercise of leadership committed to democracy, good governance, social equity, and harmony between ethnolinguistic groups.


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1 Despite armed conflict between some of the peoples of the Cordilleras and the Philippine government in the 1980s, the struggle was not for secession. Even though as late as 1943 Carlos Romulo could write “the Igorot [one of the Cordillera ethnic groups] is not Filipino and we are not related” (quoted in Abueva 1998: 211). In the l980s a highly regarded anthropologist commented, more accurately, “because these highland Filipinos are nationalists,… they hope that within an autonomous region, they will no longer be second class citizens” (quoted in Abueva 1998: 199).

2 This recognition of the importance of ethnicity is, quite surprisingly, found only in the Tim Maung Maung Than chapter on Burma of the Laothamatas book on democratization in East and Southeast Asia. Ethnicity receives no mention at all in other chapters.

3 But to be sure, there were also tensions between different ethnic elites in the course of the Revolution (see May 1987: 163).

4 AP, 2 July 2001.

5 Mailing list (not archived). Accessed on 8 September 2001.

6 “East Timor: Legal System to Retain Tetun and Bahasa Indonesia.” LUSA, 6 September 2001.

7 “In Timor Gap Deal, Little Guy May Finish First,” Christian Science Monitor, 21 May 2001; “East Timor gets $7bn for its share of oil and gas in historic deal,” Sydney Morning Herald, 4 July 2001

Categories Philippines, East Timor