Death, emplaced security and space in contemporary Timor-Leste

Date01 December 2020
Published date01 December 2020
DOI10.1177/0010836720954486
https://doi.org/10.1177/0010836720954486
Cooperation and Conflict
2020, Vol. 55(4) 461 –478
© The Author(s) 2020
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DOI: 10.1177/0010836720954486
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Death, emplaced security
and space in contemporary
Timor-Leste
Damian Grenfell
Abstract
By adopting a spatial approach to analysis, this article examines the significance of death in Timor-
Leste and its relationship to security and peace. The main argument is that a person’s security in
Timor-Leste is very often made possible via the sustaining of what is referred to here as ‘cognate
communities’ which comprise both the living and the spirits of the ancestral dead. Grave-making
as a form of ‘emplaced security’ – an expression of agency which results in the creation or
transformation of a place in order to mitigate threat – enables a particular kind of space whereby
the living as part of cognate communities are able to venerate their dead. In turn, engagement
with the ‘spatial turn’ demonstrates how this form of emplaced security is not static, but rather
is dynamic and adaptive as communities formed through custom constantly interact with broader
social changes and spatial transformations. Even as grave-making represents a micro-form of
emplacement, such acts both produce and respond to different spatial orders, including more
abstract forms bound up with nation formation. As such, the ‘spatial turn’ shows how burial
represents both an intimate and petite act of place-making while also intersecting with different
spatial orders and scales that interact with meta-narratives including religion, modernisation and
nationalism.
Keywords
Cognate community, death, emplaced security, grave, peace, place, space, Timor-Leste
Introduction
A person’s security in Timor-Leste – both in terms of their immediate well-being as well
as their more generalised ability to lead a ‘good life’ – is very often made possible via
the sustaining of what is referred to here as mutually reinforcing ‘cognate communi-
ties’. The concept of a cognate community is developed for this article to refer to com-
munities that are formed through blood and conjugal relations (consanguineal and
affinal) and comprise both the living as well as ancestral spirits (beiala sira). There
appears an ever-present obligation to recognise the spirits of the dead who, when not
Corresponding author:
Damian Grenfell, School of Global, Urban and Social Studies, RMIT University, Melbourne, PO BOX 2476,
VIC, 3000 Australia.
Email: damian.grenfell@rmit.edu.au
954486CAC0010.1177/0010836720954486Cooperation and ConflictGrenfell
research-article2020
Article
462 Cooperation and Conflict 55(4)
appropriately venerated, can cause sickness, poor fortune and calamity for family mem-
bers, a belief that commonly informs the everyday actions and decisions for East
Timorese (Brown and Grenfell, 2017: 182). A cognate community in this form is mutu-
ally reinforcing in that ancestral spirits rely on the sustenance, ritual recognition and
care of the still living to ensure that they pass to the after world and remain remembered
and respected once there.
Since Timor-Leste gained its independence, much analysis has focused on the inter-
national efforts at peace and state-building (Kammen, 2018: 37). At first under United
Nations Transitional Authority in East Timor (UNTAET) control from October 1999,
through to full national independence in May 2002, the years since the end of the
Indonesian occupation (1975–1999) have seen enormous energy put into humanitarian
assistance, rehabilitating existing infrastructure, creating a new state and modernising
the economy. The creation of state institutions has broadly followed the lines of a liberal
peace (Paris, 2004; Richmond, 2006): the creation of a constitution (Wallis, 2014), a
parliament and a presidency with the formation of political parties, regular elections
held since 2001, a judiciary, policing and the military, along with various ministries
(Feijó, 2016).
The drive to create a modern political system and economy in the aftermath of war sits
in ostensible contradiction with what has been identified as a resurgence in customary
practices since independence in Timor-Leste (Hicks, 2007; Trindade and Barnes, 2018).
In terms of peacebuilding, analytical advances via the ‘local turn’ (MacGinty, 2014),
debates in hybridity (Brown and Gusmao, 2009, Grenfell, 2012a; Brown 2017;
Richmond, 2011) and also ‘vernacular security’ (Bubandt, 2005; Croft and Vaughan-
Williams, 2017) have each enabled in different ways a shift away from state-centric
analysis to the significance of the ‘everyday’ in peacebuilding and security. In the case of
Timor-Leste, such concepts create the analytical space for custom and its resurgence to
be considered as vital to the reproduction of the cognate communities, the process of
emplaced security and longer-term forms of peace.1
While ‘space’ and ‘place’ will be returned to in detail in the following section, in
short, place is taken as a bounded material site that is created through forms of agency,
while space is understood as a domain that is given meaning at the intersection of norma-
tive interpretations and practice. By engaging in the spatial turn in peace and conflict
studies (Björkdahland and Kappler, 2017) the value of other concepts such as hybridity
can be retained while enabling debates to move forward into new terrains. Where custom
is identified here as important to the reproduction of peace, a spatial orientation to analy-
sis in turn allows for two analytical possibilities. Firstly, it deepens and extends the
nuance in terms of what the ‘local’ might mean, for instance by highlighting the interac-
tion between place, space and agency that alerts us to the otherwise overlooked ways in
which peace and security are reproduced. Secondly, a focus on spatiality shows how
categories such as custom are not static. Rather, custom interrelates and adapts alongside
other spatial orders including those that occur as part of broader social change. In other
words, by focusing on the spatial the analysis becomes grounded with a sensitivity to the
everyday while analytically lines of connection can be drawn to other places and spaces
at different scales, their points of intersection and in turn the localised effect they have
on the possibilities for security and peace.

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