Regarding Rights

Academic and activist perspectives on human rights

After Conflict: Memory Frictions in Timor-Leste and Aceh

| Leave a comment

By Lia Kent, Centre for International Governance and Justice, ANU

Timorese student protest

Timorese student protest

In this post, RegNet and CIGJ Fellow Lia Kent introduces the research project she is currently working on and its theoretical framework. A second post, to be published on the 1st of July, will discuss the themes emerging from Lia’s preliminary fieldwork. Both posts are based on a seminar that Lia gave at RegNet on 24 May 2016.[i]

My project lies at an intersection between scholarship on peace-building and memory studies. I’m hoping that bringing these disciplines into dialogue will allow a nuanced appreciation of the long-term, conflictual dynamics of building peace after conflict in Timor-Leste and Aceh. Timor-Leste is a country that I know very well, while Aceh is a new context for me, so my observations about it are far more speculative at this point.

Memory practices, unsettling transitional justice and peacebuilding assumptions

In previous work, I examined the transitional justice process in Timor-Leste: the legal and quasi-legal mechanisms that were established during the period of UNTAET (2000-2002) to address crimes committed during the Indonesian occupation. My particular focus was on how ordinary East Timorese perceived and experienced the truth commission and trials. What became clear to me in the course of this research was that practices of remembering the past, and struggles over its meaning, were continuing despite the conclusion of the transitional justice process, and often outside formal institutional contexts. These practices engage a wide range of actors, both political elites and ordinary people.

The ongoing nature of these practices and debates complicates some of the assumptions inherent within peacebuilding and transitional justice scholarship and practice. Preoccupation with the operation of a particular set of institutions within a narrow temporal framework misses a great deal of rich activity and debate. In the context of Timor at least, this activity seems to be central to the ways in which the terms of the peace were, and are, being negotiated.

The continuing debate also suggests that sites and practices of memory have multiple meanings, and that these meanings are constantly being negotiated. This brings into question the relationship between memory and peace that is often assumed in the literature on transitional justice and peacebuilding. There tends to be an assumption that memorialisation and commemoration initiatives provide a form of recognition and symbolic reparation to victims that contributes to their healing. It is also argued that by fostering shared remembrance of common experiences of loss and grief, these initiatives will strengthen bonds between groups and individuals, thereby contributing to social cohesion. As Nico Wouters puts it, memory initiatives are seen as part of a narrative of learning ‘lessons’ from the past, a narrative that assumes, problematically, a linear, direct, and easy accessibility to the past.[ii]

To develop a more nuanced understanding of transitional justice and peacebuilding, I turned to the memory studies literature. I have found this lens very useful for situating memory projects and practices in a broader temporal framework. It also helps to develop an appreciation of the ways in which, just as remembering can contribute to healing and social cohesion, it can also be the basis of ongoing power struggles because memory is linked to questions of power, legitimacy and recognition.

Key terms and concepts

Here it is probably helpful to outline a number of terms and concepts that I am working with in this project.  First and foremost, when I speak of ‘memory’, I am speaking not of individual memory but of what is commonly termed social memory or collective memory.

Collective memory

The concept of collective memory is used to capture the fact that, while memory is a function of individual cognition, it is also socially produced, organised and mediated. Individual memories always operate in broader social and political frameworks, and it is within society that people ‘recall, recognise and localise’ their memories.[iii] The concept of collective memory also recognises that memories are always selectively constructed and past events interpreted in the light of present-day preoccupations and interests.[iv]

I prefer to use the term ‘collective remembrance’ rather than collective memory because this accentuates the importance of agency, activity and creativity, and sees memory as a dynamic socio-cultural process.[v]

Politics of memory

Much of the work of collective memory scholars focuses on how memory serves as a medium for the creation of political communities, in particular national communities. It has long been observed, for instance, that national elites use performances of public remembrance to cultivate a shared understanding of the past, and thereby reinforce a sense of national identity and through this, their own legitimacy.[vi] These dynamics are magnified in post-conflict societies when there is an acute need to give meaning to past experiences of grief and loss, and to imagine a collective future. And one of the reasons, of course, that remembrance is such an effective tool for building political community is that it has a powerful emotional, or affective, dimension.

Yet the state does not have a monopoly on the production of collective memory. My project builds on a growing number of studies that explore the politics of memory: the ways in which official narratives are challenged or reshaped by those who perceive their version of the past to be marginalised. Many of these studies are also attentive to the ways in which globalised discourses – such as human rights – that foreground the experiences of the ‘suffering victim’ increasingly shape expressions of memory.

My project is particularly interested in the ways in which ‘official’ memories intersect with multiple, and at times, conflicting ‘unofficial’ memories. A focus on this intersection can reveal much about emerging forms of political and social identity and can also, in turn, reveal something about how peace is imagined and negotiated in the aftermath of conflict. A caveat here is that the distinction between official and unofficial is not always clear cut: some memories start out as unofficial and become official. I am still debating whether this is a useful distinction.


The final concept that I want to mention is that of friction. Anna Tsing uses the concept in her work on global connections to characterise the diverse and unequal global/local encounters between actors, ideas and practices that produce new power dynamics. She employs the notion of friction to capture the ways in which global ideas are both charged and changed when they engage with local contexts. The concept has been taken up by other scholars, including Bjorkdahl and Hoglund who, in their work on peacebuilding, highlight the ways in which frictional encounters can lead to the elevation of some discourse and actors and the disempowerment of others.[vii] The concept of friction is a helpful lens through which to observe the dynamics that unfold when different discourses, ideas and practices encounter each other in the public sphere in the context of remembrance.

The case studies

IndoBefore I discuss what is emerging from my observations of Timor-Leste and Aceh, let me first talk briefly about why I’ve chosen these two case studies, and my methodology. As you can see, there’s a nice synergy about looking at these two case studies, which lie at the opposite ends of the Indonesian archipelago.

Similarities and differences

I’m adopting an exploratory approach to the study, using the cases of Timor and Aceh to generate rich, contextualised findings, rather than doing a structured, focused comparison. Nonetheless, these cases share a number of similarities as well as presenting interesting contrasts. Both have a recent history of conflict, with struggles for independence from Indonesia that began at roughly the same time. Indonesia invaded East Timor in 1975, while the conflict between Aceh and the Republic of Indonesia began 1976/7. In both cases, there were active armed resistance movements. In Timor, the armed resistance was led by FALINTIL and in Aceh, it was led by GAM. In both cases, the conflict led to a significant loss of life, although the death toll was much higher in Timor. In both, significant violence was committed not only by the Indonesian military, but also by the resistance movement.

A key difference is the ways in which these conflicts ended, and their outcomes. In Timor-Leste a UN-sponsored referendum on self-determination in 1999 led to an overwhelming vote for separation from Indonesia. Timor-Leste became an independent nation in 2002, following a period of UN transitional administration. In Aceh, a peace deal was eventually negotiated in Helsinki in 2005, after a number of other stalled attempts. The agreement granted an expanded form of autonomy to the province of Aceh within the state of Indonesia. It allowed for the official recognition of Acehnese political parties and was predicated on a dramatic reduction in Indonesia’s military presence in the province. A significant factor in the peace agreement was the 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami, which killed approximately one hundred and sixty five thousand people and devastated much of the capital, Banda Aceh. Peace talks resumed soon after the disaster and, as Ed Aspinall notes, leaders on both sides said they were motivated to achieve peace in order to facilitate rebuilding.[viii] The Tsunami also led to increased international interest in Aceh, as a massive reconstruction effort was mounted. This helped cement international and domestic support for the peace process.

Another point of difference is the degree to which transitional justice mechanisms have been implemented following the formal end of hostilities. In Timor-Leste, the UN established a number of transitional justice mechanisms – including a tribunal and a truth commission – to respond to the crimes committed during the Indonesian occupation. While the trials were widely regarded as flawed – particularly as no members of the Indonesian military were brought to trial – the truth commission has produced a final report that highlights civilian experiences of violence. This report has contributed to producing collective memories of the conflict in Timor-Leste, although as I’ll discuss, its effect has been limited.

In relation to Aceh, while a number of transitional justice mechanisms, including a human rights court, a truth commission, and compensation measures were included in the peace agreement, other than the compensation measures, these have not yet been implemented. Currently, steps are in train for the establishment of a province-led TRC, which is being pursued in the absence of agreement on a national level TRC. So these distinctions lead to interesting questions about the extent to which the presence or absence of transitional justice mechanisms affects the shaping of collective memories. For instance, are memories of conflict expressed more readily in human rights terms in Timor-Leste than in Aceh?

There are other interesting contrasts between the two contexts – one of these relates to gender. In both Timor-Leste and Aceh, women were active participants in the conflict. In Timor-Leste, some women took up arms as part of the FALINTIL resistance, but they were more commonly a part of the civilian resistance or clandestine movement, where they took on roles as logisticians, cooks, and couriers. More so than in Timor, Acehnese women took up arms against the Indonesian military and joined GAM. This prompts questions about how women’s roles are being recognised in official and unofficial memories, and the consequences of this for women’s status in present day society.

Religion provides another contrast. The majority of Acehnese strongly identify themselves as Islamic, while the majority of Timorese are Catholic. In both societies, there are also strong socio-cultural beliefs, systems and practices that coexist with and to some extent infuse formal religious practice. How do these dynamics affect the ways in which memory is constructed?


I am using a combination of ethnographic and interviewing techniques to conduct fieldwork in both Timor-Leste and Aceh. This fieldwork consists of:

– In-depth, semi-structured interviews with a cross-section of community members, including men and women who lived through the conflict. I am also interested in talking to members of the younger generation who may not have direct memories of the conflict, in order to understand how memories are transmitted to, and potentially shaped, by young Timorese and Acehnese;

– Interviews with selected ‘elite’ actors including government and non-government representatives in the capital cities and leading representatives of groups closely involved in the construction of collective memory;

– Participant observation of official and unofficial memory practices, in particular, commemorative events, and visits to memorials.


[i] Lia’s research is funded by an Australian Research Council Discovery Early Career Research Award DE150100857.

[ii] Wouters, N. Transitional Justice and Memory Development in Europe, Mortsel, Intersentia, p 6-10.

[iii] Halbwachs, M. (trans. and ed. L.A. Coser). 1992. On Collective Memory. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, p 38.

[iv] Olick, J., V. Vinitzky-Seroussi and D. Levy 2011. Introduction. In The Collective Memory Reader. New York:

Oxford University Press, 3–62, p 18.

[v] Wouters above n ii

[vi] Ibreck, R (2009). Remembering Humanity: The Politics of Genocide Memorialisation in Rwanda. PhD thesis, the University of Bristol, 330

[vii] Bjorkdahl, A. and K. Hoglund 2013. Precarious Peacebuilding: Friction in Global–Local Encounters. Peacebuilding 1(3):289–99.

[viii] Aspinall, Edward. 2013. Aceh: ‘Democratization and the Politics of Co-option’, in Aspinall, Edward, Jeffery, Robin, and Regan, Anthony, Diminishing Conflicts in the Asia Pacific, London and New York, Routledge, p 51-68.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

By submitting this form, you accept the Mollom privacy policy.