Subject: A Country at the Crossroads of Asia and the Pacific

Journal of Contemporary Asia

August 1, 2008

East Timor: A Country at the Crossroads of Asia and the Pacific: A Geo-Historical Atlas

Book review

Vol. 38 No. 3 ISSN: 0047-2336

East Timor: A Country at the Crossroads of Asia and the Pacific: AGeo-Historical Atlas

Frederic Durand (Bangkok: IRASEC/Chiang Mai: Silkworm Books, 2006)

French political geographer Frederic Durand has rendered students of East Timor a great service in compiling a geo-political atlas of this new nation. As such, he brings to bear deep knowledge of the country's history as well as rare skills in cartography and in the graphic presentation of data. The book under review had its origins as a French language publication and has already established itself as a valuable tool for historians, demographers and development workers in East Timor. The English version updates the data until 2005.

The book comprises five parts, both thematic and chronological. Asa geographer, Durand has usefully gone to pains to explain East Timor's delicate ecological niche at the eastern extremity of the archipelago, especially noting the constraints of climate (long dry seasons)and essentially non-volcanic soils with "limited potential." The first part seeks to locate East Timor within the region and the globe. A second part situates Timor between the Asian and Melanesian worlds. A third part enters an investigation of ethnography or, more accurately, ethnolinguistic groups. A fourth, fifth and sixth part strikes a political position while offering sobering statistics on Indonesia's annexation and occupation, including a pioneering attempt to establish the death toll. The text also rakes over the environmental and social impact of the Indonesian occupation. A seventh part develops the narrative after the historic UN-conducted ballot of 1999 down to independence in 2002, in addition to a discussion on the problems of development as an independent nation. The book is accompanied with a very detailed and useful chronology. Notes and bibliography are also carefully constructed, revealing Durand's mastery of the Timor literature,as much skill in handling material in several languages.

Nevertheless, the major impact of this book for many--including many East Timorese who may not even understand the English language text--is its visual appeal. In all, the book caries 166 full-colour miniature photos and 136 major figures, maps or charts, also presented ingraphic colour. As a sample of the range of topics covered by the charts, figure 60 offers a representation of "The 'Encirclement and Annihilation campaign' of the Indonesian military" (September 1977-March1979); figure 101, "Proportion of dwellings destroyed in September 1999;" figure 106, "Cattle slaughtered in September 1999 during the withdrawal of Indonesian troops;" figure 115, "Proportion of missing families in 2001, compared to 1988;" figure 123-6 "Electoral results of the four main parties in East Timor in August 2001;" figure 135, "Number of children per teacher in 2001;" and figure 136, "Development levels of villages in East Timor in 2001." Needless to say, such attention to macro- as well as micro-trends enables Durand to build up an intricate composite picture of East Timor society over time, with all its diversities and disparities. By contrast, the expanding corpus of post-1999 international agency reports seem to miss the political thread, so poignantly entered by Durand.

Sadly overtaken by the disastrous events of May 2006, leading to the breakdown of law and order, deadly military-police clashes, foreign military intervention and the forced resignation of the Prime Minister, Durand's conclusion is nevertheless prophetic as well as sobering.

The management of ... diversities and disparities ... is one of the most complex tasks that awaits East Timorese leaders in the future

... What remains now is to establish independence by reconciling the diversity of the heritage and the aspirations for a better life that have been reinforced by a quarter of a century of hardships

... The children of the Big Crocodile still have a long way to go.

The current English version should expand the appeal of the original French edition. The Timor-Leste higher education system would also obviously benefit from a multicolour historical atlas that places their country at the centre, as opposed to some overseas appendage of Portugal or as a benighted province of the Republic of Indonesia. Even so, the costs of this art paper quality volume make this work unaffordable in East Timor. At best, with state subsidy, it could comprise the source material for an affordable local version in an appropriate local language. Certainly, UNESCO has failed East Timor in this area to date.

Geoffrey C. Gunn [c] 2008

Faculty of Economics, Nagasaki University


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