Intergenerational perceptions of human rights in Timor-Leste: memory, kultura and modernity


Sandra Marisa Martins Ramos Gonçalves

PhD defended at: 

Faculty of Law, Humanities and the Arts, University of Wollongong, Austraiia


This study explores East Timorese understandings of human rights and the ways in which they are being translated into a ‘vernacular’ form. The objective is to trace the societal dynamics of construing ideas and behaviours concerning human rights by looking into the local genealogies of rights ideas and the dialogue that is established between the globalised script of human rights and the local knowledges of rights. I inquire into the role of the memory of the country’s past struggles for rights in formulating a local human rights identity.

I focus on the intergenerational dynamics of transmitting human rights ideas across three generations. The factor of ‘generations’ is central in this research because it introduces into the analysis the country’s historical continuities and discontinuities (successive colonial experiences, the United Nations state-building mission and self- government) and also the intergenerational transmission of local kinship values and memory. I deploy a mixed methods approach based on group interviews involving discussion, participant observation and analysis of documentary and secondary sources. Following an adaptation of oral history methods, I interviewed ten groups of East Timorese from different generations and living in three distinct locations. Considering the marginality of people’s voices in the historiography and contemporary research of the country, I attempted to interview people who are usually not considered as part of a political and intellectual elite.

The analysis of the group interviews revealed multi-layered knowledges of the history of the country, originating from the oral transmission of stories, embodied experiences of conflict, distinct schooling systems and the influence of external institutions and international social movements. The East Timorese interviewees interpreted civil and political rights as primarily the right to education, to self- determination, the right to control the natural resources that have been the source of a long history of conflict since Portuguese and Indonesian colonialism, and the rights to protest and exercise freedom of speech. I argue that local, intergenerational ideas of human rights connect East Timorese social struggles with other parts of the world but also reflect a local sense of being in the world. These elements of local knowledges work in dialogue with dominant epistemologies of rights and justice. Certain rights are understood as the product of local agency set in a historical and social context, rather than the passive reception and adoption of the human rights script from international institutions.

This research contributes to a critique of theoretical approaches to the promotion of a human rights culture in post-colonial societies emanating from UN bodies and international aid organisations. This thesis builds upon existing categories of knowledge about human rights by considering and placing at the centre the histories, experiences and ideas of the ‘south’ that continue to be rendered invisible to the forms of knowledge produced in the ‘north’.