A Glance at Popular Education and Cooperative Development in Timor-Leste

Article: A Glance at Popular Education and Cooperative Development in Timor-Leste

Dated: May 2007

When FRETILIN, the resistance party in Timor-Leste resisted the colonial powers in 1975, it incorporated right away in its Political Manifesto the cooperative as the primary approach to development presumably under a socialist economic system. FRETILIN then introduced agriculture cooperatives as part of economic subsistence resistance against the Indonesian fascist regime which invaded Timor-Leste in 1975, after Portuguese left the country due to the Power Revolution in Portugal. Throughout the years between 1975-1978 cooperative becoming a popular terminology in mobilizing the population to work together in evacuating themselves away form the invading forces, constructing and reconstructing houses in the new settlements and promoted collective farming system in agriculture production. One of the leading members of FRETILIN named Vicente ‘Sahe’ Reis had come across Paul Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed while he was a student in Lisbon, Portugal and had maximised the used of the pedagogy to promote literacy campaign for Timorese peasants known as Maubere, in 1975 onwards. Popular education and cooperatives were introduced hand in hand. But then the practice of popular education and cooperatives were interrupted after the Indonesian armed forces captured the base of the resistance which almost ruined the RDTL to operate as a Unilateral Government of the Maubere people. By the 1979, the FRETILIN and its armed forces known as FALINTIL implemented new resistance strategy by launching guerrilla warfare against Indonesian occupation.

Meanwhile, there was also significant set back in the diplomatic arena. When Timor proclaimed the independence on 28 November 1975 there were some 16 countries that supported East Timor independence even though most were from the socialist block. Timor-Leste also won consistently three general assembly resolutions between 1975-1979 which all condemned the invasion as illegal and demanded unconditional withdrawal of Indonesian armed forces. Despite of these resolutions, imperialist powers continued to cooperate with Soeharto’s military dictatorship which allowed the latter to continue its act of repression and of state terrorism which led to around 200.000 Timorese killed from its original population that is 650,000 in 1974. In the early 1980s, Timor-Leste had to accept negotiation with Indonesia in which Timor-Leste represented by the Portuguese Government for the following decade until early 1990s.

From early 1980s, Indonesian government introduced Koperasi Unit Desa (Village Cooperative Unit) which is also known as KUD. The government collected Rp.500.00 (equivalent to less than US$one cent today) from every Timorese family and cooperatives were rapidly organized in around 62 sub-districts throughout East Timor. The Indonesian cooperatives drew its history from the Dutch colonization. An Indonesian economist, Mohammad Hatta who later became the first vice President of Indonesia in 1945, studied in the Netherlands and came across cooperative movements in there. He then advocated cooperatives in Indonesia to be known as ” Sistim Ekonomi Kerakyatan or popular economic system.” Cooperative then became obligatory subject in social science studies and cooperative was a field study in the government funded Economic High Schools. But Mohammad Hatta died long ago and Soeharto was not a man of history. Soeharto massacred about one million members of progressive movements in Indonesia between 1965-early 1970s, banned them from existing and banned the entire progressive books from circulation in Indonesia. The cooperative as a Popular Economic System then was co-opted into the Indonesian corporate governance, where military, the business oligarchy and the ruling elites were in control of the national resources and economy. The KUD were subsidized to benefit the tiny local ruling elites including those of opportunists’ local government officers in Timor-Leste.

The Maubere resistance re-captured their independence through a United Nations organized Popular Consultation in 1999. But this new development does not in favour of the cooperative development. The direct presence of the International capitalist system pushed further cooperative into periphery. Privatization and “private sector” development becomes the jargon of the International Financial Institutions and imperialist donors. Though there are agencies like ILO and some international NGOs are in favour of cooperatives because they know the people should be in control of their local economies. The resistance government succeeded to incorporate cooperatives as the third pillar of the development agents alongside with state and private sector in Timor-Leste, but has not done much in terms of popular consciencialization to promote cooperative as a strategy for economic self-determination. It is within this context that we urge the social movements to actively promote cooperatives in their respective work places and constituencies.


Maubere Study Group


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