The social and spatial dynamics of communal conflict in East Timor (16492)
Conflict in East Timor is generally viewed as a recent, urban phenomenon. As a consequence, after independence in 1999, sporadic but persistent low-level communal conflict in rural areas went largely unnoticed until a major, national level upsurge in 2006. The violence of 2006, popularly known as the ‘Crisis’, and the many informal security groups that emerged to the public eye during this time, were thus attributed to a range of political and economic factors such as poverty, a youth bulge, poor statebuilding and elite political tensions. This framework continues to be highly influential in scholarship on East Timor and in the design of peacebuilding, security and development initiatives. Closer examination, however, reveals that conflict in East Timor does not occur randomly, as such a framework would suggest, but in particular geographic locations – both rural and urban – with a long history of conflict. Drawing on seven years of fieldwork and the use of maps, this paper takes an ethnographic approach to analyse patterns of conflict in East Timor. As I will argue here, there are spatial and social symmetries between informal security group and descent group territories, and regions with a long history of endemic conflict. Constant circular migration, combined with complex kinship networks, ensures that there is an ongoing, interactive dynamic between rural and urban conflict. Such a dynamic has important implications for peacebuilding interventions. As this paper will show, accurately identifying the true scale, source and location of a conflict, is essential to effective conflict resolution.