Dili: Centuries on and ‘1975’ revisited

5 min readJan 14, 2020

We need history, but we need it differently from the spoiled lazy-bones in the garden of knowledge

- Nietzsche, on the Use and Abuse of History for Life

Keywords: Dili, Timor-Leste, radical politics, politics of 1975, city politics

The space of uneven development in Dili


Dili is the capital and largest city of Timor-Leste. It has a six administrative posts. Neighboring the district of Aileu from South, Liquica from West, Manatuto from East and it is bordered on the North by the Alor and Wetar islands of Indonesia. Dili’s geography of socio-political construction has developed for centuries from a traditional influence of Kingdom of Likusaen (now Liquica municipality) and the Kingdom of Ohulo (now part of Aileu municipality) to the central administration of Portuguese colonialism and 24 years under the banner of Indonesian provincial’s capital. From its beginning to the end of twentieth century, Dili has served as the site of sovereignty administration for the heterogeneous twins of ‘new order’ fascists in Lisbon and Jakarta.

According to some tales, the area had been reopened after a war broke out between kingdom of Likusaen from West and ‘Makoko’ from East — this war ending when brokered peacefully by the Ohulo kingdom from Aileu.1

Dili was rebuilt by the Portuguese after their transfer from Lifau, Oecusse in 1769. During the Second World War, Dili was considered a lost town — devastated by Japanese occupation and allied forces bombing raids. After the reconstruction and rehabilitation of Dili, Portuguese colonial regime sought to transform and reengineering Dili into a future European-oriented city.

Since the consolidation and social integration of Timorese societies into the Portuguese colonial regime, Dili as a colonial post grown and become the space, where colonized people were assimilated, pacified but also divided, excluded and oppressed by the colonizer — between master and slave — with a Eurocentric bias of ‘civilizing’ the traditional savage with progressive high-minded ideals of universalism.

For centuries, Dili was a central place in Timor that gathered different people at different age, times and belonging spaces — different races, ethnic, religion and political convictions in Timor. However, now this town-in-the-making has been remain at a safe zone of plural disunity.


In another incarnation, Dili, a sunbaked tropical space, is rich in history and hold a central place in Timorese politics, economy and history. Recently, Mari Alkatiri, main living founder of Revolutionary Front for an Independent East Timor (FRETILIN), also known as living generation of 1974/75 has considered Dili as the ‘laboratory’ of modern political struggle against Portuguese colonialism and capitalist imperialism in Timor-Leste. However that, a radical politics is too precious and unique in this epochal-space.

On a radical degree, many of the educated rebels, intellectuals and radical working class that later became known as leading actors of Fretilin movement, had studied, worked and lived in Dili — their intellectual and political convictions were experienced, built and formed in Dili.

The modern resistance started with an informal discussion group of poets, and essayists of 1960s and 1970s. This period marked an intellectual renaissance in Timor-Leste, focused from Dili — where the philosophical and nationalist left politics to anti-colonial discourse became a topic of discussion. These progressive and radical youths later became the leaders of Fretilin such as Nicolao Lobato, Mari Alkatiri, Jose Ramos-Horta, and Abilio Araujo, who actively published their work in three colonial newspapers at that time such as military bulletins A voz de Timor, A provincia de Timor and the Catholic diocese’s magazine of Seara.

In 1975, Dili became a space that marked out the beginning of East Timorese modern nationalist-left consciousness, radical politics and resistance. It introduced a new calendar and historical path to East Timorese. The ascent of Fretilin; the emergence of nationalist-left consciousness; the production of contemporary symbols of historical and political identity in Timor were a political result of Dili’s progressive and radical youths.

What Alain Badiou (France’s foremost living philosopher) called true singular ‘politics’, as one of four ‘truth procedures’ was experimented within Timor for the first time by Dili’s 1975 generation, through Fretilin. This true/real politics aimed to bring what Fretilin saw as ‘real independence’ — ‘real freedom’ or commonly known as total-complete independence.


Since the independence, Dili has known as cidade da paz (city of peace). Recently, Dili was declared by the Government of Timor-Leste a ‘symbol of independence and national development’.2 However, one shouldn’t neglect the fact that, for years since independence there has been a multiplicity of disintegration and fragmentation among Dili residents, its politicians, former liberation fighter — with divisions among the elders and youngers; literates and illiterates; the upper and lower class; central and periphery; between the insider and outsider of Dili. Whereas, the financial elitist, crony capitalist, autocrat and political elites have been united under the profit and accumulation-oriented ideology.

Dili, for a centuries, with its pleasures, allure, Oriental prettiness, traditional calmness has passed each other with colonial cruelties, and wretched living conditions since Portugal shifted its colonial administration from Lifau to Dili and during Indonesia’s barbaric rule. The post-independence period has been constantly marked with the exclusion and division — a modern violence. What is called social progress was inevitably followed by social disorder, economic inequality and cynical prosperity.

If we wants to understand why Timor-Leste still the backward dependent nation annihilating for a centuries until now, one must better pleased to take a deep look into the small ‘stabilizing class’ (to quote Jean Claude-Milner’s concept) that located in Dili — they are the loyal servant of moderate liberal capitalist order.

Therefore, from an unimagined space of Dili, with Balibar from South, Hera-Metinaro from East to Atauro from North — From the dry Comoro river and wasteful Bidau river too the unholy paradise of white sand beach — we still find it hard to distinguish whether we should call Dili as semi-urban metropolitan city, or a backward city? — We could find the temporal answer from Bishop Carlos Belo’s ‘a cidade que não era (the city that wasn’t/never was)’ — but Dili still hold the same old figure of an ‘underdeveloped city’ that consistently exhibits the modern capitalist violence such as massive unemployment, socio-economical gap etc.

Ultimately, Dili reflects and posits both a comfortable but also unimaginably reality — with an ongoing socio-political impasse, with a precarious of future uncertainty in Timor-Leste since independence. Shall we recall Walter Benjamin’s ‘angel of history’ by revisiting the political sequences and the real politics of ‘1975’ to grasp the new horizon of hopes and new form of emancipatory politics?

Dili (and the people of Dili), in their privileged historical position and ‘spatial infinity’ in Timor-Leste’s politics, economy and history, still have a fundamental role in fostering radical changes to bring a new possibility toward a more democratic and ‘equalitarian’ society in Timor-Leste as it was in the era of the radical ‘politics of 1975’.


1 During pre-colonial period, there already reside Mambae and Lolei-speaking groups such as Bidau Manu-mata from East, Caicoli from central and Karketu Mota-Ain from West.

2 The celebration means to glorify Portuguese’s colonial history, its presence and it was another star up phase of historical blackout in Timor-Leste regarding the past colonial and capitalist violence in Timor-Leste.