Impasse and Sovereignty in Timor-Leste: Notes on Democratic Agony in the Time of Corona [PART I]

5 min readJul 27, 2020

Keywords: Impasse, Sovereignty, COVID-19, Capital, Democracy, Timor-Leste

Fonte: Jornal Independente


On Cynicism and Impotent Democratic Society

The first positive COVID-19 case in Timor-Leste was announced on 21 March 2020. Later on 27 March, exercising its prerogative for exceptional rule, the state declared a national emergency. This declaration came with war-like rhetoric against the obscene threat of mutating ‘evil diseases’ (Guterres Lu-Olo, 2020). The streets of the capital city Dili captured a different image: streets rapidly less crowded, and increasingly empty into a sorrowful desert. Widespread collective hysteria, and lack of public trust in public authority was evident in the early state of emergency. People left in panic and expressed their despair in the symbolic space of social media.

The abolition of remoteness and nearness driven by mass communication compelled many Lisan people across the territory to conduct traditional social rituals that are believed to ‘prevent’ COVID-19 from entering Timor, and offered a convenient common spiritual support (Tatoli 2020: Fonseca 2020).

However, its essentiality did not reflect what many Timorese middle-class in social media condemn as backwardness or vulgar anti-scientism. Rather, it deriving from common practice of struggle and solidarity — a convenient loss to late post-modern narcissistic society, and a techno-scientific mania. These practices rely on a genuine conviviality and popular will that cannot be sustained in desperate complaints on social media, or the empty promises of NGO, or the useless discussions in parliament.

It is true that the poorest, unemployed, small-scale vendors or working class in general are the most affected in this infectious time — they have been most severely impacted by this state of emergency period, from the middle of April until late May. Recent preliminary analyses from international NGO in Dili indicated food supplies and income for majority families has worsened in Timor-Leste during the C0VID-19 emergency.

I’ll say here, the inability of the Timorese democratic state to organize socially, mobilize materially and intervene rapidly for the emergency needs of its subject Timorese populations had rendered people more defenseless. State can only distribute a packet of economic aid to each family below $500 USD income per month after three months of national state emergency. The efforts to purchase essentials equipment and medical supplies such as ventilator facilitated by UNDP about $5.7 million of procurement deal has just arrived at late of May, two months after the first declaration of state emergency.

In a tragic way, the conditions of poverty and impotency of populations, particularly on Dili’s residents, have allowed the middle-class in their conformist cave to activate their vulgar salvation role of ‘caring and sharing’ to the needy and vulnerable during May onward. Several groups such as Arcoiris Timor-Leste, an LGBTI-based community group in Timor, to private companies, individuals and major political parties such as National Congress for Timorese Reconstruction (CNRT), and National Unity of the Sons of Timor (Khunto), an emerging martial-arts group has actively engage in charitable activities — even until recently, influencing charismatic president of CNRT, Xanana Gusmão, joined this line activities by traveling across municipalities to distribute food supplies. This false activity inspired by emerging self-regulated ‘theologico-political’ ethos of ‘being active’ and soft humanitarianism has momentarily occupied the practice of social struggle, solidarity and political manoeuvre in Timor throughout and post Covid-19 emergency (Zizek 2008: 217).

Here we encounter two ironical opposite situations between impasse and the question of sovereignty during the Corona emergency in Timor-Leste: one, COVID-19 has forced the state to assumed its full sovereign power by declaring the state of emergency; and second, it has exposed the inability of sovereign organs to terminate the impasse. The first confirmed there is absolute sovereignty power reside in the state, particularly in the head of state — the second testifies to the inability and incapacity of sovereignty organs within the democratic state.

The impasse during the time of Corona in Timor had testified to the groundless sovereign power of state, and the bodiless power of the people. Throughout this impasse, the rest of deprived non-powerful population, or Maubere[ii] people, has had nothing to offer in order to put the impasse end, and it simply participates as impotent and passive subjugated individuals, particularly during the emergency state.

In the end, the 24 positive COVID-19 cases in Timor returned to negative with no fatal cases until the second period of state emergency terminated on 27 May 2020.

The most difficult tasks for us as unaccounted people, is to wage the same common and collective struggle against another real and symbolic virus: Capital (ism), and false democracy. Our task is to become a messenger of hope that another world is possible, outside from ‘emblematic fetish’ of democracy (Badiou 2020: 17).

The COVID virus has gone temporarily in Timor. Our great fetish for regularity was disrupted with its presence. The ecstatic interregnums of a present non-event period remain unbroken: the democratic capitalist order and the impasse within it prevailed. The body polity of the Timorese state was in decay — while the real majority of Timor’s unaccounted people remain trapped in the predetermined places of exclusion, subjugation and sublime exploitation. It is time to rethink the reign of capital (capitalist doxa) and fetishist democracy in Timor-Leste, and beyond that restructuring the impotent and disoriented East Timorese society.


[ii] Maubere is a common progressive nationalist identification to designate oppressed Timorese people during the Portuguese colonial rule and under Indonesian neo-colonial occupation (1975–1999). Maubere is a landless peasant, and subsistence wage labor (etc) in colonial time. However, due to its place within the relations of production and its proximity to the grand points of capitalist and colonial contradiction, the Maubere has been a militant subject par excellence.


Badiou, Alain. 2020. The Pornographic Age. London: Bloomsbury Academic.

Fonseca, Celso. 2020. Using Tradition Ritual to Prevent COVID-19 Outbreaks. Celso Personal Blogs. Available at (Accessed 22 June 2020).

Media PR (Presidential Republic). 2020. Message from President Francisco Guterres Lú olo on the State of Emergency to the People of Timor-Leste. 27 March, 2020. (Accessed 23 May 2020).

Tatoli. 2020. Playing Chicken with Coronavirus. 31 March, 2020. (Accessed 22 May 2020).

Tatoli. 2020. Police Called After Chaotic Scene in Parliament, as New Leader Elected. 19 May, 2020.

(Accessed 22 May 2020).

Zizek, Slavoj. 2008. Violence. London: Profile Books Ltd.