Timor-Leste (East Timor): Education in Post-Conflict Reconstruction

Timor-Leste, a country that occupies about two-thirds of an island in Southeast Asia, has had a difficult history that includes: being colonized by Portugal; becoming independent only to have its independence taken away a few months later by a foreign invader; undergoing a decades-long internal conflict; being governed by the United Nations; and then finally becoming fully independent again (Justino, Leone, & Salardi, 2011). Several years after the conflict, Timor-Leste is still undergoing reconstruction encompassing all areas of society and government, including language, history, education, and the economy.

Timor-Leste has experienced considerable economic growth in recent years, but has lagged behind in efforts to curb poverty mainly due to inexperience in managing its own affairs, lack of experience in building infrastructure, and the fact that its most valuable commodity (oil) is pipelined to Australia without generating local jobs (Timor-Leste, n.d.).

Rebuilding the education system in Timor-Leste was very challenging and required special efforts to overcome the fact that most teachers left the country during the conflict and most teachers who remained in the country could not speak Portuguese, the new official language of independent Timor-Leste (Justino, Leone, & Salardi, 2011). In addition, school attendance was low because students and teachers had to travel long distances to get to a school building, as not all of the previously existing ones had been rebuilt. And finally, funding for emergency reconstruction was only available for a limited time, resulting in a large percentage of the population not having access to any education at all (Justino, Leone, & Salardi, 2011).

Post-conflict reconstruction requires a comprehensive approach that is tailored to each situation (Akresh & de Walque, 2008). Historically, education has been seen as a key ingredient in reconstruction, but lately some scholars have argued that education is part of the problem and needs to be implemented very carefully and thoughtfully: “education indirectly does more to contribute to the underlying causes of conflict than it does to contribute to peace. This is through a reproduction of economic inequality and the bifurcation of wealth/poverty; through the promotion of a particular version of hegemonic masculinity and gender segregation; and through magnifying ethnic and religious segregation or intolerance” (Davies, 2004, p. 203). These issues factor in a comprehensive reconstruction strategy—as suggested by Davies—and addressed by several authors as discussed below.

Gender Equality

A post-conflict reconstruction that is effective and fair should address the issue of gender equality as a way to provide for human security and avoid gender-based violence (Davies, 2004). Groves, Resurreccion, and Doneys (2009) defined human security as “people-centered and inextricably linked to development” (p. 186), and pointed out five vital factors that are frequently not included in human security efforts: women-focused aggression, human rights of women, lack of equal power over resources, lack of equal power in making decisions, and the role of women and men in issues related to security. A major shift in gender equality inclusion in human security efforts occurred when the United Nations passed a resolution mandating that peacekeeping and peace building activities include special considerations about women’s rights (Groves, Resurreccion, & Doneys, 2009).

Groves, Resurreccion, and Doneys (2009) conducted interviews with women’s rights activists in Timor-Leste in order to better understand the role that gender played in the reconstruction of that country. The findings indicated that family conflict was viewed as “a disruption to the community’s social order and cosmos” (Groves, Resurreccion, & Doneys, 2009, p. 196) instead of a situation to be worked out between individuals or groups. Several agencies addressed gender issues during reconstruction, including Rede Feto, the Ministry of Health, and several women’s non-governmental organizations. A Vulnerable Persons’ Unit (VPU) of the police force was created during this period and even included female officers, but this and other efforts were not enough to contain violence against women. One of the reasons for continued violence may have been the United Nations’ mandate that the Indonesian legal system—a system that did not value gender equality—should remain in place until the UN-led transition phase had ended (Groves, Resurreccion, & Doneys, 2009).

Justino, Leone, and Salardi (2011) also pointed out that the conflict had negative consequences for boys, as many may have traded going to school for helping support the household, while others may have been recruited by or may have freely joined the rebels. Girls, on the other hand, may have benefited from the conflict in terms of “catching up to boys’ education” (Justino, Leone, & Salardi, 2011, p. 44).

Language and Literacy

“Language and language rights often form part of a conflict” (Davies, 2004, p. 172). When Timor-Leste finally became independent and could make choices about its future, it chose Portuguese and Tetum as its official languages (Macpherson, 2011). This choice has brought significant problems to reconstruction because most residents of Timor-Leste either do not speak Portuguese or grew up speaking another language as his or her mother tongue: “The status differentials and inefficiencies created by the current language practices are widely evident (…) and defy wider public use and common sense” (Macpherson, 2011, p. 188). Prior to the conflict, Portuguese was spoken mainly by the elite, but during and after the conflict Indonesian had become the official language of the country; as a result, most young men and women grew up speaking Indonesian. Applying Davies’ (2004) complexity approach to reconstruction in Timor-Leste, it is probable that the government of Timor-Leste attempted to use language as a means to create a national identity rooted in its historical ties with Portugal by choosing Portuguese as the country’s official language in addition to the local Tetum language.

Another major effort undertaken during reconstruction in Timor-Leste sought to address the challenge of improving literacy rates. With the assistance of 11 advisors from Cuba, Timor-Leste was able to implement a program that sought to lower the adult illiteracy rate (Boughton, 2010). During the first three years, the results were mixed and the program was able to reach over 20% of illiterate adults in Timor-Leste; these individuals completed basic literacy training that lasted 13 weeks and allowed them to read simple texts upon completion of the course (Boughton, 2010). The pedagogy used in this program was rooted in Cuba’s understanding of human equality and the role of education and solidarity in building a better and more just world. Boughton (2010) highlighted the importance of “political will” (p. 63) in implementing such a challenging and massive effort, and apparently the government of Timor-Leste had the resolve and the determination to do it.


Davies (2004) pointed to the need for a “deliberative democracy” (p. 215) in reconstruction efforts as a way to not only rebuild but also transform educational systems and societies. This type of democracy “means a public discourse of disagreement and agreement based on attempts at mutual intelligibility and evidence-based persuasion” (Davies, 2004, p. 215). The relationship between democracy and nation building in Timor-Leste is addressed by Sahin (2011), who contends that in Timor-Leste the road to democracy is determined by “national ideas” (p. 221) and driven by a process of change in politics and society aimed at redistributing wealth and power. This “power-driven process” (p. 238) is in line with trends in other countries where a fast transition to democracy from authoritarianism was more likely to result in “interstate wars and have a greater propensity for civil strife than stable democracies and autocracies” (p. 224).

The choice for democracy is not always an objective one, or one that is understood to be the best choice for a particular situation (Davies, 2004). Western liberal democracy—the type of democracy that succeeded in many countries due to a particular set of circumstances—can also be understood as reflecting “particular constellations of power” (Sahin, 2011, p. 224). True democracy entails reconciliation, whereby groups or individuals are able to interact peacefully. In Timor-Leste, the returning ruling elites found a country post-conflict that was different from the one they had left only a few years before; this new country was divided between those favoring integration with and those favoring independence from Indonesia. The process of reconciliation “has been hampered by extremely limited progress” (Sahin, 2011, p. 229) but also has been kept moving forward through a pragmatic approach by the government. For example, war criminals and former military leaders are not being prosecuted in an attempt to make reconciliation more palatable (Sahin, 2011).

Sahin (2011) pointed out that democracy does not rely on economic achievement as a precondition for its implementation, albeit there is a correlation between economics and democracy. Democracy can succeed in Timor-Leste’s reconstruction even before a certain level of economic development is achieved, as exemplified by a few countries that have limited financial capabilities but have implemented successful democratic rule, such as “Botswana, Costa Rica, India, Mauritius, and Namibia” (Sahin, 2011, p. 231).

Curricula and Religion

Once independent, Timor-Leste had a difficult decision directly related to the reconstruction of its educational system: what would the curricula contain? Davies (2004) called attention to textbooks as ways to “sanitize or sensitize” (p. 176); that is, curricula can avoid and exclude unwanted details about history and culture, or they can provide exposure to conflicting views and struggles in an attempt to make conflict less palatable to future generations. The choice of curricula and the elaboration of new textbooks create “possibilities for change if they are to counter the apathy and sense of powerlessness which can be used as leverage for more conflict in the future” (Davies, 2004, p. 176). Millo and Barnett (2004) believe that by choosing Portuguese and Tetum as the country’s official languages, Timor-Leste’s government wasted a unique opportunity to implement very important reforms that the people wanted. By choosing Portuguese as one of the languages for education, Timor-Leste embraced its colonial heritage and tried to create a national memory of unity and struggle against outside oppressors (Indonesia and Portugal, the metropolis) (Shah, 2011). This is seen as a missed opportunity to decolonize and liberate “the mind through transformation of the learning process (…) for the success of political change and the termination of colonization” (Millo & Barnett, 2004, p. 723). The authors are particularly critical of the government’s abandonment of the National Council for Timorese Resistance’s strategic educational plan that called for “full exploration of East Timor’s human resources in all sectors of national interest, emphasizing quality in the teaching-learning process, coordination of foreign resources, promotion of the history of East Timor, developing national identity based on Timorese cultural and universal human values, [and] fostering of independent and critical thinking and a spirit of free and scientific inquiry” (Millo & Barnett, 2004, p. 730).

The Catholic Church has been present in Timor-Leste for over 400 years and during that time it has played a major role in education and protection (Macpherson, 2010). McGregor, Skeaff, and Bevan (2012) drew attention to the role of the Church in Timor-Leste’s reconstruction, pointing out that the government chose to exclude religious education from the curriculum and opted for a completely secular education. The Church reacted to this exclusion for several reasons in addition to the obvious wish to continue to instruct the population on how to live as Catholic Christians: during the occupation, churches “were important to relief and development efforts” and provided “food, clothing and basic medical care, and support for widows, victims of physical and sexual violence, and orphans” (McGregor, Skeaff, & Bevan, 2012, p. 1135). The Church also brought attention to violations of human rights and promoted peace and reconciliation among the people of Timor-Leste during and after the conflict. The exclusion of the Church from reconstruction is troublesome in light of the fact that in Timor-Leste it had always been involved in material support of the population, and because the Church had a network of locations that offered assistance nationwide and could have been used as starting points in humanitarian aid and reconstruction efforts (McGregor, Skeaff, & Bevan, 2012).


Reconstruction is a challenging phase that requires multiple approaches and affects various areas of a nation, including but not limited to education. In addition to being directly affected by conflict, education can be used as one of the main tools in reconstruction when the conflict is over or when a transitional period opens windows of opportunity to start bringing back a sense of normality (Davies, 2004).

Timor-Leste is an example of a country torn by a decades-long conflict where reconstruction has been steady—supported in part by education. Strategies concerning gender equality, language and literacy, democracy, and curricula and religion have all played into the country’s current situation, providing a complex (Davies, 2004) background of choices and paths that will hopefully result in economic, social, and educational development.



Akresh, R., & de Walque, D. (2008). Armed conflict and schooling: Evidence from the 1994 Rwandan genocide. Policy Research Working Paper; No. WPS 4606.

Boughton, B. (2010). Back to the future? Timor-Leste, Cuba and the return of the mass literacy campaign. Literacy & Numeracy Studies, 18(2), 58-74.

Groves, G., Resurreccion, B. P., & Doneys, P. (2009). Keeping the peace is not enough: Human security and gender-based violence during the transitional period of Timor-Leste. SOJOURN: Journal Of Social Issues In Southeast Asia, 24(2), 186-210.

Davies, L. (2004). Education and conflict: Complexity and chaos. London: Routledge.

Justino, P., Leone, M., & Salardi, P. (2011). Education and conflict recovery: The case of Timor Leste. IDS Working Papers, 2011(381), 1. doi:10.1111/j.2040-0209.2011.00381_2.x

McGregor, A., Skeaff, L., & Bevan, M. (2012). Overcoming secularism? Catholic development geographies in Timor-Leste. Third World Quarterly, 33(6), 1129-1146. doi:10.1080/01436597.2012.681497

Macpherson, R. (2011). Educational administration in Timor Leste: Language policy and capacity building challenges in a post-conflict context. International Journal Of Educational Management, 25(2), 186-203.

Millo, Y., & Barnett, J. (2004). Educational development in East Timor. International Journal Of Educational Development, 24, 721-737. doi:10.1016/j.ijedudev.2004.04.005

Sahin, S. B. (2011). Building the nation in Timor-Leste and its implications for the country’s democratic development. Australian Journal Of International Affairs, 65(2), 220. doi:10.1080/10357718.2011.550105

Shah, R. (2012). Goodbye conflict, hello development? Curriculum reform in Timor-Leste. International Journal Of Educational Development, 3231-38. doi:10.1016/j.ijedudev.2011.04.005

Timor-Leste. (n.d.). In CIA World Factbook. Retrieved from https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/tt.html

Women’s Commission for Refugee Women and Children. (2006). Help us help ourselves: Education in the conflict to post-conflict transition in Liberia. Retrieved from http://www.womensrefugeecommission.org/component/docman/?task=doc_download&gid=285&highlight=WyJoZWxwIiwidXMiLCJoZWxwIiwib3Vyc2VsdmVzIiwiaGVscCB1cyIsImhlbHAgdXMgaGVscCIsInVzIGhlbHAiLCJ1cyBoZWxwIG91cnNlbHZlcyIsImhlbHAgb3Vyc2VsdmVzIl0=



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