Siding with the dispossessed: Interview with Jacqueline Aquino Siapno

Jacqueline Aquino Siapno (Joy) is originally from Dagupan City, Pangasinan, Philippines and is married to Fernando `Lasama’ de Araujo, Presidential Candidate in Timor Leste (East Timor) and current President of Parliament. Joy Siapno is the author of Gender, Islam, Nationalism and the State in Aceh: The Paradox of Power, Co-optation and Resistance(Routledge Curzon, 2002); Associate Editor of the Encyclopedia of Women and Islamic Cultures; and co-editor, Between Knowledge and Commitment: Post-Conflict Reconstruction and Peace-building in Regional Contexts (Osaka: Japan Center for Area Studies, 2004). In addition to her academic work, she has worked with social-political-economic-ecological movements such as Partido Democratico (PD, in Timor Leste), the School of Democratic Economics (founded by Dr. Hendro Sangkoyo), Forum for Philippine Alternatives (founded by Dr. Walden Bello), the Aceh Institute in Southeast Asia. Joy Siapno recently resigned from her position as Associate Professor in the Graduate School of International Studes in Seoul National University  where she taught classes in Southeast Asian history, culture, politics and economics as well as feminist discourses in international relations, in order to support her husband’s campaign. They have a son named Hadomi (which means “love” in Tetun). They gave him this name — Hadomi — because Fernando Lasama feels that there has been so much pain, violence, and conflict in Timor Leste, and hopes that by saying his son’s name everyday, “Hadomi”, we can begin a different way of imagining and embodying love, survival, politics, and peace in Timor Leste.

The presidential elections will take place on Saturday, 17 March 2012. This is the third presidential elections since Timor Leste gained independence in 2002, after 24 years of occupation by Indonesian military forces.

Neferti Tadiar (NT): In light of this on-going presidential campaign, and in the context of global events and developments these last few decades, as well as regional developments, how do you view national politics in East Timor today?

Jacqueline Siapno (JS): There are 2 things which were running through my mind yesterday as we drove from Dili to the mountains of Ermera where we did our last day of campaigning:

(1) Militarization: do we really want militarized-commando type Presidents to be running this country, after all the trauma Timorese have gone through during colonization, war, and conflict? Two of the other candidates who may win, both supported by the largest parties (CNRT and FRETILIN), are ex-Falintil guerrillas. I have enormous respect for our “revolutionary armed front guerrilla veterans”, but the question going through most people’s minds here in Timor Leste now is: will they make visionary Presidents?

It may be useful to reflect and do a comparative reading of what has happened historically in our region (i.e. Southeast Asia, and the arrogance of military generals vis-a-vis their civilian counterparts) and also globally (especially in light of the revolutions in the Middle East recently).

At the moment, the other top two candidates who may win (Taur Matan Ruak, backed by Xanana Gusmao/CNRT) and Lu Olo (Fretilin candidate) are ex-combatant guerrillas. A Filipina colleague (Rosalie Arcala-Hall, Political Scientist) and I once did research comparing ex-MNLF and ex-Falintil combatants transitioning into the statutory armed forces (AFP and F-FDTL respectively) and “civilian life” and what we discovered is fascinating (in terms of mentality, attitudes, processes). The most revealing interviews for me were with the ex-combatants who are now Members of Parliament: here are some of their comments: “The most challenging part of transitioning from being a combatant to an MP is having to learn how to do `dialogue’: in the past, if we didn’t like our opponent, we just terrorized, intimidated, tortured, or shot them. But now, we are being told that we have to learn how to dialogue and communicate. Why? What for?”**

This kind of mentality continues to this day, here in Timor Leste. Xanana, the current Prime Minister, and former “supreme commander” of the armed struggle and Taur Matan Ruak (Presidential candidate backed by CNRT, Xanana’s party) put up huge posters of both of them putting back on their military fatigues, in order to mutually campaign for each other to run this country. My husband, Fernando Lasama de Araujo’s greatest concern is this: in our post-war context, is it really wise to re-militarize our landscape, if only to remind regular people that the military can terrorize and intimidate? I think people in Timor Leste have had enough of their share of terror, violence, and abuse by the military, and it is time to end this kind of male masculinities type of image-making and rhetoric. Regionally and globally, it is so important for women to learn from alternative civilian-military relations, and the capacity of civilians to do oversight on the military (something that is very weak in Timor Leste, and thus the violations and sense of impunity).

(2) The second one is about money-politics: there are several questions and concerns that come to mind. The most important one in many people’s minds these days has to do with public financial management and accountability. You’ve probably already read news stories describing Timor Leste as “an impoverished country with a very large bank account” (i.e. the Petroleum Fund). Under the current regime of Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao (CNRT), public spending has been described as “as if there were no tomorrow” — the national budget is primarily dependent on oil revenues without much thought on developing other economic sectors, on living frugally, or on spending this money wisely. Education is not exactly a priority (at least not from what I’ve seen), nor is there any creative, inspiring vision about education and investing on education for kids, youth, and women. The National Strategic Development Plan is an extremely ambitious plan that looks good on paper, but not in practice. We are now living the “resource curse” and yet most state officials are in denial about the huge economic inequalities between their new rich lifestyles and the urban and rural poor in this country.

Then there is the issue of what happens when ex-combatants become contractors and business people? There has yet to be a serious investigative journalism program and strengthening of anti-corruption mechanisms to stop the awarding of infrastructure contracts to sub-standard contractors whose road, school, or other projects are sub-standard and fall apart after only one year. Inspite of the millions of dollars put into infrastructure, Dili continues to be full of potholes and the rural districts continue to have problems with access to transportation and basic services like electricity, health services, and education.

A wise and enlightened President can provide critical oversight on the performance of the government, especially when it comes to public financial management, economic development, ecological integrity, and examples of frugality across the region and the world on how to live simply. My husband and our party have been at the forefront of environmental awareness and programs such as eco-tourism, especially through the environmental organization Fundasaun Haburas, founded by my husband and Demetrio Carvalho, who won the Goldman Environmental Prize for promoting local knowledges and conducting innovative research on indigenous belief systems on ecological integrity (including tarabandu). These are the kinds of programs that we hope would get more support.

We run a campaign based on principles and ethics, and not money. We asked people to pay for ther own gas and transport to get to the campaign and many people did so. There must be an alternative politics where young people, women, the elderly, and dispossessed can grab governance into their own hands, even without money (and challenge entrenched political elites who are dippling into state resouces for their private gain).


NT: What are the political challenges that your political party, Partido Democratico (PD), faces?

JS: We face many serious challenges. In this presidential campaign, we’ve been under-resourced, under-staffed, under-estimated (especially by the two “elephant” parties in the room who keep saying we’re a bunch of infants). Even though Partido Democratico has thousands of highly talented grassroots village leaders and community organizers, and we’ve been able to run a great and inspiring campaign up to today, we don’t know what will happen in the ballot box (that’s why we need the support of international observers to ensure a clean election). We also face challenges in terms of translating ourselves to the outside world, as you can see from the requests of international media who are trying to find out more information about PD’s talented leaders and party structure, but keep getting either a no answer, materials only in Tetun, or incomplete information. For the upcoming parliamentary election, PD has to work on all these. Because of this lack of translation and communication, some international researchers and media under-estimate our strength, talent, and vision: most of them never bother to travel to the rural areas to gauge our organizational capacity, and yet they are so confident to write international reports saying we are “poorly organized”. If anyone bothered to do extensive ethnographic research, they would discover to their humility and surprise that PD is full of extraordinarily brilliant visionaries in the rural areas. I can give many examples of women, men, and youth in our party from whom the world can learn so much.*

NT: How do you see the role of women in national politics, and can you share your own experiences and point of view as someone within government and as scholar of everyday life struggles, particularly of the everyday life struggles of the rural poor?

JS: Yesterday, as I rode the truck to stand beside my husband on the campaign in Ermera, I realized that this space which I had forsaken is also important: if women like me and you think of politics as “dirty and corrupt” and leave it to the men to run it, what other elderly women, young girls, kids, and youth see when we drive through the roads and paddy fields is: a whole bunch of men. Try to imagine what they may be thinking: dozens of men campaigning, and no women. Where are the women? (a question which Theresa Devasahayam, the Director of Gender Studies in ISEAS, Singapore, wants me to answer for a keynote speech in October.) It seems like a simple question, but I find it extremely difficult to answer intelligently. It’s not enough for us to use our analytically sharp skills as feminists and well-trained social scientists. We also have to jump and take the risk of riding in that truck and trying to feel (not just think) of why it is that women don’t do these things: 1. they may get shot, or have their house burned down, or their kids kidnapped, or they simply don’t have childcare support; 2. the men forget to mention in the party structure that there are actually women leaders in the group, and neglect to invite them to speak; 3. their intelligence and contributions are totally under-estimated, or intentionally kept hidden and un-acknowledged (for many reasons); 4. some of us women, including myself, are just not very good nor interested in bolstering ourselves (for some Asian women, this is embarrassing — having to promote yourself).

I’m also just realizing now, belatedly, that hanging out with scholars and hanging-out with ex-combatants and clandestine virtuosos of an independence struggle are very different kettles of fish. One has to forget that one is a scholar, or a political scientist. As two scholarly friends advised me: sometimes you have to close your eyes and just take the risk and jump into practical politics. Scholars tend to be always very cautious and investigating everything before they do anything. They also tend to be more interested in critical observation (ethnography and taking notes, writin history) rather than being in the middle of the storm and actively participating (as this may “jeopardize their independence”). Being and becoming a political practitioner is something else: one has to be prepared to lose one self, and everything (including one’s privacy and time to read books and write lengthy reflective analysis in one’s journal; and/or be the target of a political assassination or road-block; not to mention being prepared for your house to be burned down and losing your entire library and arcive which happened to us in 2006).

I’m sending you a photo below (see above) of me and Mau Hunu, one of the most respected and loved older generation of ex-Falintil guerrillas here in Timor Leste, who showed up in our campaign in Dili 2 days ago, giving us a lot of hope and inspiration to keep going and struggling against “militarized masculinities”. Amazing what can happen when feminists hang-out with ex-guerrillas.

As for solidarity with poor, rural women, this is also a challenge, in a country where NGOs, the UN and others have yet to begin a critical discussion on “decolonizing solidarity.” One has to be very reflective of class politics and class conflict, not just gender, in order not to repeat the methods of domination in everyday politics that self-righteous human rights workers, community organizers, and feminists sometimes fall into.

NT: So how would you address this neglected question of decolonization? In your work you have consistently raised this question especially as it relates to education, and you’ve argued for the need to create new methods of learning as well as to incorporate the “common sense” and languages of the disenfranchised in governance as well as in education. What are your thoughts on decolonization in this context?

JS: This is a very important question. This is also the most significant challenge we face here in Timor Leste today and in the aftermath of these elections. Many of the problems we have now in the nation-building and economic development process have to do with not having the critical capacity to unpack the left-over consequences of colonization: de-colonizing our minds is still ongoing, and as an educator and teacher I know that all of us together have a very important role to play. One of the challenges is that: in a post-war context where combatants have run the country, they continue to rule. Teachers and educators in this country are not given the space and respect they truly deserve (unless they start threatening, intimidating, terrorizing, and punishing too). If you embody peace, are soft-spoken, and try to convince people to give “new methods of learning” a chance, it is quite an uphill struggle. This is very evident from the public speaking style of many of the presidential candidates who are ex-combatants: they often revert to images of “waging a war”, speaking in commando-style as if they were talking to soldiers in a battlefield (instead of women, children, and elderly who are not deaf at all!). We tried to run our campaign by smiling, being relaxed, showing a different way of embodying politics, not just as a cerebral, political theory process, but incorporating as you say “common sense”: politics can be hopeful, liberating, and enlightening.

NT: Can you say more about the historical developments in the region and globally that might bear on the situation in East Timor today? There has been such a great disenchantment in many countries of the post-industrial West with the political system of representational democracy. The state is increasingly recognized as working at the behest of the financial system, particularly the banks. How does this look like from where you stand? What might the role of the state be in bringing about change in the global south? How can “becoming a political practitioner” enable us to “side with dispossessed” as you once put it?

JS: From where I stand here in Timor Leste, things can look different. This is a “small” country, a half-island, with a small population…and yet every single international institution (including the UN, WB, IMF, and other international NGOs) has descended upon this “small” country, which makes for a very interesting study on what their impact is on local processes. One of the things that international institutions and their advisors, consultants, and trainers bring with them is the idea of “global governance” which apparently fits everybody. But what you and I know, in our rigorous and critical workshops with Lila Abu-Lughod and our team, is that there is no such thing as a one-size-fits all formula (whether it is about representational democracy or public financial management). Ironically, it’s some people in Columbia University, New York (related to the Human Rights Center there), who are advising East Timor on how to use its money (i.e. the Petroleum Fund) wisely. These advisers are not evil people, but it won’t work.

Timor Leste is in an unusual position as a doubly-colonized (by Portugal then Indonesia) post-war country where there continue to be malnourished children and heartbreaking inequality, but has a very large bank account with huge montly oil revenues. The role and character of the state in bringing about change in Timor Leste and the global south must prioritize giving new and creative methods of learning on frugality, living simply, and distributing the wealth equally. We’ve already seen from other oil and resource-rich countries (e.g. Aceh, Nigeria, Nauru, Libya and many others) that resource-wealth is not enough: you need wisdom and respect for the earth and our natural environment in order not to waste and take for granted what we have now. As for becoming a political practitioner and siding with the dispossessed: you and I have dedicated and committed our lives to this kind of struggle, convincing our students of our ideas. But I think the problem with academia, and our Filipina colleague Vina Lanzona (Historian in Univ. of Hawaii) has also pointed this out to me, is that our audience has been limited. We become scholars, I hope, not just to interpret the world, but also to change it. If we spend all our time studying and studying, researching and teaching, but we still can’t change anything when it comes to the problems of corruption and disempowerment of dispossessed peoples, then we are very bad students, researchers, and teachers.

NT: Yes, I agree. I do feel that we need to raise the political bar for ourselves as scholars and teachers. At the same time, as your own case shows very well, our involvements in the world extend beyond our role as academics. And to think about how we might intervene to change the world also means to engage our own complex locations of political belonging. So in this regard, and as a diasporic Filipina like yourself, I wanted to ask what your reflections are on cross-cultural alliances and solidarity and the role in particular of women as helpers of cultures and communities not originally their own? This seems especially pertinent in the global context today when so many women from the global South (not least Filipinas) have become a diasporic domestic labor force, charged with the social reproduction of their host communities.

JS: Thanks for this thoughtful question, Neferti. I remember fondly how you and I discussed this on the bus when we were in Amman, Jordan, and also over dinners, and I was very moved and inspired by your analysis (during our conversations and in your writings) of how women from the global South, including Filipinas, enrich their husband, their families, communities, and countries, but continue to remain a hidden, un-acknowledge, unpaid or under-paid labor force.

It is actually very difficult for me to answer this question now, as it is a very challenging and complex one. But what I do is keep a journal, which is one of the few spaces I have these days where I can truly be honest, and hopefully someday, when my husband is no longer a state official, I can share it.

I remember getting on the plane after my meeting with you and Lila and our team in Amman, Jordan, and sitting with several Filipina and Indonesian migrant workers who were working as household helpers in Jordan. There were about 10 of us travelling together, and since we had such a long wait before boarding, we shared our stories. One of the Filipina women told me that she hasn’t been home for 4 years, and hadn’t seen her 3 children for that long. I remember her having lots of pasalubong and presents for her kids in her hand-carry. Another Filipina women told me her story of caring for her “boss” (an American woman married to a Jordanian man). And her story is fascinating because it over-turns the stereotypical story abou women from the global South working in cultures and comunities not originally their own. She told me that her boss (the American woman) was treated very badly by her husband (Jordanian) and that her Jordanian in-laws would often gang-up on her. So for the past four years, she had been care-giving for this American woman and her three kids: protecting her from the abusive husband, nurturing the children, motivating the American woman to get up and struggle and get herself together. Apparently, at one point, the Jordanian husband, to humiliate his wife further, even said: “Look at you, why can’t you get yourself together like the maid, who is looking better than you and is the one who organizes everything around here.” Anyway, apparently when this Filipina woman left her boss to go back to her kids in the Philippines, the American woman was profoundly grateful and gave her a huge bonus. When she related this story to me at the boarding gate, I remember thinking: what an amazing friendship: essentially, this Filipina woman was her best-friend, adviser, protector, and care-giver.

There is always a different angle to a story, or a relationship. My own youngest brother, Jay, was a care-giver. He recently passed away. But for me, the best way to honor him and his memory is to respect, honor, and profoundly value and listen to the care-givers in our homes, our families, our political parties, our communities. Without the everyday nurturing and logistical support they provide for us, we would be nothing. We can live, because they self-sacrifice their own needs, even their own children. Unfortunately, in our world today, we continue to see care-givers and women from the global South as dispensable, replaceable labor force that we can do without (once they have reproduced the labor we want from them, which is the case also with Vietnamese, Cambodian, and Filipina women marrying Korean men).

At the instinctive and gut level, I miss Pangasinan, speaking my own mother tongue, being with my natal family, and our ancestral land. I wish I could contribute more to my own native land. Just because Filipina women end up in East Timor, New York, Jordan, Singapore, or Hawaii doesn’t mean that we are less nationalistic. I think disparaging remarks from some people saying that we are “not patriotic” is too simplistic. For some reason, God put me in this path here in Timor Leste. I don’t know exactly why, but I’ve learned to trust that God must know what s/he is doing, and would not put me in a path where I am not supposed to be. But I hope that in this path, I can continue to build bridges and cross-cultural alliances, and solidarity amongst peoples of the world, especially Timor Leste and the Philippines. There has been an effort to portray my husband as an “indigenous leader from the mountains of Ainaro, raised by very poor parents who are farmers, and a mother who is exactly like other poor rural women in Timr Leste.” That is true. But what is also suppressed, hidden, and kept out is that he has a Filipina wife and a bi-cultural child who come from another background, and also bring in something very positive and creative in this entire social process. The idea of a “pure indigeneity” is also problematic, as there are always other outside influences and forces that shape our intellectual formations. This is one of the reasons that the U.S. became a great country: its capacity to embrace foreign talent from all over the world, instead of keeping it out.

My brother Jay’s last e-mail to me, before he died, is dated Feb. 9, 2012, in which he wrote: “Perhaps portraying Maun Nando as `purely indigenous’ is a measurement of the current societal norms of what his staff thinks a leader in East Timor should be. Hopefully, this will change in the future as they will become more exposed to positive foreigners, and in addition, promoting dialogues, educational exchanges on cross-cultural solidarities and plural societies. I think it is important to continue your work in trying to help make Timor a more open and creative society.”


*Please keep in mind though that I’m not in the party structure; I’m merely a sympathizer and support person. For more infomation on our political party structure, policies, vision, platform, manifesto, go to: or

or contact via e-mail or facebook: Antonio da Conceicao (President of Conselho Politica Nacional, Partido Democratico;

** For people interested in this research, see

Top image – Left: Jacqueline Aquino Siapno: Right: Mau Hunu

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