Reflection from Nora J. Keller
With the generous support of the Consortium on Cooperation, Conflict and Complexity (AC4), I was able to return to Timor-Leste this summer to conduct a second round of interviews for my dissertation on innovation trajectories in rebel organizations. In my work, I explore why some armed resistance groups actively use nonviolent action as a strategy, whereas other rebel groups become more extremist over time. Because this phenomenon has received scanty scholarly attention to date, interviews and conversations with violent and nonviolent resistance leaders and participants were crucial to learn about how violent organizations shift their focus from violence to nonviolence, as well as the possible motivations behind such a move.
Though rebel organizations ranging from the Polisario in West Sahara to the Maoists in Nepal have also undergone similar developments, Timor-Leste was a particularly interesting case for several reasons: First, it was a particularly internecine and brutal conflict that cost the lives of approximately one third of the population (estimates on this differ), which made the emergence of a nonviolent movement with widespread civilian participation all the more puzzling. Second, the conflict in general and the rebel group in particular (Fretilin, later renamed the National Council of Maubere Resistance) have been comparatively sidelined by the scholarly community, which meant that limited my bias about what I would find.
Over the process of my two field trips, I was able to conduct about thirty in-depth interviews and conversations; sometimes, I would talk to the same person twice. I also learned a lot about my research topic, the mechanics behind cooperation between the violent and nonviolent movements. I learned how every single small demonstration was planned weeks ahead of time so that letters could be smuggled through to Xanana Gusmao, the rebel and resistance leader, who was first in the jungle and later in an Indonesian military jail. Through my conversation with José Ramos-Horta, I found out how the nonviolent resistance campaign received scanty international attention until the massacre of hundreds of civilians during a young rebel’s funeral, made public almost inadvertently through the presence of a few western journalists who managed to smuggle out their camera. Overall, I found evidence for my theory: Credible communication networks between students and elites in towns and rebels in the jungle, stemming from pre-war political bases, allowed for the tight coordination of violent and nonviolent efforts, so that neither side would fear political extinction.
While these two trips were invaluable for my dissertation work, I learned a lot more about conflict. After studying conflict from afar for years, I was unprepared for seeing what twenty-five of civil war could do to a country: ravaged country side, a population that at times appeared to consist only of children, an economy entirely dependent on a small handful of goods, a complete lack of infrastructure. The experience of interviewing was humbling; I felt honored by how much my interviewees would open up about their very painful pasts and the traumatic events they witnessed and were personally affected by. I heard about the deaths of countless close family members, starvation, and life in concentration camps, all over twenty-five years of struggle that seemed hopeless most of the time.
Author: Nora J. Keller is a doctorate student in Columbia’s General School of Arts and Sciences in the department of Political Sciences.