Property, State Land and Lisan: Reassembling the Land & State in Post-Independence Timor-Leste

Event details

PhD Seminar

Date & time

Monday 04 March 2019


Lecture Theatre 1 Hedley Bull Building Garran Road, ANU
ANU Canberra


Meabh Cryan



This is a pre-submission seminar by DPA PhD candidate Meabh Cryan where she talks about her thesis.

‘Our land is our body, we will not sell it because if we sold it we would all die’

(Elder from Tutuala cited in Haburas Foundation 2013:107)

For most people in post-independence Timor-Leste, land is central to livelihoods, identity, culture and deeply important relationships with the ancestors. However, for the state, control over land is also fundamental to a range of state-building objectives: infrastructure development, land administration, and the extension of state authority over the territory. Balancing these differing needs is a highly complex and political undertaking. Using an assemblage analytic, this study highlights the socially constructed and continually emergent nature of land (Li 2014). Through multi-sited ethnography this thesis traces the social construction of land across four moments of contestation: the drafting of provisions on land and property in the Timor-Leste constitution; the drafting of what is commonly referred to as Timor-Leste’s ‘first’ land law (Law 13/2017); land expropriation for the Suai Supply Base; and land expropriation for the Oecusse-Ambeno Special Social Market Economy Zone (ZEESM).

Meabh Cryan argues that post-independence land policy in Timor-Leste centres on the articulation of three main constructions of land: land as private property, land as state land, and land as rai lisan (customary land). The two ‘on-the-ground’ eviction cases (in Suai and Oecusse) demonstrate complex accommodations which reinforce understandings of land that are frequently outside of and in contradiction to state law and policy. By using an assemblage analytic Cryan’s thesis challenges the idea that laws, policies and legal definitions of land are technical acts, instead it seeks to lay bare the social and political ways in which land is continuously being (re)assembled. Finally, through examining the regimes of practice (Dean 2010) which are used to draft policies and make evictions conceivable, this thesis argues that contestations over land in Timor-Leste are moments of performance which produce particular types of subjects and a particular type of state. Providing thick descriptions and analysis of the discursive strategies deployed across evictions cases in Timor-Leste this thesis hopes to help civil society and communities affected by land expropriation to engage with and understand the contentious politics of evictions.

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