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Governing through opacity: customary authority, hidden intentions, and oil infrastructure development in Suai, Timor-Leste

Bovensiepen, Judith M. (2023) Governing through opacity: customary authority, hidden intentions, and oil infrastructure development in Suai, Timor-Leste. Ethnos: Journal of Anthropology, 88 (4). pp. 797-818. ISSN 0014-1844. E-ISSN 1469-588X. (doi:10.1080/00141844.2021.1965642) (KAR id:89382)

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What is the relationship between intentions – their accessibility and their opacity – and the assertion of political authority? Opacity is a central aspect of customary authority in contemporary Timor-Leste, where obscuring the intentions and motivations underlying specific actions – by attributing them to metapersons – can be a subtle way of making claims to authority and status, and simultaneously an effective way of avoiding conflict. This article examines what happened when this form of opacity-based governance was scaled up to the level of the nation, in the context of a massive oil and gas infrastructure project in Suai, Covalima. 'Governing through opacity' by mobilising local practices – when adopted by the state – brought out rivalries between groups competing for state recognition. The analysis of the emerging tensions between two ritual speakers illustrates how the implementation of this oil project and related forms of 'state legibility' undermined locally emplaced forms of authority by forcing the revelation of disparate and otherwise hidden intentions. Examining these conflicts highlights the unstable and uneven relationship between intention management and different regimes of governance.

Item Type: Article
DOI/Identification number: 10.1080/00141844.2021.1965642
Additional information: For the purpose of open access, the author has applied a CC BY public copyright licence to any Author Accepted Manuscript version arising from this submission.
Uncontrolled keywords: Animism, oil and gas, mimetic governmentality, opacity of mind, state legibility
Subjects: G Geography. Anthropology. Recreation > GN Anthropology
H Social Sciences
Divisions: Divisions > Division of Human and Social Sciences > School of Anthropology and Conservation
Funders: Economic and Social Research Council (
Depositing User: Judith Bovensiepen
Date Deposited: 20 Jul 2021 13:32 UTC
Last Modified: 04 Mar 2024 17:56 UTC
Resource URI: (The current URI for this page, for reference purposes)

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Bovensiepen, Judith M..

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