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From the Rooster's Cry to the Call of Freedom:
How Timor-Leste Transformed a Tradition into an Act of Defiance.

Tradition in Combat

From Cultural Symbol to Resistance Tool

Two roosters in combat stance, the white representing the Indonesian forces and the red symbolizing the Timorese resistance, illustrating the symbolic use of cockfighting in Timor-Leste's fight for independence.
Coat of arms displayed at the entrance monument of Manatuto, Timor-Leste

Cockfighting, a cultural ritual found in many corners of the world, has a unique dimension in Timor-Leste, marked by resistance, tradition, and hope. Its trajectory is intertwined with the country's history, and its role drastically transformed, especially during the Indonesian occupation.

The Portuguese Legacy and the Indonesian Arrival

Under Portuguese rule, cockfighting was primarily a cultural and religious celebration, celebrated in festivals and sacred events. Bets were modest, and in terms of reach, it was not a practice as widespread as it would later become.

The Indonesian occupation in 1975 brought with it new contours for this tradition. The Indonesians, coming from a nation where cockfighting is popular, introduced the practice more broadly in Timor-Leste. For the Timorese, this activity became a refuge, a respite from daily oppression, and a way to connect with their culture.

Cockfighting: A Language of Resistance

More than just a pastime, cockfighting emerged as a subtle but powerful resistance tool. After the occupation of the territory, the Timorese resistance, known as FALINTIL, organized under the guidance of a charismatic leader and took refuge in the mountains of Timor. Given that cockfights drew large public gatherings, they provided an ideal setting for the covert exchange of information between those in the cities and those in the mountains.

Even with Indonesian attempts to ban such fights, the tradition persisted. But the roosters' role was not limited to coded messages. Some within the resistance regarded them as symbolic war oracles. Two roosters, one representing the Indonesian forces and the other the Timorese guerrillas, were set to fight. The outcome dictated strategies, serving as an omen for future confrontations. Though the exact prevalence and widespread nature of this practice are not fully known.

Amid a volatile war scenario, this practice also boosted troop morale, feeding hopes of victory against better-equipped and often larger adversaries.  

The Symbolism of Manatuto: A Personal Reflection

Manatuto, also written as 'Manatutu' in Tétum, is the capital of the municipality bearing its name and offers an intriguing connection to Timor-Leste's cultural narrative of cockfighting. The city's name, as explained by Anabela Leal de Barros in "O Galo do Oriente - contos e lendas de Timor-Leste", derives from the Galoli word meaning "birds pecking".


Specifically, Manatuto is believed to originate from the Galolen: Manatuto, which breaks down to 'Manu tuku' — with 'manu' translating to 'rooster' and 'tuku' meaning 'beat'. This linguistic insight hints at a longstanding association with roosters and, by extension, the practice of cockfighting.


Adding to the tapestry of significance, Manatuto is also the birthplace of a resistance leader who became a beacon of hope for thousands during Timor-Leste's fight for independence. His leadership and symbolic importance in the resistance movement add another layer to the potential significance of Manatuto's association with cockfighting.

However, it's crucial to clarify that while the linguistic and historical connections are intriguing, suggesting a correlation between Manatuto's name, the leadership of this resistance figure, and the fight for independence is merely a speculative thought. This observation arises from a curiosity sparked by various sources and research, presenting an interesting coincidence rather than a definitive conclusion.

Post-independence: Tradition and Controversy

With Timor-Leste's independence in 2002, cockfighting not only persisted but grew in scale, with bets significantly increasing. For some, rooted in national memory, the practice is a testimony to Timorese resistance and the sacrifices made.

However, the practice is not without controversy. Critics deem it cruel and call for its prohibition. For others, it represents an inextricable part of Timorese identity.


The government has chosen to regulate cockfighting, aiming not only to raise revenue through taxes but also to attract tourists interested in traditional games. The legalization also seeks to help control illegal games, the inappropriate use of medication on fighting roosters, and to prevent the involvement of minors.


The regulation, in parallel, includes laws governing the import and export of fighting roosters. Moreover, it aims to combat currency evasion and money laundering, generating employment, value, and tax revenues, with the proceeds being distributed among public and private sector entities, as well as the Church.


The trajectory of cockfighting in Timor-Leste is emblematic. It reflects the tenacity and creativity of the Timorese people, who turned a cultural tradition into a symbolic and strategic resistance tool. Amid adversities, the Timorese found in cockfighting not just entertainment but a means to sustain hope and determination in the fight for freedom.


While cockfighting embodies the spirit of resistance and cultural pride in Timor-Leste, it also stands as a testament to the nation's resilience in transforming challenges into symbols of hope and unity. Yet, this symbol of resilience prompts us to ponder the ethical considerations surrounding such traditions, inviting a deeper reflection on the balance between cultural heritage and contemporary values, and how symbolism can influence individual behavior and social effects.

>> ​Uncover the tradition

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