Launching Gordon Peake, Beloved Land: Stories, Struggles and Secrets from Timor-Leste


Launch of Gordon Peake’s Beloved Land: Stories, Struggles and Secrets from Timor-Leste
Australian National University
11 September 2013


I acknowledge that we are meeting on the traditional lands of the Ngunnawal people and pay my respects to their elders past and present.

I recognise Ambassador Abel Guterres, Paul Hutchcroft and of course Gordon Peake this evening.

Australia’s relationship with East Timor is akin to the way a parent thinks about a child that they adopted out at birth.  It’s a strong bond but it’s a relationship you don’t think about all the time.  And if you do think about it probably the predominant emotion that governs the relationship is one of guilt.

And Australia should feel a sense of guilt towards East Timor.

In 1942, the East Timorese fought alongside Australian troops.  Australians left, and many of the East Timorese who fought alongside were then left to face the Japanese alone.

In 1975, we failed to speak up about the invasion of East Timor.

In 1978, we extended de jure recognition of Indonesian sovereignty over East Timor.

And in 1999, we could have done better in the process that led to the referendum and the many thousands who lost their lives.

But when East Timor comes into the Australian consciousness, it’s just little shards that penetrate into our news cycle.  The news cycle was penetrated in 1999, when Laurie Brereton gave an extraordinary speech to parliament – speaking straight after Alexander Downer.  And he talked in parliament about how just two weeks earlier Father Francisco Barreto had sat in his office and spoken to him about what would happen after the referendum.  And then this hard man of the NSW Right had his voice crack in parliament as he spoke about how Father Barreto had been one of the first of the Catholic priests to be assassinated following the announcement of the ballot results.

And then the story of East Timor came into the Australian media if anything through a sense of pride about how our forces had acquitted themselves in East Timor. Peter Cosgrove tells the story of an Australian corporal who requested a doctor for the local village.  The previous day the corporal had helped a local woman deliver her baby – a first for the woman and a first for the corporal.  And Cosgrove had said “Oh well, all’s well that ends well”.  And the corporal had replied “well yeah, but yesterday a lady presented with a breech birth and I’m not real good at those”. Cosgrove told the story as a way of speaking about how Australian soldiers had that sense of social justice.  How for the Australian soldiers it wasn’t for them to sit back behind the sandbags, but for them being good soldiers meant getting out and helping to deal with local people.

A few years later another little shard of our relationship with East Timor penetrated into the local media when Glebe Coroner’s Court, was the site of an inquiry as to whether Indonesian forces had deliberately killed the Balibo five.  It is such an unusual place for this discussion to have taken place about the events that took place in 1975.

East Timor today is a poor nation.  Gordon gives us a few of the statistics of this in his book.  It’s ranked 120th out of 169 on the Human Development Index.  Forty nine per cent of East Timor lives on less than 88 US cents a day.  East Timor has relatively low education rates, a high birth rate and high levels of inequality.  Gordon describes the stories of those who have a second home in Bali, who wear $750 sunglasses, who drive Hummers.

There’s a police force, which as he reports it, has a disciplinary case for every 2½ officers.  And yet there’s a budget that’s grown thirty two fold over the past decade which has the potential to turn a resource curse into a resource blessing.

But that’s about it for the statistics in Gordon’s book.  His is not an economic treatise which makes your eyes droop as you move past page on page of numbers.  His is a book full of stories not statistics.

It’s something that Scribe does extraordinarily well – this is just one in a series of terrific Scribe books that I’ve read which bring out fabulous stories to help us better understand issues, problems and places.

You read in Gordon’s book about Jose Antonio Belo who after Independence went to interview his torturer.  You read about Gordon’s conversation over was it half a case - or an entire case? - of mid-strength Australian beer getting to know Australian Jimmy, the ‘White Bat’, who fought alongside FALINTIL troops in the hills and who has stories which Gordon struggles to identify fact from fiction. You’ll hear about Xanana Gusmao who had the extraordinary strength of character to be able to hug the Indonesian generals who a few years earlier were out there trying to kill him.

As a university student in 1993, I interviewed Jose Ramos Horta.  So I knew a bit about Jose, but I never knew that the reason that he was kicked out of East Timor was for writing a positive review of the movie Ned Kelly (which starred Mick Jagger). It’s a fantastic rendition – one which is worth watching for many reasons not least, and this is kind of departing slightly from the script, the moment in which a member of the gang rides by Mick Jagger wearing a dress on the horse and no-one says a thing. But apparently writing a review of Ned Kelly was seen as sufficiently revolutionary that Horta was exiled – ultimately to his good and that of the nation of East Timor.

You’ll read about Rogerio Lobato, the East Timorese Minister, later gun runner, and the story of how he lost his wife, his parents and twelve siblings in the 1975 attacks.

You’ll hear Gordon talk about pre-Independence East Timor in which someone says fifty per cent were informing on the other fifty per cent.

And the sheer stories of the incompetence of the Portuguese in 1879.  A lovely despairing letter which the Governor wrote to his superiors in Macau – ‘I have a total of forty-eight Civil and Military officers, of which ten are competent, ten are mediocre and seventeen are useless... the Judge Delegate tells me he knows nothing of his duties.’

Gordon tells the story of Boaventura who raised a mutiny only to find thousands of his followers executed over two days and nights.

The story of finally when the Portuguese pulled out, leaving a country with a thousand primary school students, no electricity, no paved roads, and conditions that were so close to the way they’d left them, Gordon writes, that it drew anthropologists to the country because they wanted to see how traditional groups lived in a country which had been undisturbed by colonisation.

You’ll read stories about bureaucratic incompetence – the moment on which Gordon turns up to an office only to be told that he lacks the requisite red folder that should contain his documents.  That obtaining such a red folder cannot be done on the spot and will require returning five days later.

You’ll hear stories of the language.  I love the Portuguese phrase that Gordon teaches you in the book: Somos todos primos (‘We are all cousins’).  And he talks about a land of magical goats in which things are about alliances and friendships.  About his own attempts to map those alliances and friendships to understand Timorese politics.

You learn about the challenges of Tetun.  About the embarrassment of UN workers who don’t understand Tetun themselves.  And about the challenges of understanding Tetun, as Gordon puts it, “there are three different ways of addressing an individual, each one indicating the speaker’s position in relation to the person being addressed.  There are no verb tenses, but a much more complicated way of coding family relationships” which includes not only the blood relationship but also the age relationship.

At the end of it all you’re left with a sense of the challenges of development.  Gordon talks about the people that he meets, so many of them in some way flawed.  There’s the occasional worker, the occasional parliamentarian, the occasional public servant who is doing extraordinary work.  But ultimately you’re left with the sense that development is about individuals, flawed, most of them, trying to do their best.

I was reminded of an essay that George Orwell wrote about Charles Dickens.  And he says that early in his life he was deeply frustrated when he read Dickens. Because Dickens is all about individuals.  But Orwell said what frustrated him as a young man was that Dickens had no structure to understanding the challenges of the poor – no strategy for dealing with development.  For him, it’s all about character and the individuals. And Orwell says it took him until late in life to finally realise that that’s what life is.  It’s not about policies and structure, it is actually fundamentally about individuals and their flaws and their qualities.

If you take one lesson out of Gordon’s book it should be this – that ultimately development is more about character than it is about capital.  If you want to change a society you’ve got to change individuals.

And it’s such a hard lesson for those of us on the progressive side of politics to learn.

Because we want to be able to implement these grand plans - we want this notion that we turn on the tap and the cash flows and things get better.  But ultimately, Gordon’s right.  It’s about character, it’s about individuals, it’s about stories and sometimes you can put a lot of money in and end up with a society in which forty nine per cent of the people live on 88 cents a day or less.

But the thing is that if we understand that, if we understand the flaws, if we understand the lessons of Dickens that Orwell only understood late in life, then we’re actually placed to do a whole lot more good.

So I want to thank Gordon for writing an extraordinary book that will teach you a great deal about East Timor.  But that fundamentally should teach us all an important lesson about doing good in developments overseas and perhaps even here at home.

Go and read it – it’s an extraordinary book.  Thank you.

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