Guilt trip - The Spectator

In the latest edition of The Spectator, I've reviewed Gordon Peake's Beloved Land: Stories, Struggles and Secrets from Timor-Leste. The book which paints a very different picture of the country than the one most Australians are familiar with; read on to find out how:

Guilt trip, The Spectator, 9 August 2014

If you had to pick one emotion to characterise Australia’s attitude towards East Timor, it would be guilt.

We are right to feel guilty about 1942, when Australian troops retreated from Timor, leaving many of the East Timorese who fought alongside us to be killed by the Japanese. We should feel guilty about 1975, when we failed to speak up about the invasion of East Timor. We ought to feel guilty about 1978, when we extended de jure recognition of Indonesian sovereignty over East Timor. And we should feel guilty too about 1999, because we could have done better in the process that led to the referendum and the many thousands who lost their lives.

And yet, most of the time, Australians don’t think about East Timor at all. Between cricket and celebrity cooking, Barack Obama’s latest speech and Lady Gaga’s latest outfit, there isn’t much space in the Australian news cycle for a nation of 1.2 million people sitting 700 kilometres off the coast of Darwin.

Only the sharpest shards of news from East Timor penetrate the Australian media. In 1999, the press reported Laurie Brereton’s speech to parliament after the Independence referendum. Brereton told parliament of Father Francisco Barreto, who had sat in Brereton’s office weeks earlier, warning of the violence that would come. Barreto had then been one of the first of the Catholic priests to be assassinated following the announcement of the ballot results.

In the early-2000s, there was coverage of our troops 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.  Cosgrove had said ‘Oh well, all’s well that ends well’.  The corporal had replied ‘well yeah, but yesterday a lady presented with a breech birth and I’m not real good at those’.

In 2007, the Glebe Coroner’s Court on Parramatta Road was the site of an inquiry as to whether Indonesian forces had deliberately killed the Balibo five.  In 2008, José Ramos-Horta was flown to Darwin for emergency surgery after an assassination attempt. In late-2013, East Timor was in the news because of spying allegations. Taken together, you’ve got to wonder what kind of incoherent picture these fragments present for the Australian public.

If the media coverage of East Timor is like shards of glass, Gordon Peake’s book is, by contrast, like a beautiful vase. But while he describes the country’s natural beauty, he doesn’t gloss over the fact that East Timor today is a poor nation, ranked 120th out of 169 on the Human Development Index.  Forty nine per cent the population 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.  Peake 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. East Timor has the potential to turn the stereotypical resource curse into a resource blessing.

Most of Beloved Land is stories, rather than statistics. The tragedy of East Timor can be traced at least in part to the manner in which the Portuguese ran the colony. In 1879, the Governor of East Timor wrote to his superiors: ‘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.’ When the Portuguese pulled out, they left a country with a thousand primary school students, no electricity and no paved roads. Indeed, Peake points out that the Portuguese had brought so little development to East Timor that it became one of the anthropologists’ destination of choice: a chance to see traditional communities whose lives had been undisturbed by colonisation.

Peake enjoys language, and this book reflects the way that it shapes nations. The Portuguese phrase Somos todos primos (‘We are all cousins’) reflects the challenge that outsiders face in understanding East Timor’s complicated web of alliances and friendships. And the traditional language, Tetun, is more complex still. As Peake notes, ‘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).

Within this web of networks, Peake describes a nation where – in the 1990s – half of the population was informing on the other half. He discusses the awful tragedy of the 1975 attacks, which saw East Timorese Minister Rogerio Lobato lose his wife, his parents and twelve siblings. He describes the strength of character of José Antonio Belo, who after Independence went to interview his torturer, and Xanana Gusmão, a man able to hug the Indonesian generals who a few years earlier had been trying to kill him.

As often happens, tragedy sometimes veers into farce. Peake describes drinking beer with Australian Jimmy, the ‘White Bat’, who fought alongside FALINTIL troops in the hills. And he reminds us that José Ramos-Horta was expelled from East Timor for writing a positive review of the 1970 movie Ned Kelly, starring Mick Jagger.

Beloved Land doesn’t preach at the reader, but if there’s a message, it’s that cracking the development nut is hard – really hard. East Timor has attained independence, received considerable sums in development assistance, and owns substantial oil and gas reserves. But turning these assets into better living standards requires the work of imperfect human beings.

Peake tells of the occasional worker, the occasional parliamentarian, and the occasional public servant who is doing extraordinary work.  But ultimately the reader is left with the sense that development is about individuals, flawed, most of them, trying to do their best.

Peake’s book tells a broader story for all of us who want to reduce poverty. Economic development requires not just cash, but character. Without vision and altruism, there’s a limit to what money can do.

In weaving the tales of Timor, Gordon Peake illustrates why – as George Orwell put it – the injunction ‘behave decently’ is not so shallow as it sounds.

Beloved Land: Stories, Struggles and Secrets from Timor-Leste is published by Scribe

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  • Geoff D Bolton
    commented 2014-09-05 11:07:59 +1000
    Does Mr Peake’s book examine the progress in Dili (or its lack) toward a viable legal system including relevant modern commercial laws and regulations; and training of lawyers and other staff for a functioning court system? When such infrastructure comes to exist foreign investors may have confidence to invest in businesses which generate jobs and reduce their woeful unemployment levels. This kind of legal development seems a low priority with the Timor Leste leadership, while their ongoing campaign over maritime/seabed boundaries serves as a diversion from their weaknesses. It’s a sad situation.
    Geoff D Bolton.

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