Where the past is everywhere and the future uncertain – The Edge Review

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Beloved Land: Stories, Struggles, and Secrets from Timor-Leste. By Gordon Peake. Scribe Publications, 256 pages, UK14.99 (Paperback), US$9.88/UK6.17 (Kindle Edition). Reviewed by Simon Roughneen

Part travelogue, part anthropology, part analysis, and in places long-form journalism, Beloved Land is written – incongruously, perhaps – by one of the many foreign technocrats who worked in Timor-Leste in the almost decade and a half since 1999, when a majority of Timorese voted for independence, ending Indonesia’s brutal occupation of their tiny country.

Areia Branca beach near Dili (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

Areia Branca beach near Dili (Photo: Simon Roughneen, August 2011)

The author, Gordon Peake, who is a native of Northern Ireland and is now an academic at Australian National University, lived in Timor-Leste from 2007-2011, working for some of that time as an advisor to the country’s police. The rai doben, or “beloved land” in Tetun, is a Timorese nickname for the country from which the book’s title is gleaned. The stories in the book come from someone who spent a longer than usual time in Timor-Leste than most foreigners, myself included, who have lived and worked in the country in recent years. Much of what has been written about Timor-Leste has focused invariably on a violent and tragic history: a tiny half-island nation swallowed up by a giant neighbor, losing around a quarter of its population during a 24-year occupation. But despite the brutishness and sadness that made for so much easy, formulaic writing about Timor-Leste over the years, Beloved Land manages to view the country and its complexities with wry humour and trenchant observation.

As travelogue, it is Bill Bryson without the belly laughs, but retains the sense of tragedy and betrayal that characterizes many earlier books on Timor-Leste. Peake’s book is a poignant and invariably deadpan mix of anecdote and analysis, and in my view is the best thing written in English about the country in many a long year. Peake’s easy-going writing style almost camouflages his shrewd observations of some Timor-Leste’s most controversial characters. Taking to the road, there’s a touch of Hunter S. Thompson’s writings on Richard Nixon in the way Peake chases down some of the bloodthirsty goons who did the dirty work for the Indonesians in 1999. Minus the medicine cabinet and f-words, of course, though Peake gets through a few packs of cigartetes and the occasional beer along the way.

Some of these accounts, particularly the first-person descriptions of encounters with pro-Jakarta militia leaders Maturnus Bere and Eurico Guterres – surely war criminals both – would stand as revelatory pieces of journalism in their own right. In a tone that mixes both weariness and gleefulness,

Peake is also compelling in his descriptions of outsiders who descended on the newly founded country – often-condescending Westerners soaking up six figure salaries in Timor-Leste, UN officials or advisors to Timorese ministries. He wryly notes their preference for mixing with other Westerners in the relative comfort of Dili rather than spending time in the ramshackle rural areas or getting to know the Timorese. These malae (Tetun for “foreigner”) whine and complain in ways reminiscent of the cloistered Portuguese colonists centuries back.

In the worldview of the many foreign bureaucrats who passed often no more than a few frustrating months on the beautiful, rugged island country, Timor-Leste was a tabula rasa on which these so-called professional nation-builders could etch their own dry and abstruse maxims. Peake should know – he was one of them – but, in contrast to the false certainties that were often included in jargon-riddled policy reports issued by international agencies on Timor-Leste, Peake admits that he was confused as much as anything by what he saw around him.

Timor-Leste is a land where history repeats itself and where ties forged in the past play a major role in deciding what gets done now and by whom. “The past was everywhere,” as Peake puts it. He surmises that this has something do with how “everyone knows everyone, or something about everyone.” As Rogerio Lobato, a former independence fighter and presidential candidate, explains to the author: “We are all cousins” (somos todos primos).

To Peake, the foreign nation-builders and other aid workers just didn’t get these crucial cultural realities. Or those who did made sure their minders back in New York or Canberra knew nothing of the realities on the ground, preferring to couch their reports in the abstract language of the international aid community.

The abundance of tales in Beloved Land contain the bad news and the nuances, all mixed in with clairvoyant goats, shape-shifting Australian volunteer fighters and improbable stories of former enemies working side by side rather than seeking vengeance. One marvelous example is a widely believed tale that the prime minister, revered former independence fighter Xanana Gusmao, evaded assassination in 2008 by changing into a dog.

There’s a danger of lapsing into orientalism here, but given Peake’s Northern Irish background, there is much that is familiar to him in Timor-Leste – from the seamless juxtaposition of Catholicism and supernaturalism, prevalent in Ireland for centuries, to the bombast and side-stepping rhetoric of Timor’s politicians, another familiar staple to anyone who listened to the Jesuitical rationalisations fired out by politicians in Northern Ireland over the years.

And the author is solid too on the pragmatism underpinning some of the head-scratching ease with which former enemies reconciled: Timor-Leste, one million people, is surrounded by a vast country, the world’s fourth biggest, on which it depends for most of its imports. The author reminds us of the realities: “Xanana Gusmao — a man captured and jailed by the Indonesians — has publicly hugged some of the generals who once spent years trying to capture or kill him. When he visits Bali, where his brother is a senior figure in customs at the airport, Xanana stays in the hotel that is run by one of his ex-jailers.”

But for all the storytelling and wry observation, Peake is by trade an academic and policy wonk, and reverting to type, sets the flagpole gags and anecdotes in some fairly wonky concrete. The author makes clear his view that Timor-Leste, currently flush with gas money and hubris, faces a bleak future if it carries on spending as it is now. Citing the tireless and valuable work of the Dili-based think-tank La’o Hamutuk, Peake points out Timor-Leste’s gas and oil will be gone as soon as 2024. That leaves little time to grow an alternative economy, given that revenues from hydrocarbons now account for 90 per cent of the country’s budget.

He says the government’s blank cheque approach to problem-solving is robbing businesses of incentives, fostering dependence and cronyism. Potential moneymakers such as coffee and tourism, for example, have not taken off.

And international intervention has done little, in the bigger picture, to make a difference. More than US$8 billion in outside money has been spent in a land around the size of the author’s own Northern Ireland, but the majority of Timorese still live as subsistence farmers, despite the gas and oil boom in recent years.

The other Timorese, the connected elites who get lucrative government contracts to build roads and bridges, in turn seem to deliver even less to the country’s development than the hapless foreign advisors, spending their largesse on lurid gas guzzlers or gaudy mansions, even as most of their compatriots live in shacks without clean water or power.

Corruption, too, could undermine the new state, Peake believes, another of the local transgressions that the malae have been too diplomatic or too scared or too indifferent to point out too firmly to the Timorese. On a rural road in Timor-Leste, Peake wonders how a civil servant pulling in a monthly salary of US$1,000 could pay for what he describes as “such a grand house.” The author inquires of one of the builders: “He smiled. ‘Oh, come on, malae, don’t pretend that you don’t know.’”

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