November 2013

Arts & Letters

Gordon Peake’s ‘Beloved Land’

By Ramon Glazov
Scribe; $29.95

For an ANU don who spent the latter half of the noughties inside East Timor’s air-conditioned “peace industry”, Gordon Peake never sounds too wonkish. Reading his memoir, Beloved Land: Stories, struggles, and secrets from Timor-Leste, you sense that Peake’s foreign-aid post was an ineffectual day job that kept him “pushing the bureaucratic rock uphill”. The positive was that he found plenty of time to play detective and gather material for a vivid primer on East Timorese history and politics.

Peake writes that, too often, Westerners “see Timor-Leste as a nation state with institutions, agencies, committees, policies, and procedures” instead of as “a tangle of family relationships, friendships, romances, and antagonisms which collectively render … ‘accountability’ and ‘separation of powers’ almost completely impractical”. To Peake, Timorese politics only looked semi-coherent when he drew up family trees and marriage charts; as in most fledgling postcolonial nations, cronyism is politics. Even calling Timorese politics “corrupt” feels awkward – “corruption” implies a fall from grace, not a minefield of old loyalties that nobody wants to clear.

What makes Timorese society a little more unusual is its erratic reconciliations. “In Timor, we get hot quickly, but we cool off quickly, too,” Peake is told. No one he interviews is certain about who ordered José Ramos-Horta’s shooting in the 2008 military coup, or why the strife ended with everyone, coup organisers included, returning to their normal lives. The smaller the pond, the less distinct the line between friends and enemies becomes.

East Timor’s Public “Frenemy” No. 1 is unsurprisingly Indonesia, who occupied the country from December 1975 until October 1999. Why haven’t East Timorese Prime Minister Xanana Gusmão and his government been rushing to try suspected war criminals in The Hague? Peake delivers the much-needed context. Though only a fifth of East Timorese supported rule from Jakarta, this minority was spread so evenly that almost everyone was related to an informant or a reputed death-squad militiaman. “No Timorese family had entirely ‘clean hands’,” writes Peake.

Timorese bush warfare, as fought by the pro-independence group FALINTIL, comes across as weird, messy and eclectic: full of folk magic and comic book–style martial artistry. Peake interviews the legendary “White Bat”, an Aussie felon with “fifteen outstanding warrants”, who reinvented himself in occupied Timor as a cave-dwelling, superhuman freedom fighter.

Beloved Land seems well timed in an age of West Papua freedom flotillas. With hundreds of languages and tribes, Papuans form a more complicated accidental “nationality” than even Timorese. Peake’s memoir provides a potent lesson for all the king’s horses and all the king’s wonks should they ever try putting the pieces together.

Ramon Glazov

Ramon Glazov is a Perth-based writer, critic and journalist. His work has appeared in Overland, Jacobin, Tincture Journal and the Saturday Paper.

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