Engaging blend of history and memoir tells East Timor's struggles

Beloved Land: Stories, Struggles & Secrets From Timor-Leste
Gordon Peake
Scribe, 2013
250 pages, $29.95 (pb)

East Timor is a tale of two statistics, says Gordon Peake in Beloved Land, his engaging blend of history, memoir and travelogue about the former Portuguese and Indonesian colony.

One of the world's poorest nations, East Timor ranks a lowly 120th of 169 countries on the United Nations Human Development Index, but scores high on corruption at 15th on the World Bank’s business transparency report.

The political fight for independence by Timor-Leste (the Portugeuse name the country has officially adopted) has resulted in economic freedom for a new, domestic, Timorese elite. This sector enriches itself at the expense of the underprivileged nation.

The great majority of the population who were scraping a subsistence existence largely still do, but a few politically well-connected Timorese now head local companies that pocket juicy government contracts.

Also drinking at the new wealth tap are highly-paid overseas assistance professionals ― well-practised in the arts of the long lunch and the bulky bureaucratic report ― and their host countries. One Timorese NGO estimates that 90% of the development assistance the aid agencies dispense “never reaches the country, being spent mostly on salaries, overseas procurement, imported supplies and overseas costs”.

Peake, a Northern Ireland and Australian National University academic, is, unlike many of his overseas aid peers, deeply estranged from the irrelevance and incomprehensibility of the “dull and wordy tomes produced in the air-conditioned rooms of UN and aid organisations and development think-tanks”. Such works are as practically useful as using a fork to eat soup.

Peake’s argument is rich in anecdote and satire. It becomes overly simplistic, however, when in explaining the misdeeds of Timor’s new elites, he privileges the influence of “family and friendships” above traditional economic and political factors, especially in poor, post-conflict societies.

Peake recognises that the secrecy and informal networks built up during the underground guerrilla war against occupying forces, plus a 50% illiteracy rate in a country of just one million people, are not the best preparation for running a democratic, civilian state.

However, his repeated invocations about the second-tier status of “moral absolutes” and ideology in “a land where all politics are personal” suggests a view that Western liberal democracy, let alone a more radical political system, is simply beyond the hapless Timorese.

Yet the political struggle for national independence was won against all odds, and involved great sacrifice and commitment to a principle. Such a struggle could also successfully challenge Timor-Leste’s current class injustices, including the distribution of what Timor Sea oil and gas wealth is left over after Australian corporation Woodside Petroleum and its mates in Canberra have stolen.