This site brings together the publications of Dr. Sara Niner about people & politics in Timor-Leste.

05 November, 2010

08 October, 2010

Danilo Henriques Speech at 'XANANA' Dili Launch 2010

Bonoite no Kalan kmanek. Ohin kalan ita mai atu hasoru malu no rekonyese esforsu ida bot katak hau nia maluk ida, Sara Niner, realiza ona atu hakerek historia ida importante tebetebes kona ba ita nia rai no ita nia ema nia historia. Historia kona ba ema ida, mane ida, nebe ita hotu konyese no ita hotu hanoin ita konyese: ohin loron, ita nia Primeiru Ministru, Sr. Xanana Gusmao.
 Tanba Sara ema ida husi rai seluk, no ema ida ne’ebe koalia liafuan ingles, hau husu ita bot sira nia permisaun atu koalia iha liafuan ingles.

Good evening, and welcome.

Permit me all the indulgence to recount my own little short story. Growing up in suburban Melbourne in the 1980s and 90s was about as far removed as you could get from the realities of life in Timor between the period of 1975 and 1999: far removed from hiding up in Mount Ramelau, holed up in a cave in Bauro or conducting clandestine meetings in Dili.
But the solidarity always existed.  Whether you were a Timor oan or a malae. From East Timor solidarity groups in Melbourne to New York, Lisbon and many other cities around the globe, we were one in our shared commitment and determination for the realization of self-determination of the Timorese people.

It was in this context that Sara Niner and I first crossed paths in 1993. In working together on a project to learn from the experiences of one of the leaders of the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front to organizing fund-raising Aussie Rules Football matches for the cause, an incredibly strong friendship was being formed as a by-product of our mutual activism, deep respect for the figures of the liberation and for Xanana Gusmao. We demonstrated when Xanana was captured and we cried together when he gave an impassioned speech over a loudspeaker transmitted at the top of Bourke Street at the steps of Parliament house in Melbourne in 1999. Little belief and sense did I have at the time whilst demonstrating up and down the main streets in Melbourne, that Timor would be where it is today, and that we would be standing here Sara.

Timor, its people and Xanana existed in another dimension: on banners, photographs, t-shirts and postcards. I first met Xanana on the front of a tshirt, Sara met him in Salemba, Jakarta, under house arrest in 1998. He was then, as is the case now, the voice and aspirations of our people.
Xanana once said, “it was not Xanana, it was the people”, and it is on the pages of this biography that those stories are also revealed.

The product of 12 years of scholarly study interspersed with having a child, working and finally completing a thesis have resulted in a work of great depth, understanding and clarity. The commitment and vision to distil 100,000 words of a thesis into a coherent, engaging and insightful account of ‘Xanana, Leader of the Struggle for Independent Timor-Leste’ is nothing short of a remarkable effort.

It is the journey not only of a remarkable man, but also of a remarkable people and land and the events that have shaped all of our lives.

Sara Niner has dedicated the biography to “all the veterans and those who suffered during the struggle for independent Timor-Leste: women and men; young and old”.

Her gift is to us all, and especially to Timorese, of all ages, for the ages: I grew up getting to know my people and my homeland a little better by reading the stories written by close family friends and authors in Melbourne, Cliff Morris, Michelle Turner and others,

So let me take this (public) opportunity to express my deepest gratitude and sincerest admiration to Sara Niner for this enduring and invaluable gift of documenting and retelling such a large and important part of Timorese history through the story of Xanana.

And in closing, for her enduring friendship.

Parabens e Obrigado wa’in Sara.

05 October, 2010

Presentation of New Chaper: Between Earth and Heaven: the Politics of Gender in Timor-Leste Latrobe Uni 2011

 This paper will be presented at The Centre for Dialogue, La Trobe University Seminar Series, in 2011

Between Earth and Heaven: the Politics of Gender in Timor-Leste

This chapter will debate the central issues surrounding gender in the contemporary post-conflict environment of Timor-Leste. Understandings of what it is to be a man or a woman are central to these issues and underlay the everyday experiences of people. At the heart of the many challenges surrounding gender in Timor is how understandings of female and male in indigenous culture have evolved throughout Timorese history to shape the modern gender roles and relations that exist today. An illustration of indigenous understandings comes from a myth of the Mambai people who recount the beginnings of humankind from a union between Mother Earth, or ‘Ina Lu’, and Father Heaven, represented by the sun, the God-like Maromak, the Shining One (Traube 1995:46). In this myth, Ina Lu first gave birth to Tata Mai Lau, the highest and most sacred of mountains, and then to all other natural elements and living things. She came to rest with her feet firmly pressing back the waters in the north, calming and controlling the female sea but leaving her back to the unrestrained and wild male sea which is feared and treacherous (Traube 1986:39; Thatcher 1993:64; Gomes 2001:105). This and other such beliefs provide an insight into the complementary relations between men and women permeating indigenous Timorese thought and what this means for the everyday lives of men and women today.


Bisoi—a woman of resistance: recognition of women veteran’s in Timor-Leste

... What is very upsetting is that the discrimination is from our own partners in the struggle… (Bisoi Interview 2010)
In Timor-Leste today women combatants who served the nationalist movement for independence (1974-1999) have been treated with discrimination historically and as an afterthought in the process of recognizing veterans. How a post-war society treats its female veterans is a significant indicator on the status and future of women in that society (c.f Enloe 2004). In Timor-Leste women who served either directly in the guerrilla army Falintil as combatants or those who carried out military support roles have not been recognised and rewarded adequately or appropriately, unlike their male colleagues. This issue is being elaborated here by taking a biographical approach. This approach has the advantage of providing an exploration of a woman’s political involvement from her own perspective illuminating the experiences of women more fully.
Rosa de Camara is better known by her resistance code name of Bisoi. She is one of the women who served the nationalist movement bravely and continuously but she feels her role has not been fully recognized. She is now a member of parliament and is still fighting for women’s rights in society and for better treatment of women combatants. This paper will trace her personal story along with supplying the historical context for her comments including a gender analysis of this evidence. It will conclude with some documentation of the process of veteran recognition. Previous evaluation reports have not focused on a gender analysis of this process and this paper provides the first in depth investigation in this regard and explains why the veterans recognition process has not been fair for women.

This paper was delivered at the 10th Women in Asia Conference at ANU 1 October 2010


A VERSION WILL ALSO BE PUBLISHED IN UPCOMING BOOK: 'Women in Nationalist Movements in Southeast Asia' editing by Helen Ting and Susan Blackburn

Seminar Summario OINSA BARLAKE MUDA IHA TIMOR LESTE? Is barlake changing in Timor-Leste?

Seminar husi Dr. Sara Niner, Monash University
Is barlake changing in Timor-Leste?
Haksesuk depois ba panel Timor Oan
Followed by discussion from Timorese panel.
Universidade Timor-Leste (UNTL) Dili 24 Sept

Sumário: Pratika lisan ka adat neébe hadulas serimonia kaben sira no relasaun entre familias ka uma lulik husi parte noeiva no noeivo sira hanaran barlake. Ida neé hamaruk relasaun ajuda malu sira entre famila husi feto no mane no kontinuasaun de troka sasan ba malu e fahe servisu iha tempu lia mate ou lia moris. Barlake ne’e nu’udar parte ida husi sistema bo’ot ida (adat ka lisan) ne’ebe regula sosiadade indígena ho nia objetivu hodi hametin solidariedade no armonia. Embora iha diferensa barak entre grupu etno-lingistíku ne’ebe distintu iha Timor, maibe barak mak iha fiar no estrutura socsial hanesan. Ba ema barak iha Timor, Barlake no lisan fo sensasaun makas ida konaba identidade no valor ba sira nia moris. Tuir tradisional relasaun entre feto no mane ne’e kompleta malu, maibe baseia ba dominasaun mane no feto sai hanesan subordinada. Hadiak balun ba situasaun ida ne’e, ba maioria feto sira tem ke halo liu husi pratika sira hanesan barlake.Seidauk tan komplexidade no variedade husi barlake, ladun dokumenta ho diak, no peskisa konaba oinsa barlake afeta ba feto sira nia vida seidauk too ba objektivu ida ne’e.
Influensia estrangeiru, hanesan religiaun katólika iha Timor Leste, afeta no muda lisan ka barlake, maibe ao mesmo tempu influensia estrangeira sira ne’e mos adopta-an  tiha ba lalaok tradisaun Timor Leste  nian. Desordem ba família sira no vida ekonómika ne’ebe kausa husi okupasaun Indonésia (1975 – 1999) no ejijénsia iha periúdu rekonstrusaun, destina kom ke família barak dala barak hahu la konsege kompleta pedidu Barlake nian ka sai hanesan todan ida ba família ne’ebe depois lori ema ba frustasaun, iha situsaun ida ke todan tiha ona ambiente post-komflitu. Ohin loron, hanesan iha fatin barak iha mundo, ema la halao ona kostume tradisaun sira, hanesan barlake maibe sira uja sira nia rekursu sira hodi selu edukasaun moderna no asistensia saúde, ho mos uma, kareta, no produtu moderno sira seluk. Ho rasaun ida ne’e, ohin loron iha mudansa signifikante iha Timor Leste. Barlake mos sai hanesan objektu de atake ida ba feto activista sira tamba nia afeta feto sira nia moris. Ohin loron, kritisismu sentral maka, barlake sai tiha ona nu’udar “noeiva nia folin” deit,  ne’ebe halo ita hare hanesan feto no nia fertilidade selu tiha ona no trata feto hanesan produtu ida. Seidauk tan Lia nain sira hateten katak , troka/folin ne’ebe iha barlake ne’ebe los tem ke hanesan, no haforsa relasaun entre familia sira. Aumentu iha uja osan inves de produtu tradisionais iha prosesu fo folin iha barlake, hanesan karau, kafe, fahi ou tais diminue valor prosesu ne’e, halo Barlake hanesan prosesu sosa feto  ida do ke kostume importante kultural ida. Investigasaun ida oinsa barlake muda no oinsa nia afeta ba feto sira nia moris no sira nia familia bele asiste iha hetan solusaun ba impaktu negativu balun.

How is Barlake changing in Timor-Leste?

Abstract: In Timor-Leste indigenous customary practices that surround marriage and relations between the families or clans of the bride and groom are called barlake. Barlake creates relationships of life-long commitment of mutual support between the families of the bride and groom and an ongoing exchange of goods and duties in the context of ritual life and death ceremonies. These practices are integral to a wider, complex system of social action and ritual exchange that regulates indigenous society and aims to build social solidarity and harmony. Although there are many differences between distinct ethno-linguistic groups in Timor most share very similar cosmological beliefs and social structure. Gender relations, while complementary, are marked by the domination of males and subordination of females. However for most people in Timor-Leste these practices engender a deep sense of identity and meaning. Any significant improvements to the lives of the majority of women must be made through an engagement with these indigenous or ‘traditional’ practices. Yet the complexity and variability of barlake systems is little documented and research about its everyday impact on women’s lives is sorely inadequate for this purpose.
The spread of Catholicism in Timor-Leste and the impact of modernity have degraded indigenous practices to varying degrees, but conversely these foreign influences have also simply become synthesized into indigenous systems. The disruption to family and economic life caused by the Indonesian occupation (1975-1999) including the final conflagration of 1999 and the challenging reconstruction period, has meant that many families often cannot begin or complete this exchange process or that the exchange becomes a burden for families leading to angst and frustration in an already tough post-conflict environment. Today, as is the trend in many societies, individuals are opting out of traditional practices, like barlake, in favor of using their available resources to pay for modern education and health services, along with more contemporary homes and commodities. For these reasons there are significant changes to barlake in Timor-Leste today. Barlake has also come under attack from the modern women’s movement because of the way it affects the lives of women. The main criticism today is that an uneven exchange of goods, favoring the bride’s family, encourages the perception that women and their fertility are being bought and subsequently treated as a commodity. Yet traditional authorities contend that legitimate barlake exchanges are equal. There is also a sense that the increasing use of money in place of the traditional exchange items, such as buffalo, coffee, pigs, jewellery and hand-woven textiles (tais) is degrading the process, making it seem more akin to a commodity exchange than a meaningful cultural practice. An investigation of how practices are changing and the effects on the lives of men and women may assist in finding solutions to some of these negative impacts.


29 September, 2010

Ubud Readers and Writers Festival

Dr. Sara Niner is an Endeavour Fellow and Adjunct Research Fellow at Monash University, Australia. She is the editor of To Resist is to Win: the Autobiography of Xanana Gusmão with selected letters and speeches (Aurora Books, Melbourne, 2000) and author of Xanana: Leader of the Struggle for Independent Timor-Leste (Australian Scholarly Publishing, Melbourne, 2009).

Along with academic pursuits she has worked in solidarity with the East Timorese community in Melbourne since 1991 and as a volunteer and consultant in Timor-Leste since 2000. She is currently living in Dili, Timor-Leste, researching and writing about contemporary society there and enjoying tropical living. Dr. Niner hopes to soon concentrate on writing a crime fiction novel based on recent Timorese political history.

Festival Appearances

Other People's Lives 8 Oct 15:45 Neka Museum

Timor L'Este in Words 9 Oct 16:30 Citibank Lounge

19 September, 2010

Convite/Invite ba Lecture Publico ba Dr. Sara Niner: OINSA BARLAKE MUDA IHA TIMOR LESTE? Is barlake changing in Timor-Leste?

Konvite: ema hotu-hotu bemvindo
Invite: Everyone welcome
Lecture Publico ba Dr. Sara Niner, Monash University
Is barlake changing in Timor-Leste?
Haksesuk depois ba panel Timor Oan
Followed by discussion from Timorese panel.
Favour ida foti planu ba parte no troka
Please bring your ideas for input and exchange.
Sesta-Feira 24 Septembro 11.00am
Peace Centre
Universidade Timor-Leste (UNTL)
Kaikoli Campus
(Next to Obrigado Barraks)
Hadiak balun ba situasaun ida ne’e, ba maioria feto sira tem ke halo liu husi pratika sira hanesan barlake. Investigasaun ida oinsa barlake muda no oinsa nia afeta ba feto sira nia moris no sira nia familia bele asiste iha hetan solusaun ba impaktu negativu balun. Ho rasaun ida ne’e, ohin loron iha mudansa signifikante iha Timor Leste. Barlake mos sai hanesan objektu de atake ida ba feto activista sira tamba nia afeta feto sira nia moris. Ohin loron, kritisismu sentral maka, barlake sai tiha ona nu’udar “noeiva nia folin” deit,  ne’ebe halo ita hare hanesan feto no nia fertilidade selu tiha ona no trata feto hanesan produtu ida. Investigasaun ida oinsa barlake muda no oinsa nia afeta ba feto sira nia moris no sira nia familia bele asiste iha hetan solusaun ba impaktu negativu balun.
Any significant improvements to the lives of the majority of women In Timor-Leste must be made through an engagement with indigenous customary practices like barlake. Yet the complexity and variability of barlake systems is little documented and research about its everyday impact on women’s lives is sorely inadequate for this purpose. There are significant changes to barlake in Timor-Leste today. Barlake has also come under attack from the modern women’s movement because of the way it affects the lives of women. The main criticism today is that an uneven exchange of goods, favoring the bride’s family, encourages the perception that women and their fertility are being bought and subsequently treated as a commodity. An investigation of how practices are changing and the effects on the lives of men and women may assist in finding solutions to some of these negative impacts.

11 August, 2010

Why is the East Timorese woman’s movement so upset by a kiss?

When wealthy East Timorese business man Raul Lemos kissed Indonesian pop star Krisdayanti in front of Indonesian press cameras last week and said this was common behaviour in his country of Timor-Leste it upset East Timorese women so much that three women’s groups (including the overarching women’s council Rede Feto) held a press conference and denounce his statement? ( They said his statement about unmarried couples lip-kissing in public degraded East Timorese society, culture, and women and the sanctity of marriage and corrupted East Timorese children. In doing so they invoked the name of CEDAW: the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against women. This seems an over-reaction to a kiss between consenting adults and an off-hand comment about kissing. So what’s really behind such a strong reaction?

The women were careful not to criticize this powerful man personally or his kissing-buddy, a popular celebrity. They carefully pointed out they were not criticizing his personal choices (although they did express solidarity with his wife who is from a politically prominent East Timorese family and, it can be assumed, many in the women’s movement know personally). Polygamy and philandering husbands are common in East Timor’s patriarchal society, especially amongst rich and powerful men. The wives seem powerless to change this situation and suffer these practices, along with domestic violence, as they have little access to legal recourse and to separate from a husband is in most cases economic and social suicide (women earn one eighth the salary of men). Publicly criticizing men is also not socially acceptable (and certainly the women were careful not to criticize Raul Lemos too personally although their disapproval of him is explicit). Women instead criticised his statement about kissing therefore being more muted in their response and skilful in getting around these cultural norms. The humiliation and disempowerment associated with a philandering or violent husband keeps women suffering in silence, along with a social acceptance that these issues are private domestic ones that must be kept hidden (as happens all over the world). This press conference might seem to have been about “kissing” but it is really about much more. It might not have been couched in these terms but it was a criticism of patriarchy and how men get to behave in ways women cannot and how men treat women in East Timorese society. It was a signal women do not want to put up with such treatment and want to be treated with more respect and consideration, just the same way men are treated.

Direct, forthright, open criticism of men might still be considered as going too far. It might be judged as a betrayal of the new nation and the nationalist struggle women and men have all fought for so hard together. It might be deemed too early to turn on their brother’s and point out how women have been discriminated against during that struggle and how their contribution remains substantially unacknowledged and rewarded and how painful that is. Taking on patriarchy and pointing out the entrenched power and privilege of men is a tough, life-long struggle that women (along with their male supporters) all over the world are engaged in. On a personal level it can mean missing out on having a husband or even a family. This is a big sacrifice and most women find ways to live with patriarchy but continue to make efforts to change things, just as the women at the press conference did last week. Culture changes all the time and this is evidence of that: it wasn’t just about the kiss.

Dili, Timor-Leste August 2010

06 May, 2010

East Timor Literary Book Reading St Kilda Library

L-R: Poet, Beti Lim Gomes, Journalist, Sian Prior, Author, Sara Niner, Dec 2009

Convite*Invite Dili Livru*Book Launch: XANANA 14 Maiu*May 2010


Dili Livru*Book Launch

XANANA: Leader of the Struggle for Independent Timor-Leste by Sara Niner



Rua Belarmino Lobo


Sesta*Friday 14 Maiu*May 2010

You are invited to the book launch of "XANANA: leader of the struggle for an independent Timor-Leste" by Dr. Sara Niner.

This book contains a political biography of Xanana Gusmão, leader of the East Timorese struggle for self-determination, Founding President and currently the Prime Minister of the new nation of Timor Leste. This is the story of a remarkable man.

Dr. Sara Niner is a an Endeavour Fellow and Adjunct Research Fellow at Monash University where she has recently finished a Post-Doctoral Fellowship focussing on women, handcrafts and development in Timor-Leste. She is the editor of 'To Resist is to Win: the Autobiography of Xanana Gusmão with selected letters and speeches' (2000).

23 March, 2010

The Launch Machine!

I am feeling so greedy that I had 4 book launches in Australia but after so many years of working alone on the PhD thesis and the book it was so nice to take it out into the world and talk about it and get people’s feedback and reactions. The book launches in different states couldn’t have been more different and are worth a word or two in themselves.

The Melbourne Launch was like a big warm party in the cosy-shabby Bella Union Bar of our great Trades Hall Council building on the edge of the city. This is a building with so much soul and grace it warms you up as you trudge the big stone stairs worn out by the feet of companheiros of the past. I couldn’t think of better place to launch my book in my own hometown and on International Human Rights Day too. It was all so perfect. Xanana visited here for a solidarity love-in in 2000 and it was the home of the East Timor emergency office for years after that too. I loved being able to Viva Xanana in this room and hear friends and family and collegas call it back. Terry Bracks gave a wonderful speech and highlighted the feminist leanings of the book (see her speech below) which is of course why it had to be a sister who launched it.

The Sydney Launch was held at Gleebooks in Glebe—possibly what’s left of Sydney’s bohemian inner city. The big room upstairs was packed with a load of very different people, friends and family, old and new East Timor solidarity folk and political activists of the leftist variety. The event was part of the Andrew McNaughton lecture series which as given by Jude Conway who was also launching her book “Step by Step: Women of East Timor, Stories of Resistance and Survivial’ (Charles Darwin Univeristy Press 2010). I commend this book to you and thank Jude for all her hard work in compiling the stories of these fascinating lives of Timorese women. Thanks to Jefferson and AETA Sydney for organising the event.

Robert Domm, who was the first foreign journalist to interview Xanana in a secret guerrilla camp in Timor in 1990, launched my book in Sydney and it was gratifying to hear him praise the book. I was so elated that someone who features in the book got to launch it and know that he'd really enjoyed the read. He remembered meeting with Fernando Araujo in Surabaya to begin the journey to Timor in 1990 and Fernando passionately thanking him for 'laying down his life for the Timorese cause’, and Robert, taken aback, said maybe they shouldn't get ahead of themselves. After I had read out the chapter in the book that features Robert’s interview describing the arduous 20k uphill march to reach the camp he also admitted that they had had to fudge the details a little to throw the Indonesian’s off the scent and it really hadn't been that far or that arduous!

The Adelaide Launch the next day was a more refined affair held on a balmy afternoon at Kathleen Lumley College but what would you expect of the civilised city of Adelaide. Assoc Prof Felix Patrikeef, head of the Australian Institute of International Affairs in Adelaide gave a erudite launch speech focussing on his speciality of political leadership. I was most pleased that someone could use a quote from Shakespeare in a speech launching my book. His close reading of the book and insight into Xanana’s political leadership was a great joy for me to listen to. Thanks to Andy Alcock and Cathy for their generous hospitality and friendship.

Parliament House in Canberra was the penultimate. My dear colleaga MP Janelle Saffin launched it in one of the courtyards with Timorese coffee and Portuguese tarts. Jorge Camoes the charge d’affaires at the Timor-Leste Embassy shared some kind words about the book. Thanks also very much to the Portuguese Ambassador for coming and promising to read the book. In fact thanks to everyone who bought the book and I would love to hear what you think.

As you can tell I’ve just had the most wonderful time launching the book which is why I made the most of it. As I said at the beginning after so long alone with the words and the computer I just had to share it as much as possible! Although I feel greedy about having so many lauches I am already starting to think I simply must have one in Dili now that I am here! Let's see what happens...

Launch Speech of Associate Professor Felix Patrikeeff, School of History & Politics, University of Adelaide & Master of Kathleen Lumley College

Sara Niner should be congratulated on having produced a compelling and important book.

Compelling, because in a world largely bereft of charismatic leadership Xanana stands tall. Equally so, because her study examines a leader whose fledgling country’s history is intertwined with ours in so many ways, but about whom our own literature is – remarkably – quite silent.

For the most part, Australians have been dependent on the sound bite and the news report; missing the gruelling historical process that has produced not only the leader, but also the country. Dr Niner’s study corrects this lacuna most admirably.

But it is on the issue of leadership – such an important aspect of politics – that Dr Niner excels. A few years ago now, I introduced a course on the Comparative Politics of Leadership; one that has become a very popular offering, and, indeed, is now a Core Course in our International Studies degree.

In teaching on the subject of leadership in the political area, a number of elements stand out:

– The significance of Charismatic leadership, but most understand this innately & semi-consciously so (In the mass media age, after all, the image feeds – in fact often builds – the substance, rather than the other way round);

– Most consider the rise of a leader as being inexorable, and a process that doesn’t need a detailed explanation (born leaders simply take charge, and direct the troops in a pre-ordained direction);

– The importance of contemplating the fit between the leader, the environment and, often, crucially, circumstance (how many failed leaders are there who intone the well-known quote from Hamlet: ‘O God, I could be bounded in a nutshell, and count myself a king of infinite space; were it not that I have bad dreams.’);

– Rarely is the psychology of leadership thought about, and how this factored into the equation of what allows, and sustains, a person’s leadership of others.

– And what causes a leader to rise and rise (Gusmao), and others to rise and fall. Few would know that Trotsky, the brilliant orator and charismatic leader of the Russian Revolution, who at his height addressed thousands upon thousands of workers, soldiers and peasants (and was instrumental in inspiring, building and leading the Red Army), in delivering his last speech in the Soviet Union, did so to just a handful of workers at the edge of Red Square – it could be argued that his ability to attract and lead had failed him before Stalin put a brutal end to his tenure as an inspirational leader.

Sara’s book invites us to contemplate all of these important aspects of leadership, as well as to savour the changes that occur in person and environment; the complex marriage of individual strengths and weakness, and the physical and political conditions the individual is confronted with in the gestation period of their leadership. Equally, and most impressively, the solitude and the stygian expanse of uncertainty that a leader has to patiently endure in the course of this.

And so Dr Niner’s book invites us to follow Xanana the boy, the adolescent and onto dedicated early adulthood (I would depict these stages as being his transition from rebel without a cause, to rebel with a cause!).

The book delves into his personal, and remarkably sustained, appeal; one that encapsulates the famous theorist Weber’s depiction of charismatic appeal. Importantly, the book refers to his ease in the company of women, and the extra dimension that this adds to a leadership that coexists with the more two-dimensional forms of many of his comrades’.

The study is also a rich modern political history, taking us through the desperately complex shifts between Portuguese colonialism, Indonesian intervention and the role of resistance in this context. Telling is the frequent reference to Xanana’s stubborn refusal to cast off the Portuguese element of his outlook, and, one must say, thereby the intentional (or inadvertent) enduring engagement of Portugal in the evolution – and increasingly Indonesia-centric nature – of the East Timor problem.

The riches continue: the study provides an important insight into how a widespread guerrilla movement is formed, and how leadership within it is secured (In reading the book, I frequently mused on details of Dr Niner’s study of Xanana in East Timor with the problems of Che Guevara in Bolivia). At the heart of this analysis is a keenly-observed gradual development of a populist base, acquiring knowledge of, and connection with, grassroot support. Most important of all: the certainty of the latter.

But we are never far from the existential crises that the freedom-fighters are plagued by. One remark resonates in this respect. A rebel, in listening to an otherwise unintelligibly English BBC broadcast, hears and recognises the name East Timor is recognised. He exclaims: ‘We are still alive, we are still alive.’ (p.48) How poignant the experience, but how bleak must the outlook have seemed to him in advance of this modest revelation? Dr Niner most usefully quotes at length some remarkably good poetry from Xanana. Its power is, however, based on the depths of dark uncertainty that surely plagued him in the course of extracting this very essence of his existence at the time.

And for the ‘political scientists’ amongst us (I don’t believe politics is a science, and this books reminds me why this is the case: it is art & deep humanity): multifarious forms of resistance leadership, the negative internal dynamics between them, and all – painfully – suggesting the eventual splits and schisms in the independent Timor Leste. Equally, the emergence of Gusmao as a multi-hatted leader (ideology, political control, administrative headship) - 1981– (p.73). And coming from Soviet and East European Studies, I could but chortle at Gusmao’s approach to Communism, becoming perforce a communist-of-convenience (p.76), but equally his play on Maoism and Mauberism! Important too the emerging all-significant nexus between church, moderate political line and the ability of Xanana to meld these, while at the same time excoriating (or should I say marginalising) radicalism (p107)

The one major weakness of the book? Dr Niner’s Afterword, which employs a political studies scalpel with surgical skill to the independent state of Timor-Leste. I say it was a weakness not because I found fault with the analysis, but because it was all too brief, and left me with a yearning to read more of the next critical chapter of this tiny state’s life. Doubtless there will be more books brought out by Dr Niner, and I very much look forward to reading them with the same enthusiasm that I had in tackling the present one.

In conclusion, I commend this book to you, and would heartily congratulate Sara on her great achievement.

13 February 2010

08 January, 2010

Sara's Speech Melbourne Book Launch 10 Dec 2009

Thanks Terry for launching the book and I have to thank Terry for all the support she has offered the Alola Foundation over the years.

When I started writing this book last century, as an idea for a PhD at Latrobe Uni in 1997 , I didn’t (and probably not many others did either) imagine that the new nation of Timor-Leste was actually only a few years into the future.

When I started writing this book Xanana was an imprisoned resistance leader and my motivation as a young and probably naive political activist was to bring further attention to the unjustness of Xanana’s and Timor’s situation. The journey that this book took me on was right to the centre of the UN negotiations over the ballot held in 1999 which took place in Jakarta between UN representatives, the remnants of the Suharto regime and a re-newed Timorese resistance, called CNRT. It was at this time I did the major interviews with Xanana in his prison house in Jakarta, and sat in on meetings with various visitors—one a typically rude Alexander Downer, telling Xanana all this business really had to be sorted out by Christmas as he really needed to take a holiday with his family. After 1999 wound up in its heartbreaking way I took off to Dili in 2000 to work for CNRT and in Xanana’s Office and observe the tortuous process of re-building a national community out of what remained after all the destruction.

These are the great historical and political events that got in the way of this book being published.

But there are other reasons why it took so long to publish this book and why it is such a relief to be here tonight launching it.

I underestimated the demands of a PhD, we also published another book along the way—the collection of Xanana’s writings in 2000, I had a child and my own natural inclinations toward procrastination didn’t help—I think this book has almost cured me of that.

The PhD, and the associated publications, were intended to be a by-product of my political activism but the demands of real research and analysis and writing took over and against my will I appear to have become an academic (I think—I’m still not sure about that).

So what this book started out as, a simple hagiography, it could not remain and it has changed me to. I have become a more critical and accurate observer and this book will now probably not please anyone in politics in Timor today.

Yet I believe it is a fair and accurate historical account (as much as it is possible at this time so soon after the events) by an independent outside observer, although with great empathy for my subject.

I hope this book will serve rather to elevate the differing political perspectives drawn in it to a less-fraught and academic level.

My great fear is that it will only serve to reinforce political divisions there as so much Australian analysis about Timorese politics has done.

Yet what I hope most (as I always have) is that this book remembers, and reminds outsiders, of the intolerable events that the Timorese people have had to face alone and endure over a very long period of time, its especially important to remember that today on HRD. This book is not just a history of Xanana and the Timorese resistance but a history of the human rights abuses in Timor by the Suharto regime many of whom have not yet been called to account and the shocking absence of assistance to the Timorese from their neighbours and internationally. I hope also it reminds us of the absence of a full acknowledgement of women in Timor's struggle.

Also after spending so much time with Timorese people what I believe has been added (that I could never have imagined at the beginning) is a reflection on what such events do to people and how these effects makes what the Timorese have had to do since 1999 so very difficult and the outbreaks of violence there so understandable. Mostly I hope this book increases awareness about those traumatic effects and makes readers empathise with the difficulties faced by those in Timor today.

There are loads of people to thank but I think I have done that in a whole 2 pages of acknowledgements in the book and I can’t read it all out---so heartfelt thanks to you all turning up here tonight to celebrate the end of this very long journey with me.

Viva Xanana!
Viva Timor-Leste!

Canberra Times Review of XANANA 12 Dec 2009 by Chris Kearny

Canberra Times (Australia): War-torn stories of Timor-Leste's unlikely leader

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Xanana Gusmao former Falintil guerrilla leader, Timor's first President and now Prime Minister and head of Timor's AMP coalition government is one of Asia's most compelling, charming and contrary political figures. But as this book details so well, the man who would lead a ragtag resistance army to victory and rally a nation behind the costly fight for independence was not earmarked for leadership either by dint of birth or by his own direction in early adulthood. Monash University academic Sara Niner says that in Dili of the 1960s and early 1970s, Xanana Gusmao was known primarily for his sporting prowess. Many Timorese, when told of his leadership of the resistance in the 1980s, remarked: "Who? The goalkeeper?" His difficulties as a young man trying to make good in Dili are fascinating, both for the picture of a more vulnerable Gusmao they paint and for how they illustrate the rigid structure of colonial Timor. Gusmao ran away from a Jesuit seminary at 16 and then struggled to find work in the tightly controlled Portuguese civil service and to complete his education at high school. The early years in Dili were a time when Gusmao was on the outer of both the colonial elite and an emerging group of young nationalist leaders. These years also point to an ambivalence about party politics. Gusmao joined the Fretilin party in May 1975, much later than the party's other founding members. According to Niner, his nationalist fervour was forged not so much in the debates of peacetime Dili, but in the first bloody years of Indonesia's occupation. Niner recounts how, in 1978, 140,000 Timorese were trapped around Mt Matebian in the east of the island. Indonesian forces bombed this last stronghold relentlessly and Gusmao describes seeing friends dismembered in one such aerial attack. This became a turning point for the relatively green guerrilla commander. Niner has put together a compelling and comprehensive account of the long, lonely, sometimes chaotic years in the 1970s and 1980s, when Gusmao struggled to organise and unite a resistance, which was king hit by the Indonesians again and again. The perilous nature of the guerrillas' existence in those years is shocking. Gusmao and his soldiers would sometimes be on the march for weeks at a time, eating whatever they could find and sleeping two hours a night. Gusmao suffered from kidney disease which was so painful that he contemplated suicide. On another occasion he had a tooth knocked out by a vet. Flesh and part of his jawbone came out with the tooth. He was unable to eat for a week and his men all swore off any more bush dental treatment. His difficulties with another Falintil commander called Kilik are also interesting. Kilik disappeared in 1984, most likely killed by Indonesian forces, after a botched coup attempt against Gusmao as commander-in-chief of the resistance forces. Kilik's widow has accused Gusmao of murdering her husband. While Niner says the accusation is not credible, it is a claim which still causes tension in Timor. The very nature of Timor's war against the Indonesians a clandestine struggle in which the need for secrecy was paramount has meant that controversies like these continue to be shrouded in mystery and rumour. In a sense, disputed wartime events such as this point to the vast story of Timor's war against the Indonesians and the many more accounts from this time which are still waiting to be told. Also illuminating are references to Gusmao's long-running tensions with Fretilin, which emerged as early as 1977. These tensions have come into much sharper relief since Timor's 1999 referendum and this is one of the disappointing aspects of the book. Niner has condensed the 10 years since the 1999 ballot, a period in which Gusmao has been dealt some serious blows, into a relatively short afterword. I would have liked more analysis on how the consummate guerrilla leader, who relied on a centralised command to keep both his own leadership and the resistance intact, has adapted to the democratic landscape of post-independence Timor. Similarly, more analysis of Gusmao's dealings with foreign powers such as Indonesia, Portugal, Australia and China, and his handling of Timor's devastating 2006 crisis, would have been informative. On several occasions, Niner highlights Gusmao's failure to fully acknowledge the contribution of women to the resistance effort. If an army marches on its stomach, then the many Timorese women who fed and sheltered Falintil fighters, week in and week out during the war, putting themselves and their families at great risk, have surely earned the right to be considered heroines of the resistance. But as Niner remarks, this is another untold story from Timor's war 24-year struggle for independence.

06 January, 2010

YOU ARE INVITED TO: “XANANA” : Sydney Joint Book Launch & McNaughton Memorial Lecture


Sydney Joint East Timor Book Launch

Friday 12th February at 6pm

49 Glebe Point Rd Glebe
Go to Gleebooks to Book

Xanana: Leader of the Struggle for Independent Timor-Leste
by Sara Niner
Launched by Robert Domm

Step by Step:
Women of East Timor, Stories of Resistance and Survival
Edited by Jude Conway
Launched by (former Greens Senator) Kerry Nettle.

East Timor: A Nation's Bitter Dawn
By Irena Cristalis
Launched by Emily Werlemann

Lecture by Jude Conway
Donations at the door for Australia East Timor Australia

Terry Brack’s Speech at Melbourne Launch of "Xanana"

I was at first surprised when Sara approached me to launch her biography of Xanana Gusmao.

Because, it is of course, my husband Steve Bracks, in his role as Special Governance Adviser to Prime Minister Gusmao, who is usually asked to do this sort of thing.

I enthusiastically said yes however, before she could change her mind.

I had met Xanana Gusmao and his wife Kirsty on a number of occasions in Melbourne and in Timor-Leste. I had also worked with Kirsty as co-chair of the Friendship Schools project as one of the many programs of the Alola Foundation, an organisation set up by Kirsty to help women and children in Timor-Leste.

And I certainly encouraged Steve to take on the challenging role as Special Governance Adviser to Prime Minister Gusmao when the stars aligned, and Xanana took on the new leadership role, just as Steve was stepping down from his.

I have joined Steve on three of his many visits to Timor-Leste and our three children have all accompanied him on a visit.

We haven’t lived there, but we have certainly lived with stories of the incredible individuals like Xanana, who are working 24 hours a day to make the reality of independence worth the struggle.

But there has always been a big gap in the story of Timor-Leste. There are many accounts of the Indonesian invasion in 1975, and Robert Connolly’s recent film Balibo, took us back there with confronting realism.

And the events of 1999, the triumphant ballot and its bloody aftermath, were played out on our television screens.

But the long dark years of Indonesian occupation have always been shrouded in mystery. How did Xanana and his guerillas survive in those desolate mountains? How did they feed themselves and communicate with each other? How did they maintain the motivation to keep up the struggle? How did Xanana transform from a non-political public servant with a love for poetry and painting, into one of the most successful guerilla leaders of our times?

Thanks to Sara Niner, and her incredible book, we at last have the answers.

This book is a labour of love, over a decade in the making.

It is the result of hours of interviews with Xanana and his friends and foes.

Thanks to Sara we now know that Xanana carried a pistol every minute, he mostly slept in the bush - except for when it was raining when he slept in “small rough hewn-huts”, - that he, and his army, ate everything “that could be digested by the stomach”, they drank coffee from small plantations under their control and occasionally palm wine, and sometimes they walked for two or three days without eating anything at all.

There were tough rules about contact with family and interaction with villagers. There was in fighting and petty bickering. Death was a daily reality.

We also know that Xanana was constantly thinking strategically and somehow, despite the appalling conditions, managed to write detailed plans for internal restructures and external peace proposals. And yet, as Sara notes, he was “determinedly pragmatic, forward-looking and would never be hemmed in by strict ideology or policy.”

Sara’s book explains the ideological conflicts over Marxism and over military versus diplomatic tactics that absorbed Xanana’s time and intellectual effort.

It details the complex history of Xanana’s relationships with the key political leaders in Timor-Leste today – the exiled diplomatic campaign leaders Jose Ramos Horta and Mari Alkatiri, now respectively President and Leader of the Opposition and other players like Fretlin Commander, Taur-Matan Ruak, now Brigadier-General, and former Indonesian appointed governor, Mario Carrascalao, now Gusmao’s second Deputy Prime Minister.

When Steve read Sara’s book he said he was fascinated to learn just how far back the relationships between Xanana and some of the members of his government went. According to Steve, “it explained a lot.”

By the time I’d finished reading Sara’s book for the first I was no longer quite so surprised that she had invited me to launch it.

It is a meticulously researched book, that rarely editorialises – Sara generally lets the extraordinary facts speak for themselves.

However, there is one issue on which Sara does occasionally offer a personal opinion – the under recognition of the critical role women played in the resistance.

In her words “Xanana retells several anecdotes of assistance by women but makes no overall acknowledgement of their fundamental political and strategic importance to the armed struggle.”

I suspect Sara has another book in her.

But before we burden her with those expectations I take great pleasure in officially launching Xanana: Leader of the Struggle for Independent Timor-Leste and invite Sara to say a few words.