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

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.