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

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