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

23 March, 2010

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

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