Subject: FT/Dili: Gusmao Says Much Can Be Achieved from Ashes

Financial Times Saturday, November 29, 2003

Gusmao says much can be achieved from ashes

By Shawn Donnan in Dili

Xanana Gusmao's Palace of the Ashes is in the bedraggled outskirts of the business district of Dili, East Timor's capital. Goats graze on the verge outside. Cars kick up dust as they pass. Security consists of a few languid guards who man the door into the partly restored, burnt-out shell of what used to be an Indonesian motor vehicle registry.

East Timor's president, though, is proud of his palace. The disrepair is intentional, a gesture of solidarity with his country's impoverished people, a message that even with meagre resources much can be done.

Mr Gusmao also sees it as a testament to the type of counter-intuitive choices new nations have to make. He would rather see international aid go to help under-resourced parliamentarians do their work than build a palace worthier of the name.

"I want generous people or governments, if they want to help, to help first the government," he said in an interview with the Financial Times yesterday.

In the almost five years since he emerged from an Indonesian prison and within months found himself the figurehead of an 800,000-strong country battered by its bloody birth, Mr Gusmao has become a rare moral presence in Asian politics.

Because of this, the 57-year-old, whose role is largely ceremonial, is often called Asia's Nelson Mandela, and like the former South African president he is discovering the power his words have.

At a Hong Kong seminar earlier this year on Asian economic growth, he chose to speak as an advocate for Asia's poor, a voice he felt was missing at the time.

"Everybody talked about how to grow, how to make big cities, how to have the best technology," he said. "I reminded them that two-thirds of the poor in the world, they live in Asia."

These days, he sees the continuing rebuilding of East Timor as a responsibility not just to its people but to other small countries struggling to find their place in the world.

Many "brother countries who have already had independence for 30 years are in worse situations than us", he said.

"We had a good process here. We can be a reference of sorts to other people, to believe in the democracy, in human rights, in justice, in tolerance," he said.

"We ourselves will be participating in changing in our little way, slowly, the world."

That mission will not forever be run from the current Palace of the Ashes, where Mr Gusmao's staff work out of plywood cubicles built into what remains of the battle-scarred building, one of many set alight during the Indonesian military's scorched-earth exit from East Timor.

The name may stick. It was drawn by Mr Gusmao from Portuguese propensity for calling presidential offices palaces and a Time magazine cover article that proclaimed East Timor's rise from the ashes.

But plans for a more comfortable palace have been drawn up already, with Beijing offering to help fund its construction.


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