Subject: ST Interview with Xanana Gusmao: Don't call me Asia's Nelson Mandela

Also: POETIC JUSTICE; Jose Alexandre Gusmao

Received from Joyo Indonesia News

Straits Times [Singapore] Sunday, September 21, 2003

Sunday Review

Don't call me Asia's Nelson Mandela

Freedom fighter-turned-president Xanana Gusmao, who will be in Singapore on Sept 30 to give a talk on nation-building, tells Sunday Review what being independent means to his country of one million people, many of whom have no food to eat

By Cheong Suk-Wai

POET, painter, pumpkin farmer. These are the only titles Jose Alexandre 'Xanana' Gusmao really wants on his business card these days.

photo: 'Independence is like a blank piece of paper where we can write our dreams, and dream of happiness for our children.' -- AP

But 25 years of dodging bullets from the Indonesian Armed Forces in storm and shine, and then fighting to stay sane in a prison cell no bigger than a grave, have put paid to that wish.

On May 20 last year, Mr Gusmao, 57, became the first democratically-elected President of Timor Leste - known formerly as East Timor - when it gained its independence.

The newly-minted nation had previously been under 500 years of Portuguese rule, and then a 24-year Indonesian occupation during which at least 250,000 East Timorese - or one member from every family - were either shot, beaten or starved to death.

But the man who fought a guerilla war for its freedom tells Sunday Review: 'A few months after the presidency, I still felt that I was not the right man to be President. I never studied to be a President, I studied to be an engineer! I'm not the right man for the job.'

Suggest to him that the 400,000 East Timorese who voted for him cannot be wrong, and he breaks into one of his many deep, throaty guffaws buoying this telephone interview from his office in Timor Leste's capital, Dili.

He then says: 'Although I don't think I am the right man for the job, I'm trying to learn to be a good President.'

That he is. Businessweek magazine reported in its June 9 issue that, thanks to what many call his 'savvy dealmaking', Timor Leste has at last begun receiving part of the 90 per cent share it has in the US$6 billion (S$10.4 billion) oil and gas reserves under the sea separating Timor Leste and Australia.

That is a fireball of hope for Asia's youngest - and poorest - nation, where Mr Gusmao says a family's average monthly income is 50 US cents.

Mr Gusmao pauses for a heartbeat, and adds: 'I would also like to avoid the perception that I fought just to be somebody.'

It would be churlish for anyone to think that of him. As fellow guerilla Pedro Fernando Goncalvo once told the now-defunct Asiaweek magazine in 2001: 'He has to be the President. He's the man who suffered for all the people.'

Journalist John Pilger wrote in Britain's Guardian newspaper in December 1995: '(Mr Gusmao) became a Pimpernel figure, eluding capture for more than a decade. In their frustration, the Indonesians deployed a tactic known as 'the fence of legs'.

'They forced tens of thousands of old people, women and children to march through the jungle in all conditions, 'sweeping' the undergrowth for guerillas and calling on them to surrender.'

Instead, the marchers whispered warnings in Tetum, their mother tongue, to Mr Gusmao and his fighters, thus saving them.

Published in that same article were excerpts from Mr Gusmao's war diary, which included these lines:

'Six weeks of pain and daily fighting. I couldn't sit down, I couldn't stay standing up and I couldn't bear to lie down. I used to roll around on the ground as if possessed. How I cried!'

What a world away that was from his carefree teenhood, when he was given the nickname Xanana from the 1970s American rock-and-roll show, Sha Na Na (which is how Xanana is pronounced).

The second son of a primary school teacher and housewife - who had eight other children - Mr Gusmao was born in the East Timor country town of Laleia, Manatuto.

A hot-headed boy, his parents sent him off to a Catholic seminary when he was 12. But he ran away four years later, working as a fisherman, civil servant, topographer and teacher before joining East Timor's first newspaper, The Voice Of Timor, as a journalist in 1974.

By then, he had married Madam Emilia Baptista in 1970. They have a son, Nito, and daughter, Zeni, who are now in their 30s. His family paid heavily for having a freedom fighter in the family because, by 1975, he had left them to fight for the country.

Pilger reported that militants once rammed an unloaded pistol into Madam Baptista's mouth in front of Nito and Zeni, and pulled the trigger.

She migrated to Australia with the children in 1990, and Mr Gusmao divorced her in 1999.

In 1992, Indonesian forces finally caught Mr Gusmao and threw him into a Jakarta jail. He was transferred from prison to house arrest in January 1999.

But he walked free eight months later, days after the people of East Timor voted 80:20 for independence.

In July 2000, he married Ms Kirsty Sword, 37, an Australian undercover agent for the East Timor resistance movement who went by the codename Ruby Blade.

She met him in prison in 1994, and their love blossomed through a flurry of letters. She became his Girl Friday, and then, his wife. They now have two sons - Alexandre, three, and Kay Olok, one.

But while Mr Gusmao spent years running through streets slippery with the blood of friends and foes, ruthlessness has no place in his book.

He has forgiven the pro-Jakarta militants who massacred the East Timorese in the thousands and urged the latter not to retaliate against them.

As he puts it: 'We have to remember that it was a foreign occupation and we fought for our own destiny. It was that for which we suffered, and we should accept that.

'If not, we keep trying to deny the values of what we fought for in the first place.'

He stresses: 'Now, we must keep the past in the past. We must honour all this sacrifice. We all suffered. We have already got our objectives.

'Now, we must look to the future, learn how to solve problems, how to send our children to school.

He pauses, chuckles, and then adds: 'If we keep talking about such things only, how will we find the time to do anything else?'

But some bygones can, perhaps, never be bygones.

He reveals: 'Now I am facing the other cadres who fought with me, and they remind me that we fought together and please not to forget them.

'I am not saddened by their remarks. They are just reminding me not to desert them.'

Call him Asia's Nelson Mandela, and he chafes.

'I don't agree. I can only learn from him. He is my inspiration.

'You cannot compare the student to the teacher,' he says.

He then lets on - with a laugh - that when Mr Mandela visited him in prison in 1997, the legendary freedom fighter asked him: 'Xanana, what are you trying to do?'

Mr Gusmao recalls: 'His words that will always stay with me were that there is the need for dialogue and the need for tolerance.

'That has helped me very, very much. We cannot get all we need, but we achieve what we can through dialogue and listening.'

These days, his aides tell Sunday Review, he spends three weeks in a month walking Mr Mandela's talk by going over Timor Leste's hills and vales to hear his people's grouses.

'He calls it his open presidency programme,' says his media relations officer, Ms Elizabeth Exposto.

Foremost on his mind is building as many schools and hiring as many teachers as quickly as possible for Timor Leste's one million people.

He says: 'More than half of my people are under 20 years of age, so East Timor is a very young nation indeed. We will have a bright future if we have education.'

Businessweek reported that his 'smooth leadership style' and 'moral authority' is helping the United Nations rebuild and improve the quality of life in Timor Leste.

For example, it said that some 250,000 children now attend school regularly, which is 30 per cent more than during the Indonesian occupation.

Is he, perhaps, outshining the Timor Leste government of prime minister Mari Alkatiri in serving its people effectively? Recent international media reports say there is friction - mainly envy - between them.

To that, he says: 'We are independent of each other. I am governed by the Constitution and am responsible to look after the good functions of the state.

'The Constitution also gives me the capacity to say 'No' to them if they do things which are against the interests of the people.'

Last year, he says, he sent back a law to increase taxes. This year, he sent back an immigration law because it was against the principles of the Constitution.

But he stresses: 'It's not like we have a bad relationship; we have a healthy one.'

His languorous, honey-roasted drawl befits any gentleman sitting in a pine-panelled library, but there is a lingering rueful ring to it, for all is still not well in his long-suffering land.

Indeed, the people of Timor Leste have not been able to celebrate their first anniversary as Asia's newest nation, because more than 100,000 of them are literally starving to death, as a two-year-long drought has destroyed all their crops.

Last Thursday, ABC Radio Australia reported that the United Nations World Food Program was making an urgent global appeal for US$3.3 million for emergency food supplies to Timor Leste because its people were down to scavenging for wild roots and tubers and eating porridge made from the stems of palm leaves.

Mr Gusmao says: 'The international community has been very generous to us. Of course, we would like to have more aid but my people also understand that we are not the only poor country in the world.'

So how does he preach ideals like sovereignty, freedom and democracy to people who do not know where their next meal is coming from?

Mr Gusmao says: 'Of course, their main worry is the problem of economic life and how it affects their children.

'The thing is that, during colonial times, through our long period of struggle, we started to see the lack of democracy, the lack of freedom, the lack of sovereignty. So, I would say we knew the bad side of all these concepts.

He adds, without missing a beat: 'Now, we are trying to understand the values of these principles - how to use them, how we have the right to live in a democratic society, how to have local government, how we can own land.'

He then says his true challenge is convincing them that being independent is still worthwhile, even if it cannot solve many of their ills overnight.

His countrymen share his belief that education is the only way out of squalor. 'When I visit them in the countryside, they tell me they can afford not eating every day. They can afford not having good houses. But they need to develop their families. It's their kind of aspiration.

'So they may be poor in resources but they are people rich in hope.'

As the poet in him puts it: 'Independence is like a blank piece of paper where we can write our dreams, and dream of happiness for our children.'

(Cheong Suk-Wai is a senior writer with The Straits Times.)



POET-WARRIOR Jose Alexandre 'Xanana' Gusmao began writing poems as a boy and won a national prize for poetry in 1975. He continued to write and paint throughout his seven years in prison from 1992 to 1999. Here is one of his works:


If I could capture between my fingers the sighs of the sea and share them with children

If I could caress with my fingers the wave's gentle breeze and feel the hair of children

If I could feel between my fingers the kiss of the foam and hear the laughter of children

If I could touch with my fingers the sleep of the sea and coax to slumber the eyes of children

If I could take between my fingers pretty little shells and make of them necklaces for children

Oh, sea of mine! why do you wait? why don't you give? why don't you feel? why don't you hear?

Immersed in my thoughts I was suddenly shaken From the sea, my sea, Out of the bellies of ships, tremors came

I looked at the erupting sky and the size of the sea were cries of agony the gentle breeze the smell of dust and blood the kiss of the foam the death-rattle the sea's slumber. the pebbles of the gravestone and the pretty shells traced the destiny of the Homeland!

- Cipinang Prison, Jakarta October 8, 1995


DOSSIER: Jose Alexandre Gusmao

June 1946: Born into a family of 11 in Manatuto, which is 50km east of Dili, the capital of East Timor.

1974: Joins the Revolutionary Front for the Independence of East Timor (better known as Fretilin)

1975: Indonesia invades East Timor and he begins fighting the guerilla war against them.

1978: Appointed head of Fretilin.

1981: Elected Commander-in- Chief of the National Liberation Armed Forces of East Timor (better known as Falintil).

1981-1991: Still leading the rebellion, he develops the Policy of National Unity, to unite East Timorese and gain independence.

November 1992: Captured by the Indonesian Armed Forces, taken to Jakarta and sentenced to life imprisonment (later commuted to 20 years).

1998: With the downfall of Indonesian president Suharto, the new president B.J. Habibie agrees to a referendum on East Timor independence.

January 1999: Indonesian authorities transfer him to house arrest in downtown Jakarta.

August 1999: East Timor votes 80:20 to break away from Indonesian rule.

September 1999: Freed from house arrest.

September 1999-present: With his help, United Nations aid workers have vaccinated 85 per cent of children under five in East Timor against various diseases. International donors have also found the country stable enough to fund 345 start-up companies, creating 1,300 much-needed jobs.

May 2002: East Timor becomes a new nation, and he is its first democratically- elected President.

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