Subject: SCMP: A reluctant leader dons the mantle of elder statesman (Xanana)

A reluctant leader dons the mantle of elder statesman

After years spent fighting Indonesian rule, East Timor's charismatic leader Xanana Gusmao says he would rather grow pumpkins than play politics. Simon Montlake reports

09/02/2005 09:23:21 PM EDT


Dock worker, teacher, poet, resistance leader, political prisoner - and, finally, president. It's an extraordinary resume but one that Alexandre "Xanana" Gusmao, 59, wears lightly, almost reluctantly.

What weight he does bear on his broad shoulders, though, is the burden of governing East Timor, a country that after decades of tyranny, torment and upheaval is hopeful of a brighter future.

As president of the tiny nation he fought to make a reality, Mr Gusmao has found himself cast in the role of political moderator and elder statesman.

He has reached out to his former jailers, urged squabbling politicians to unite and championed the poor and downtrodden.

Amid calls for justice for the crimes of the past, Mr Gusmao has stressed the need for reconciliation and recently agreed with Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono to create a joint truth-finding commission.

It is a measure of his exalted status in Timorese society that angry critics of the agreement, which sidesteps calls for an international war-crimes tribunal, have avoided personal attacks on the president.

At the same time, Mr Gusmao insists that instead of playing politics he would much rather stay home and tend his garden.

Torn from an abusive father (Indonesia) in 1999 and midwifed by an indifferent bureaucracy (the UN), East Timor became the world's newest nation on the night of May 22, 2002.

Standing straight throughout the fireworks, his guerilla khakis exchanged for a western suit, was Mr Gusmao, emotions playing on his face. It was a crowning moment for a man who was born on June 20, 1946, under Portuguese colonial rule and rose to head an armed struggle against Indonesia, a gruelling fight for freedom that ended in triumph.

The eldest of seven children, Mr Gusmao was sent by his father, a schoolteacher, to a seminary where his rebel spirit upset the Jesuit order. Aged 16, he dropped out and worked his way through a string of jobs, while finding time to marry his first wife, who bore two children.

It was the written word that moved him most, though, and he began contributing poems and articles to journals. In the early 1970s, East Timor's intellectual elite seethed with anti-colonial ideas, and Mr Gusmao, who had acquired the pen name Xanana, joined the circle of thinkers.

His dreams of becoming a poet were dashed in 1975 when civil war erupted after Portugal's chaotic pullout. Indonesia invaded, citing the threat of a communist takeover, and the armed resistance began.

A charismatic leader who disdained political dogma, Xanana rose to lead Falintil, the armed wing of the dominant Fretilin party, after its ranks were decimated by Indonesian bombing raids.

It was a brutal and lopsided conflict that went mostly unseen by the outside world. Perhaps as many as 200,000 died of war, starvation and forced labour, representing about a quarter of the population.

Much of the fighting took place in the Timorese mountains where the resistance sought shelter. During one march, Mr Gusmao met an old man who reportedly told him: "My son, you are destined to become the leader of our people."

The man's name was Kay Rala, and Mr Gusmao took that name as his nom de guerre. To many Timorese, though, he will always be Maun Boot, or Big Brother. Timorese are overwhelmingly Catholic, but traditional beliefs mingle with religious rites, and lulik, or supernatural powers, are often attributed to warriors such as Mr Gusmao.

Indonesian soldiers, who have their own magical beliefs, were convinced that Mr Gusmao used powers to evade their hunts. His sister, Armandina, told Dutch reporter Irena Cristalis that soldiers once burst into her home and threatened to kill her white dog, convinced that Mr Gusmao had the power to change into an animal.

As commander of Falintil, Mr Gusmao agreed to a ceasefire with Indonesia in1983. It lasted only five months but was a turning point for activism in East Timor and overseas, where exiled Timorese were building support for their cause.

In 1992, Mr Gusmao was captured in Dili during a visit. Soldiers discovered him in a secret compartment inside a family house on a tip-off, apparently after a messenger was caught and tortured. Another version of the story is more personal: it was rumoured that a cousin had informed the military after he found out that Mr Gusmao was having an affair with his wife.

His arrest was a blow to Falintil, but it thrust East Timor into the media spotlight after his trial in Jakarta in 1993 was denounced by foreign observers as a sham. A life sentence was later commuted to 20 years in jail.

Mr Gusmao used his time in jail to read, paint and learn English and Indonesian. He also captained the prison football team, which slyly adopted the colours of the banned Timorese flag for its strip.

At the same time, he kept in touch with his comrades in the jungle, and watched hopefully as the regime of president Suharto lost its footing. The pivotal moment came in January 1999 when embattled president Bacharuddin Habibie offered a referendum on independence in East Timor, setting the stage for the UN-run vote that changed the nation's destiny.

Afraid of sparking a civil war, Mr Gusmao ordered his resistance fighters not to intervene as Indonesian-backed militia terrorised the population and tried to crush the independence vote with fear. It was an agonising decision and one that cost him support.

Finally, he was freed and returned to his homeland after it voted for independence and lit the fuse for Indonesia's brutal revenge.

Amid the ashes of East Timor, student activists and war-weary guerillas alike hailed Mr Gusmao as the returning hero and their leader-in-waiting.

But long before his triumphant return, Mr Gusmao was insisting to anyone who would listen that he didn't want the job. Reading the history of post-colonial Africa had convinced him that resistance leaders don't make good presidents, notwithstanding the example of Nelson Mandela in South Africa.

In a letter sent in 1990 to Jose Ramos-Horta, now Foreign Minister, Mr Gusmao wrote that his only ambition was "to contribute to the liberation of the homeland {hellip} Any pretension to a personal career would be an affront to the suffering of my men and I shall not be so vile as to commit such an act!"

He stuck to that pledge right up until the elections in 2001, when he bent to pressure from the UN and Timorese politicians to run for president. But even as he agreed, he insisted he wasn't the right choice.

He said: "I do not have what it takes to be president. I always nurtured the dream that after independence I would have time to cultivate pumpkins and breed animals. And hope should never die."

As well as pumpkins and animals, Mr Gusmao also had a new family. In 2000, he married Kirsty Sword, an Australian activist who worked as his assistant in prison. They now have two children.

Visitors to his presidential office in Dili may be surprised by what they find. The Palacio de Cinzas (Palace of Ashes) is a burned-out former Indonesian government building with several rooms renovated. China is reported to have offered to build a new palace, but Mr Gusmao refuses to work in luxury when his countrymen are struggling to get by on a few dollars a day.

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