Subject: AU: St Xanana's halo, and power, slipping

The Australian

St Xanana's halo, and power, slipping

Paul Toohey | May 17, 2008

XANANA Gusmao, his Australian wife Kirsty and their kids haven't been back to their home in the hills overlooking the East Timorese capital, Dili, since the morning of February 11, when his prime ministerial convoy was ambushed by a group of rebels. The family will never return to that home.

They have been living in a well-protected, Western-style compound near Dili's airport while Gusmao's new residence - a double-walled, steel-reinforced waterfront fortress near the Hotel Turismo - is completed.

Gusmao, 62, was security-conscious long before the ambush. He has been on high alert for more than two years, unable to move with ease among his people.

Things have changed much for Kay Rala Xanana Gusmao, once regarded as a god-like figure for his resistance to Indonesian rule. He has been stoned by youths, ambushed, abused and accused of being pro-Indonesian and of running a corrupted, incompetent government.

The halo has slipped and Gusmao is fighting - and, for his many supporters, not hard enough - to retain his authority. Once seen as the only possible legitimate leader of his country, all that is being stripped away. Gusmao looks - or is being made to look - like any other leader, routinely accused of arrogance and indecisiveness.

Long-time Timor watcher Mark Aarons says the powerful symbolism of Gusmao's freedom-fighting days in the mountains, and of him "sitting there like Mandela in his prison cell", have faded. "Part of that is he isn't a good bureaucrat or administrator, which is 90 per cent of what makes a prime minister," he says.

Some claims against Gusmao tend towards the extraordinary. Fretilin leader Mari Alkatiri has said he was never ambushed by rebels in February - that the whole thing was a stunt.

Other allegations arrive from mystery sources in your inbox. One is that Gusmao, when he led Falintil, the anti-Indonesian guerilla force, co-operated with the Indonesian military to "neutralise" more radical members of his own resistance. There is a heavy campaign afoot to bring Gusmao down. Justified or not, it appears to be having an effect.

In 2001, Gusmao was able to wander in an ecstatic 15,000-strong crowd in the lead-up to the Constituent Assembly vote, without visible security. He had a film camera around his neck and I counted that he'd taken more than 36 shots, suggesting the camera was empty.

The idea he was trying to convey was that it was the people, not him, who were important. They loved him then. Everyone wanted a piece of him. Most of all, they wanted Gusmao to be their prime minister but he, claiming that for the sake of national unity he wanted to be aligned to no party, opted for the less powerful position of president, which he duly became in 2002.

Commentators say that was his first big mistake: that he should have formed his own political party - or maybe joined the major party, Fretilin, and cracked the country into shape as prime minister.

He now stands accused, incredibly, of not giving enough of himself, despite running a 17-year insurrection and spending seven years in a Jakarta prison.

By standing back as the symbolic president, he allowed Fretilin to rule under Alkatiri as prime minister. That all fell apart in 2006, when the country was close to civil war. It was divided along east-west lines, and Gusmao told Alkatiri to stand aside. Timor was more or less in caretaker mode until last year's general election, when Gusmao finally decided to run for prime minister.

Gusmao formed a party, the Council for National Reconstruction of Timor, but didn't get it together until the last minute. Perhaps he thought the old magic would carry him past the post. It didn't. His CNRT only got about 22 per cent of the vote and Fretilin - the "people's party" - got just under 30 per cent.

This meant Gusmao needed to form a coalition in order to govern. In recent months, his ruling Parliamentary Majority Alliance, or AMP, has been looking shaky.

Gusmao has tried to buy loyalty by appointing an incredible 47 ministers, vice-ministers or junior ministers in his tiny Government. But in doing so he has spread power too broadly.

His own coalition members and Fretilin have complained his ministers are either corrupt or former Indonesian "collaborators". On the corruption point, there's a lot of smoke but it is difficult to say. The lively Timorese media are heavy with gossip and innuendo - but they can report whatever they like. They're so broke, there's no point suing them. On Indonesian collaboration, it is certainly true. But so many East Timorese have collaborated, associated, or survived on the basis of Indonesian connections. Gusmao has disappointed many by refusing to condemn former militia leaders or massacre-leading Indonesian army commanders. Instead, he has often been seen embracing them.

Gusmao and the President, Jose Ramos Horta, seem prepared to forgive the crimes of corrupt exiled senior ministers, gun-toting rebels, militia leaders or Indonesian army generals in the interests of moving on with life. Ordinary criminals in Dili's prison must wish their crimes were as political.

It's all very well, if, like Gusmao, you've lived by the gun and known the satisfaction of engaging your enemy. But ordinary Timorese are confused.

Gusmao took a big delegation to Jakarta a fortnight ago and returned to Dili with the news that the army and police would train with their Indonesian counterparts.

The wisdom of these arrangements is questionable with so many Timorese still feeling the pain of the long Indonesian occupation and, particularly, the savage events of 1999.

Now, a former associate of Indonesian generals, businessman Tommy Winata, is rumoured to be looking around Dili to build a casino, with Gusmao's blessing. That is likely to test the mood of the powerful Catholic Church.

Ramos Horta recently described to me how Gusmao had once been "the unquestionable leader. Even the Timorese media, who always criticise everyone, were very lenient on him.

"I remember when John Paul II died we all went to mass in the cathedral. Xanana didn't show up. When I asked him, he said he forgot.

"The media didn't say anything. If we hadn't shown up, if poor Mari Alkatiri had not have shown up, we would have been savaged in the media.

"Today the situation ... is very different.

"Xanana has to do a lot to recover his authority."

Gusmao's AMP coalition holds 35 seats in the 65-seat parliament, though Fretilin, with 21 seats (in reality, 23 seats, as one minor party always votes with it), is breathing down the AMP's neck.

Three weeks ago the first cracks appeared when AMP coalition member ASDT, the Timorese Social Democratic Association, which holds five seats, announced it was aligning with Fretilin. The ASDT then changed its mind and said it was staying in the AMP, but it showed how fragile Gusmao's coalition is.

This week, the veterans' party - which holds two seats - very publicly announced for Gusmao's benefit it would join the AMP coalition. It was meaningless, because the two veterans always voted with the Government anyway. But it showed Gusmao had finally recognised he had a problem.

Timor watcher Aarons says Gusmao was diffident for too long on whether he wanted to take executive power. In standing back, Gusmao allowed returning exiles from Mozambique, Australia and Portugual to take control in the name of Fretilin - and that was costing him now.

Fretilin says it will do nothing to further inflame the country but is nevertheless working hard to end Gusmao's reign by courting minor parties. Elections are not due till 2012 but it wants early elections, next year, and has the support of Ramos Horta. Gusmao is strongly opposed. Despite their apparent public togetherness, the two leaders are not close. Gusmao took more than a month to get to Darwin to visit Ramos Horta after he'd been shot.

Some point to a precise moment when Gusmao lost his freedom of movement among his people. It was March 23, 2006, after almost 600 soldiers born in the west of the country abandoned their barracks claiming they were overlooked for promotion in the army, which was commanded by veterans of the resistance, who were more than likely born and raised in the east.

Gusmao gave a speech in which he asked whether the army would now be made up of only easterners with no westerners, because they were "all militia's children". It was supposed to be ironic, but East Timor doesn't do irony well and he offended both sides.

Many argue the comments legitimised the east-west divide and led to the ensuing chaos.

"I don't think he has understood the degree to which his standing has been diminished," says Aarons. Asked whether he could recover his position, Aarons says: "The signs aren't promising. He has not put together an effective administration and the only way he can recover his standing is for there to be improvements in people's daily lives, and that just doesn't seem to be happening yet."

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