Guerrilla to President: Xanana Gusmão

War is a monster that devours human lives. People may have died but they did not disappear; for behind them they left links of remembrance. This is the other side of sacrifice: the grief carried by those who did not die. Xanana Gusmão, Jakarta, April 200

Xanana Gusmão is one of those who did not die and who carries the grief of the past. He bears it for a nation. As a military commander he survived a war that cost more than three-quarters of East Timor’s soldiers. Today, Gusmão is a man with few old friends left alive and fewer close associates, yet he attracts enormous popularity and the trust, and often love, of the majority of East Timorese people.

To survive the long war Gusmão buried his memories of the past; cauterised his emotions and kept his own counsel. Living with so much death and loss hardened Gusmão and made him stubborn and fearless. These habits are deeply etched and he often finds himself alone, in the middle ground of politics, trying to broker a fairer future for his people. He has chosen to look to the future rather than dwell on the difficult and invidious decisions of the past. This has sometimes meant a reliance on hope rather than realism, but it is just such optimism that maintained the struggle for Timor Leste’s independence. Yet even these strategies cannot hide the exhaustion of the past 24 years of war and political struggle and five years of rebuilding a nation from less than nothing. He openly admits he is not the perfect leader.

From early obscurity in the remote and isolated colony of Portuguese Timor, Gusmão is now President of the world’s newest nation and his name is known across the world. His habit of transcending conventional boundaries from an early age and an uncompromising determination to follow his own unique vision have remained strong elements of his personality and were essential in leading his people to freedom against overwhelming odds. His charismatic style of leadership characteristically emerged during a time of crisis when traditional paradigms were being obliterated.

A crucial trait of empathising with those on all sides fostered a focus on conflict resolution and establishing consensus. This translated into a moderate and inclusive style, attracting an ever-expanding circle of colleagues and supporters. A weakness of this ‘middle-way’ inclusiveness is that it all hinges upon the central leader. Another negative trait of such leadership is a substitution of the leader for representative institutions, in the belief the leader knows intuitively what the people want. A tendency toward unilateral decision-making fitting to a military commander during a time of war, has not been so welcome in the new democracy that Timor Leste is now struggling to develop.

This dynamic sits uneasily upon an historical legacy of the Timorese independence struggle of deeply felt ideological divisions within the leadership. Gusmão comes from the moderate centre while Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri comes from the radical left. Their experiences of the political past have resulted in irreconcilable differences between them as to how the current democratic pluralist system should work.

By the late 1980s Xanana’s leadership of the resistance was firmly established within Timor Leste. After many years of conflict with the majority political party—the uncompromising, left-oriented Fretilin (Frente Revolucionaria de Timor Leste Independente)—he disassociated himself and re-established the resistance movement on a national rather than political basis. This stymied Fretilin’s leadership of the movement. Since then Gusmão refused to acknowledge any privileged status for Fretilin within the nationalist movement. Fretilin, who had become the central, and they believed, only, driving force of the resistance, found the re-organisation hard to accept. Some never did. Mari Alkatiri, Secretary of Fretilin, sees the past differently to Gusmão and believes Fretilin has always been the ‘true representative’ of the Timorese people, allowing other political parties or organisations no place. In a society where political membership is often based on loyalties to the sacrifices of the past and family and clan allegiances, commitment to political groupings are passionately felt. Fretilin takes full advantage of such emotions and their historical role, sometimes stirring up past divisions to their own advantage. Although in reality their policies are not so different, this legacy is reflected in the distant relationship between Alkatiri and Gusmao today.

To the credit of the whole movement, such differences were put aside during 1999 when the discipline demanded by Gusmão was accorded. Everyone followed Xanana’s leadership throughout his negotiations with the Indonesian Government, the military and its proxies and also with the UN in organising the people’s ballot to decide Timor Leste’s future. They remained in sorrowful and tragic unity through the horrors that followed. The resistance army Falintil showed enormous restraint obeying Xanana’s orders to remain in cantonment while Indonesian soldiers killed thousands and deported tens of thousands of Timorese. On his return to Timor, Xanana acted as a charismatic healer to his new nation in powerful scenes of public grief. No other leader could have played this role, and most Timorese will be forever loyal to him because of it, no matter what his actions.

Yet the split between Gusmão and Fretilin had never been resolved, and when the political leaders were reunited in Timor late in 1999 they had been estranged for 12 years. Political rivalries soon re-surfaced. When Fretilin gained control of the national parliament after the 2001 elections they put in place a constitution that located executive power in the Prime Minister and Cabinet, knowing Gusmão would win the up-coming Presidential election. This semi-Presidential system creates an institutional rivalry within the national leadership. In the Presidential elections of 2002 Xanana offered a counter-balance to Fretilin’s domination of the parliament. He has been outspoken, occasionally publicly delivering blistering recriminations about government policies and decisions. His powers of conciliation seem to fail him where Fretilin is concerned.

Timor Leste is in a desperate financial situation: it is the poorest country in south-east Asia, heavily reliant on foreign aid. Nearly one in ten children die before the age of one and just over four in ten children under five are severely malnourished. The Australian Federal Government does little to dignify its position by depriving the Timorese of their rightful profits from the oil and gas reserves in the Timor Sea. International awareness created by the events of 1999 is slowly dissipating and the UN peacekeeping mission is winding down. Creation of employment opportunities, business and industry is a priority of the new government, yet it struggles to manage the most basic social services for the country. Australia should be doing much better by its closest neighbour and a groundswell of Australians are beginning to lobby the government to give the Timorese a fair deal over the oil.

As UN peacekeeping forces pull-out of Timor, internal security is one of Timor’s most urgent priorities: poor ex-guerrillas, civilian resistance, and youth are disaffected and disappointed with life in this independent country that promised so much. The present reality is nothing they dreamed it would be as they resisted the Indonesian occupation. Ex-militia and criminal elements are focused around the volatile border area with Indonesia. Little of substance is being done to address these problems. The UN transitional administration oversaw the establishment of a national defence force of Timor Leste. This is commanded by ex-Falintil officers loyal to Gusmão and protests of political favouritism have been made. There are indications that the National Police of Timor Leste (PNTL) has emerged as a rival agency to the army. The then Minister for Internal Administration (now Minister for Interior) Rogério Lobato (a man with a chequered past who represents an alternative faction in Fretilin to Alkatiri), has at times cultivated disaffected ex-guerrillas within the community and favours former veterans or ‘politically reliable’ members of the police force. Gusmão called for Lobato’s resignation, for his lack of attention to local government issues. The PM restructured his government transferring responsibility for local government away from Lobato.

Xanana’s attitude to reconciliation with Indonesia has also been a sticking point with many Timorese. The opening quote comes from a speech delivered in 2001 in Jakarta at a conference alongside one of the greatest enemies of Gusmão’s past, General Prabowo Subianto. Xanana embraced the unrepentant General and spoke of peace, tolerance and reconciliation. The elite crowd in Jakarta loved it but Gusmão was roundly criticised in Timor Leste. Gusmão’s actions resulted in the emergence of a political lobby opposing his reluctance to bring Indonesian generals to justice before international courts. Gusmão has preferred to pursue reconciliation with Indonesia. While he may be able to cauterise the past and look to the future, concentrating on creating consensus, many Timorese cannot. He was recently accused of, but denied, meeting General Wiranto in secret in Bali. As the Indonesian Defence Minister in 1999, Wiranto is one that both the Dili courts and many Timorese would like to see take responsibility for the massacres in that year. Some believe Xanana attempted to cut a deal with Wiranto, offering him amnesty if he gave up some of the lesser generals. This could have been in response to the fact that Wiranto is unofficially heralded as a serious contender for the Indonesian presidency later this year. It maybe an instance of Xanana substituting himself for representative institutions, believing he knows what is best for his people in the long term.

Xanana finds himself once again alone and in the middle, brokering a future between his people and their old enemies. As the new President of Timor Leste he wooed his reluctant Indonesian counterpart, Megawati Sukarnoputri, into attending the 2002 independence ceremony and has been attentive to huge and powerful neighbours who hold the key to Timor’s future. Gusmão’s actions comprise a degree of diplomatic pragmatism and can be seen as the natural inclination of a ‘middle-way’ leader dedicated to negotiation and compromise. His style may also be viewed as the actions of a man who has fully appreciated the worst people can do to one another, and has decided to embrace its opposite.

People have been tortured and sacrificed their lives in order that Gusmão survive as leader of the struggle for Timorese self-determination. He, in turn, has made bold and perilous decisions on their behalf—hard-hearted decisions—like the one to continue with the 1999 ballot that demanded such a huge loss of life. The unity of the Timorese at that historical moment is testament to their ability to courageously come together for the common good and for their human rights. The leadership the East Timorese invested in Xanana gave him the power not simply to survive, but to overcome.

Gusmão believes he is of the people and knows their desires intimately. His charismatic style of leadership has not quite made the difficult and perhaps impossible transition from mythologised leader of a guerrilla army and clandestine resistance to the legitimate presidency of a new nation state. His unilateral
leadership style has created tensions within the more rigid environment of a new democracy. Gusmão is also intolerant of government policy with which he does not agree. This has caused friction and has the potential to cause instability. His effusive and relaxed manner grates against the reserved and taciturn personality of the Prime Minister. Nevertheless both men share an extraordinary commitment to the people of Timor Leste and their struggle for freedom and a decent life. They appear to be getting better at working together, meeting weekly, for the sake of the people they have fought all their lives for.

The transforming and revolutionary impact of charismatic leaders is also why Xanana’s Presidency succeeds and why his central message of unity, forgiveness and reconciliation, may prevail in the cultural and political context of Timor Leste in 2004 and beyond. A society living with the enormous grief and trauma of the past is still in need of transforming leadership and the kind of unity that saw them overcome a tragedy for which they have not yet seen justice.

Sara Niner is the editor and publisher of To Resist is to Win: The autobiography of Xanana Gusmão (2001). She has just completed Gusmão’s biography as a PhD thesis at La Trobe University and is a Director of the Alola Foundation, supporting Timor Leste’s women and their families,

Photos by Rusty Stewart.



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