Subject: IPS: Prisoner and Would-be President Faces Ultimate Test

EAST TIMOR: Prisoner and Would-be President Faces Ultimate Test

By Sonny Inbaraj

PERTH, Australia, Apr 17 (IPS) - For all we know, the world is witnessing a repeat of history with East Timor's Xanana Gusmao, whose stint in jail courtesy of a colonial power was the prerequisite for his ultimate victory at the polls.

At midnight on May 19, the political prisoner and soon-to-be president will be sworn in by outgoing United Nations Transitional Administrator Sergio Vieira de Melo, as the U.N. flag is lowered in the former Indonesian province, to be the ceremonial head of the world's newest country in the new millennium.

Official results announced Wednesday said Gusmao received 82.69 percent of votes at the Apr. 14 election, making him East Timor's first president.

In late August 1999, East Timor voted in a U.N.-sponsored referendum to break away from Indonesia, setting off a wave of violence by pro-Jakarta militants and Indonesian security forces, which killed an untold number and caused hundreds of thousands to flee to neighbouring West Timor.

The United Nations Transitional Administration in East Timor was established in October 1999 after the deployment, a month earlier, of an 8,000-strong multinational security force led by Australia.

While De Melo's mission has ended after having prepared the almost completely destroyed territory for independence, Gusmao's, however, as president of the Democratic Republic of East Timor is just beginning.

Gusmao now joins the ranks of the 'greats' like South Africa's Nelson Mandela, Kenya's Jomo Kenyatta and Congo's Patrice Lumumba. Also like them, he walked out of jail apparently free of bitterness.

During his first days of freedom in early September 1999, after he was released by the Indonesian authorities and then whisked off from Jakarta on a special flight to Northern Australia, he was asked by reporters whether he was bent on revenge.

He replied: ''We will, in our revenge to Indonesia, help them understand that all human beings in the world have a right to life, a right to do something good to others and not to kill. And that will be our revenge.''

Gusmao was appointed head of the Fretilin party in 1978 after Nicolau Lobato was killed by the Indonesian military. He was elected commander-in-chief of the Falintil forces in 1981.

On Nov. 20, 1992, he was captured by the Indonesian military and taken to Jakarta, where he was sentenced to life imprisonment. It was later commuted to 20 years.

While in jail he wrote poetry and painted. From time-to-time his messages to the Timorese people, ending with the phrase "To Resist is To Win", were smuggled out by sympathetic guards.

Gusmao's ideas on reconciliation could have been influenced by Mandela, who met with the jailed guerrilla leader for two hours in July 1997, in a historic visit that dramatically raised international awareness of the situation in East Timor.

In an interview with the Australian Broadcasting Corp in November 2000, Gusmao said that when it came to the burning issue of justice for the actions of the past, he believed forgiveness was the way forward.

"What I know is that people got very, very angry because of the September destruction and what I feel is that if we improve the social and economic situation of East Timor, our people will forgive," he said. "I don't want people in East Timor to think that without justice we will have a bad starting to the new nation."

Many believe that Gusmao's election would augur well for regional bridge-building especially with Indonesia.

"I think Xanana's strength will be the enormous respect he has from the people of East Timor. And the respect he's held in other countries, especially in Indonesia," said James Dunn, Australia's former consul to East Timor.

Added Dunn: "I think Indonesians like very much the stand he's taken. I mean he's bent over backwards by way of reconciliation to establish a workable and good relationship with Jakarta."

East Timor's Vice Minister for Foreign Affairs Fernando de Araujo agrees, saying ''it is better for our interests to have a good relationship with Indonesia. Now we are making efforts to reconcile with Indonesia.''

''We realise that Indonesian government officials are very open-minded with East Timorese to solve and discuss many things, including things like border demarcation," he told the Australian National University East Timor Forum in Canberra recently.

Like Gusmao, Jakarta's Cipinang jail was once home to De Araujo when he was arrested for subversion in 1991. At one time, both men shared the same cell.

But Gusmao's real test will not be in the international arena but at home, where he faces tensions with Chief Minister Mari Alkatari and his Fretilin party that won about 65 percent of the seats in the Constituent Assembly elected in August last year.

Last March, Gusmao, citing political disagreements, resigned as head of East Timor's National Council - a legislative and consultative body appointed by the United Nations. The council was dissolved in June last year, ahead of the Aug. 30 elections that chose the Constituent Assembly that drew up the national constitution.

Early this year, the Fretilin-dominated Constituent Assembly transformed itself into East Timor's first parliament.

A key source of tensions is Gusmao's policy of granting amnesties to East Timorese involved in the September 1999 violence. "Xanana's policy to offer amnesties is intensely criticised by Fretilin. They do not accept his approach," said Altide Casanova, managing editor of the Dili-based 'Talitakum' news magazine.

Alkatiri, who will become prime minister on May 20, indicated there were frictions with Gusmao in an interview with Portugal's 'Publico' newspaper in September last year.

Alkatiri, who lived in exile in Mozambique during most of the Indonesian occupation, made clear who he felt would be in charge of independent East Timor. "It's the government's job to run the government and the country and the president shouldn't interfere," he said.

In rebuttal, Gusmao said his aim as president would be "to look at those who rule and see that they can respond to the needs of the people."

But Casanova said the fledgling country cannot not afford the rift between the two leaders: "Mari and Xanana must put aside their differences for the sake of East Timor.''

As East Timor's president, Gusmao will be commander-in-chief of the two battalion-East Timor Defence Force, the bulk of whose members are former Falintil fighters. His trump card will be the Defence Force's commander, Brigadier-General Taur Matan Ruak -- who remains fiercely loyal to the president-elect.

But it could be argued that Gusmao could also drift into dictatorship, with the support of the armed forces, if there are no checks and balances.

'Talitakum' editor Altide warned: "Xanana's mantle has not been appropriated by personal command or bestowed by party apparatchiks, but was foisted on him by public acclaim. Let's hope it stays that way.''

''And let's hope he assumes a level of authority as an elected leader and not with the help of former resistance fighters whom he once led in the jungles of East Timor,'' he pointed out.

Gusmao's ultimate test in impoverished East Timor has just begun. History has shown, particularly in Africa, that the economic consolidation of independence is harder than the struggle for national liberation. (END/IPS/AP/IP/SI/JS/02)


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