Subject: AGE: Healing Hand

The Age

April 9, 2003 Wednesday

Healing Hand

William Birnbauer

A benign attitude to his country's tormentors is not widely understood, but East Timor's "Mandela" wants to move on. William Birnbauer reports.

'It is a monster," Xanana Gusmao says of war. "It is a monster." East Timor's president knows death. He knows hatred. And, after 17 years of fighting the Indonesian forces that invaded East Timor in 1975, he knows that in the end, war is the worst of outcomes.

"We kept killing each other, killing each other, increasing the hatred, increasing the animosity. Fighting each other, killing each other . . . trying to maim each other," he recalls.

"After that, we talk, and say, 'why didn't we do this before we came to the war?' You feel after war it didn't solve the problem. If we could use our intelligence, if we could use a small window for tolerance or understanding . . . we didn't need the war."

Gusmao laughs softly and lights another cigarette. The intellectual guerilla commander, political prisoner, and now statesman and peace advocate is in Melbourne this week addressing several groups and holding private meetings.

Television images of the war in Iraq remind him of the bombardment of Dili that signalled the start of the Indonesian invasion of East Timor in December 1975. Soon after, with other Fretilin supporters, he retreated to the mountains where he lived and fought the Indonesians until his capture in 1992.

Two years earlier, through a union official working as a journalist, Gusmao sent the world a message that peace was possible. He told Robert Domm: "I'm ready to discuss any project for a solution without pre-conditions, and under the auspices of the United Nations." But first, there had to be a cease-fire. The fighting and killing continued.

Gusmao, now 57, remembers: "The more war increased, the more people died. You started hating war."

The deaths he witnessed weigh heavily on him, still. Asked how many deaths he was responsible for, he says: "I don't know. If I say many, maybe I can lie to you; if I say I never killed people, also I lie to you. But if we talk about responsibility for deaths, I am responsible for the deaths of my guerillas. I knew that they will die in combat if I say 'you must go'. It is why now I still feel in my shoulders the suffering of widows, orphans."

Of the Indonesian soldiers, he simply says "it was a regime" and that many of them did not want to be there. But "they invaded us; it was . . . self-defence".

Today, however, he believes strongly in normalising relations with Indonesia.

Gusmao's benign attitude toward the Indonesian generals and militia forces that murdered his countrymen, looted and burned towns and villages and forced the expulsion of more than 200,000 people following the 1999 vote for independence has puzzled some human right activists.

He has also repeatedly opposed war crimes trials, advocating instead reconciliation between the militia and their victims.

Last month, he opposed war crimes charges against former Indonesian defence chief, General Wiranto, saying that given the economic and social problems East Timor faced, an international tribunal "is not a priority". Earlier, he had pleaded for a non-custodial sentence for the former Indonesian-appointed governor of East Timor, Abilio Soares, who was convicted of crimes against humanity.

His views have been attacked by East Timor's Prime Minister, Mari Alkatiri, and human rights groups, which say Gusmao is out of touch on the issue. But he believes that "community building" is the key to restoring East Timor's shattered social structure and that trials would only discount the value of the sacrifices made for freedom.

He believes in justice, but does not support revenge.

the sacrifices as something that badly happened to every citizen or some families. During the difficult times of the struggle, people accepted consciously the sacrifices. We did our duty.

"Today, the cries of the widows and orphans are invoked to argue the existence of trauma, as are the frustrations of those who suffered in one way or the other. The notion of the value of sacrifice has been lost; the commitment which led everyone to accept the sacrifices demanded to liberate our homeland is in danger of being lost. The noble ideal that mobilised all is lost."

Asked if Australia's support of the United States in Iraq would have an impact on its relations with Indonesia, Gusmao says it will "in terms of feelings, at least".

Australia's leadership in 1999 of a multinational security force in East Timor has made its relations with Indonesia difficult, he says. Hostility was still evident when Prime Minister John Howard visited last year. "Now it's coming again with an anti-American feeling, now with anti-British feeling and, of course, anti-Australian feeling."

He notes that Indonesia has extremist Muslim groups, and the key question is whether the Iraqi war eliminates or increases the threat of terrorism. "I don't know," he says.

Gusmao's relations with the Alkatiri government have been tense, at times, particularly when he has used his high profile to comment on domestic issues - especially when he asked Alkatiri to sack one of his ministers.

Having won 78 per cent of the presidential vote, Gusmao feels that provoking public debate and highlighting issues is part of his role. "I must deal with national interest. If I don't agree with something, I must say. If I can contribute with some opinions, I must say also. It doesn't mean, they must accept.

"Sometimes government officials can feel that they are doing very well; because I am outside, people come to me and complain, asking me to intervene."

The main issues facing East Timor following its "total destruction" are, he says, the need to build public institutions, including a judicial system, and resolving a basket of economic problems, including poverty, unemployment, social unrest, poor agricultural output and low growth.

dissertations, but it is much more complex when one attempts to convert it into energetic action . . ."

Life expectancy in East Timor is 57 years. The infant mortality rate is 80 in 1000 live births. Only 46 per cent of the people have ever attended school; two in five earn about $1 a day. Social unrest and violence are big problems.

Gusmao has pleaded in Canberra for 1600 Timorese asylum seekers who came here in the early 1990s to be allowed to stay. If they are forced to return, they would "merely constitute another 1600 mouths that we are unable to feed . . . that we are unable to shelter".

There is an urgent need to provide loans for small industry; laws to attract foreign investment and a plan to increase and diversify agricultural production. There's lots to be done, but he's not daunted, not completely. "Violence and destruction left imprints on the body and soul of our people. We feel under a big, big, big weight but not depressed because we are confident about the future. We have human resources.

"We need," he says pointing at his temple, "to think more and more. We suffer, we East Timorese. Maybe it is a character of Melanesian people, we suffer diseases of not thinking too much. We must think and think and think and think and produce some ideas."

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