Subject: Tempo Interview/Xanana: We Must Close That Part of History

Tempo No. 26/VI Feb 28 - March 06, 2006


Xanana Gusmao: We Must Close That Part of History

HIS hair has turned all white. After all, he is no longer young. This coming June, Xanana Gusmao, President of the Democratic Republic of Timor Leste, will turn 60. He still stands erect but his waist has thickened. He is still a heavy smoker. Yet what has not changed about him is his dream: to be a vegetable farmer on the outskirts of the capital city of Dili.

Indeed, from the start, Xanana had always refused to be a president. "I just wanted to paint, to write poetry and to take photographs," he said. But history dictated otherwise. Timor Leste, the young republic, still depends on this man from Manatuto who once led a band of Falintil guerrillas. Like it or not, he is the only one capable of generating solidarity among his people.

Since it declared its independence in May 20, 2003, Timor Leste has been inundated with problems of one kind or another. Aside from a slow-growing economy, the nation is still haunted by its past. Last January, the report of the Commission on Acceptance, Truth and Reconciliation (CAVR) was submitted by Xanana to the United Nations in New York.

The 2,500-page report details human rights violations from April 25, 1974 to October 25,1999. Not surprisingly, it mostly mentions the period under the oppressive New Order, which deployed its troops to Timor Leste. Essentially, the report says that as a result of Indonesia's 24-year occupation, about 83,000 to 183,000 people were killed.

Predictably, the report caused considerable tension between Dili and Jakarta. The initial plan of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono's to meet with Xanana had to be postponed, particularly since it came in the wake of a bloody incident at the area bordering with East Nusa Tenggara. Reportedly, three Indonesian citizens were shot dead by Timor Leste Police.

The situation seemed so bad at first that a Dili politician suggested that Xanana avoid returning home from New York, and transiting in Bali. "Come home via Darwin," said the politician. But Xanana stood by his decision to fly in through Bali-an indication he had no bad feelings towards his giant neighbor.

This explains the warm hug he gave President Yudhoyono when the two met and Xanana gave Yudhoyono a copy of the CAVR report in Bali last week.

So, why is Xanana so determined to submit the CAVR report to the UN Security Council next month? Last Saturday, Tempo reporters Nezar Patria and Faisal Assegaf met with Xanana for an interview in Bali. Excerpts:

What will you do with the CAVR report?

We want to clarify to the people that all our suffering in the past has a higher objective. If we didn't want independence, we would not have suffered. We are all victims of war. After independence, we shouldn't be going from heroism to victimization. It should not be this way. Being a victim after independence erases the values we once held. People already said, let's forget it. They don't harbor feelings of vengeance.

Even though the report cites facts on violence committed?

That is in the past. We used to have feelings of hatred, to push us into fighting. But the country cannot just listen to one thousand people [those making an issue about the violence]. The country cannot control the past. The country must control what happens today for the sake of the future. Timor Leste will listen to all its people. But it is the state which determines the policy. And people understand this. Those who are speaking out are not [representing] all people.

So, whose interests do they represent?

I cannot speculate on that. That would not be good. I am trying to dialog with them, and tell them that the interests of the people are far more important than the interests of one group.

Does that mean you don't entirely believe the report?

We should accept it with an open heart. They are independent. We were the ones who got the funding, and we tell them how it should be.

Did the report focus on Indonesian Military operations?

Don't make the mistake of thinking that the report is a special report. Coverage of the report starts from the civil war in Timor Leste, making it from April 1974 to 1999. This means that all countries which supported Indonesia are also involved. For instance, countries which sold Indonesia tanks, ships and fighter jets. Or countries which supported it politically. The report also involved people from Timor Leste. No one must be overlooked. I, as the president, also the prime minister and the political parties, have been asked to admit our mistakes. So, the CAVR should not only talk about Indonesia.

You once led the Fretilin guerrillas. Is it true that Indonesian troops used napalm, as reported in the report?

I refuse to open the issue for debate. The Commission has spoken to many expatriates, activists in the number of countries which protested [the military operations]. They have their own data, some from Australia, Portugal and the United Kingdom. Whether they believe it or not, that is something else. Whether they accept it or not, that is also another matter. We just gave them (CAVR) a professional mandate. Otherwise, there would be no end to the debate.

You once said you were submitting the report to the UN Secretary-General to follow the law.

Don't forget, until May 19, 2002, Timor Leste was still under the administration of the UN. The UNTAET (UN Transitional Administration in East Timor) made many laws. So, legally the responsibility lies with the UN Secretary-General. Although there may not be the proper law, on the recommendation point, it said that the report should be submitted to the Security Council. So we should accept that. The CAVR wants to show that it is not just about Indonesia and Timor Leste, but about the world. We hope it will not happen again elsewhere.

Why must you report it to the UN?

That involves state etiquette. In our country, I must act according to the constitution and the laws. After the CAVR submits the report, the Commission's job is ended. So, as president I take the responsibility of submitting the report to the UN.

What was the reaction of UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan when he received the report?

Not too much. He will officially submit it to the Security Council.

Will you also be reporting the CAVR to the Security Council?

Yes. I will speak at the Security Council on the position of Timor Leste on this issue, this coming March. I will also go to the Human Rights Commission in Geneva, also to reinforce our position.

What was President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono's reaction?

As a statesman, his inclination is not to comment on it. Whether he agrees or not, is another matter. We hope for the same stance from all the Indonesian people. We must close that part of history. And this is how we close it. We must accept the historical truth and we must reconcile for the sake of the future.

Soon, members of the Indonesian Truth and Friendship Commission will go to Bali.

What will be the mechanism of this Commission?

There are two principles. First, that it is a state institution. Second, it has to be independent and accountable. This Commission will not function unless we help it, both with the laws as well as with the funding. The institution is carrying out a task of the state, and that is to reinforce truth and friendship.

Are the people of Timor Leste aware of CAVR's contents?

We haven't told the people about this. I will come up with a program to socialize this and tell the people about the policy adopted by the government.

The situation at the Indonesia-Timor Leste border area has been tense lately, causing a conflict between the two countries: three Indonesians were shot dead by the Timor Leste Police a few days ago. Do you see this as a genuine mistake?

There was a joint investigation about this. Although they were Indonesian citizens, they actually came from Timor Leste. At least one of them went back and forth across the border, creating problems. We have noted that down. In principle, there should have been no killings. But if they were truly Indonesians, the incident should be considered as serious. This is not the first time. Many people around the border areas originally come from Timor Leste. Such incidents will keep on happening.

What about permits for those who criss-cross the border?

This is being discussed by our two countries. A joint ministerial commission will study the issue of traditional markets. There used to be a lot of illegal markets, but the problem has receded somewhat because the price of fuel in Indonesia has gone up.

On marking the land borders, why have only 4 percent been completed?

Four percent is already very good. To prevent illegal crossings, the police forces from both countries will be provided with good communications tools to ensure good coordination. Particularly since there are many shortcuts going there. Once the 60 percent is completed, we will organize a major celebration at the border area. The UN's mission in Timor Leste will end this May. Will Timor Leste alone be able to defend itself?

The UN forces actually left in 2002. All that is left are the military advisors and the police, who help with the training.

About the oil-rich Timor Gap: the agreement is 90 percent for Timor Leste and 10 percent for Australia. Are you happy with this?

Relations between countries are never simple. They all say they have rights. We are trapped by the agreement between Ali Alatas (former Indonesian Foreign Minister) and Gareth Evans (former Australian Foreign Minister). It's giving us headaches. We should have gotten 100 percent. But it's good, it went up from 50 to 90 percent.

Compared to the claim, it looks like we lost. But in reality, that agreement is pretty good.

Will the output of the Timor Gap be the main economic source to build Timor Leste?

Yes. Right now there is no development. We are still dependent on donors, who have given us about US$1 trillion. A story from Dili goes: "It's better to spend seven days in Bali than one night in Dili." The problem is that taxes in Bali are too high. But we are grateful. One month ago, we conducted our first gas exploration.

With the potential revenue from the Timor Gap, Timor Leste will be as rich as Brunei Darussalam.

Maybe more. I have told parliament that we will be rich. But that wealth will not bring happiness if we don't share it with our relatives, especially those in East Nusa Tunggara (NTT). Perhaps we can help in handling the malaria problem and other social problems. Right now we are the poorest country in Southeast Asia, in fact among the 10 poorest in Southeast Asia. But 10 years from now, our government must start sitting down at conferences organized by the donor countries.

Which is more difficult: building or fighting for freedom?

Building, of course. Building is more complicated. It's like dreaming. We imagined that after independence all the people would have electricity, clean water, that all children would be going to school. That was what we dreamt of when we were fighting in the jungles. So we are still fighting because it's so difficult to get funds to build just one school.

Next year, you will have led the country for five years. Is it true you will retire after your term in office?

I used to swear to the guerrillas that I didn't want to be anything. In 2002, I was forced by many people to become president, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, Megawati Sukarnoputri, Kofi Annan, Colin Power and John Howard. That was just before the last nomination of candidates. Finally, I accepted, but only until 2007. After that, I said I was not interested.

So, what will you do after you retire?

I want to be free. I want to write poetry and paint again.

Are you convinced that Timor Leste can be flexible?

I am sure of it. Like it or not, we have two big countries nearby: Indonesia and Australia.

sidebar: Jose Alexandre "Kai Rala Xanana" Gusmao

Place & Date of Birth:

Manatuto, June 20, 1946


Elementary School, Viqueque (1954-1957) Jesuit Seminary, Dare (1959-1962) Senior High School, Dili (1962-1967)


Corporal in the military (1967-1969) Government employee, Dili (1969) Received a literary award for poem Mauberedias (1974) Joined Fretilin (1975) Commander, Falintil Armed Opposition (1981-2000) Leader, National Council of Maubere Resistance CNRM (1988) Political Prisoner, Cipinang Prison, East Jakarta (1992-1998) Published book, Timor Leste-um Povo, uma Pátria (1994) President, National Council of Timorese Resistance (CNRT) (1998-2000) President, Democratic Republic of Timor Leste (2002-2007)

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