Subject: For Gusmao, from Asia's Poorest Land, Luck's a Fortune

also ABC Connect Asia: East Timor's Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao

Canberra Times

August 26, 2008


He cheated death as recently as February when his motorcade was ambushed by rebels on a mountainous road near his Dili house, but for Kay Rala Xanana Gusmao former freedom fighter, Indonesian prisoner, then president and now Prime Minister of East Timor it has reinforced that he is a fortunate man.

Mr Gusmao, with notable understatement, has said, ''It reminded me I was a little bit lucky.'' He credits his survival of the ambush to the inexperience of his attackers, part of a group of disgruntled ''new generation'' soldiers who had attacked President Jose Ramos Horta's compound earlier that day, shooting him in the back and leaving him gravely injured.

Had the rebel soldiers been veteran guerrillas, part of Mr Gusmao's old guard, the ones who had fought alongside him to liberate East Timor from Indonesia during 24 years of occupation, the two leaders might not have survived, according to the Prime Minister.

''Yeah, I was lucky. But now I am more lucky because I can in my duties now, I can solve many of the problems that came through years without solution.'' The problems of his country Asia's poorest are so dire that life expectancy is 56 years; only 58 per cent of adults can read and write; the youth unemployment rate is about 80 per cent; and one child in every 10 dies before reaching five.

All this explains why Mr Gusmao was in Canberra yesterday meeting Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, Opposition Leader Brendan Nelson and other officials.

After their talks, Mr Rudd announced that, as part of Australia's estimated $96.3million aid package to its tiny northern neighbour this financial year, the number of scholarships to Australian universities made available to East Timorese students would be increased 12 to 20; $3.8million would be given to improve food security and lower malnutrition, and more than $8million would be spent on developing leadership, discipline, financial management, medical skills and communications in the East Timorese military.

Speaking to The Canberra Times in the presidential suite of the Hyatt Hotel later in the day, Mr Gusmao expressed gratitude to Australia, the largest aid donor to his nation which gained independence in 2002.

''[We are] very pleased and very glad that we could get a good understanding of our problems, and this is why we are very thankful.'' The charismatic leader, who is rapturously popular in his country, acknowledged the fragility of his state's institutions and pledged that this would be a year of reform, especially of the security forces after reports of abuse, death threats and arbitrary arrests by police.

With the United Nations chief in East Timor, Louis Gentile, last week describing the country as being at a ''human rights crossroads'', the leader was humble, if hopeful.

''We are just six years old: a young nation with many challenges, a young nation with big perspective, big potential, and now to get the potential we have to [move] past the challenges first.'' His enthusiasm seems undiminished, despite all the hardships he has endured, and he said he was simply trying to do his best to represent the one million East Timorese. ''What I keep in my heart is to serve the people.'' But even Mr Gusmao conceded he had dreamt of a very different life, beyond politics one day.

''I gave up on being a photographer. But being a pumpkin farmer, yes. I have a small land and maybe when I retire I can try.''


ABC Connect Asia

East Timor's Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao

[This is the print version of story <

Updated August 28, 2008 11:35:49

East Timor's Prime Minister Xanana Gusamo says East Timor has turned a corner since February the eleventh, when the leadership cane under attack. He's currently in Australia to talk up his country's prosperity and its security.

Presenter: Linda LoPresti

Speakers: East Timor's Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao.

LOPRESTI: Xanana Gusmao welcome to Radio Australia, this is your first visit to Australia since the assassination attempt on your life in February. You've met with the Australian Prime Minister and received some less than pleasing news about East Timor's guest workers not being included in Australia's guest worker program. Given that your country has such an extremely high unemployment rate, what is your government doing to help the East Timor get work?

GUSMAO: Well first of all we understand that we are not part of the Pacific. We are trying to continue to their is training, vocational training. That's why for us not only we are paying attention to the youth for their education, even the scholarship for their capacity to give more skills to them, try to create jobs also. Of course this government cannot by night give jobs to everybody, that's why I believe that by the end of the year we can be considered in this scheme. But we have to create jobs to them inside the country.

LOPRESTI: Some of the poorest people in your country are farmers. Your government has launched negotiations with a foreign firm to setup bio fuel plantations and an ethanol plant. In the midst of a global food crisis Prime Minister, and in a country which is one of the poorest in Asia, how does this project help the East Timorese farmers? In effect you are in a sense giving their land away?

GUSMAO: It is one of the options, in agriculture we already started before the food crisis. We already started new techniques and the new seeds. Now we are going for the next season to extend all of the achievements that we got already, and we will see until 2012 we can be self-sufficient in rice.

LOPRESTI: Well foreign investment is clearly very important to East Timor and for your country to prosper economically but so is security. A lot of people perhaps don't know that you are also East Timor's Defence Minister. So how would you describe the current security situation in East Timor, because there was a current report by the United Nations that came out that described East Timor at a human rights crossroads, with a number of complaints against police rising in the last six months?

GUSMAO: We succeeded after the 11th of February we succeeded to put together the army and the police. They fight each other, they kill each other into those. That climate also incentivate the youth to kill each other, to burn houses, to make violence as their life. Now we succeed, we succeed with a joint operation by the two forces and the people are now more tolerant, we don't see violence in the streets as before. What I can say also is that every day before I go to bed I watch television and we are not a bad one in terms of human rights violations. We know we are a new nation, we could learn from our mistakes and we are in the era of reform we are going to reform all police, we are going to reform our army, we are going to reform our society, our public service, everything.

LOPRESTI: What about corruption Prime Minister, that's also a big problem in your country?

GUSMAO: Yes the corruption, we will send anti-corruption law to the parliament. We will establish an anti-corruption commission. The problem is that we are, our justice they are working under the Indonesian penal code, we are asking the parliament to give us authorisation, this is the authorisation to amend our criminal code and to sell back to them. And we hope that we can start the anti-corruption commission will be established, that the anti-corruption law will be established and we hope that in 2009 we can tackle these issues.

LOPRESTI: You've been now Prime Minister for 12 months, are you enjoying it?

GUSMAO: I cannot say that I enjoy but what I can say is that day by day we feel that we are solving problems, day by day we see more challenges, day by day we see that we can respond to the difficulties.

LOPRESTI: But what about for you Prime Minister, because the last time we spoke five years ago you were the president of East Timor and you said you preferred to be a pumpkin farmer. You had no political aspirations?

GUSMAO: And not as Prime Minister I don't have also political aspirations, I just try to respond to the expectation of the people. You know I never give up and one day I will be pumpkin farmer.

Back to August Menu
World Leaders Contact List
Main Postings Menu