Subject: War-torn stories of Timor-Leste's unlikely leader

Canberra Times (Australia)

December 12, 2009 Saturday

War-torn stories of Timor-Leste's unlikely leader

Xanana Gusmao former Falintil guerrilla leader, Timor's first President and now Prime Minister and head of Timor's AMP coalition government is one of Asia's most compelling, charming and contrary political figures.

But as this book details so well, the man who would lead a ragtag resistance army to victory and rally a nation behind the costly fight for independence was not earmarked for leadership either by dint of birth or by his own direction in early adulthood.

Monash University academic Sara Niner says that in Dili of the 1960s and early 1970s, Xanana Gusmao was known primarily for his sporting prowess. Many Timorese, when told of his leadership of the resistance in the 1980s, remarked: "Who? The goalkeeper?"

His difficulties as a young man trying to make good in Dili are fascinating, both for the picture of a more vulnerable Gusmao they paint and for how they illustrate the rigid structure of colonial Timor. Gusmao ran away from a Jesuit seminary at 16 and then struggled to find work in the tightly controlled Portuguese civil service and to complete his education at high school.

The early years in Dili were a time when Gusmao was on the outer of both the colonial elite and an emerging group of young nationalist leaders. These years also point to an ambivalence about party politics. Gusmao joined the Fretilin party in May 1975, much later than the party's other founding members.

According to Niner, his nationalist fervour was forged not so much in the debates of peacetime Dili, but in the first bloody years of Indonesia's occupation.

Niner recounts how, in 1978, 140,000 Timorese were trapped around Mt Matebian in the east of the island.

Indonesian forces bombed this last stronghold relentlessly and Gusmao describes seeing friends dismembered in one such aerial attack. This became a turning point for the relatively green guerrilla commander.

Niner has put together a compelling and comprehensive account of the long, lonely, sometimes chaotic years in the 1970s and 1980s, when Gusmao struggled to organise and unite a resistance, which was king hit by the Indonesians again and again. The perilous nature of the guerrillas' existence in those years is shocking.

Gusmao and his soldiers would sometimes be on the march for weeks at a time, eating whatever they could find and sleeping two hours a night. Gusmao suffered from kidney disease which was so painful that he contemplated suicide. On another occasion he had a tooth knocked out by a vet. Flesh and part of his jawbone came out with the tooth. He was unable to eat for a week and his men all swore off any more bush dental treatment.

His difficulties with another Falintil commander called Kilik are also interesting. Kilik disappeared in 1984, most likely killed by Indonesian forces, after a botched coup attempt against Gusmao as commander-in-chief of the resistance forces. Kilik's widow has accused Gusmao of murdering her husband. While Niner says the accusation is not credible, it is a claim which still causes tension in Timor.

The very nature of Timor's war against the Indonesians a clandestine struggle in which the need for secrecy was paramount has meant that controversies like these continue to be shrouded in mystery and rumour. In a sense, disputed wartime events such as this point to the vast story of Timor's war against the Indonesians and the many more accounts from this time which are still waiting to be told.

Also illuminating are references to Gusmao's long-running tensions with Fretilin, which emerged as early as 1977.

These tensions have come into much sharper relief since Timor's 1999 referendum and this is one of the disappointing aspects of the book.

Niner has condensed the 10 years since the 1999 ballot, a period in which Gusmao has been dealt some serious blows, into a relatively short afterword. I would have liked more analysis on how the consummate guerrilla leader, who relied on a centralised command to keep both his own leadership and the resistance intact, has adapted to the democratic landscape of post-independence Timor. Similarly, more analysis of Gusmao's dealings with foreign powers such as Indonesia, Portugal, Australia and China, and his handling of Timor's devastating 2006 crisis, would have been informative.

On several occasions, Niner highlights Gusmao's failure to fully acknowledge the contribution of women to the resistance effort. If an army marches on its stomach, then the many Timorese women who fed and sheltered Falintil fighters, week in and week out during the war, putting themselves and their families at great risk, have surely earned the right to be considered heroines of the resistance. But as Niner remarks, this is another untold story from Timor's war 24-year struggle for independence.

Christine Kearney is a freelance writer who was in Timor from 2004 to 2007.


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