Subject: Xanana interview with Irish Times
Date: Fri, 12 Mar 1999 23:40:00 -0500
From: "East Timor Ireland Solidarity Campaign" <>

Source: The Irish Times Date:9th March 1999

The East Timorese guerrilla leader, Jose Alexandre Xanana Gusmão, looking through iron bars in the ministry house where he is still held under house arrest.

Timor's 'Mandela' says forget the past

Guerrilla leader believes his proposal for separate elections will bring vote for future independence, writes David Shanks.

East Timor: UN talks on East Timor's future take place today. But Xanana Gusm ão, the Timorese guerrilla leader, will not be there. Xanana Gusmão had a glimpse of what freedom might be like last week as he was chauffeured through Jakarta's bustling streets to the Indonesian Foreign Ministry where he met Madeleine Albright, the US Secretary of State - a meeting which greatly pleased him.

But it was his other rendezvous that the "Mandela of Timor" seemed to prefer talking about during an hour-long telephone interview with me from his house arrest at a bungalow near Cipinang Prison, Jakarta. At Indonesia's Justice Ministry, he had met the enemy.

While the United Nations, Indonesia and Portugal (East Timor's more lackadaisical former colonial master) play the old board game of redrawing the map, the Timorese rebel leader is trying to talk the spectre of civil war away.

On Saturday he met old Timorese enemies who have been supporting Indonesia's illegal military occupation of East Timor. Later the group (from the pro-Indonesian Forum for Democracy, Unity and Justice) called for his release. He told me of plans to meet "as soon as possible" the forum's leader, Joao da Silva Tavares, a big landowner, who is head of the most powerful of Timor's recently emerged pro-Indonesian paramilitary militias.

Militias have been armed by rogue elements in ABRI, the Indonesian military, and perhaps 20,000 small arms are said to be in nervous hands. But Gusmão seemed confident that he will make old enemies see things his way. "I believe that the false perception of a civil war will be very soon eliminated and clarified," he said.

Gusmão speaks quietly and carefully in cultured English and laughs readily - but not about his current preoccupation of reconciliation.

"Our reconciliation has a political compromise at its core." He relegated the idea of "forgiveness" to the sidelines. "Our compromise is that we must forget everything and build a new atmosphere and a new relationship between ourselves . . . Let's not get bogged down in differences," he said in a reference to how the Indonesian military had exploited these.

But how, given that trauma had visited almost every Timorese family? Even young children had seen mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers tortured, raped or murdered before their eyes. "But trauma is not a new phenomenon in East Timor," he said, and went silent. Gusmão disagrees with Bishop Carlos Belo's proposal of a truth and reconciliation commission like that in South Africa, believing it would prove too divisive: "We have to be ourselves, to analyse and decide what to do knowing our own reality."

He did not elaborate on why East Timor should be different to South Africa. But he did convey a sense of the misery of his people's history: nearly 400 years of Portuguese colonialism; the second World War in which the Japanese killed perhaps 60,000 people; and 23 years of Indonesian occupation during which another 200,000 out of a population of fewer than a million were eliminated.

I asked what Ireland - whose Foreign Minister, Mr Andrews, plans to visit him in April - could do for the new Timor. "We need every kind of help to build a civil society," he said, but he highlighted trauma counselling.

Ms Albright engineered a handshake last week between Gusm ão and Ali Alatas, Indonesia's Foreign Minister - and until very recently its able international sophister and defender of "integration". Gusmão didn't seem to care whether that handshake was sincere.

"The sincerity of the Indonesian government is now more of an international problem than an internal problem for Indonesia," he said. Indonesia was aware of its own situation within the international community, given its financial crisis and political unrest following the fall of its dictator, Suharto. "We know that the international community has been clear about democratic principles."

He asked Ms Albright to curtail arms sales to Indonesia and to press Jakarta to get its army out of East Timor. Her response to his presentation was "very positive".

He is sanguine about being excluded from the New York board game. "We always demand our direct or indirect presence in the talks. But because of the rapid change in the Indonesian position we are preparing ourselves to see what mechanisms the tripartite negotiations can offer us," he said, referring to President B.J. Habibie's sudden announcement in January that if the Timorese did not want autonomy, they would get independence.

Gusmão did not want to dwell on autonomy. "At this stage of the talks it's not vital for the East Timorese to be present. Portugal will not take any step to deny us the right to self-determination and independence."

Gusmão may not be at the table but he has already made a crucial concession that has quickened this suddenly fast-track peace process.

To the surprise of many supporters he met the Habibie move by accepting Indonesia's refusal to hold an independence referendum. Instead, he proposed an election in East Timor separate from June 7th general elections in Indonesia. In it Timorese pro- and anti-independence parties would stand and eventually take a parliamentary vote. He had no doubt the vote would be for independence. He was confident too that a date in late June for this election would be agreed in New York.

With unrest rife in Indonesia's provinces, Gusmão said he understood Jakarta's fear of disintegration which could be encouraged by a stark Timorese vote for independence in a referendum. An election process would be less dramatic, but the result would be the same. But he is looking to the guarantee in Ms Albright's statement last week that whatever way it's done, only democratic principles will be acceptable.

An independent Timor will be no Cuba in the Pacific, as 1970s CIA rhetoric put it. "No, 1975 was our time of birth. We were inexperienced, very immature," he said of the socialism of an independence government in the few months before Indonesia's invasion. But "eliminating all suffering, all disease, all problems of poverty and misery" remain his core values.

An official with Ms Albright described Gusmão as coy and indeed it seemed an apt description when I suggested he would take the Mandela comparison further by becoming East Timor's president.

José Alexandre Gusmão was captured in 1992. He is 53. Would he perhaps like to resume life as a teacher, chartered surveyor or poet and painter, rather than become a politician?

"I realise my responsibility to my people. I will take part in developing the nation of East Timor. I will participate in teaching my people how to feel the independence and will work to secure it for future generations. If I get the time I will try to paint and write."

East Timor Ireland Solidarity Campaign Suite 16, Dame House 24-26 Dame Street Dublin 2 Telephone 00 353 1 671 9207/ 677 0253 /623 3148 Mobile 087 286 0122 Fax 00 353 1 671 9207 Timorese Community in Ireland 00 353 1 453 1462 web Offices in: Dublin Belfast Laois Galway Claremorris

Back to March Menu
Human Rights Violations in East Timor
Main Postings Menu
June '98 through February '99