From Guerrilla Leader to Founding President of a New Nation: An Interview with East Timorese President Xanana Gusmao

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Four days from now, Xanana Gusmão will complete a remarkable 27-year journey when he presides over East Timor’s independence celebration and becomes the country’s first president. When Indonesia invaded East Timor on December 7, 1975, Xanana Gusmão fled to the mountains, where he remained for the next 17 years fighting the Indonesian military. [includes rush transcript]

In 1979, after the head of East Timor’s guerrilla army, FALINTIL, was killed by the Indonesian army, Xanana became the leader of FALINTIL. In 1986, Xanana and his colleagues in the mountains created the National Council of Maubere Resistance (CNRM), the umbrella organization against Indonesian rule in East Timor. He was captured by the Indonesian army in November 1992 and sentenced to life in prison the following year, where his stature among the East Timorese continued to grow.

In late 1999, however, as East Timor held its historic referendum on independence, Indonesia released Xanana from prison under intense international pressure. Widely acclaimed as the political leader of the East Timorese people, Xanana was named head of East Timor’s transitional government. He was elected East Timor’s first president by an overwhelming margin in the country’s first presidential elections in April 2002.


  • Xanana Gusmão, first president of Democratic Republic of East Timor.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Massacre: The Story of East Timor. When journalist Allan Nairn and I produced this documentary in 1992, Xanana Gusmão was the rebel leader of the East Timorese people. He was then captured by the Indonesian military, after fighting in the mountains against the army for 17 years, held in an Indonesian prison for eight years. Now, in just four days, he will become the founding president of the new nation of East Timor. This is an interview with Xanana Gusmão.

AMY GOODMAN: You’re listening to Democracy Now!: Breaking the Sound Barrier in Dili, East Timor. I’m Amy Goodman. And we’re joined by the new president of East Timor, the founding president of a new nation. He is Xanana Gusmão. Welcome to Democracy Now!

XANANA GUSMÃO: Thank you. And welcome, Amy. I believe that you are feeling or remembering many, many, many things. You were a part of some important events in our struggle. Welcome to East Timor.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, it’s quite remarkable to be back and to see you here in your own homeland. It’s been 27 years since the Indonesian military invaded. Where were you on December 7th, 1975? Where were you on December 7th, 1975?

XANANA GUSMÃO: In December of—in 7th in December, in the day of invasion, I was in Loes River trying to join the FALINTIL there. And in the morning, we were wake up by the sound of planes, and we imagined that it was the beginning of the invasion.

AMY GOODMAN: When did you go up into the mountains?

XANANA GUSMÃO: Yes, I was already—I was already in Loes, in the western side. The Indonesian troops occupied the Atabae on the other side of the river. And by this, of course, automatically, I was in general.

AMY GOODMAN: You evaded the Indonesian military for 17 years, before your capture. How did you do that?

XANANA GUSMÃO: Maybe—maybe I was a little lucky. But I should tell you that I face the death many times, in my eyes. But I was lucky. I was lucky. They didn’t shot me. And I could evade.

AMY GOODMAN: In those years, they were resupplied with weapons repeatedly by the United States. In 1975, 90 percent of the weapons used were from the United States. Did you see U.S. planes in the sky?

XANANA GUSMÃO: I only can say that I saw Bronco OV-BD—OV-B10. I saw Mirage. I saw many other military aircraft, but we could not recognize what mark. But yes, many, many, many types of many—three or four types of warplane.

AMY GOODMAN: What were your thoughts about the United States at that time? I mean, you were not only up against Indonesia, the fourth largest country in the world, but you were up against the number one superpower in the world, that was behind the Indonesian regime.

XANANA GUSMÃO: I can remind you of my plea, if they authorized me to read this in my defense, there I put United States, Portugal, after that, Indonesia, to respond to the trial, but not me. But I understand that it was in a context of a cold war. And I must tell you also that very recently I went to Jakarta to hand over my invitations, and I was asked to—by the parliament, upper house, the members of the upper house, to understand the position of Indonesia at the time. And I said, yes, I understood. And I must say also that we also—we, East Timorese, also had responsibilities in this. Just to be fair to every—just to be fair in analyzing the process. I remember that it was difficult times for the region, for Southeast Asia, also. In ’74, it was Vietnam liberation. In ’75, Vietnam came to Cambodia, to Laos. And we have also—we have also some responsibility in all of this.

AMY GOODMAN: Over the period of the Indonesian occupation, 200,000 Timorese died, a third of the population. I just saw you inaugurating the truth—the Reception, Truth and Reconciliation Commission. What about the issue of justice that so many Timorese are talking about, the idea of an international criminal court to try those responsible for that level of killing?

XANANA GUSMÃO: I must tell you that when we talk about the reconciliation in our country, we see the—this problem as a whole. And when we talk about wounds, we talk about wounds amongst East Timorese. ’74, ’75, the present chairman of the commission said in his intervention, in his speech, “Why ’74? Why not mentioning 7th of December, 1975?” Many people are still wounded or has still psychological, political wounds. We tried to—we tried to solve this problem not only regarding to occupation, military, Indonesian military occupation, but amongst ourselves. We cannot focus the problem of justice just only to Indonesian military, but amongst—between ourselves or so.

AMY GOODMAN: What about 1999, when the Indonesian military burned much of East Timor to the ground?

XANANA GUSMÃO: I just—I just came from an interview asking me if you were to receive it in East Timor, it was something that I’m supposed to expect it. And I told him that we are thankful for the destruction, because—and we already start to prove this, that we don’t owe to anybody. Of course, we owe some infrastructure. But it could make us more aware of the difficulties of the independence. Of course, in these two years and a half, we have spent many more—many more money to rebuild. But after we rebuild, we feel that it is our. It is by our own effort, if not people effort, but people contribute, at least not having the facilities that they could have, something that we feel that—better building the country from the ashes than receiving a country already built. The destruction, of course, if it was only the destruction of the Indonesian administrative infrastructure, we could accept. The destruction was directed to the people belongings. Of course, it is something cruel, something that we didn’t—we could not accept. But now we are living in this, and we must do our best to prove that we can surpass these difficulties.

AMY GOODMAN: Xanana Gusmão, founding president of East Timor. We’ll be back with him in a minute.


AMY GOODMAN: You’re listening to Democracy Now!, broadcasting from Dili, East Timor. I’m Amy Goodman, as we continue with a conversation with Xanana Gusmão, founding president of East Timor.

XANANA GUSMÃO: [inaudible] of serious crimes, I know that rape, killing, massive killing, are crimes against humanity. And by this classification, the justice will be done—will be done. Of course, we in East Timor—sometimes many people don’t understand me and say that I am not defending justice. But if you go around the country, our people live in a very bad situation. After two years and a half, they cannot have money to send their children to school. I met people in the hamlets. Our government has no capability to send teachers, and they are trying to get from farmers, literate farmers, to teach their children. My preoccupation is more how to respond, slowly, but firmly, the expectation of the independence. And I should say, let to the prosecutors, to the judiciary, to take care of this issue, that is important. We are more—I, myself, I’m more concerned of how we, in three years, we can implement our problems.

AMY GOODMAN: In Nicaragua, in Cuba, they had programs like sending out doctors and teachers, university students, into the countryside on literacy campaigns. Is there any plans—are there any plans like that?

XANANA GUSMÃO: We don’t have resources. We don’t have resources. And I told you before, we must change the mentality. We must change the mentality amongst us. I already told publicly that we have some doctors working in NGOs, international NGOs, because of money, and that before, they refused to work to the government because of less money. And in one to three years, I really appeal for newness in [inaudible] spirit, new contribution essentially in areas like this. And we cannot afford big, ambitious planning. What I’m trying with my presidency is to involve the civil society, to ask the community to contribute to the development. It is why one of my—the first priority will be how to build a mechanism by which the product from the farmers are bought, to give them money, to improve their life, to have hope. After that, I believe that after a situation in which people start to receive money, it is not material in the materialistic way of thinking, but they must—from our side, we give value to their work. From their side, they receive benefits from their work, and benefits that can allow them or can help them to contribute. After our people, in all scale of life, in all degree of life, have something, receive some benefits, we can mobilize our people in this term.

AMY GOODMAN: Let me ask you, President Xanana Gusmão, as East Timor moves to independence, you move from a culture of resistance and unity, and also secrecy, as you took on a common enemy, to one of openness. How do move to one of openness and dissent and overall feeling that debate is not going to threaten a unified push against a common enemy?

XANANA GUSMÃO: It is our problem. It is—we are in transition, in changing of behaviors. After we won, we gained the opportunity of difference also. We are now trying to make sure that the difference is not—doesn’t signify that you have an enemy. In all this process, I try to, with the seniority members, to build a consciousness that the past is the past. If there were heroes, they are heroes of the past, until 10th of August. Now, we need new heroes, in participating, in contributing. Very recently, after constituent assembly, we started—civil society—we started to put some difference, to express some difference of opinion. And many people asked us—asked, no—many people, essentially the media, analyzed the problem as conflicts between East Timorese. We continue. We continue just to prove that difference of opinion are not conflict. And we did this, even with the majority party, the ruling party. We could establish a new perception that in democracy we must have difference. We must express our difference. We must be free of expressing our difference.

And one of my problems is to help also civil society to be strong and be democrat. I believe that if we have a judiciary, an independent judiciary, if we push an independent media, we are building the basis of democracy here, of pluralism here. Of course, we are—everything that we see here, we must see as an embryo, an embryo of civil society, embryo of private sector, embryo of everything, embryo. It is why we are still in transitional period, to strength the principles, the values. I believe that we can do this.

AMY GOODMAN: Your final thoughts on—I know you have to go visit your mother, and far be it from me to stop you from doing that wonderful act, but—on the role of the international solidarity movement now that you become a new nation? And just your final thoughts on becoming the founding president of a new nation?

XANANA GUSMÃO: First of all, I would like to thank all the solidarity movements around the world. I already said—I can repeat it again and again—that our victory is also the victory of all the solidarity movements. Now, I must say that the solidarity movement around the world can start thinking how to help, not sending money, not sending clothes, but how to help the civil society, how to help our press, how to help in many, many other things.

And I can give an example. I went to Macau. I talked about the situation of our population, about the situation of former fighters or former cadres of a clandestine organization. And a lady told me that, “Yes, I’m ready to help you, but in concrete—in concrete measures or in concrete ways. I can help a child from the veterans, paying the expense, the fees, school fees, with one condition: he or she must be very—must study. The first year that he or she lose, I will help other.” Something like this. And if one people help one people here, we can improve the situation of our people. Don’t think about big, big, big question, big way of helping. Think about the strengthening of relationship between people, individual or in a group.

In Fahinehan—I went there—far away from Same, far away from Alas, far away from Turiscai and Maubisse, they don’t have money to send their children to live in Same or Turiscai or Alas. They are children. Our government could not help them, because we don’t have enough money to put schools everywhere. The farmers organized themselves, asked for who could start teaching them basic school. And when I went there, they asked only for paper, for pencils, for something to help. It was their initiative. They understood the difficulties of our government. But they don’t want to leave their children illiterate in something like this.

It is why I appeal to the international solidarity to East Timor. We want together. Now we are facing new struggle: to reduce the poverty, to reduce the illness, famine, to relieve or our people from daily difficulties, daily problems. And I believe that, of course, yesterday, today, donor countries committed themselves to help the government, but it will not be something that can do a miracle in three years. In these two-and-a-half years, when you go to isolated hamlets, they say, “We know nothing about independence. We are living worse than before.” And it’s why, if—as country, as a government, as a state, we are thankful to the international community for their help to allow us to implement our programs for three years. In isolated areas, our people need to feel the solidarity. And then it is a good time to the solidarity movement to start thinking how to help.

AMY GOODMAN: And your role as founding president?

XANANA GUSMÃO: My role as founding president: to coordinate your help to help our people, because I promised to the people that I will go again and again to talk with them, to listen to them, and to try to solve, complementing the efforts of the government, and try to regard the civil society, NGOs, internationals, nationals, NGOs, private sector, to start thinking how we can solve—we can help people feeling that the independence is a hope, hope for them, only. It is only my role. I was chosen, I was elected by my programs. And I have this difficult task to respond to the expectations of my electors, of all the people of East Timor.

AMY GOODMAN: Thank you very much.

XANANA GUSMÃO: You’re welcome.

AMY GOODMAN: And congratulations.

XANANA GUSMÃO: Thank you very much.

AMY GOODMAN: Xanana Gusmão. In just days, he’ll become the founding president of the Democratic Republic of East Timor. And that does it for today’s program. Tomorrow, journalist Allan Nairn will be in East Timor, and we’ll co-host Democracy Now! together. On Sunday, we’ll be bringing you a special live three-hour coverage of the Independence Day celebration in East Timor. It’s midnight, when Kofi Annan, U.N. Secretary-General, hands the torch to Xanana Gusmão. We’ll be broadcasting this event, which will occur earlier in the day in the United States on Sunday, May 19th, on community radio stations around the country.

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