Socialist Affairs traces the life of Xanana Gusmão, the first President of the new independent state of East Timor

Issue 4, Volume 49, 2000

For seventeen years Xanana Gusmão did the impossible. He helped to sustain the resistance of the 600,000 people of the former Portuguese colony of East Timor against the illegal occupation of their country by their giant neighbour Indonesia in 1975, headed by General Suharto.

The occupation was accepted by many. The Timorese were blockaded in their own country by hostile Indonesian forces whose actions led to the death of a third of the entire population. The inhabitants found few who would come to their aid against a government of a country which was one of the world’s most populous.

Not only did the Timorese have to suffer genocide, they had to stand by helpless as their country was overrun by colonists who were shipped from over-populated Indonesia.

Xanana’s leadership was to be lasting and steadfast. It was nevertheless modified and circumscribed in 1992 when he was captured by the occupying forces, was illegally extradited to Indonesia and was sentenced there to twenty years imprisonment for "subversion" against a government to which he was bound by no bonds of allegiance. From his cell he found the way to guide the strategies of the resistance while at the same time writing the poems which he was not able to publish till 1998.

Gusmão was born Jose Alexandre Gusmão at Laleia on 20 June 1946. East Timor had just emerged from the Japanese occupation.

He went to a school run by the Jesuits before moving to the seminary at Dare, outside the capital Dili, the alma mater of generations of East Timorese.

His first job was in government service. In 1973 he received the first of many prizes which were to be awarded to him, this one being for his poetry. With the emergence of democracy in Lisbon in 1974 and the immediate possibility of the end of colonial rule, the 31 year old Xanana, as he was by now universally known, adopted social democracy, eventually rising in the ranks of the Revolutionary Front for Independence in East Timor, FRETILIN. The country’s independence was formally declared but it was ended by an invasion on 7 December 1975 and a series of atrocities committed by Indonesians in all parts of the territory. Xanana and the rest of the leadership of FRETILIN and its military arm FALINTIL quit Dili and sustained resistance in the mountains.

On the last day of 1978 Xanana became the leader, roaming in the jungles and keeping resistance going with arms and ammunition which, in the absence of weapons from abroad, had to be seized or bought from the Indonesian troops. The FALINTIL fight, however, went almost unperceived in the outside world as the Indonesians kept foreign visitors out. Xanana was nevertheless involved in abortive peace talks with the commander of the occupation force in 1983. In 1986 Xanana created the National Council of Maubere Resistance, an umbrella organisation to fight the occupation.

This secret war continued for years till events reached a turning point in November 1991 when the film maker Max Stahl recorded and smuggled out scenes of the massacre of peaceful anti-Indonesian demonstrators by Indonesian troops at the Santa Cruz cemetery in the capital. The dramatic pictures shown on television round the world and the evidence that Xanana’s followers were still resisting captured the world’s imagination and helped ensure the ultimate victory of the East Timorese. The Timorese have often expressed their gratitude for the help that the SI and its member parties were able to mobilise for their cause.

With the overthrow of the Suharto dictatorship in Jakarta in May 1998 the writing was on the wall for the occupiers and the first thousand Indonesian soldiers of a garrison of 18,000 were evacuated that year

In March 1999 he was visited by the US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright in the house in Jakarta to which he had been transferred from prison.

Shortly afterwards the UN moved in to take control of East Timor not, however, before Indonesian terrorist gangs, backed by an Indonesian army whose officers had often notably enriched themselves and which was unwilling to abandon the territory, had slaughtered many more of its inhabitants. The referendum for which Xanana had continually called occurred and by the end of August 1999 it was clear that Xanana’s values were shared by the overwhelming majority of his countrymen.

Elections for an administration followed in August last year and by an overwhelming vote he was elected president in April 2002. No one had done more for the freedom of his country than the politician, fighter and poet from Laleia.