In East Timor: Justice, Not Revenge

Kay Rala Xanana Gusmão talks about how his time as a guerrilla leader and political prisoner will help him lead the liberated nation

Since Kay Rala Xanana Gusmão's election as President of East Timor in May, 2002, he has emerged as a force of tolerance in a tiny, poor country deeply traumatized from a brutal, 24-year military occupation by its giant neighbor, Indonesia. An independence referendum in August, 1999, and the subsequent violent withdrawal by the Indonesian army left a country the size of Connecticut in ruins, dependent on the U.N. for reconstruction, and pinning its future hopes on oil and gas reserves that are being disputed with neighboring Australia.

After 17 years as a Fretilin (or Revolutionary Front of Independent East Timor) guerrilla commander in East Timor's hinterland and seven years as a political prisoner in Jakarta, miraculously, Gusmão is ready to forgive and forget. In written answers to questions from BusinessWeek Singapore Bureau Manager Michael Shari, the 57-year-old warrior-statesman explained why on May 16. Edited excerpts of his responses follow:

Q: What personal loss have you suffered as a consequence of the Indonesian invasion of East Timor in 1975, the political repression during the Indonesian occupation from 1975-99, and the mass murder that followed the independence referendum in 1999?


I don't know how to quantify personal losses in a war that lasted 24 years and that brought so much suffering. Because almost every single Timorese family lost at least one loved one in the war, the loss and suffering affected everyone, albeit in different ways.

One reward I did receive in this war was the understanding of my own people's determination to accept suffering, extreme suffering, to attain our freedom and national independence.

Q: How did you rise to become the leader of Fretilin after Indonesia's invasion of East Timor in 1975?


My role in leading the war was practically forced by the circumstances of the war itself. As you know, by 1978...the resistance, as it had been conceived since the end of 1975, was virtually over. However, in spite of the tremendous loss of lives and resources, the determination of our people did not fade away. There was a need to restructure not only the armed forces but also our own theoretical approach to the war of national liberation.

We knew we couldn't continue to have "liberated" zones. We knew that we had lost almost all of the senior leaders, who had either given up and disappeared, or had been killed by the enemy.

Q: What happened then?


For two years, we fell into oblivion and entered a soul-searching mode. Only in March, 1981, did we succeed in holding the first national meeting.... We redesigned our theoretical concept of the war of liberation and adopted new strategies. That first national meeting was the beginning of true guerrilla warfare in East Timor -- being completely mobile and having no liberated zones.

We also redefined war [in terms of] being [in] co-existence with the enemy. We identified national resources...and those that could be mobilized and created in the process of guerrilla warfare, not only in the mountains but within the enemy's environment. You can say that that was when I emerged as a national leader.

Q: How did your experiences as a guerrilla fighter in East Timor and later as a political prisoner in Jakarta shape you as a leader?


By the time that I was captured and jailed, we were at the point of no return. The struggle was no longer determined by military supremacy, but by political and diplomatic supremacy.

The international community was focusing on human and indigenous rights, and was no longer under the Cold War constraints. I knew that if I wasn't killed, then as a prisoner and acting in the political sphere I could not only influence the process in the international arena but also, in a small way, the politics in Indonesia itself.

Q: How did you pass the time in prison?


I learned more about Indonesian reality and politics with the Indonesian prisoners. I read incessantly and followed events that were happening beyond Indonesia. Together with my guerrilla war experience, I learned that diplomacy, too, required a lot of patience and that to win, you must never lose sight of the overall purpose of the struggle.

You must never underestimate the enemy, be it in diplomacy or in the military, and you must have respect for the enemy's power and influence.... My contact with [other] political prisoners in that same jail helped me to widen my understanding about Indonesia. One strong point I made [to] the Indonesian military was that our struggle, the struggle to end the illegal occupation of East Timor by Indonesia, wasn't a struggle against Indonesia or in favor of breaking the unity of the archipelago state of Indonesia.

Q: How would you describe the progress that has been made in bringing Indonesian army officers to justice for crimes against humanity committed shortly after the referendum on independence in 1999?


The progress is still short of comprehensive justice.... By focusing [only] on the crimes of September, 1999, which was perhaps only 5% of the total crimes committed over a period of 24 years, one inevitably loses sight of the sense of true justice.

Q: How do you keep the peace in East Timor despite resentment against your neighbor, Indonesia, and against East Timorese who collaborated with the Indonesian occupation from 1975 to 1999 and who joined the pro-Jakarta militias in 1999.


The most important peace is within ourselves. We need to embrace that in our national struggle for liberation, almost everyone, in one way or another, took part in it -- even those working for Indonesia. Some who became militia may have been actively involved in the resistance prior to being a militia.

Others who became leaders of the military resistance may have been on the opposite side before, and much information about the movements of the enemy and the tactics of Indonesia in the diplomatic front may have been acquired through those Timorese people who were on the Indonesian side.

As I said before, our war was one of "co-existence with the enemy," and this must not be ignored.

Q: Do you ever feel a temptation to use your office to seek revenge against Indonesia militarily?


No. Our people, supported by international solidarity, won the war. The Indonesian military is also a very complex institution. You need to understand the dynamics of the Indonesian politics. If you do, then you'll understand why we won't seek revenge.

The war in East Timor served as a lesson for Indonesia. There are those who committed serious crimes against us, and in due course, justice shall prevail. To honor justice, justice ought to be achieved out of the realms of revenge.

Q: How will you manage the economic windfall from the development of petroleum reserves in East Timor's waters?


I'm worried that once we gain from the oil and gas, we may not have appropriate human resources -- Timorese expertise, including managers and technicians -- to maximize the positive social impact on our nation. We need to be well-prepared to sustain the economic impact caused by the oil and gas revenues. How to do that will depend upon the government.

The process is complex because it isn't totally dependent on us. It also depends on the international market, on the powers that be in the international arena. As a small country, the youngest member state of the U.N., the poorest country in Asia, we need to watch our steps carefully to avoid big falls.

Q: Is East Timor ready to be an independent nation?


I don't know how to define the readiness to be independent. Many countries appeared to have been ready but today appear to be nonviable in some ways.... Being ready probably means being able to understand one's weakness and strengths clearly, and being able to capitalize on all opportunities available to maximize one's capacity to govern oneself.

We need to be ready to create jobs for our youth. We need to be ready to create conditions to look after our elderly. We need to be ready to build ties of friendship with all countries, big and small, paying particular attention to our immediate neighbors, especially the two giant neighbors -- Indonesia and Australia. In a way, we need to always be ready for changes and to adapt to new realities.

Q: What's your vision of East Timor in terms of political, social, and economic development 10 years from now, and what's your strategy to achieve it?


We need, above all, to manage the expectations of our people and to keep them within the realm of practical realities. I hope that, regardless of the state of affairs in 10 years time, our people will understand the policies of our government and will [be willing] to walk hand-in-hand with the government to achieve the common goal of sustainable development.

Edited by Patricia O'Connell

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