The president behind the nation

East Timor became the world's newest nation Sunday, as the UN handed over control.

The turning point for José Alexandre "Xanana" Gusmão came in December 1978.

Three years of napalm, shelling, and hunger had broken the back of the resistance fighters battling for independence from Indonesia. Split by infighting, an army that had numbered in the thousands was reduced to fewer than 100, its commanders and spirit nearly dead. An Indonesian cordon was tightening around the starving survivors in the mountains.

"They were convinced victory was impossible,'' says veteran Virgilio Simith, "and they worried about reprisals against civilians." Then Mr. Gusmão – a skinny, obscure resistance fighter who had won East Timor's 1974 poetry prize – took control. He led a few dozen survivors through Indonesia's lines and built the independence movement that ended with the UN-sponsored referendum in 1999.

In the coming years, he became a warrior so elusive that followers thought he could change shape; a peacemaker who reconciled warring independence factions; and a politician who managed the expectations of his people as deftly as he wrung reluctant support from the international community.

Now to Xanana, as he prefers to be called, falls the task of guiding East Timor to a peaceful and prosperous future. He was elected president in a landslide in April. He took power yesterday, as East Timor declared its nationhood, and the United Nation's transitional government, which has run East Timor since 1999, stood down.

Foreign donors are expected to fully support East Timor, and some 5,000 peacekeepers will stay for up to two years.

Thousands of East Timorese gathered last night outside the capital of Dili for the celebration. Delegates from 80 nations, including former President Bill Clinton and UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, were on hand for the transition. Indonesian President Megawati Sukarnoputri, a longtime opponent of East Timorese independence, also attended the celebration, despite opposition from hardliners.

This arid country of some 700,000 people is deeply poor and divided after 500 years of Portuguese colonialism and a brutal 25-year Indonesian occupation. After Indonesia lost the referendumin 1999, Indonesian soldiers and local militias destroyed most of the country's basic infrastructure.

While history is littered with independence and revolutionary leaders who failed to deliver in peacetime, Xanana has an almost paradoxical set of skills: He's a warrior who excels at making peace and a leader with no apparent lust for power.

"I never wanted to be president, and I don't want to be a president for any political party or any point of view,'' says Xanana, outlining a power sharing plan he hopes will heal the divisions that fed East Timor's 1975 civil war and prompted the Indonesian invasion. "At the beginning of this democratization process, we can't have divisions in our society," he says.

Xanana has a track record of healing divisions. After his 1978 escape from a fallen resistance base in the mountains, the first thing Xanana did was clip the wings of Fretilin, his original political party. The leftist party had won the civil war and saw itself as the rightful ruler of East Timor. "From the start, his focus was reconciliation," says Agio Perreira, a former clandestine independence operative.

Xanana recognized that Fretilin was driving an ideological wedge between his supporters and the rest of East Timor. The US, on the heels of Vietnam war, worried that Fretilin would turn East Timor into a little Cuba in the midst of Southeast Asia.

"There were people that feared Fretilin, and he was the one to see that our struggle was doomed if he didn't fix that,'' says Mr. Simith, who now leads the Falintil Veteran's Association.

Starting in 1980, Xanana went from village to village, sometimes disguised as a priest, reaching out a hand to old friends and old enemies, asking them to recommit to the resistance.

"That's when Xanana became a phenomenon,'' says Perreira. "He showed himself in the truest sense to be a leader – to go and speak to the people and inspire them to follow, yet to be the furthest thing from authoritarian."

His deep-set eyes, salt-and-pepper beard, and sonorous voice made him a guerrilla leader from central casting. Comparisons with South Africa's Nelson Mandela began to be made, and East Timor was catapulted into the world ranks of fashionable causes.

Xanana was born in the sleepy town of Manututo, one of nine children. His father was a schoolteacher, placing the family one notch above the peasantry in the Portuguese system. Friends of Xanana say he was unusually sensitive to the public whippings and forced labor that were common in his youth.

At 13, he was sent to the elite Jesuit seminary near Dili. He enjoyed poetry classes and literature, but was restless and dropped out at 16 to attend a regular high school in Dili. He eventually received his degree.

He developed a small reputation for his poems. But he was also known as an occasionally brilliant but often eccentric goalkeeper for the Academica soccer club. He seemed "too busy making up sonnets to actually stop any goals," according to "The Crossing," a book by East Timorese author Luis Cardoso.

Xanana appears leery of his iconic stature at home, which would veer close to a personality cult if not for his regular-guy approach.

Before the presidential election, he repeatedly said he didn't want the job, and preferred retirement to politics.

But after everyone from elders in the highlands to former US President Clinton pushed him to run for president, he came to see what most Timor watchers had long known: He was the greatest uniting force in the country.

His powers of forgiveness are legendary. He has forgiven Indonesia for its occupation, which claimed upwards of 200,000 lives. The power to forgive even extends to Indonesian Gen. Prabowo Subianto. General Prabowo ran death squads and interrogation centers from which many of Xanana's friends never returned. Yet in a visit to Jakarta two years ago, Xanana embraced his former enemy and offered to make peace.

"I don't think that he likes this,'' says Perreira. "But he's so much of a bigger man than the Indonesian generals, than these other men. He knows that this is what's good for his people."

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
QR Code to The president behind the nation
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today