Human Security in East Timor? Xanana’s Leadership

By David Wurfel. In Peace Magazine Vol.15, No.5 (1999).

Commentators have reminded readers that, contrary to claims from Indonesia, there has been no “civil war” in the troubled island of East Timor. But this was not to say Indonesia didn’t try to create one. The whole point of the army-directed militia strategy-with massacring independence supporters-was to provoke Falintil (Forças Armadas de Libertação Nacional de Timor-Leste) , the pro-independence guerrillas led by José Alexandre Xanana Gusmão, into a counter-attack. This might have allowed the final punishing blow by the Indonesian army, the TNI, which was never quite achieved in 24 years of merciless attacks.


But the TNI strategy, perhaps originally master-minded by Gen. Prabowo, Suharto’s son-in-law – then carried out by field commanders – did not produce the desired reaction because of the remarkable restraint of Falantil fighters. They remained in the mountains, protecting refugees who had fled the towns and cities, even in early October. They did not confront the militias in the lowlands, even though relatives and friends may have been killed in militia forays. To understand how they could have held back under such severe provocation we must recognize three aspects of the situation.

First, Falintil was indeed poorly armed, poorly fed, and exhausted from the long war. Many of its fighters, estimated at no more than 1500, were the sons and daughters of the casualties of the 1970s. They knew challenging the TNI and militias openly in 1999 would have been just as costly.

But restraint this year was born also out of optimism, the feeling that the U.N. was finally on East Timor’s side, and that restraint would actually make it easier for the world community to focus on Indonesia as the source of the problem. They believed that independence was at hand, not realizing in July how much suffering there would be in the last days. But the discipline did not break.


The behavior of Falintil cannot be adequately understood without appreciating the role of Xanana Gusmão, a man of steely determination and infinite patience with a clear vision of an independent East Timor. A member of the central committee of Fretilin (Frente Revolucionaria de Timor Leste Independente) from 1975, Xanana led the guerrilla fighters from the dark days of 1978 until he was captured by the TNI in 1992. Last February he was released from prison to house arrest and was able to improve communication with his followers in East Timor. He preached restraint and they listened. They now report they were following UNAMET’s advice, which is undoubtedly true. But it was the instruction from Xanana that instilled the discipline. In a broadcast shortly after the vote Xanana said, “I have heard that the Indonesian military are shooting indiscriminately. I appeal that all the people remain calm. I appeal to all the guerrillas, all my brothers and sisters, to maintain your positions and not to react to all of these things.” The East Timorese obeyed even such a difficult request as this.

If the situation in East Timor and the message of restraint sound a bit like South Africa, it is not only because there are some basic historical similarities, but also because Nelson Mandela is greatly revered in East Timor, in large part for visiting Xanana in prison, and being instrumental in his release. In August the highest form of praise found in Dili’s graffiti was, “Xanana is Mandela!” The reverence for Xanana, now 53, borders on the mystical. Some Timorese youth have been shot carrying his picture, but this does not seem to deter them from carrying it again and again.

What is most amazing is that a man who suffered extreme hardship, cheating death as a guerrilla leader for more than 15 years, and surviving nearly seven years in an Indonesian prison, could emerge as such a conciliatory moderate. It is remarkable also that this is the same man who was thought by Western observers (hooked on Indonesian propaganda) to be leading a ‘communist movement’ in the 1970s. There were Marxist leaders in the early days of Fretilin, but Xanana, educated in a Catholic seminary, seemed to have been a centrist, a consensus builder, from the beginning.

Xanana gained Falintil leadership after his predecessor was shot by Indonesian forces. Two months later, in February 1979, the president and prime minister of the government established in 1975, both members of Fretilin, were also killed. Falintil forces were severely depleted throughout East Timor. But within a few years they experienced a remarkable revival. In 1981 Xanana became president of Fretilin as well, and was largely responsible for the merging of Fretilin into a wider nationalist coalition called CNRR (Conselho Nacional de Resistencia Revolucionaria), which included Fretilin’s more conservative 1975 rival, the UDT (Union of Democratic Timorese), and other smaller groups. The organization was later renamed CNRT – changing ‘Revolutionary’ to ‘Timorese’, today’s pro-independence umbrella organization, of which Falintil is the military arm.

His predilection for peaceful alternatives was evident in March 1983 when he negotiated a cease fire agreement with the Army, hoping to turn the struggle in less violent directions. The recent election of a Labour government in Australia seemed to have prodded Indonesia into a conciliatory gesture. At that time Xanana sent a letter to President Suharto asking for the entry of a UN peacekeeping force, for free consultations with the people of East Timor, and maintenance of Falintil troops in the mountains. (How many lives would have been saved by such moves at that time!?) This period of cease fire actually allowed Falintil more freedom of movement to rebuild its organizational networks. However, once the Indonesian military discovered that Prime Minister Bob Hawke was nothing to worry about, it developed different plans. In August the cease fire was broken with a massive military offensive, including infantry sweeps, bombing and more massacres. Falintil was forced back into its mountain hideouts. Yet in this same period Xanana also sought closer communication with the Catholic Church and the recently appointed bishop of Dili, Carlos Felipe Ximenes Belo. The Church became increasingly vocal in the protection of human rights.

During his period of imprisonment in Jakarta from 1992, Xanana had a chance to read and write, a luxury that had been denied him for years. He also indulged his hobbies of painting and writing poetry. He is truly a renaissance man. Since leaving prison he has proven as well to be a suave diplomat, avoiding the sometimes harsh language of Jose Ramos-Horta, who was his overseas spokesman for so many years.


In a September interview at the British Embassy in Jakarta, held shortly after his release from house arrest, he was asked about the world’s demands for war crimes trials against some Indonesian army officers. His answer stressed instead the need for reconciliation, despite the fact that those crimes were still being committed. Even before the poll on August 30th he had sent messages to East Timor saying, in effect, revenge is out, reconciliation is in. Though the practice must be difficult for many, his slogan now is “Bury hatred.” He explained, “Our nation will be greater if each and every one of us is able to forgive, including those who have committed the most reprehensible acts.”

In September Xanana also went out of his way to assure the global economy that he will follow acceptable policies. He has said, “The right to ownership of land and goods, if legally acquired in East Timor by individuals or groups, nationals or foreigners, will be protected.” His followers hope he means East Timorese legality, since so much Indonesian property in East Timor was acquired underhandedly, regardless of the legal façade that Indonesia may have provided at the time. Xanana’s dreams include “special economic zones in ord-er to stimulate employment for the East Timorese.” He also promised legislation to protect new investors, both national and foreign. In addition, he has asserted, “Our government, with the support of the international community, will give priority to activities aimed at the social and economic integration of the freedom fighters.” More amazingly, he has added, “The transitional government will pay particular attention to the integration of East Timorese currently in the Indonesian military and police, as well as members of paramilitary groups.”

The challenge of reconciliation has been made easier in East Timor by the fact that, unlike Kosovo, the conflict was not between two ethnic groups. While there is certainly bitterness against Indonesians among East Timorese, despite Xanana’s approach, the vast majority of Indonesian residents in East Timor have arrived within the last decade, and almost all have now left, unlikely to return. There is nothing equivalent to the plight of Serbs living in Kosovo for generations, now harassed, but with nowhere to ‘return.’

Still, the resentment of the majority of victims against the East Timorese minority involved with TNI and the militias will be great. Xanana’s approach will face a serious challenge.The discipline that he has been able to impose on his followers so far was born of struggle with the Indonesian military. TNI brutality inadvertently raised to virogous adulthood the East Timorese nationalism that was only in its infancy in 1975. When that army is gone, the national unity which it instilled will weaken, as in other post-colonial contexts. (If the TNI and the militias continue to maneuver threateningly on the West Timorese border, East Timorese nationalism will be forced to strengthen.) For Xanana and the leaders around him coping with the fissures in East Timorese society will become more difficult after those threats are gone than it was during the resistance.

The regional differences, reflected in several distinct languages and dialects, have been sharply diminished by Indonesian oppression. But those differences survive. As old elite resume more traditional roles, along with the kinship networks on which they depended, the cross-cutting allegiances built up in the resistance will erode. This phenomenon was evident earlier and more widely than observers expected after 15 or more years of revolutionary guerrilla warfare in the Philippines. Class consciousness and nationalist loyalties were displaced by the revival of patron-client relations in the context of free, but expensive, elections.

Even the magic of Xanana’s charisma is threatened as he has to deal increasingly with knotty economic problems that do not succumb to heroic rhetoric. He has the capacity and the willingness to deal with them pragmatically, but will his followers like the outcomes? He is also likely to appeal to overseas East Timorese, who are concentrated in Portugal and Australia, to return home, bringing their training and their capital with them. They are desperately needed, but Portuguese and Australian influences will compete intensely. Family ties with those who remained will help the returnees to integrate. But their different experiences, language abilities, education and accustomed standard of living will set them apart from those who suffered so much at home. Even the historic political differences between UDT and Fretilin, which Xanana worked so hard to bridge during the resistance struggle, will become more important in a nation at peace. Xanana will face most difficult challenges to his leadership in the next few years.

Yet a guerrilla commander with long revolutionary experience, a fine mind, vision and a halo of charisma has very substantial resources at his command, despite his total economic dependence on foreign generosity in the short run. Within the experience of modern Asia, Xanana can best be compared with Ho Chi Minh. Yet two of Ho’s resources, tight revolutionary organization and a rigid ideology to justify it, turned out to be a disadvantage in peacetime, one that Xanana seems, fortunately, to have avoided. His pitfall may be the very pragmatism and diplomacy that stands him in such good stead while dealing with the international community. When he returns home he will face a people who not only treat him like a demi-god but who have particular expectations of the future entangled with that reverence. The young people, the participants in the daring intifada-like demonstrations of the late l980s and ’90s, have been nurtured on intense nationalism, as well as on ideas of human rights and social justice. They are likely to become dissatisfied if Xanana waits too long to protect these principles. A people now thoroughly egalitarian in their poverty will not welcome a pattern of economic recovery that quickly produces obscene inequality, as in Cambodia. Political democracy, to which Xanana is committed, could not survive the disregard of social justice.
h2. Recovery

Foreign assistance must respect Timorese sensibilities, both in the substance of policy and the style of administration. While massive long-term economic aid will be needed, more than two years of ‘transitional sovereignty’ under the U.N., as has been proposed, would quickly become counterproductive. It would be tragic if the U.N. overstayed its welcome.

Seldom in world history have a people suffered so much as the East Timorese, victims not only of the cruel oppression of Indonesians, but of the perfidy, self-interestedness and frequent neglect of the international community. Honest and disinterested voices from around the world, often heard through NGOs, must become even more influential in policy processes that affect East Timor. Peace-making must be a very long term commitment.

But East Timorese today are not only victims of oppression. They are extremely fortunate to have a talented, committed, one can even say wise, statesman as a leader. If his friends do not suffocate him with ill-conceived beneficence or his enemies undermine him, there is a real prospect that he can bring his people to both economic and moral recovery, and then to democratic development.

Professor Wurfel was a volunteer, observing the election process with the International Federation for East Timor. He is also a research associate at the Joint Centre for Asia-Pacific Studies, Toronto.

Categories Other Asia, East Timor