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"what I feel is that if we improve the social and economic situation in East Timor, our people will forgive. This is my own, my personal point of view" Xanana Gusmao - From guerilla fighter to leader of his country

Radio National's (Australia) Weekly Investigative Documentary: Background Briefing

Xanana Gusmao

Produced by Chris Bullock

Sunday 19/11/00

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The world's first interview with the poet warrior Xanana Gusmao was recorded in a mountain camp 10 years ago. Now he talks to Background Briefing again:

"what I feel is that if we improve the social and economic situation in East Timor, our people will forgive. This is my own, my personal point of view"

Xanana Gusmao - From guerilla fighter to leader of his country.

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Chris Bullock: Welcome to Background Briefing.

This week we're renewing acquaintances with one of the most remarkable political figures of our times, Xanana Gusmao: poet, guerrilla leader, prisoner and, according to most expectations, soon to be the first President of an independent East Timor. Hello, I'm Chris Bullock. The first time Xanana Gusmao spoke to Background Briefing was from a jungle camp in the mountains of East Timor. That interview with journalist Robert Domm in 1990, took years to plan and carry out.

Robert Domm: This is Robert Domm reporting for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation from the military headquarters of the armed resistance to Indonesian occupation of East Timor. The headquarters is situated deep in the hills of East Timor, and for the first time in 15 years since Indonesia invaded in 1975, I am talking to the Commander of the Falantil, the armed forces resistance. Good evening, Mr Xanana. My first question to you, sir -

Chris Bullock: The interview conducted by Robert Domm went to air on Background Briefing in October 1990. It was the first time the world had heard from the head of the East Timorese resistance. Just over ten years later, Xanana Gusmao is sitting in the comfort of a Radio National studio in Sydney, recalling the circumstances of that first interview.

Xanana Gusmao: Robert Domm's visit was one of the important moments in our struggle, just because he was the first-ever journalist going to meet us in the jungle. It was very exciting; we were very, very worried about the possibility of having combat during his stay in the jungle. But fortunately nothing happened until he went back to Dili.

Chris Bullock: Could you describe for us where you met Robert Domm, what the mountain camp was like?

Xanana Gusmao: Because of my English I don't know if I can explain very well, but: Ainaro is a village south of Dili and to go to our base one has to go to a hamlet, I don't know how many kilometres, maybe 5 kilometres, and then to a place called Buneria. It was the site of big operations, with a river dividing the zone where the population can go and on the other side of the river it is considered the zone of the guerrilla.

Chris Bullock: How long did you camp there?

Xanana Gusmao: Usually two, three months, and we'd move to another; and we could come back if there is not signs that the enemy already knew about our presence in one place.

Chris Bullock: And how many men and women did you have there?

Xanana Gusmao: Usually I was not living with big forces. Fifteen to twenty soldiers.

Chris Bullock: These days, Xanana Gusmao is still on the move, but the trekking between jungle camps has been replaced by the grind of the intercontinental diplomacy circuit. Before arriving in Sydney last week, he had been around the world in a matter of days, seeking help in the rebuilding of a new nation. A quietly composed man in his early 50s, Xanana Gusmao seems reluctant in the spotlight. Conducting interviews in English, finding the right words, is still an ordeal in concentration, although he says he's becoming more accustomed to it. Over the past decade, Xanana Gusmao has gone from guerrilla war commander, to political prisoner, to international statesman. Today he is the leader of a political coalition preparing to assume power in East Timor when the United Nations transitional government hands over the reigns sometime next year. And today we'll hear his assessment of the great challenge ahead. Ten years ago though, in that wide-ranging radio interview from 1990, secretly recorded in the mountains, the guerrilla leader spoke of the extent of the resistance movement, the day-to-day war with the Indonesian military and the impact on the civilian population. He was saying then that the guerrilla leaders would talk peace with Indonesia, as long as it was done under the auspices of the United Nations. Here now is about ten edited minutes of that historic program. Xanana Gusmao is speaking in Portuguese, with an interpreter, and the journalist is Robert Domm.

Robert Domm: In the towns and countryside, hundreds of people were involved in the operation to smuggle me into the mountains. In the bush there were people everywhere, protecting us at every stage and scouting ahead to make sure that we got to the guerrillas' base camp and returned safely. There were over 10,000 troops in that tiny country and we had to pass through them everywhere. It was only the local civilians who saved our skins. The few guerrillas I travelled with couldn't have protected me from the Indonesian troops. To meet with Xanana Gusmao we had to secretly leave Dili and travel by car for many hours. We then walked for perhaps 20 kilometres through the rugged mountains. Finally, when I thought I was done for, one of the guerrillas pointed and said, 'We're very close now, it's just up ahead.' I looked up and saw this 'mini Matterhorn' covered with jungle and totally inaccessible. From where we stood, you wouldn't have known anyone was there, let alone how to get up it. By the time we reached the camp I was exhausted, climbing on my hands and knees. Suddenly, Xanana appeared from nowhere and I scrambled up, shook his hand and said, 'It's been a long time, Sir, 15 years.' The history of the moment struck me immediately. For 15 years no outsider had got to them, and they seemed like a lost tribe, but once the interview got under way I realised that the guerrilla commander was an extremely intelligent and sophisticated man. Mr Xanana can you describe for me the difficulties of conducting a war of resistance in East Timor, given the communication problems which you have, and the problems associated with the difficult terrain, the mountains.

Xanana Gusamo (interpreted from Portuguese): The question is interesting, in the sense that communications are very important. We don't have any means to enable us to quickly have a total view of the military situation throughout the country. We use several groups of guerrillas for communication purposes. This has many difficulties: delays because of lack of food, because there are battles along the way, or because the enemy attacks the point where two groups plan to meet. Militarily this has been our big problem, but we somehow manage to overcome it by allowing each group to take their own initiatives according to the conditions prevailing there, but within general planning. Lately we've had even more difficulties because of the enemy's use of territorial counter-insurgency, the launching of small groups in all possible directions in a given zone. But the clandestine organisations had been able to warn us in advance. We must be the only guerrilla army in the world with so many difficulties in all aspects. Our own subsistence, health care, and our capacity to maintain adequate human resources. But it's our political motivation that sustains us in this war; it's too great for us to lose. Our morale is unshakeable and this allows us to overcome all our difficulties. In such a small territory surrounded by sea on all sides, and with the naval blockade imposed by the enemy, you can understand our difficulties. The fact that we've resisted for 15 years now and we're still able to cry out that we are determined to win, it's because our people demand this, our homeland asks us. I believe that everyone would understand that for us, the great difficulties are not really felt, they only strengthen our unity, our determination to search for new methods to face up to these difficulties.

Robert Domm: How do the Indonesian troops conduct their operations against the resistance? Xanana Gusamo (interpreted from Portuguese): Every offensive which the enemy launches is aimed at our extermination. It doesn't have any other purpose. If we go back to the guerrilla warfare period in 1981, Indonesia launched an offensive in which it used almost all the people of East Timor. In 1983-84, they used their entire arsenal, warships, tanks, airplanes, mortars, cannons, in battalions which we got tired of counting. Later, in 1986-87, they used elite troops, special forces in counter-insurgency warfare, then they began to use territorial guerrilla warfare. This doesn't involve a great number of military personnel but well-defined planning and well-defined periods of time, during which they spread their forces out completely, in small groups. In 1988 they launched a new offensive, again with a big military force. But since then Indonesia has reduced the number of military personnel and are using Timorese conscripts for counter-insurgence.

Robert Domm: How in fact did they use the population?

Xanana Gusamo (interpreted from Portuguese): They cover an entire area with the people, and then attack another area. Then they move, and in this way they practically cover everywhere. The population is used to cover the terrain, so that they push us into the Indonesian troops and force us to clash with them. For instance, if they thought we were on this mountain, they'd mobilise all the population of the local concentration camp (village) to make a circle, which would advance on us. The Indonesian troops would then begin the push, and if we didn't escape in time we'd clash with them.

Robert Domm: Mr Xanana, what effect does the war between your troops and Indonesians have on the civilian population?

Xanana Gusamo (interpreted from Portuguese): I would say a horrendous [Gusmao in 1990] effect. Since the war has caused so many deaths and so much suffering to our people. All the atrocities you hear about outside are only a very, very small part of what actually happens in East Timor. But since the people's resistance continues, this is the war's true effect. Timorese women feel even more oppressed than men. There are so many cases of disrespect to women: violations, abuses, threats, many women give their lives for their honour. Others were subjugated by force: an entire platoon raping a woman, sexually abusing her until she's almost dead. Many gave their lives. Others preferred the bullet to dishonour, while others couldn't resist. This is a bestial attitude. They're assassins, inhuman, and everything that is Timorese is to be destroyed, violated, oppressed and killed.

Robert Domm: When I asked Xanana about prospects for a settlement to the protracted war, he seemed resigned yet determined. Indonesia's only response to his proposals is to send in more troops to try to kill his guerrillas. But there's a large reserve of people waiting to go to the mountains if they're called on. As far as I could tell the resistance will go on indefinitely, unless the Indonesians show flexibility. Xanana's message to the world was to pressure Jakarta for a peaceful resolution. Mr Xanana, realistically, how likely is it that you can achieve your goals, and how long are you prepared to suffer the deprivations of a guerrilla life in the bush?

Xanana Gusamo (interpreted from Portuguese): Realistically, it's not appropriate for me to tell you here whether I think it's possible for us to achieve independence. We're prepared to continue to resist for as long as necessary, as long as Djakarta doesn't adopt a more flexible, just and responsible attitude. We're prepared to accept our own extermination, as long as Jakarta thinks that there's only one way to solve this problem: that there exists only the use of force to make us surrender. So only after Jakarta shows more flexibility can I more realistically comment on how we could achieve independence.

Robert Domm: What are your proposals for a solution in East Timor? Would you be prepared to compromise, for example, to gain autonomy within Indonesia, and yet be free to run internal affairs with Jakarta running other matters like Foreign Affairs and Defence?

Xanana Gusamo (interpreted from Portuguese): I can't comment on that, since I'm only one person, and the leadership of the struggle involves Falantil as well as the nationalist parties. Many proposals have been sent to the world, but none was responded to. I can only say that I'm ready to discuss any project for a solution without preconditions, and under the auspices of the United Nations. Obviously nothing could take place here if there was no cease-fire, because there would be physical threats to us, so the only essential condition to discuss proposals for a solution is a cease-fire.

Chris Bullock: That was Xanana Gusmao speaking through an interpreter, ten years ago. The interview was conducted by Robert Domm and was broadcasting on Background Briefing in October 1990. As we know, things have changed dramatically since then. Xanana Gusmao spent seven years in prison in Indonesia, and he now heads a government-in-waiting in East Timor. Next year, when the United Nations withdraws, Xanana Gusmao is likely to be the first President of East Timor. He was in Australia last week to accept the 2000 Sydney Peace Prize, awarded by the Sydney Peace Foundation at the University of Sydney, and while he was here, Xanana Gusmao came into the Radio National studios. Xanana Gusmao, welcome to Background Briefing again, in very different circumstances from the last time. Over 15 years you were fighting in the bush, in the mountains. What are your strongest memories of those years?

Xanana Gusmao: Mainly the situations coming from big operations that causes a feeling of weakness, a feeling of impotence, a feeling of losing the war, because you know, with only a few, a handful of people. The big operations, big defeats, some good events because every day you're waiting for a bullet, and what makes a difference during all this was big defeats, that helped you, big operations that put you in a very complicated state of mind, or some victories that could feed your hope. I must say that even with the difficulties, very intimately, in our innermost, we knew that one day we would win. It was because every day you are facing death. But after I was captured and sent to prison I knew that if I die it was not by being killed, but by some unfortunate disease. And in prison you get yourself far away from the process, although I started very, very soon the network with the clandestine organisations, with armed resistance.

Chris Bullock: Did your thinking change very much in prison?

Xanana Gusmao: If there is some change, it was about my knowledge of the political, social, more political process in Indonesia, because when I was in the jungle, theoretically we knew that it was a regime, it was not the Indonesian people, theoretically, but we hated so much everything that came from Indonesia. And suddenly you faced the reality, you have contact with people and you know what people feel, you know what people suffer, and because of having more contact with the democratic movements in Indonesia, we feel that time was going in our favour, that one day we could overcome all of the difficulties.

Chris Bullock: This must have put you in a much better position for your negotiations today, with Indonesia.

Xanana Gusmao: Yes, of course. Because we know their factions, we know their mentality, we know the strength or the capacity of anti-democratic forces. It allows us to know very, very well, the process.

Chris Bullock: Xanana Gusmao has been critical of the UN transitional government (UNTAET) in East Timor for failing to build diplomatic bridges with Indonesia. He says the UN does not understand the subtleties of Asian negotiating techniques and that UN bluntness has been counterproductive. As a result, the East Timorese leadership group, the CNRT, has given Jose Ramos Horta the job of overseeing the relationship with Jakarta. Xanana Gusmao says the East Timorese must take responsibility now for developing long-term links with Indonesia.

Xanana Gusmao: Because we know the behaviour, the mentality of the Indonesian people, we know if some reactions come from this, or we can understand not only attitudes, but the thinking, their thoughts.

Chris Bullock: You can read between the lines.

Xanana Gusmao: Yes.

Chris Bullock: Can you give me an example of where for example, the United Nations has failed to read between the lines in its negotiations with Indonesia, in a way that the East Timorese leadership has been able to read between the lines and see how the United Nations has got it wrong?

Xanana Gusmao: Only I can say that there were statements from political figures in Indonesia, like the Minister of Justice, like Chairman of the Parliament, like other people. In some ways sarcastically they say that it seems that the United Nations is governing East Timor, not giving to the East Timorese the capacity to deal with their own problems. We can read in this that in some cases they're not very happy with talking in a very bureaucratic, professional way. It is why we know the Indonesian mentality and of course when you want to put something straight away, you must see with whom you are talking, or you can use the appropriate words to say that you are worried about this, or that you would like to see this or that, because they are not with the mentality that can hear from you direct mention of something that hurts their pride like this. And sometimes we feel that it is better to keep pushing, but we also know that the Indonesian mentality is not receptive to some kind of imposition. There's a wrong way to show their nationalistic pride, and you can get some result with better appropriate words.

Chris Bullock: So has the United Nations been too direct sometimes?

Xanana Gusmao: I think so.

Chris Bullock: Too challenging?

Xanana Gusmao: Yes, too challenging. And of course we need this. What we understand is that people from the United Nations, they don't worry. They say it is 'A'; they don't use 'C' or 'B' to go to 'A', they go straightaway you know. But they will go tomorrow and we will face the relationship with Indonesia all the time now. It is why we have to deal with mentalities. We East Timorese, we accept if somebody said straight away 'You are wrong', or 'You are right'. Indonesia is from a different culture, they don't accept like this.

Chris Bullock: When it comes to dealing with the burning issue of justice for the actions of the past, Xanana Gusmao believes forgiveness is the way forward. He says the killings that occurred during the occupation of East Timor have to be seen differently from common crimes, but he believes it will be almost impossible to bring the real criminals to trial.

Xanana Gusmao: I personally see the problem as a very complicated combination of factors. Of course there are people thinking that if the international community can try the Indonesian military everything is OK, everything would be fine, and we will have a bright future. But if you go to Indonesia and you look at the process there, and you know that Tommy Suharto is not in Indonesia any more and they are pretending to find him, to put in jail, you see that it is very difficult to try an Indonesian general. And personally I cannot ignore the ultra nationalist forces in Indonesia, I cannot ignore some generals that never accepted the solution in East Timor, like in the last year. Chris Bullock: Their influence is very strong still? Xanana Gusmao: I believe so, in one or other way I believe that they are still existing and they are still pushing the process, impeding the democratisation to go ahead in the right way.

Chris Bullock: Who are the most influential people in that respect, do you believe?

Xanana Gusmao: I believe that there are people from the Kopassus, some people from the Kopassus, not TNI (Indonesian Army) on the whole, but some people from Kopassus, and because of this the problem of militias is not solved. There are attempts from the Indonesian government to solve the militia problem, but you know, nothing happened till now. But we see that there are factors that can influence any future stability. We are trying to have a new defence force but realistically we don't have enough money to pay the new defence force and it will be a little one, a small one, and we need peace, we need the stability. Of course there are people that say without justice there will not be reconciliation. My experience is that our population, they already practice reconciliation during all these years, and many, many martyrs, they became heroes, dying in the jungle because of the reconciliation. And it's why what I know is that people got very, very angry because of the last September destruction, and what I feel is that if we improve the social and economic situation in East Timor, our people will forgive. This is my own, my personal point of view; I don't want to influence other people in East Timor that think that without justice we will have a bad starting to the new nation.

Chris Bullock: In a recent interview you said, I think, 'I know people are mad for justice, but if people have things explained to them, maybe they can forgive'. How do you explain forgiveness to people who are mad for justice?

Xanana Gusmao: Yes, mad for justice, I don't say the population, I say some people from our society that only seek for justice for justice. I believe that if we explain that it is enough, that if we accepted to die because of the right of independence, we accepted it. It was not something imposed, why we don't accept that those who died, it was for this right, and I believe that by explaining well, putting the questions in the very right terms, we'll feel that it's OK, they are heroes, they were our saviours, they are our martyrs, they're not killed because of something different. So I believe that the population will understand. If we solve the social and economic problems. If not, there will be difficulties. I suffered for this independence and what independence means to me, you are talking about reconciliation, but if my parents or my sister or my son died for this right, what independence means to me now, we have to prove that independence means something new, something good to the people to understand the sacrifices, that the sacrifices including the killing of a relative was not in vain. It is the condition. If not, of course they can put the killing of an uncle or a cousin like some other crimes, common crimes. But it is, yes, judicially or by the law, it is a crime. But in the political process of liberation we cannot put in the same class of crime, common crime. It's a sacrifice, and people can accept and believe in this.

Chris Bullock: I'll give you an example of a country like Chile, where after many, many years of a brutal military dictatorship there was a democratisation again. But now some ten years after democracy has returned and the issue of justice was not dealt with directly, it couldn't be dealt with directly, that was the political view, but now it's becoming a problem again ten years later. Do you fear down the track that people may start to think, 'Well what justice did we actually get?'

Xanana Gusmao: Yes, it is why I believe that the political leaders have to think very seriously, very deeply about this problem. If in 20 or in 30 years later, if the political leaders are not committed to give the benefits of independence to our people, the hurt will be still in the minds and the heart of our people. But if they are committed to solve these, to give the real means of independence to our people, we are not a population of millions, we are less than 800,000, we are a small country, a small population; this is why it is more obligatory to the political leaders to think very, very deeply about this. And we have our own history. In the Portuguese time for hundreds of years, all people fought from generation to generation, and it was a tradition in our history that from those wars people could not accept, people still remind, 'Oh, your grandparent killed my grandparent', and something like this. But suddenly in '74, after the invasion, all this vanished, because we all fought together, we were united by another perception and another ideal and I believe that if we could unite, we can forge another kind of unity, to fight for other things, like fight against poverty, fight against illiteracy, fight against disease, fight against many, many other things. We have to mobilise the people, we have to put the people to thinking about the future, not about the past. That is why I am repeating: if we solve the problems, everything will be fine.

Chris Bullock: I know you're very keen for people who had wanted to remain part of Indonesia to also come back to East Timor. You as I understand, would like members of the militia, even militia leaders, to be able to come back and rejoin society in East Timor. What is the best way to deal with the crimes from that time? Would it be for an independent international tribunal for example, or would you prefer to deal with them back in East Timor?

Xanana Gusmao: We already established the special court in Dili to deal with crimes. Personally I don't believe that the militia's leaders, the criminals, would come. Personally I don't believe. They will prefer to stay in Indonesia. But to the militias (members) I will recommend that the punishment is not only to be sent to trial, but maybe there are many ways of trying them by working to the community etc. etc., because they were ordered to do something wrong you know, and that is why I cannot punish the subordinate ordered to kill. Of course the way that he killed enters into the consideration also, but who has more responsibility is his commander or the political leaders or the Indonesian generals. I believe that if the International community set up a tribunal it will be not only helpful to us East Timorese, but to the Indonesian people.

Chris Bullock: Because it would be seen to be independent.

Xanana Gusmao: Independent, yes, not by East Timorese. We have so many problems to deal with that sometimes it will cost more energy than to solve the problems of our population.

Chris Bullock: But do you believe that the Indonesian generals at the moment are untouchable?

Xanana Gusmao: If Tommy Suharto could fly out of Indonesia, generals, I don't know if somebody can get them.

Chris Bullock: Xanana Gusmao is himself prepared to acknowledge the past crimes of his former political party, Fretilin. When Indonesia invaded in 1975, East Timor's two main political groups were Fretilin and the UDT and they were at war. Both had taken prisoners. Fretilin subsequently killed 150 or more of its political prisoners. Now, Xanana Gusmao and other former Fretilin leaders want to, as he puts it, 'rehabilitate the names of the so-called traitors.'

Xanana Gusmao: In the congress, the CNRT congress held in August, what we noted was that the population sent a message to us that Fretilin and the UDT, these two parties, they have to go to the population to talk; they need explanation. We will not hang anybody, we will not punish anybody, but they want to talk and they demand that the two political parties apologise, rehabilitate the names of the so-called traitors and to promise to them, to the people, that they will never, never do it again. It is very important, very important, because just see, they forgive, they forgive the two political parties and what they want is talk to us, we will reprimand you.

Chris Bullock: In what way will that talking be done between UDT and Fretilin and the people? Will that be in another forum?

Xanana Gusmao: Not forum. They demand that we go from village to village. I already faced this after we came back to East Timor. I was a member of the Central Committee of Fretilin until '87, and I already explained to some people and I already told Fretilin also that as a member of Central Committee of Fretilin until '87, I will respond also for the political mistakes. If people don't like to say crimes, but political mistakes that Fretilin did. And the UDT also.

Chris Bullock: As the ghosts of the past are being confronted, village-to-village, the leaders also have to think about how to achieve some economic prosperity. The National Council of East Timor, the CNRT, is preparing a plan for agriculture, fisheries and tourism, and there are negotiations underway with Australia to secure a fair share of oil and gas money under a new Timor Gap Treaty.

In the 1990 interview on Background Briefing, the guerrilla leader Xanana Gusmao described the Timor Gap Treaty between Australia and Indonesia as, 'illegal, illegitimate and criminal', making Australia an accomplice to East Timor's extermination. Today, as renewed treaty negotiations continue, the political leader Xanana Gusmao is more diplomatic. He says he hopes East Timor can 'count on Australian generosity.' Of greatest urgency still, is the people problem, especially the situation of refugees caught in West Timor.

Before he came to Australia last week, Xanana Gusmao held talks with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. He says the UN has agreed to go back into West Timor for the first time since three UN staff were killed there in September, to restart the process of bringing refugees home.

Xanana Gusmao: Before I came I talked to Sergio de Mello (head of UNTAET) in Geneva and we already agreed that the UNHCR, with IOM, they can start bringing the refugees. I believe that with more active presence of the UNHCR and IOM we can get them back to East Timor. The problem was linked with the militia's presence in West Timor in the camps of the refugees. It is why I believe that if we continue to push the Indonesian government to separate the militias from the refugees, we can get back the refugees very soon. We were planning that they could return until the end of September, because that can give them time to prepare their gardens, to plant something, but now it is very, very late, but it doesn't matter.

Chris Bullock: Xanana Gusmao, thank you very much for speaking again to Background Briefing.

Xanana Gusmao: Thank you.


Chris Bullock: Co-ordinating Producer, Linda McGinness, Technical
Production by Anne Marie Debettencor. Research, Paul Bolger. The 1990
interview by Robert Domm was produced by Mark Aarons. Background Briefing's
Executive Producer is Kirsten Garrett, and I'm Chris Bullock

Hear this Program in RealAudio:

© 2000 Australian Broadcasting Corporation

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