Poet, Pragmatist and PM

Poet, Pragmatist and PM

After spells as a jailed revolutionary and Timor-leste’s first president, Xanana Gusmao finds new satisfaction in the concrete achievements he can bring as prime minister.

Very few leaders of countries would openly admit that the less they have to do with politicians the better, because politicians just don’t get things done.

“When I was the president … we could not listen to each other. Everyone had his own mindset and purpose. I wanted fair politicians. … I said, ‘We have suffered enough and now that we are independent why do we have to suffer more or kill each other for politics?’ ”

Xanana Gusmao has a lot of things he wants done as he leads his tiny country toward the next stage of development and eventual membership in Asean.

“As for myself, I didn’t choose politicians but instead I chose technocrats to work with me in my team,” the prime minister of Timor-leste said in one of the most candid talks by a head of government with Asia Focus recently.

“I have seen this happen in other countries, and in mine as well, that it is better to choose technocrats because they do not have a [political] purpose but politicians do have one. The technocrats can fix problems the politicians cannot.”

Mr Gusmao, the country’s first president, declined to seek another term in 2007 and chose to run for parliament instead. He said he had to get back to running the government of the small country also known as East Timor because the politicians before him were not up to the job. “I’m not a politician,” he declared several times during the interview to underscore his point.

East Timor regained its independence only on Aug 30, 1999 after a UN-sponsored referendum in which an overwhelming number of the 1.1 million people voted for sovereignty. For centuries it had been a colony of Portugal and won its independence from the one-time powerhouse of Europe on Sept 28, 1975.

The euphoria was short-lived — just nine days later Indonesia invaded and declared East Timor one of its provinces. For Xanana Gusmao and many others, it was the beginning of a long fight to regain independence.

“I don’t know if it was destiny or if it was fate that I landed up in this position,” he admits.

Born to a school teacher, he attended the only secondary school in the capital Dili but left at age 15 for financial reasons.

“I was born right after the Second World War and you can imagine at that time how difficult it was to provide all the benefits that we now see in my country these days,” he said.

His time in school instilled in him a love of poetry — he would later be known as a “poet warrior” — and the mood struck him during our conversation; he blamed the burst of emotion on “the presence of beautiful ladies”.

At age 20 young Xanana obtained a position in the civil service, a choice he made to help his family move ahead in a country where having a good job meant that one could offer a good education to family members.

But as someone who had much grander dreams of a new social structure at heart, he found the civil service “boring”. Two years later, in 1968, he was recruited by the Portuguese Army for national service. By the time he finished his service in 1971, he was the married father of a young son, and ready to embark on a new campaign to win independence from the faded colonial power.

At first he thought he could help the movement through journalism, writing pieces to get people thinking about their future and their choices, but colonial-era censorship left him frustrated. Before long he set out on the path of revolutionary to seek freedom.

But the freedom he fought for and won in 1975 lasted less than 10 days before Indonesian troops took control of the island.

Are there any hard feelings?

With the benefit of hindsight, Mr Gusmao says that times were different then. It could be said that what Indonesia did was justifiable as all the world’s smaller countries were part of the larger chess game being played by the superpowers.

In the Cold War atmosphere of the day, Indonesia’s main interest was in burnishing its pro-US credentials, and taking over a small territory with left-leaning leaders was one way to achieve that goal.

Mr Gusmao acknowledges that many of the leaders of the initial independence fight from Portugal embraced Marxist or Leninist ideologies. This, he said, could have been one of the reasons why Jakarta sent in its troops.

The years under Indonesian rule were not kind to East Timor, and the abuses have been well documented. But nearly four decades later the relations between the two have undergone a dramatic improvement.

East Timor won independence from Indonesia in 1999, and it was while Indonesia held the chairmanship of Asean that East Timor declared its goal to become the group’s 11th member.

Although a final decision has yet to be made, East Timor is well on its way to Asean membership, with the blessing of the country that once put Xanana Gusmao in jail.

“I must say that when we made the application it was 2011, under the presidency of Indonesia, it was a political move to prove how close our relationship has become,” he said.

Mr Gusmao was in jail from 1993-99 yet still managed to help lead the independence struggle from his prison cell. Among his visitors were many UN figures as well as the South African icon Nelson Mandela.

Today, Mr Gusmao says, Indonesia is a strong supporter along with some other key Asean countries to get Timor-leste into the group, but it will take a lot of time and effort given the serious challenges the country still faces.

He admits that the country lacks human resources and financial means to achieve Asean membership. What money there is has to be spent to eradicate poverty and build more schools, hospitals and other infrastructure in the small island nation with just over one million people.

“We are looking with Asean members to set a roadmap to enter; we are not rushing for a full membership,” he admitted, adding that observer status would suit the country for now.

But East Timor’s first president is not giving up on grander hopes and aspirations for his country. One big plus is the presence of oil, which has allowed the country to establish an oil fund with levies collected from exploration and development companies. The money is to be used to benefit the masses and to uplift the living standards of the people.

“We have not gone as far as we would have wanted but the oil fund is there to help us,” he says, pointing to the $12 billion in revenues the fund has amassed so far.

Governing a small country with a small population has its good points, he says, as leaders can easily communicate with and guide the people, showing them where they are going and how they will get there. And while the oil fund it may look small to most other countries, it’s a gold mine East Timor.

“In eight years we already have $12 billion in the fund which is helping the country, and these are the factors that we feel make us more lucky than others,” he says.

But at age 67, Mr Gusmao says it is now time for the younger generation to take control, although he feels some from his generation can still contribute with advice and oversight.

“I can see that the political parties tend to develop their ideas and also their problems, and we had to get a solution to the social problems and build trust between the state and the population,” he says, explaining why he decided not to seek another term as president in 2007 but to return to the political trenches instead.

“When I was the president I did not see this and we could not listen to each other. Everyone had their own mindset and purpose. I wanted fair politicians,” he says.

“After all this I said, ‘We have suffered enough and now that we are independent why do we have to suffer more or kill each other for politics?’ ”

His aim now is to direct the vision of the people toward another common goal of development. “And from 2007 to 2012, my first five years were to make sure that we have to produce something.”

Has the country gone far enough?

Mr Gusmao admits that things have changed for the better but a lot still needs to be done. In his second five-year term that began recently, he hopes to be able to achieve more.

“I believe good development of a country must look not only at economic or GDP growth but also look at the living conditions of the people, and I feel these have gone up,” he says.

“I have learned that if you don’t take care of the social issues, you can grow the cities but a major part of the population will be left behind who will be unhappy.”

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