Peril Keeps Revered Rebel Out of E. Timor : Indonesia: Freed after six years, ‘Xanana’ Gusmao chooses to stay in capital.


Six years after he was sentenced to life in prison, East Timorese independence leader Jose Alexandre “Xanana” Gusmao is a free man today, transformed from guerrilla fighter into statesman.

But it may be some time before the charismatic Gusmao can return to the homeland where he spent 17 years in the forests fighting Indonesian troops and pursuing his dream of an independent nation called Timor Lorosae--Land of the Rising Sun.

With anti-independence militias still rampaging in East Timor, it may be too dangerous for the 53-year-old rebel leader, who was given amnesty by the government Tuesday, to set foot in the province. He will stay at the British Embassy here for now, unable to rejoin the East Timorese people who last week voted overwhelmingly for independence from Indonesia.

Articulate, charismatic and handsome, the bearded Gusmao cuts a dashing figure as the man widely expected to be East Timor’s first president. He has the confident, eye-catching swagger of Ernesto “Che” Guevara and speaks with the moral authority of Nelson Mandela, the former South African president who laid the groundwork for Gusmao’s release three years ago during talks with Suharto, then Indonesia’s president.


Gusmao is a poet and painter, a former teacher and chartered surveyor who received a classical education at a Jesuit seminary in East Timor and speaks five languages, including Latin. He is, diplomats here agree, the only leader on either side of the fighting with the stature and respect to negotiate the future of violence-torn East Timor.

“Gusmao is easily the smartest of the group,” James Clad, professor of Asian studies at Georgetown University, said before the independence leader’s release. “And like Mandela, he learned how to turn prison to his political advantage. But all that changes when he is set free and has to broker deals.”

The challenges Gusmao faces now may be as great as those he encountered during the bloody rebellion against Indonesia, when his guerrillas were reduced in number from 12,000 to about 700.

“Sometimes we were walking over bodies on the forest floor,” he said four years ago, “because there were so many and we did not have time to bury them.”


The people of East Timor voted in a U.N.-sponsored referendum last week to separate from Indonesia, which invaded the former Portuguese colony in 1975 and annexed it the following year. Their decision, with 78.5% favoring independence over autonomy within Indonesia, sparked continuing bloodshed by anti-independence militias. The gunmen represent rogue commanders within the Indonesian military who do not want to lose the province, military experts say.

In his early years as leader of the Falintil guerrillas, Gusmao advocated a far-left, hard-line ideology. But prison and time have moderated his views, and he now speaks of tolerance and forgiveness; he promises that Timor Lorosae will be no Cuba in the Pacific.

“In 1975,” he told an Irish journalist in March, “it was the time of our birth. We were inexperienced and very immature.”

Today, Gusmao envisions a state that will be democratic, speak the local Tetum language in addition to Portuguese and Bahasa Indonesia, and attract foreign money as an offshore financial haven. He rejects as too divisive the idea of setting up a truth commission like South Africa’s to investigate the human rights abuses of the last 24 years. And he promises to forgive all political crimes, even “the most reprehensible acts.”


Born June 20, 1946, in Laleia, a village on East Timor’s northern coast, Gusmao was the second of nine children of prominent parents. Their status entitled him to a Portuguese education--something bestowed only on the Timorese elite--and he worked for a time with the Portuguese civil service. He became active in politics in 1974.

That was the year Portugal’s right-wing dictatorship was overthrown, leading to the breakup of the country’s colonial empire. That, in turn, triggered civil war in East Timor, where three groups battled for power. The war was won by the leftist guerrillas Gusmao supported, and on Nov. 28, 1975, they declared independence. Nine days later, fearing the creation of a Communist state at its doorstep, Indonesia invaded East Timor.

“We were stunned by the sheer number of aircraft,” Gusmao said several years ago. “Dili [the provincial capital] was under attack from the air and naval gunships. Three days later, we witnessed the sacking of Dili, the plundering of everything from taps and bathtubs to windowpanes and doors. In the cemeteries, they desecrated tombs, ripping from them gold rings and crucifixes.

“The killing was indiscriminate,” he said. “They murdered hundreds of people the first day. Many people were brought to the harbor, where they shot them one by one, as the Nazis did.”


Along with hundreds of other young men, Gusmao took to the mountains to wage a guerrilla war. After the death of guerrilla commander Nicolao Lobato in December 1978, Gusmao was made the de facto Falintil leader. He was appointed the movement’s official head in 1981 and for years managed to stay just a step or two ahead of pursuing Indonesian forces.

Gusmao was captured outside Dili at a “safe house” with a hidden underground room in November 1992, and the next year he was sentenced to life in prison after a “trial” during which he claims to have been represented by a member of Indonesia’s secret security service. The sentence was later commuted to 20 years.

His imprisonment was expected to cripple the movement, but Falintil has increased its influence in recent years by shifting its focus to political activity. It has gained wide-ranging global sympathy by capitalizing on Indonesia’s human rights abuses in East Timor and enlisting the help of the Roman Catholic Church as the movement’s spiritual backbone.

In the process, Gusmao has become the symbol of an oppressed people who endured nearly four centuries of colonialism, lost 60,000 of their number at the hands of Japanese occupiers during World War II and saw 200,000 die because of starvation and warfare during Indonesia’s domination. His portrait is carried and worn on lapel buttons by supporters in East Timor, and his nickname is chanted over and over at independence rallies.


Gusmao’s wife of 29 years, Emilia, 50, and two children, son Eugenio, 28, and daughter Zemilda, 24, live in Australia. He was moved from solitary confinement in prison (where he was allowed two visits a year from the Red Cross) to house arrest--or “assimilation,” as the government calls it--last February as part of President B. J. Habibie’s offer to give East Timor the choice of becoming independent or remaining an Indonesian province with wide autonomy, including its own flag and parliament.