'I Don't Feel Prepared to Lead this Country'

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For years Xanana Gusmão, East Timor's de facto leader, led the resistance to Indonesian rule. Now--after his release from house arrest following last year's successful vote for independence--he's shaping the future of his new nation. In this revealing interview with Time East Asia correspondent Terry McCarthy, Gusmão discusses life as one of the world's most prominent political prisoners, as well as the violence that raged throughout the territory following the Aug. 30 vote. He also talks about his future--he wants to continue playing a role in rebuilding his shattered nation, but not as its president. McCarthy spoke with the former guerilla leader during a trip to visit East Timorese living in the enclave of Oecussi, 175 km west of Dili.

TIME: What do you feel when you hear accounts of the killings and burnings that took place in East Timor last year?

Xanana Gusmão: The people who tell me these stories send me the message that history was made by them with their suffering, with all that happened to them. And although they suffered for all these years, they were still determined to fight. They knew independence was the goal they had to achieve. Behind that goal were dreams--dreams of a true independence that would give them a chance in their daily lives, better possibilities for their children. Everywhere I go I hear songs or stories about the struggle, about people's dreams and beliefs. I feel this is a message to me reminding me about the real meaning of independence.

TIME: How do you feel now about your decision to order Falintil guerrillas not to attack the militias last September?

Gusmão: Of course it was very difficult. When the population fled into the mountains, they asked the guerrillas to defend them. But we had to be rigid in our decision. We knew the strategy of the Indonesian generals, and we wanted to avoid falling into their trap. The generals wanted to show that the East Timorese were fighting each other. But we were fighting for self-determination. We didn't want to be used any more. During this difficult struggle we learned to love peace and dialogue. We had to be firm. The people understand that decision now. It would have been worse if we had responded to their provocation.

TIME: How do you feel about starting a nation from zero?

Gusmão: It is a very great challenge, but it is not new for us. In our generation, we have witnessed three destructions: one after the Japanese occupation, the second in the [Indonesian] invasion of 1975 and this is the third. The people are confident, and I'm very sure that in a few years you will see everything new in East Timor, built with the spirit and determination of the Timorese.

TIME: Did you always think you would see independence in your lifetime?

Gusmão: Yes. When I was in Cipinang jail in Jakarta, I started making contact with the pro-democracy movement [in Indonesia]. We knew independence was not something we could force, but something we could perceive as coming because the pro-democracy movement was supporting us. We combined our forces to fight the regime.

TIME: How can East Timorese be reconciled with those who fought in the militias?

Gusmão: Reconciliation will be a long process. First we have to solve the social and economic problems--that will help people to forgive, although maybe not to forget. I believe the militias should start thinking about what they did, and what role they have to play here now. I know people are mad for justice, but if people have things explained to them, maybe they can forgive. I know it is a difficult process. Right now we are concerned with when reconstruction will start.

TIME: Were you happy with the visit of the Indonesian president, Gus Dur?

Gusmão: It was good. He made promises about many issues that need to be solved. Our people also had an opportunity to send a message to the world--that they have the courage to forgive.

TIME: He came only six months after the massacres.

Gusmão: Some people say the visit was too early. I don't think so. In November we went to Jakarta and invited him to visit. We support Gus Dur and all the measures he is taking to achieve justice and democracy. We want to stress that we support all the ministers who are doing their best to help Gus Dur in the democratic process. Yes there were demonstrations during his visit. Well it is a free country. But the people were not protesting against his visit--they just wanted to make some demands. They have the right to know where the people that have disappeared have gone to, and the TNI (the military) must explain this. People want to know. I spoke to Gus Dur about this.

TIME: Many people say you will have no choice but to become president.

Gusmão: I don't think so. I think people will understand. I told them we are very old. Our struggle is not for us, but for the young people. We will rest with this happiness, with what we have done for them. They have to understand it is time for them to participate. I am only 53, yes, but I feel very old. I don't feel prepared to lead this country to independence. What I did I did with the help of a lot of people, anonymous people. I think it is my task to help with the transition period. But after, it has to be people who are really prepared. It is not just a matter of talking emotionally to crowds; it is a question of efficiency. I don't see myself as the man leading the country. Yes I want to make sure East Timorese people are well led but independence needs more capacity than I have. Until I die, I can play a role. But people have to decide what sort of identity they want-- a fake identity or a real one. I don't have to be inside the process. I would rather be outside, and maybe push people to think about creating a real identity. I will leave that for the young people. We fought for independence for them.

TIME: Why do you want Portuguese as the official language?

Gusmão: The young people think that if Portuguese is the official language, they will not have the opportunity to be civil servants. But that is more an act of self-defense than a conviction of identity. Of course, 90% of the young people studied in Indonesia. But if they want to keep Bahasa (the official Indonesian language) it is very shameful of them. English? It is the international language so we will have it in the curriculum. But to impose it on farmers? Just because Australia, Malaysia, Singapore and the Philippines speak English it is not an argument to go with them. When we meet Thai or Malay diplomats, they will speak informally to us in English. But when we have an official meeting, they will use their own language. We should be the same. It is easy for East Timorese to learn languages. Tetum (indigenous to East Timor) is not yet a modern language--it will take time, a minimum of five years to develop.

TIME: When do you think East Timor's Independence Day should be?

Gusmão: Personally I would like it to be August 30 (the date of the referendum last year) because that was an act from our people. But it will be decided by the people. August 30 would remind everyone of all the liberation movements in the world.

TIME: What kind of help do you need from the world?

Gusmão: We need a real understanding of our socio-economic problems. The world can help us, but sometimes the world sees Timor as just another cause, another conflict like Kosovo or Bosnia. Maybe there are similarities in conflicts but I don't think there are two cases which are the same. If the world just praises the CNRT (National Council of Timorese Resistance), nothing will happen. If you don't trust East Timorese to be part of the government, it will not work. We have absolutely nothing. Yes, we get praise--"CNRT, Xanana, you are heroes--but if I ask for help, we get nothing. This makes us feel sad.

TIME: Your paintings in Cipinang jail were of mountains, sea, sky. How does it feel to see these things again?

Gusmão: The reality of those years of physical separation was hard. The country that we loved, the country that we didn't mind offering our lives to ... This is what fed our ancestors, feeds us and will feed our future generation--our birthplace, our center.