Timor's Great Hope

On the eve of a likely vote for independence, as troubles continue to spread across the Indonesian archipelago, all eyes are on one prisoner, who quietly prepares for his probable release, and long walk not only to freedom, but into the history books, too

By Ron Gluckman /Jakarta, Indonesia

WHEN NELSON MANDELA VISITED JAKARTA a few years ago, South Africa’s prisoner-turned-president provided his counterpart with sage advice about the troubles in East Timor. Mandela told then-President Suharto to release jailed revolutionary Jose "Xanana" Gusmao. He reasoned that freeing Gusmao could help him resolve the long, costly conflict over Timor.

Much has changed since then. Mandela retired to worldwide reverence. Suharto departed in disgrace in May 1998. And, Gusmao lingered in confinement. But soon, like his fellow freedom fighter, Mandela, Gusmao will take his own walk to liberty.

When exactly, and whether his path will lead to political power, remains to be seen. One thing is sure, though. This week, the rebel who spent the past quarter-century battling Jakarta on behalf of East Timor independence, won perhaps his greatest victory.

He forced Indonesia to put its rule in East Timor to a vote. Results will take another week to tally, but few doubt the outcome, expected to be a landslide in favor of independence. Almost as certain is that Gusmao will become the first leader of the world’s newest nation.

The fiery jungle commander is already taking on the role of a politician. Since moving in February from his prison cell to a small house near Cipinang Prison, Gusmao has received a steady stream of visiting dignitaries from around the globe. It recalls the rehabilitation of Mandela, who spent time in a similar halfway house during his remarkable transition from outlaw to leader.

"It’s a remarkable story," says one foreign diplomat in Jakarta. "It has all the elements of a bestseller, you know, the persecuted person persevering with great integrity and courage. Even better than a novel, it’s true."

Adds Bhatara Ibnu Reza, a young Javanese admirer waiting for Gusmao to appear outside his barred house before the vote yesterday: "He’s a hero. Not just a hero for his people of East Timor, but a hero for the entire world."

Gusmao, 53, is from a family that was well off under the Portuguese rule in colonial East Timor. He received a classical education at a Jesuit seminary and learned Latin — hardly the training usually associated with rebel movements.

Gusmao showed a gift for language, although he often jokes about his feeble English, and is a determined student. After his capture in 1992, Gusmao returned to his painting and poetry. But, as his unimaginable release began to seem likely, he applied himself with enormous vigor to improving his English and public speaking skills.

Nowadays, the former revolutionary keeps his beard neatly trimmed and favors dapper suits and silk ties — a far cry from jungle fatigues. "Gusmao has become polished," says one local journalist. Perhaps too polished.

Many complain that he regularly intones the same clichéd answers, and relies on spin doctors to manipulate the crush of media attracted to his Cinderella story.

Newly manicured politician Gusmao waves to supporters after casting his ballot in Jakarta Monday, The former rebel may soon lead the world's newest nation.

"He definitely is becoming more media presentable, and more presentable to world leaders," says a Jakarta diplomat. "But, beneath the surface, he’s truly a substantial individual. All of us in the diplomatic corps have come to be impressed by him, by his commitment, his depth, his genuine abilities."

Others insist Gusmao has never seen himself as the savior of East Timor. "I ask all the time if he plans to become president," says Hendardi (many Indonesian’s have only one name), chair of Indonesian Legal Aid and Human Rights Association, and one of Gusmao’s lawyers.

They spent the morning of the vote together, and Hendardi asked again. "He never answers me. Or if he does, he may make some joke.

"But it’s clear that it’s his fate to be president," says Hendardi, a Muslim. East Timor is a Catholic province in the world’s most populous Islamic nation.

East Timor independence leader Gusmao has long pledged reconciliation. "Our message has always been, please respect us and we will forget everything," he says in a soft-spoken voice that still suggests strength. "It will be a very long process," he admits.

Patience has always been Gusmao’s long suit. "That’s one of his greatest characteristics," says Hendardi. "Maybe he learned it in the jungle. Sometimes, even the lawyers grow frustrated with what is happening in East Timor. Or we get angry about some government policy and want to take action. Xanana always cautions us and calms us down."

Hendardi says this is a mark of true statesmanship, the ability to listen and weigh decisions carefully. "This is Xanana’s real character," he says. "He was never a soldier by nature. He was just thrust into that situation. His appearance may have changed, but not his character. He’s always been a humanist. When you know him, you find a real statesman."

Others fret that the former Falantin commander will need more than mere statesmanship to transform tiny East Timor, about the size of El Salvador, into a viable nation. Although Indonesian government publications tout the massive spending showered upon the island, the fact remains that fewer than half of the population of 850,000 can read. Health care is atrocious, and only 27 percent of East Timor’s homes have electricity — the Indonesian average is 78 percent.

A protracted civil war followed the departure of the Portuguese in 1976 and led to a disastrous guerilla campaign during which thousands died in the jungle or in jail. Perhaps a quarter of East Timor’s entire population perished as a result of the war and related starvation and illness.

 Further turbulence surely lies ahead, as East Timor again has been polarized by the prospect of independence. "We’re just not ready," says Salvador Ximenes Soares, 42, editor and publisher of Voice of Timor, Dili’s only daily newspaper. "Timor needs more time to solve its problems, all the people together. Not separated by independence."

Already killings, house burnings and reprisals have turned East Timor into a nation of new refugees. A vote for independence likely would set off another migration of Indonesians and independence opponents. An estimated 80 percent of all secondary school teachers are non-Timorese. One survey found that in all of East Timor, there are only two native bank managers.

Yet Gusmao believes a peaceful solution is possible. "It is not easy to get everybody to think about the need to accept each other honestly," he concedes. "But I do believe that the East Timorese people can do that, that they are ready to accept and embrace each other."

No matter the vote result, Gusmao intends to return to East Timor. "Jakarta is not my home," he says. "Even in the very small possibility that my people will choose autonomy, I will remain in East Timor because that is my home. I will do my best for the autonomy process (if it’s chosen)."

As his days in confinement come to an end — government officials say he will be released in mid-September — Gusmao is proving Mandela right. The firebrand of the resistance has become adamant about reconciliation. Even the critics are sometimes swayed.

"I recognize Xanana is a good man. He protected the people in a time of trouble. He’s recognized widely as a good man," says Soares.

Adds a Western diplomat. "There’s only one Nelson Mandela, of course. But in Gusmao, East Timor seems to have its own equivalent. He may be their best hope."

Ron Gluckman is an American reporter who is based in Hong Kong, but who roams around Asia for a number of publications, such as MSNBC, which sent him to Indonesia for a series of reports timed around the independence vote in East Timor. Mr Gluckman met with and was on hand for Gusmao's release, just before the landslide vote for independence set off a wave of reprisal violence in troubled Timor.

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