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Xanana Gusmao: East Timor's reluctant leader

Xanana Gusmao is massively popular among East Timorese
Xanana Gusmao is massively popular among East Timorese  

By Joe Havely
CNN Hong Kong

(CNN) -- Xanana Gusmao has always insisted he doesn't want the job as East Timor's first president.

After years as a guerilla leader fighting for independence followed by a spell in a top security Indonesian jail, he says he would rather be a pumpkin farmer or devote more time to pursuing his passion for photography.

A simple enough request you might think -- but one that has been almost roundly ignored by East Timor's 400,000 or so voters.

For many East Timorese, Gusmao is a living legend and held the position of the de facto leader of East Timor well before the April 14 presidential election.

Gusmao's massive popularity has its roots in East Timor's long struggle for independence when he led a band of poorly equipped fighters against Indonesian rule.

For more than a decade he led the Falantil guerilla movement, helping to unite other rival pro-independence groups in the process.

CNN's Mike Chinoy profiles former East Timorese guerrilla leader Xanana Gusmao

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Later, he also became leader of Fretilin, the political wing of the independence movement that has since become East Timor's largest political party.

In 1992, however, he was captured by the Indonesian army, convicted of subversion and jailed in Jakarta's high security Cipinang prison.

Even in jail though, Gusmao remained the figurehead of the East Timorese independence movement, leading many to label him the Nelson Mandela of Southeast Asia.

After a brief period of house arrest he was finally released in September 1999 -- just in time to see his homeland virtually burned to the ground by rampaging pro-Jakarta militias and their backers in the Indonesian military.

The violence followed an overwhelming vote in favor of independence in a United Nations-backed referendum.


Gusmao has called on East Timorese to look to the future and to reconciliation
Gusmao has called on East Timorese to look to the future and to reconciliation  

A month later, after the intervention of an international peacekeeping force, Gusmao returned to East Timor and a hero's welcome.

Speaking to a huge crowd in the still smoldering capital of Dili, he called on East Timorese to focus on the future, on renewal and reconciliation -- rather than the bloodshed of the past.

"All of our suffering, we can leave behind," he said. "This land is ours. We will be independent forever."

Since then, his candidacy for the highest office in the world's newest nation has been an on-again, off-again affair.

Initially he said that with East Timor's path to independence secure, he would be stepping aside from politics, saying it was time for a younger generation to take the helm.

But after a meeting with local leaders he was persuaded to remain an active player in the territory's future.

The people of East Timor, they told him, expected nothing less.

Then, as plans progressed for the transition to nationhood, Gusmao told supporters he would not be a candidate for the presidency.

The role required experience and abilities he did not have, he said.


East Timor's future leaders face a huge task in rebuilding the shattered economy
East Timor's future leaders face a huge task in rebuilding the shattered economy  

But once again, facing a wave of emotional support, he was persuaded to backtrack and announced, after all, that he would stand for the presidency.

Even into the final days of campaigning, Gusmao insisted that despite all the odds, he was hoping to be defeated by his only opponent on the ballot sheet, Xavier do Amaral, leader of the Timorese Social Democrat Association.

This apparent lack of self-confidence and ambition has led some commentators to question his suitability for the presidency as East Timor embarks on its first difficult years as an independent nation.

There have also been concerns that clashes might develop between Gusmao and the ruling Fretilin party, which he used to lead but which held back from backing Gusmao's candidacy for president.

Gusmao's supporters, however, argue that he is the only person in the territory capable of uniting East Timor to face the challenges of the future while helping to heal the wounds of its bloody past.




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