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Resistance leader calls for outside aid

Special to the National Catholic Reporter
Jakarta, Indonesia

Xanana Gusmao is the leader of the armed resistance that is fighting Indonesia for the independence of East Timor. A former jungle guerrilla, Gusmao was arrested in East Timor in 1992. He was tried and convicted in a Jakarta court for armed rebellion and sentenced to 20 years in a high security prison. In February he was moved from the prison to a government-owned house nearby where he continues to serve his sentence under house arrest.

He has access to the telephone, newspapers, radio and television. He meets frequently with journalists, Indonesian politicians, U.N. officials and diplomats. He met with U.S. Secretary of State Madeline Albright in March. Reporter Daniel Kestenholz spoke with Gusmao April 24.

Kestenholz: Does East Timor need U.N. troops for protection?

Gusmao: It is the vital condition to have a peaceful atmosphere for the consultation process.

Indonesia’s foreign minister, Ali Alatas, says the police and army will guarantee peace and order.

[Gusmao laughs.] You don’t believe him also, do you?

How can the militias’ murdering be stopped?

It is a question for the international community to engage because everybody saw that there is an intention for peace. The situation of continuous violence is only a proof that [Indonesia’s army chief and defense minister] Wiranto is not so serious about his commitment to restore the peace agreement.

Would you support international sanctions against Indonesia if they fail to stop the violence?

Yes, because we talk about human beings. If the international community is concerned about Kosovo’s problem, the international community has also to remember that we are facing 23 years of genocide. It is time to put an end to this problem.

Could you see any advantages in self-autonomy under Indonesia for some years and another ballot about independence later on when the territory would be better prepared?

No. It was an alternative we had months ago, before the 22nd of January when the new offers from [President] Habibie’s government came with two options. If we reject the autonomy proposal, we will get the right to move ourselves far away from Indonesia.

Habibie says if the East Timorese choose independence, it has to happen next year. Is that too quick?

We will not follow the calendar of Habibie. We will need three, four, five years of a transitional period to prepare ourselves for independence.

How strong would the young country be?

We believe we can survive -- just as many other countries survive that are more poor and in more difficult situations.

Are you still convinced that over 90 percent of the East Timorese are for independence?

Of course. If not, they would not be killing the population, believe me.

If you were free, how could you enhance the East Timor process?

I think that more important would be that the pro-integrationists think more seriously about the process itself. The pro-integrationists must understand democracy, rights, justice and they must understand the difference of opinions and principles, which can then lead to the discussion with us of the many problems surrounding the reconciliation process.

Could you integrate these pro-Indonesian forces after gaining independence?

We [have] already stated that nobody would be marginalized, and we offered the guarantee to them of the same rights and opportunities in the future. Nobody would be tried in court for [crimes] they have done.

So a war crimes tribunal in East Timor is unthinkable?

I don’t think it would help us as a small country, as a country which would start from the scratch.

How did you change personally during the years of detention?

Maybe I can hide my feelings better. Maybe.

Any regrets?

Usually we learn from our mistakes, and it is better to take advantages from the mistakes than to think about the mistakes. That I was arrested in a house can be said to be a mistake. But during 20 years of war many mistakes happen, and sometimes we have to accept what happened and try to deal with the new situation.

Is there a political role for you in East Timor’s future?

I am trying to avoid more bloodshed in East Timor, and I have no time yet to think about the future of my political role.

National Catholic Reporter, June 18, 1999