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Timor freedom leader spurns release: 'I'm more use in jail'

Sydney Morning Herald - September 12, 1997

Louise Williams, Jakarta – Five years after his capture in the jungle by Indonesian troops, the jailed East Timorese independence leader, Xanana Gusmao, is still fighting his war.

Now, well into middle-age and shackled to the tedious, daily cycle of prison life, Gusmao, who was military leader of the clandestine Fretilin resistance forces, insists he has not been cowed by confinement.

This week South Africa's President Nelson Mandela called on Indonesia to grant autonomy to East Timor to end the 22-year-old war, after earlier telling Jakarta that Gusmao must be released.

Indonesia, in reply, conceded that the former guerilla leader could be freed as part of a peace settlement, departing from the stand that Gusmao is a mere "criminal" and must serve out his sentence.

On the question of autonomy for East Timor and the possible role of President Mandela as a broker for peace, Indonesia remained less receptive, saying that Mr Mandela may be "wading into a minefield" if he continued to push the East Timor issue.

Gusmao, it seems, is less concerned about his personal fate.

"Look at me," he says, smiling and gesturing at his clean red, shirt, his combed hair and his trimmed beard. He is adequately fed, he has cigarettes to smoke. Physical suffering is a relative concept, he explains, leaning on his elbows over a bare prison table.

At the time of his arrest, diplomats speculated that Gusmao's capture was part of a secret deal with the armed forces which would allow him to become mediator between Jakarta and Fretilin. Gusmao, himself, was reported to consider political martyrdom in prison useful to the cause.

Twice, in 1993 and 1994, he refused confidential offers, brokered by the United Nations, to escape his 20-year sentence and be released into exile in the country of his choice.

"You know, I was in the jungle for 18 years," he says. "Eighteen years of feeling helpless, of seeing friends die. You feel a great rage inside you but there is nothing you can do.

"If I wanted to I could have been out of jail years ago.

"I am much more use. staying in jail. If I went into exile then the meaning of this struggle would be lost."

His own personal freedom, he says, is not an essential element to any peace settlement in East Timor. Jose Alexandre Gusmao, or Xanana as he is better known, is banned from giving press interviews, so these rare comments and descriptions were passed on by a reliable contact.

As Fretilin's military leader, Gusmao gave no interviews for 15 years and, despite his famous name, he is, personally, little known to the outside world. At the time of his 1992 capture the tall, lean commander was described as "an enigma" and "wily and resourceful", and few doubted that he would be afforded a future role even from within the prison walls.

In jail in Jakarta in the Cipinang prison, 49-year-old Gusmao is not raging. Instead, he says, he is extremely busy.

Every day he analyses political and military actions, using radio news and whatever anecdotes his limited visitors can bring, to try to work out where the conflict is going and what his role in it might be.

He laughs, again, apparently at his own earnestness.

Actually, if the radio signal is not too good, he confesses he listens to "dangut", racy Indonesian songs with mass appeal.

Gusmao's key personal role was highlighted by the extraordinary request by President Mandela to have the prisoner brought from his cell to the State Guest House during the South African leader's official visit to Jakarta in July. The visit was intended to be confidential, but was leaked to the press.

Indonesia considers Gusmao a "criminal", not a political prisoner, and Jakarta maintains the integration of the former Portuguese territory following the 1975 invasion by Indonesian troops is not negotiable.

However, pressure has been mounting on Indonesia following the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to Fretilin's international spokesman, Jose Ramos Horta, and the Bishop of the East Timorese capital, Dili, Bishop Carlos Belo.

That Nelson Mandela, himself a former political prisoner and Nobel laureate, is seeking to break the deadlock is considered significant because the South African leader is not just another Western leader lecturing Indonesia on human rights.

Indonesia has rejected President Mandela's offer to mediate, but President Soeharto has accepted an invitation to visit South Africa later this year and many believe Mr Mandela still has the Indonesian leader's ear.

Other Nobel laureates and luminaries have also urged President Soeharto to back efforts by UN chief Mr Kofi Annan and Mr Mandela to help resolve the conflict.

The group including the former Australian Foreign Minister Mr Gareth Evans made the appeal in a letter to the Indonesian president, it was reported yesterday.

Of his talks with President Mandela, Gusmao says: "I was greatly honoured. It means our struggle is being respected and acknowledged."

Gusmao believes the Nobel Peace prizes are an important part of the new international momentum which has seen the United States and Europe step up pressure on Jakarta over human rights abuses.

"I think they [the Nobel prizes] will continuously promote the East Timorese issue around the world. One action always has a connection to another. So the Nobel Peace awards and President Mandela voicing his opinion about my release are connected."

Gusmao says Australian-based Ramos Horta is his representative in the outside world. Just what practical role Gusmao plays from jail remains deliberately vague.

"I am not just a symbol," he says. "Well, physically, my body is here in prison, but my spirit talks through Ramos Horta so the body might be Horta's but the spirit is mine. When he talks to the world it is actually me who is talking."

Gusmao is not troubled by the recent escalation in the conflict, including a series of attacks on police and civilians which killed more than 30 people in a single month and prompted a military crackdown across the province.

"If it's too quiet then the Government will think everything is fine. So riots are part of the strategy, too. I regret the death of civilians, but this is war."

Gusmao remains militant, but prison has not left him unchanged.

"Well, my prison life is nothing special, just the usual. I do some sports, I read, I paint, I learn."

The topic of his painting reduces him to laughter again.

"Actually, I only soil the canvas," he says, smiling.

"But, because my name is on it people think it's good. The guards even once wanted to borrow my paintings to be included in the Department of Justice's exhibition.

"OK,' I said, "just take them.' When the exhibition was over they didn't say anything to me, they didn't slap me on the back and say, "People really liked your paintings'. Later I found them by accident in the junk room."

On the subject of his wife and children, long-time residents of Australia, he is less frank, brushing the topic aside altogether.

When he was first imprisoned Gusmao was divided by the rest of the jail population by language.

The official Indonesian language is not native to East Timor and it is part of the resistance struggle to maintain the native Tetum language. Now, speaking Indonesian, Gusmao has been able to discover that many of his cell-mates are political prisoners, jailed for the opposition to the Soeharto Government.

"We used to hate Indonesian people so much, you know, seeing your people slaughtered it really got into your head. But, then I realised that it's not the Indonesian people who are responsible but the [Soeharto] regime. In theory, yes, it's the people, but in practice it's not that simple."

And on the question of independence for East Timor, Gusmao also shows a glimmer of compromise.

"It is not a matter of integration [into Indonesia], or not. We want what the people want, which is the right to determine our own destiny. It doesn't matter if the people want integration. But, it needs to be proven through a referendum.

"If they do want integration then we will lead them to the Government ourselves."