Michael Rose – Xanana Gusmao, famed icon of East Timor, is letting his people down. Once placed by many of his Australian supporters in the same pantheon as Nelson Mandela, on Monday he was filmed assaulting two women in the street. Having taken it upon himself to demand the body of their deceased kin be released from the morgue in a flagrant violation of his country's public health measures, he then apparently took exception to their speaking – repeatedly bellowing "nonok" (shut up!) and slapping them, one with significant force. In video footage, the sickening sound of his hand hitting her face is clearly audible.
In a country that is struggling with not just devastating floods and a looming COVID-19 outbreak but also endemic violence against women and children, this is particularly cutting.
Ubiquitous for decades as a guerrilla leader, political prisoner and statesman, last year Gusmao was outplayed by his rivals and found himself bereft of formal power. Yet he remains the most influential person in his country. That country needs him more than ever, but his recent conduct is not helping.
Last week saw devastating flooding throughout the region, with bridges washed away, homes destroyed and dozens of lives lost. The images have been stark, but the efforts of young Timorese in Timor and among the thousands working abroad in Britain and Australia, who have organised money and muscles for the recovery effort, are a cause for hope.
Despite their best efforts, the outlook remains bleak. After avoiding community transmission for almost a year – due to the rapid imposition of strict border controls and public health measures, by early March it seemed clear that COVID was spreading in East Timor, and a hard lockdown was imposed. The displacement of people from isolation into flood emergency shelters has disrupted this effort and represents a disaster in the making.
In addition to this, East Timor's struggle with violence and abuse against women and children has been horrifyingly thrown into relief by the case of Richard Daschbach. Daschbach, a charismatic American-born priest with Indonesian citizenship, was beloved throughout the island as a war hero, humanitarian and authority on the language and customs of the Oecussi Enclave's Meto ethnic group. In 2018, he confessed to systematically abusing young girls living in the shelter home he founded and was defrocked.
In early March, Gusmao turned up to the house where the former priest was under remand, camera crew in tow, to put birthday cake in his mouth, tip a glass of wine down his throat, place an affectionate hand on his chest and deliver a letter from the children he is alleged to have abused. A fan made a video setting the whole sordid scene to music. Later, when Daschbach travelled by boat to stand trial in Oecussi, Gusmao went with him.
Until now clergy, along with other high-status men, have too often been above the law in East Timor. The judiciary is signalling this cannot continue. Gusmao's conduct is not making their job any easier. The trial has been adjourned until May.
Throughout the pandemic and flood recovery, Gusmao has participated in conspicuously well-publicised relief and information efforts. These have, at times, appeared suspiciously like political base-building. Even after the imposition of a lockdown, he was filmed at least twice gathering excited crowds around him by going out in public to hand out food and pose for selfies, at one point going so far as to make fun of the confused police who came to see what the commotion was all about.
His latest stunt is perhaps his most extreme. On Monday, Gusmao turned up at a public health facility in Dili to demand that the body of a deceased man be released so his family could bury him as per the usual custom. The officials told him that, unfortunately, due to COVID restrictions, this was impossible. In response, he not only argued with and slapped two of the mourners but parked himself outside, leaving the police to deal with an increasingly rowdy and agitated crowd of young fans, vowing not to leave until his demands were met. A procession of Timorese officials, including the chief of the defence force, have visited to try and talk sense into him. Videos emerging on social media suggest that, as of Tuesday morning, he was still there.
There are, no doubt, complexities behind all of this, many stemming from East Timor's labyrinthine politics, but there's also a simple truth. Xanana is not a doctor. He is not a judge. He is not a dictator. His country (ironically, in large part due to his efforts) has a functioning government, a public service and legal system. I can't speak to the motives behind Xanana's actions, but they are not just unhelpful, they are actively dangerous.
There is no question that Xanana Gusmao is a hero to many in Timor and beyond (albeit a flawed one), but he should watch he doesn't confuse the good of his people with the health of his ego. His legacy depends upon it but, more importantly, so do tens of thousands of lives.
[Dr Michael Rose is a research fellow at the Australian National University who works on issues related to labour mobility, East Timor and the Pacific.]