The presidency of the 21st century’s first new nation was decided last week when Xanana Gusmao garnered 82.7 percent of the 378,538 votes cast in an election to decide who will lead the newly independent East Timor. The Republic of Timor Lorosa’e will come into existence May 20, when the United Nations, which has maintained a transitional administration there since an August 1999 referendum overwhelmingly chose to end 24 years of often-brutal Indonesian rule, hands over power. Gusmao’s victory was a foregone conclusion—his opponent Francisco do Amaral, who ruled East Timor for nine days in 1975 between the end of Portuguese rule and the Indonesian invasion, told the press he expected to lose and was running simply to give voters a choice.
Several papers compared Gusmao to Nelson Mandela. Britain’s Guardian said that, like Mandela, Gusmao “came to symbolize his people’s liberation struggle.” The editorial continued, “Unlike other would-be Timorese leaders who fled into exile, he stayed and fought with his Fretilin guerrillas, was captured in 1992, and spent the years leading up to East Timor’s independence referendum in 1999 in jail in Jakarta.” The Khaleej Times of Dubai declared Gusmao “both the voice and the conscience of East Timor.” Noting that he has been become estranged from his former Fretilin comrades in recent years, the Khaleej Times said his independence spoke volumes for “his evolution from guerrilla hero to elder statesman.”
The Guardian interpreted East Timor’s journey to independence as a vindication for the United Nations. Indonesian troops and pro-Jakarta militia gangs killed more than 1,000 before and after the referendum, and 600,000 people were forced to flee their homes. After an initial anti-U.N. outcry (see this “International Papers” from Sept. 10, 1999), Australian troops “armed with a robust UN mandate” intervened and restored order. According to the Guardian, “[T]he East Timor peacemaking operation now stands out as a model for what can be done if the international will to act really exists. That Indonesia quickly backed off and the killing stopped also showed how global public opinion, when mobilised by mass media coverage, can help modify governments’ behaviour.”
An op-ed in the Jakarta Post said Indonesia should learn from East Timor: “The East Timorese may become a model for those who want to liberate themselves from oppression, and abuses of human rights. They can also teach authoritarian governments not to belittle the struggles of people whom they may regard as stupid and [un]educated.”
Gusmao has a huge task on his hands. Gusmao and the Fretilin-controlled National Assembly disagree over reconciliation with militia members who were the Indonesian military’s enforcers (the president-elect favors leniency, the party does not). The Financial Times also reported that a split is now developing “between a tiny Portuguese-speaking elite in Dili, the capital, and a generation that grew up speaking Indonesian.” The Sydney Morning Herald noted that although economic self-sufficiency will be possible within a decade when oil and gas deposits in the Timor Gap come online, East Timor will probably remain dependent on foreign aid and expertise for several years: “Under Indonesia’s occupation, few East Timorese received a high-level education or held senior jobs. There is an acute shortage of lawyers, which will slow legislation, and all administrative functions will be hindered by a lack of trained personnel. … Further pledges of foreign aid must be secured, at least until oil and gas income rises mid-decade.” The Guardian agreed: “Those who cared about East Timor during its darkest hours have a continuing responsibility to help show that its costly struggle was worthwhile.”