Modesty unable to spare hero from top job

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 08 February, 2000, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 08 February, 2000, 12:00am

Xanana Gusmao is a modest man and candidly says he is not the right person to become the first president of East Timor.

But modesty bears little relationship to reality in the world of politics and especially so when the politics of East Timor are involved.

Mr Gusmao can say what he likes - and he has said several times during his current six-nation Asian tour that he does not want the job - but the final say rests in the hands of the East Timorese, who see him in the same light as Nelson Mandela.

East Timor's independence hero - like South Africa's first black president a former guerilla leader jailed for his part in the fight for self-rule - shrugged his shoulders on Sunday night when confronted with the reality of his situation.

'I'm just not the right man to be the president,' he said emphatically while speaking to the South China Morning Post.

But the question of who would lead East Timor was left open. There is not anyone as obvious as Mr Gusmao.

However there are a number of candidates who, like Mr Gusmao, are members of the National Council of Timorese Resistance (CNRT), which is now directing the future course of the former Portuguese territory reborn as an independent country.

Most prominent are joint 1996 Nobel Peace Prize winners Jose Ramos Horta and Bishop Carlos Belo. But others of note include Taur Matan Rauk and Nicolau Lobato.

The Asian tour by Mr Gusmao and fellow independence leader Mr Ramos Horta - which yesterday moved on to Malaysia after four days in the Philippines, and visits to China, South Korea, Thailand and Singapore - has been more than just an effort to raise financial aid, political support and pledges of assistance.

It has turned into a celebration of the end of a struggle that started with Indonesia's invasion in December 1975 and East Timor's annexation as an Indonesian province the following year.

Almost 24 years of Indonesian abuse followed, but the fall of ex-Indonesian president Suharto and an overwhelming vote for independence last August brought the struggle to a bloody conclusion that led to international intervention through a United Nations peacekeeping force.

Mr Gusmao was released from almost seven years of jail and house arrest and is now CNRT president. Peace has returned and the United Nations Transitional Authority in East Timor, led by a Philippine commander, has a two-year mandate to ensure stability and to keep the rebuilding of the shattered territory on schedule.

With the end of the mandate - assuming all targets have been met - will come full independence.

As the hero of the cause, it would seem obvious that Mr Gusmao should lead the newly-independent East Timor. He is often already referred to as 'President Gusmao' - which makes it all the more surprising when he says he does not want the job.

Mr Ramos Horta - who has also said he does not want to be part of an East Timorese government - puts it down to Mr Gusmao being a man of the people. 'He's a very modest man,' he said. 'But what he wants and what the people of East Timor will want are not the same.' Mr Ramos Horta said if 200,000 people demanded Mr Gusmao be their leader, the independence hero would have no choice.

UN authorities in East Timor have decided to tap the expertise and investigative skills of former East Timorese police officers in an urgent effort to curb rising lawlessness in the territory.