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East Timor Independence Hero Xanana Gusmao Returns to Power

East Timor’s first democratically elected head of state, Xanana Gusmao, returned to power on Saturday, eight years after he resigned as prime minister of Southeast Asia’s youngest democracy.

The 77-year-old independence icon was credited with unifying the country during his first two stints in office, after the bloody guerilla fight against Indonesian occupation.

Gusmao’s party, the opposition National Congress for Timorese Reconstruction (CNRT), won May’s election in a landslide, defeating the incumbent coalition led by resistance movement turned political party Fretilin.

Gusmao was chosen as premier again after CNRT allied with the Democratic Party to gain a majority in parliament. The son of teachers of Portuguese-Timorese descent, Gusmao grew up in what was then a Portuguese colony. He joined the Revolutionary Front for an Independent East Timor (Fretilin) in 1975, fighting for independence first from Portugal and then Indonesia.

Born Jose Alexandre Gusmao, he adopted the code name Xanana, reportedly in connection with a popular doo-wop song. He quickly rose through the ranks of the resistance and became leader of Fretilin’s military wing, Falintil, in 1981, spending much of his life in the jungle with fellow fighters.

When he was captured by Indonesian forces in 1992, he continued to lead the struggle from jail in Jakarta. During his time in prison, he met his second wife through a correspondence. Australian aid worker Kirsty Sword was initially teaching Gusmao English via letters, but she snuck into the prison to meet him face to face.

Gusmao earned the moniker “poet warrior” during this stint behind bars when he was known to paint and write poetry.

“He was a great resistance leader, he’s great at unifying people,” Damien Kingsbury, an emeritus professor at Melbourne’s Deakin University, told AFP. “He obtained for CNRT at the last election the best result ever, he’s a formidable political personality.”

After East Timor voted for independence in a UN-backed referendum in 1999, Indonesian authorities released Gusmao from jail and he returned to his homeland revered as a national hero. But his country would not secure independence for another three years.

After the referendum, pro-Indonesian militias went on a murderous rampage, adding to the occupation’s bloody toll, which after more than two decades caused an estimated nearly 200,000 deaths. In 2002, Gusmao became the country’s first post-independence president and worked to unify the country.

In 2002, Gusmao became the country’s first post-independence president and worked to unify the country

Following his five-year term as president, he became prime minister in 2007 followed by a second term in 2012. While he was credited with steering the country through several early crises — including an attempted mutiny in 2006 that sparked factional violence — he was also criticised for authoritarian tendencies, particularly during bouts of instability.

In 2008, he escaped unharmed an attack on his home that was linked to an assassination attempt against then-president Jose Ramos-Horta, who was wounded in a shooting. Gusmao resigned early in 2015, saying it was time for a younger generation of leaders.

He retreated behind the scenes but, according to analysts, he continued pulling strings, and was often seen as the kingmaker in Southeast Asia’s youngest nation. But with a rift between the two main political parties effectively paralysing the political system, Gusmao agreed to return to power.

As he retakes the reins of the country of 1.3 million, Gusmao will have to confront not only the growing political schism and after effects of the Covid pandemic, but also a deepening economic crisis as the nation’s petroleum fund is quickly depleted.

“Good resistance leaders don’t always make good government leaders,” Kingsbury warned.

Source: Barrons

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