Sun, 04 Jun 2000

Get to know the human side of Xanana Gusmao

To resist is to win! The Autobiography of Xanana Gusmao with selected letters & speeches Edited by Sarah Niner Published by Aurora Books, Richmond, Victoria, in association with David Lovell Publishing, Ringwood, Victoria, 2000. Paperback 256 pages

MELBOURNE (JP): Many Indonesians who are still unhappy about the way East Timor separated from Indonesia and became an independent state, might feel that they are not ready to read Jose Alexandre "Xanana" Gusmao's autobiography, especially with such a provocative title, To resist is to win!

On the contrary, it would help them understand what actually happened from an East Timorese perspective, and would explain many things which until now came to them selectively and often incoherently.

The book is not full of hatred toward Indonesia. It is, instead, a human story about seeking and fighting for personal and national dignity, something which most people can relate to.

The first part of the book is particularly reader-friendly, in which young Xanana recounts growing up in the rural East Timorese district of Manatuto, and how he was increasingly angered by the unjust situations brought about by colonialism. Even as a young man, he had begun to question the power and moral legitimacy of the Portuguese colonizers, personified by those in positions of authority: priests, local government heads and public servants.

Unlike many would-be leaders who feel fated to rule, Xanana only wanted the general improvement of indigenous people's lives. The concentration of power among the elite and the arbitrary manner with which those in power treated the common people, especially indigenous East Timorese, offended his sense of justice and clashed with his idea of common decency.

His account of his early years creates an unthreatening sense of ordinariness, so the reader does not feel that he or she has to be awed by the subject's heroism. Toward the middle of the book, the reader realizes that the subject is not an ordinary person, but also not one who forces his heroic tales down the reader's throat.

As a young adult, Gusmao was swept into the current that pushed him into the leadership role. And after Indonesia took over power in December 1975, his role became more and more solidified.

Gusmao was at first uncomfortable as a leader, because he was aware of his lack of knowledge about the world. His political awareness, however, was natural and intuitive, and he knew the enormity of the tasks ahead of him.

His stories about his fellow independence strugglers reveal that Gusmao has natural respect for other people. He always tries to justify their decisions and actions, even when they irritated him.

There are parts where he expresses anger and exasperation toward Indonesia. However, considering what was done to him and his fellow East Timorese, his anger is understandable. Even so, his outbursts are still tempered by attempts at rationalizing them.

Another quality that sets him apart from many of his fellow independence activists is his tenacity in the face of apparent hopelessness. He was leading a small army of guerrillas in the mountains, becoming more aware every day that the world was not exactly determined to help his cause.

Other activists, while continuously frustrated in their struggles, did not have to live in the jungle with death lurking in every corner, every minute.

Tragedy no doubt encompasses both camps, and an untold number of lives have been lost. For any healing to occur, we need not only to look ahead but also to look back and examine closely what actually happened in East Timor. And we need courage to step beyond self-pride and to look into the other camp.

To resist is to win! is not a book of chest-beating from a leader who finally came out a winner (though not without personal costs). Gusmao does not only show his good sides, but also aspects of his ignorance and instances of incompetence. In fact, he does not emerge from this book larger than life, but rounder and more three dimensional, instead of the enigmatic two dimensional Xanana Gusmao that had been exposed to us during the independence struggle. No doubt there is still a great deal that is still closed to the public about the man who is now the de facto leader of a new independent state, but one thing comes across very clearly -- he is very human. And thankfully, he knows it too.

The book, while revealing, will appeal more to those who are used to reading fiction. The flow of his life's story stops abruptly in 1981, and from there the reader is expected to glean what happened through his philosophical ponderings and occasional emotional outbursts, in the forms of letters to various people and authorities. For a reader of fiction, used to forming his or her own linkages during gaps in the telling, this is hardly a problem. But for those who expect to have all the hard facts presented to them, like in most biographies, this may cause some irritations.

As we need to look ahead and begin a peaceful coexistence with East Timor, a better understanding of the de facto leader, and even a post-mortem of the enormously tragic conflict, would be a great help.

-- Dewi Anggraeni