Xanana Gusmao, Timor Leste and regional politics

by Fitri Bintang Timur

Timor Leste Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao is often said to be the Che Guevara of the country. His charisma and charm helped him escape troubled times before his nation gained independence. Perhaps one day he might realize his dream to become a pumpkin farmer and persuade neighboring countries to accept Timor Leste as a member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).


In his lecture in Singapore last week, Gusmao explained the state of the country after the UN mission progressively withdrew in 2012. He also asserted that Timor Leste was committed to playing a more active international role by becoming a member of ASEAN as and when membership is granted.

Despite the looming domestic challenges of human resource development, lack of infrastructure, shortage of capital and socio-physiological trauma of the past, Gusmao is confident that his country can be of benefit to the region. Asia-Pacific countries will profit from Timor Leste’s strategic location as the connector between two regional organizations — ASEAN and the Pacific Island Forum — thus creating opportunities for wider trade and cooperation. The country also has a good relationship with Australia, Indonesia, New Zealand, the Solomon Islands and Vanuatu that could benefit ASEAN.

In the face of global nervousness over China’s emerging power in Asia Pacific, Gusmao stressed that the region was big enough to accommodate large powers seeking to build a better future for the region; thus, the fear of China was unnecessary. There are other large economies in the region, such as Japan, Korea and Indonesia, but there is no tension surrounding them.

Gusmao recalled his cynical response to one Western journalist’s question a couple of months back. The journalist suspected that Timor Leste was now influenced by China’s soft power after the “rising dragon” funded the construction of the country’s Presidential Palace and Foreign Ministry. To which Gusmao retorted, “China is not ‘invading’ Timor Leste; in fact, China’s investment in the country is only around US$60 million. Comparatively, it is still far below the money that China has invested in other countries.” There is a truth in Gusmao’s statement as China’s investments in the US, Australia and Indonesia reached US$54 billion, $55.9 billion and $25 billion, respectively (Heritage Foundation, 2012).

Rather than nitpicking over a certain country, Asia-Pacific nations would be advised to acknowledge its challenges. Gusmao said the region should focus on solving the issues of poverty, inequality, violence toward women and girls and regional security tensions. He offered alternative solutions of strengthening cooperation and building shared interests rather than highlighting conflicting issues. He provided a measurement of progress by reminding countries to meet the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which will be reviewed in 2015.

For ASEAN, action should focus on constructive measures with further cooperation in the areas of economics, the environment and building human resource capacity. Gusmao admitted that his country was in need of support for human resource capacity-building and strategy. The international fear, however, is that when the three prominent leaders of Timor Leste — Xanana Gusmao, Mari Alkatiri and Ramos Horta — retire, the country will stagnate due to a lack of human resources. Gusmao reassured that the youth of Timor Leste were now better educated than him and Alkatiri, as they both only obtained a secondary-level education. The problem, though, is how to integrate these youths to help build the country.

Interestingly, Gusmao did not mention the problems of corruption and nepotism that hamper ordinary Timor Leste citizens who want to gain high political rank. These issues, if swept under the carpet, could slow down the country’s economic growth, which is primarily derived from oil production.

In a candid Q&A session, Gusmao was asked about Timor Leste’s reconciliation process and whether other countries might be able to learn from the process. He replied that for his country, it was not wise to follow the Palestinian intifada approach and keep fighting but rather to pursue reconciliation.

If he opted to hold the Indonesian generals responsible, then it would not be fair if the countries supplying arms to the Indonesian New Order government were not held responsible. If he pursued the blame, consequently, the young generation would suffer because it would remind them of the trauma of conflict. Therefore, for the sake of the future, he viewed reconciliation and maintaining good relations with Indonesia as more important.

Later on, Gusmao mentioned his informal meeting with Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (when the latter was coordinating political, legal and security affairs minister under president Megawati). SBY sought Gusmao’s cooperation to prevent Timor Leste from being too troublesome as, at the time, Indonesia was going through its democratic transition and was politically unstable. After a long discussion, Gusmao agreed, and when he became Timor Leste president he kept his promise.

Currently, Indonesia is undoubtedly a significant neighbor as it is Timor Leste’s largest trading partner and the two countries share history and more than 90 percent of their land border. A couple of months ago, when Gusmao visited Jakarta, Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa also asserted the importance of Timor Leste as a neighbor with a shared border, and supported the country’s membership application to ASEAN. The argument of a shared border is a strong case that Marty raised, yet this does not guarantee the application’s success as Papua New Guinea, for example, was only granted Special Observer status to ASEAN in 1981, not full membership.

Indonesia also benefits from trade relations with Timor Leste, enjoying a huge export surplus that supports the two countries’ good relations. However, maintaining the friendly relationship could be put in doubt if Indonesia’s political condition markedly alters when the country faces its election next year.

After all, one of the candidates considered within a chance of winning, based on several national survey institutes, is Prabowo, a former general who has been accused of committing human rights violations in Timor Leste. Will Timor Leste be able to keep a cool head if Prabowo ends up leading the country next door? On the other hand, whoever becomes the next Indonesian leader, will they maintain the same composure in its relations with the newly established country? We shall have to wait and see.

The author is an associate research fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.


Published in Jakarta Post, 17 June 2013 http://m.thejakartapost.com/news/2013/06/17/xanana-gusmao-timor-leste-and-regional-politics.html

Photos courtesy Blogspot and IPQpubs

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