Former Leftist Fighter To Become East Timor's First President

By Patrick Goodenough | July 7, 2008 | 8:11 PM EDT

Pacific Rim Bureau ( - East Timor political leader Xanana Gusmao has won the first democratic presidential election on an island territory that soon will become the world's newest sovereign nation.

His widely predicted victory was formally announced Wednesday by a U.N. electoral commission. He won more than 80 percent of the vote in the tiny, predominantly Roman Catholic territory with a population of around 740,000.

Gusmao rose to prominence in the 1970s, when 300 years of Portuguese colonial rule ended, resulting in civil strife between East Timor's two largest parties. UDT wanted integration with giant neighbor Indonesia, while the left-wing Fretilin pursued independence.

Fretilin emerged victorious as the interim administration, with Gusmao holding a government information post. But Indonesia - evidently concerned about the spread of communism in the region - invaded in 1975, prompting Gusmao to join a bloody guerilla campaign. Some 200,000 East Timorese died in the years that followed.

In 1981 Gusmao became head of Fretilin's armed wing. He later began promoting a more nationalist vision, but was captured and jailed by Indonesia for subversion in 1992.

After the fall of Indonesian dictator Gen. Suharto, the people of East Timor in 1999 voted for independence and Gusmao was released.

A last-ditch campaign of violence by pro-Indonesia militias ended with the arrival of an international peacekeeping force led by Australia. The U.N. has since then administered the territory, which becomes formally independent on May 20.

Gusmao, who expressed reluctance to take high political office but was persuaded to run, campaigned on an independent platform. Some political differences have arisen between him and Fretilin, which controls the new parliament.

The constitution empowers the president to fire the premier and veto laws, but a system of checks and balances makes cooperation important.

Gusmao's biographer, Sarah Niner, says he has become politically non-aligned, and during an August 2001 election for East Timor's parliament, preferred to promote smaller parties views, rather than those of the dominant Fretilin.

"He is also regarded as a rare political leader, one with genuine moral authority and with little interest in personal political power," she adds.

Gusmao has sought to promote reconciliation. When declassified U.S. government documents were published last December indicating that the Ford administration knew in advance and approved the Indonesian invasion in 1975, East Timorese human rights campaigners demanded an apology from the U.S.

But Gusmao, when questioned by reporters, said East Timor had to look "towards the future, not to the past," and noted the "important role" the U.S. had played in the independence referendum and transitional period.

Since the referendum, Washington has become one of the impoverished territory's largest aid donors.

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Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow