As Timor-Leste is about to complete its first 12 years as a sovereign Nation-State, it is now confronting the inevitable, the challenge-of-all-challenges: moving forward without Xanana Gusmão at the helm. Since the war years, particularly in the eighties and nineties, until today, it has been Xanana Gusmão providing a sense of unity and security, having earned and held the overall trust of the people. He carried the ultimate responsibility of maintaining peace so that everyone could move forward without discrimination, revenge or violence. This responsibility has been carried out with resounding success.
However, this success itself can become a factor of psychological insecurity because Timor-Leste is now faced with the prospect of having to move forward without Xanana Gusmão as the anchor for peace in the Nation’s path towards prosperity for all.
The capacity of the “Xanana factor” to inspire patriotism and strengthen the resilience of the people of Timor-Leste can never be underestimated. He is the liberator of the country; the father of the freedom and peace Timor-Leste now enjoys and the main reason Timor-Leste is now viewed by the international community as a global beacon of successful Nationbuilding.
As many leaders often remind us, he is the Mandela of Asia The world is united in its mourning at the passing of Nelson Mandela and Timor-Leste honours this leader of humanity with words and with actions. As I write this piece, Prime Minister Xanana Gusmão is in South Africa for the memorial service of the man he met while he was still in Cipinang, the Indonesian prison in Jakarta in which he was held as a political prisoner for seven years. In 1997 while on a State Visit to Indonesia, Nelson Mandela as President of South Africa, asked the then President of Indonesia, President Soeharto, to meet his most famous prisoner, Kay Rala Xanana Gusmão. And President Soeharto acceded to the request. It was a very happy surprise for Xanana Gusmão. In that moment Nelson Mandela, finally met the Mandela of Asia, not in the prison, but at the Palace of President Soeharto. This cataclysmic meeting certainly helped the process of national liberation for Timor-Leste.
Like Mandela, Xanana Gusmão is not a leader to accommodate poor direction or to allow his country to be at the mercy of the winds or the waves of the sea. Like Mandela, Gusmão does not accept the status quo as a fait accompli. Both leaders are transformers of societies and nations. And for their conviction and leadership, both faced imprisonment; but equally left prison as heroes, not only heroes of their people but also of humanity as a whole. For these noble reasons, their people refuse to let them go. As Catherine Marshal eloquently wrote, about Mandela, in Eureka Street newspaper:
“It’s taken a long time for us to let you go, Madiba. For several years, even as your health faltered irreparably and rumours of your increasing fragility could no longer be denied, the world refused to release its hold. We said prayers, sent love and held vigils until we had brought our Madiba – a man who had lived longer than most – back to life. Such was our belief in the immortality of our hero that we were incapable of relinquishing you. But now, despite our efforts, you are gone… You are gone now, Madiba, as surely as those lepers and whalers and slaves who lie beneath the prison that once confined you.”
Xanana is still with us, but one can sense that his people, the People of Timor-Leste also refuse to let him go. Once Xanana, as Prime Minister, announces his forthcoming resignation, as he has recently mooted, the question most asked is whether it is time for him to go. But when will it be the right time? The peoples view is that there is never a right time for leaders such as Xanana and Mandela, but leaders with their qualities know when it is time. In the minds of the people these are questions they probably do not want to think about; and most probably they would prefer to let nature take its own course and then try to come to terms with God’s wishes. Political leaders however cannot take this course.
The timing of either 2014 or 2015 is not relevant. What is most important are the consequences of Xanana leaving the helm of power and government and, it follows from this, whether others can respond to the challenges of the Nation in his absence. The uncertainties are many; the fear is there, but there is also the trust that the courage of the people of Timor-Leste will help overcome all the challenges. There is also the fact that Xanana leaves a state that now has the systems in place, albeit, rudimentary in some areas, to be able to respond to the needs of the people and the demands of government.
In Timor-Leste it has happened before. During the struggle for national liberation, once President Nicolau Lobato was gone, all too soon, a vacuum was left for three long years 1978 until 1981, until Xanana Gusmão took over. Against all odds, Xanana rebuilt the structures of the struggle for national liberation, with ‘bricks’ he could find and use. He restructured the mindsets of the living cadres and injected a new dynamic. Initially, the most important concern was to have a Command of the Struggle. Having that, the rest could be rebuilt bit-by-bit through investing all energy towards making the resistance structures functional again. The focus of Xanana then was to give a clear direction as to where we were going from then on. To impose the necessary degree of optimism, and to counter the doomsday prophets, Xanana conceived that our answer shall be that reality is built by Man and Man can change it!
Changing realities has been the centerpiece of Xanana’s philosophy. When he took over Government, leading a coalition of five political parties, Xanana defined ‘changing mentality’ as the most important challenge for success in governance. This meant, amongst other things, the need to consolidate the view that the one-party system was over. Its past, and the present, challenges us to work together, regardless of the difficulties. Second, to make those who lost elections accept that they could still can play a vital role, even though not in government. Third, that being in government requires embracing the invaluable opinions of those in opposition. Fourth, that sacrifice is still required by all, particularly those in power, in order to ensure that our people can enjoy the fruits of freedom and independence. Last but not least, it was necessary to consider every societal phenomenon, first, within a global perspective, and then breaking it down into parts, to allow the best possible solution to be devised as demanded by the situation.
Has this been achieved? If so, can Xanana leave the stage and allow for younger leaders to face the challenges ahead?
The answer is simple. No one can really complete these tasks because they are part of the long-lasting process of Nation-State building; a process which requires generations to consolidate. In addition, this process of governance is no different than the struggle for national liberation. It is, indeed, the continuation of this struggle because the overreaching goal of the struggle for national liberation was not only to have a national flag, a government and other pillars of sovereignty; it was and it is the achievement of the ultimate goal of building and sustaining the well-being and prosperity of all, which ultimately, brings as an outcome, happiness for every man, woman and child in Timor-Leste.
It is, in fact, the same goal as enshrined in the Declaration of Independence of the United States of America, including the emphasis on happiness and the power of the people to change government if and when it becomes dysfunctional:
“…that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. – That to secure these rights, Government are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from consent of the governed, – That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and Happiness.
It is up to the people of Timor-Leste to build the country’s capacity, as a collective of a Nation, and to change the course of history if things do go wrong, but doing it through a peaceful and democratic process. This is the strength of Xanana’s legacy and this is the process which only Xanana Gusmão can trigger with success, but the limits imposed by nature demand that Xanana can only do so much as humanly possible, and the rest the process itself will inherently nurture the seeds of success. These seeds are the ability of the younger generation to replicate and to further enhance and improve what Xanana Gusmão has left behind, as his heritage of national freedom and national governance. What is required of the younger generation is to decide what to do with this freedom, which was achieved with so much suffering and so many lost lives; and to determine how to enhance governance, in spite of challenges which, inevitably, growth and development will impose upon any present or future government.
That all people are created equal, with inalienable rights, including to Life, Liberty and Happiness, are sacred beliefs of any civilized society. Fear that we may not uphold these principles because of weak institutions of the country, weak law enforcement agencies and a weak democratic system is justified. One reason is because Timor-Leste is a very young democracy, still struggling to free itself from poverty, still building systems of governance and still learning how to manage every single complexity inherent in governance in a globalised and interconnected world. It is also learning how to build defence and security to protect its sovereignty. In this journey, Timor-Leste is also learning how to decide who is friend and who is foe, in this world of competition and greed, a world ruled by the survival of the fittest.
In the early days of this Government, the Fifth Constitutional Government of Timor-Leste, I published the epic story “A Message to Garcia”. An inspiring story which recounts the courage and determination of Rowan, a soldier who was ordered to deliver a letter of his President, the then U.S. President McKinley, to General Garcia of Cuba, during the U.S. – Spanish war. He executed the order with absolute loyalty, acted promptly and concentrated all his energies to ensure total success. He delivered the letter, without asking for the whereabouts of the general or how he could get there. He just carried the order with innovation and courage, and made it possible for the U.S. to win the war.
In deciding to leave the stage, Kay Rala Xanana Gusmão is certainly convinced he has created some Rowans within his reach to give the order and to carry out every task his government requires, with due diligence and success. I said in the introduction to “A Message to Garcia” that this Government is to produce “Rowans” and “many Xananas” and Garcias. I believe this because the most important achievement is to build the capacity of the younger leaders, so that the Nation can adequately respond to the challenges of governance, present and future, bearing in mind the ultimate goal: the Happiness of our People!