Late in September 1999, a quiet man whom the Indonesian military had painted as a fearsome terrorist turned up in my office at the United Nations, where he had come to help plan the future of a new country, Timor-Leste. He was José Alexandre Gusmão, better known by his nom de guerre, Xanana. He told me the story about how he had made the journey from a guerrilla army in the hills of the former Indonesian-occupied East Timor, through a prison in Jakarta to a motorcade in New York.
At the center of the story was Nelson Mandela.
Gusmão, who was 53 years old in 1999, would become the first president of the new country and is now its prime minister and minister of defense. He was captured by the military in 1992 and was in a Jakarta jail in 1997 when Mandela made a visit to Indonesia and asked President Suharto, the country’s long-running dictator, to let him see Xanana. To the legendary guerrilla’s astonishment, he was taken from his cell to a presidential guesthouse to meet the South African leader, who gave him a gentle lecture about forswearing revenge and working at reconciliation.
“‘Many people want to compare me to Mandela,” he said in that impromptu interview with me in 1999, “‘but Mandela was my teacher. And meeting with him, in Jakarta, in front of the nose of Suharto, was a very significant event for me. It was a recognition of our struggle and of our rights.” As a former correspondent covering Indonesia and East Timor in its darkest days, I found his story almost unbelievable. On my last visit to Timor-Leste, in 2010, when it was under the guidance of a UN mission, it was evident that his efforts at reconciliation were still going on.
Less than a year after their meeting, Suharto was forced to resign under popular pressure. His successor as president, B. J. Habibie, released Gusmão to house arrest. By then he was a factor in Indonesian thinking about the future of East Timor, and he was soon able to travel.
Gusmão did not have an easy time on his eventual return to Timor-Leste, where episodes of violence threatened the new country and he barely escaped assassination by rivals, but he stuck to the Mandela doctrine. Even in 1999, two years after the fateful meeting with Mandela and before Timor-Leste voted for independence in a UN referendum, which preceded formal recognition as a new nation, he was being recognized as a conciliator.
Sidney Jones, the Asia director of Human Rights Watch in 1999, when she accompanied Xanana to his meeting with me, said that he was “clearly both willing and able to work with a variety of groups.” Jones, who is now the Jakarta-based senior adviser to the International Crisis Group, added: ”He’s got qualities that are really those of a statesman, in a way that no other Timorese leader on the ground even approaches.” In the background was the example of Mandela, and the lessons Xanana learned from him.