Xanana Gusmao


Timor-Leste (East Timor) is colonised by the Portuguese in the 16th Century. When the Portuguese leave in 1975 it appears the colony might finally gain independence. But Indonesia invades at the end of the same year. The East Timorese begin a 24-year struggle to liberate their homeland. More background.

Mini biography

Born on 20 June 1946 in Laleia, Manatuto, Timor-Leste (East Timor), he is the second son in a family of nine children. His parents are teachers. Gusmao is educated at the Jesuit mission of Nossa Senhora di Fatima at Dare in the hills overlooking Dili. After leaving school he works in various jobs in Dili - typist, draftsman, waterside worker, fisherman - before obtaining a permanent position in the public service. While working as a journalist he takes the nom de plume Xanana. The name sticks for the rest of his life.

1968 - Gusmao is drafted into the Portuguese Army to serve three years of national service.

1971 - Gusmao returns to the public service. He begins to become involved in the Timorese independence movement.

1974 - The announcement by a new government in Portugal that it intends to withdraw from its colonies divides the East Timorese population and leads to the formation of three new political groups - the leftist Revolutionary Front for an Independent East Timor (Fretilin), the Timorese Democratic Union (UDT), and the Popular Democratic Association of Timor (Apodeti).

Fretilin calls for full independence. Gusmao joins the group, becoming deputy head of its Department of Information. The UDT initially favours a continued association with Portugal, but then shifts its position and joins Fretilin in an independence campaign.

Apodeti favours integration with Indonesia and receives backing from the Indonesian Government, which also wants to see the province integrated.

1975 - The rise of Fretilin causes concern in Indonesia, which fears that East Timor may turn communist.

The UDT is also concerned by the rise of Fretilin. An attempt by the UDT to seize power leads to a civil war between Fretilin and an anticommunist coalition of UDT and Apodeti. Fretilin quickly gets the upper hand, occupying most of the province by September, despite the military support given to UDT and Apodeti by Indonesia.

On 28 November Fretilin proclaims the Democratic Republic of East Timor. Gusmao is elected to the Fretilin Central Committee. Fretilin organises its armed supporters into a unified force, the Revolutionary Armed Forces for the National Liberation of East Timor (Falintil). The UDT and Apodeti call on Jakarta to intervene.

Indonesia invades on 7 December, landing forces at Dili and at Baukau, 100 kilometres to the east, and installing a puppet government composed of members of UDT and Apodeti. Gusmao is the last member of Fretilin's Central Committee to leave the capital.

The invasion takes place with the blessing of United States President Gerald Ford and US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, who meet with Indonesian President Suharto in Jakarta on 6 December, the day before the Indonesian troops are mobilised.

It is later estimated that 18,600 East Timorese civilians are murdered or disappeared during the Indonesian occupation and between 84,200 and 183,000 more die as a direct result of Indonesia's policies. According to a report by the Commission for Reception, Truth and Reconciliation in East Timor, Indonesian police or soldiers are to blame for 70% of the 18,600 murders and disappearances.

Between 30,000 to 35,000 Indonesian troops remain permanently stationed on East Timor during what becomes a 24-year occupation.

1976 - On 31 May the East Timor puppet government votes for integration with Indonesia. East Timor becomes the Indonesian province of Timor Timur on 17 July.

Most of the world, including Portugal, never recognises the annexation. The United Nations (UN) condemns Indonesia's action and continues to recognise Portuguese sovereignty over East Timor.

In the aftermath of the invasion, the Indonesian Government introduces a double-edged policy to secure its position.

On the one hand, resistance from Fretilin units operating from the hinterland is brutally suppressed; on the other, the government invests heavily in East Timor's development, allocating more funds per capita than in any other province.

1978 - Following the deaths of almost all of the Fretilin leadership, including the group's president, Nicolau Lobato, Gusmao finds himself in charge of the resistance.

Talking of the experience later, he says, "In the first three years we were, all the population together, trying to resist. And in the end of 77 to 78 we were destroyed. From almost 50,000 guerrillas we were reduced to 700. And I said, 'How can we resist? How can we win?'"

1981 - In March Gusmao organises the first national conference of Fretilin. He is formally elected leader of the resistance movement and commander-in-chief of Falintil.

The resistance survives a major Indonesian offensive - the "fence of legs" - during which civilians are used as human shields against the resistance fighters.

In September 160 Fretilin fighters and their families are massacred on the slopes of Mount Aitana, southeast of Dili.

1983 - The Indonesian military indicates it is prepared to hold peace talks. Gusmao negotiates with Indonesian General William da Costa in the remote mountain camp of Lari Guto. A cease-fire agreement is signed between the Indonesian Government and Fretilin on 23 March. However, the Indonesian Army resumes its offensive on 31 August. The East Timorese resistance holds.

Gusmao leaves Fretilin to concentrate on rebuilding the opposition movement on cross-party lines. He introduces a Policy of National Unity, increases contacts with the Catholic Church and develops a clandestine network in urban areas and other occupied zones.

1986 - The success of the national unity program allows Gusmao to unit the East Timorese factions - including Fretilin, UDT and Renetil, the largest underground youth organisation - through the formation of the National Council of Maubere Resistance (CNRM ). Gusmao is made head of the council. Fretilin makes Falintil a non-partisan army, with Gusmao as commander.

1991 - On 12 November, at the Santa Cruz cemetery in Dili, Indonesian troops shoot and kill 271 unarmed Timorese attending the funeral of a young Timorese killed during an earlier demonstration. The so-called Dili Massacre receives worldwide coverage, focusing attention on human rights abuses in East Timor.

The international community responds to the incident by suspending or threatening to suspend aid to Indonesia, prompting President Suharto to appoint a national investigation commission to look into the incident.

The commission finds the army guilty of "excessive force". The senior officer in East Timor and his superior in Bali are replaced, three officers are dismissed from the army, and at least eight officers and soldiers are court-martialled. Four junior officers are sentenced to jail terms of between eight and 14 months. However, the punishments are relatively light compared to the harsh sentences meted out to the Timorese accused of instigating the incident.

A worrying finding of the commission is that as well as the on-duty troops present at the cemetery there was "another group of unorganised security personnel, acting outside any control or command (that) also fired shots and committed beatings, causing more casualties".

1992 - Gusmao is captured in Dili by the Indonesian military on 20 November and charged with subversion. At his trial, which begins in February 1993, he is prevented from reading his 27-page defence statement. On May 21 he is sentenced to life imprisonment in Jakarta's Cipinang jail for having, according to the presiding judge, "disturbed the life of East Timorese". The sentence is later commuted to 20 years.

While in jail, Gusmao meets his second wife, the Australian foreign aid worker and teacher Kirsty Sword. Sword, who also works covertly for the East Timorese resistance, passes messages from Gusmao to his colleagues outside. The couple marry in 2000. They have three sons.

1993 - The international community begins to question Indonesia's rule in East Timor. The UN Human Rights Commission adopts a resolution expressing "deep concern" at human rights violations by Indonesia in East Timor. In May the administration of US President Bill Clinton places Indonesia on a human rights "watch" list. When Suharto meets Clinton in Tokyo in July concerns are raised about the East Timor human rights issue.

1996 - In October the East Timorese peace activists José Ramos-Horta and Bishop Carlos Belo are awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for their "sustained efforts to hinder the oppression of a small people". The Noble Committee hopes that "this will spur efforts to find a diplomatic solution to the conflict of East Timor based on the people's right to self-determination". The Indonesian Government is "astounded and surprised at the reason given for the award".

1997 - South African President Nelson Mandela visits Gusmao in prison. After the meeting President Mandela calls for Gusmao's release, saying it is essential to resolve the conflict in East Timor.

1998 - The East Timorese National Convention held in Portugal in April establishes the National Council of Timorese Resistance to replace CNRM. Gusmao is reaffirmed by acclamation as leader of the East Timorese resistance and president of the council.

Suharto is forced to step down as president of Indonesia in May. He is replaced by his deputy, Jusuf Habibie. In June Habibie proposes a fresh autonomy deal for East Timor and in August agrees to negotiate with Portugal and the UN on the future of the territory.

Independence for East Timor now seems near, although concern rapidly develops over the growth of antiseparatist Timorese militias. The militias, who are backed by elements from the Indonesian military, begin to warn of violent consequences if independence is granted to East Timor.

1999 - On 27 January Habibie announces that the East Timorese will be allowed to vote on self-determination. Shortly after, two Indonesian special forces units, codenamed Tribuana and Venus, arrive in East Timor to provide undercover assistance to the militias.

A UN-supervised referendum to establish if the East Timorese want autonomy within the Indonesian Republic or full independence is held on 30 August. Close to 100% of the 444,666 registered voters participate. When it is announced on 4 September that 78.5% of the voters have chosen in favour of independence, chaos breaks out as the antiseparatist militias go on a murderous rampage.

During the weeks of violence that follow more than 1,000 die, infrastructure is destroyed and about 500,000 of the East Timor's entire population of 800,000 are forced to flee their homes, either to the country's interior or to neighbouring West Timor.

Indonesian police and soldiers participate directly in some of the atrocities and the forced transport of 250,000 refugees to West Timor. A secret Indonesian Government report later finds that officers in the Indonesian military directed the militia violence and that top generals, including the then armed forces commander and defence minister, General Wiranto, were aware of the situation but did little to prevent it.

An official investigation by the joint Indonesian and East Timor Commission on Truth and Friendship finds that "Indonesian soldiers, police and civilian officials were involved in an 'organised campaign of violence'" and the "Indonesian state bears 'institutional responsibility' for atrocities including murder, rape, torture, illegal detention, and forced mass deportations".

On 12 September Habibie agrees to the deployment of international forces to restore order in East Timor. The situation is finally brought under control after 20 September when an international peacekeeping force lands in Dili. The militias retreat to West Timor, where they terrorise the East Timorese transported to the refugee camps there.

On 19 October the Indonesian Government ratifies the referendum result and revokes East Timor's incorporation into Indonesia. The UN officially assumes control of the territory on 25 October.

Meanwhile, Gusmao, who had been moved to house arrest on 10 February, is freed on 7 September. He is unable to travel to East Timor immediately as his life would be in jeopardy but finally returns in October.

2000 - Gusmao resigns as commander-in-chief of Falintil. Gusmao's period as president of the National Council of Timorese Resistance comes to an end in May 2001 when the council is dissolved. Speaking at the dissolution ceremony, Gusmao says it is the first time a "victorious liberation movement had voluntarily sidelined itself from power".

2001 - East Timor's first general elections are held on 30 August, the second anniversary of the territory's vote for independence. Gusmao does not stand at the elections but uses his authority to ensure that the vote is conducted in a free and fair manner without violence or intimidation. "I will prevent there being bloodshed at all costs, by all available means," he says.

Fretilin wins the elections, but without the massive majority expected. The party takes 55 seats in the 88-seat Assembly, five seats short of the two-thirds majority it needs to form government in its own right. It becomes instead the dominant force in a coalition.

Gusmao is given a position on East Timor's Planning Commission following the election. He also heads the resistance veterans association. The association sets up business ventures like a petrol distribution chain and a cement works to provide its 11,000 members with employment.

2002 - Gusmao is elected president of East Timor at a general election held on 14 April. He wins in a landslide, receiving 83% of the vote and taking 12 of the country's 13 provinces. During his five-year term he also acts as commander-in-chief of East Timor's defence force.

East Timor is officially declared an independent nation at midnight on 19 May during a ceremony watched by about 100,000 East Timorese. UN Secretary-general Kofi Annan hands government to President-elect Gusmao. The UN flag is lowered and the East Timor flag raised. Hours later, Gusmao swears in the new East Timor Government. East Timor joins the UN on 27 September.

However, the country faces serious challenges.

Unemployment in East Timor is estimated to be as high as 65%. More than 40% of the country's population of 800,000 live below the poverty line, earning less that $1 a day. The average life expectancy is only 56 years. Half the adult population is illiterate.

2006 - Late in April a political crisis springing from dissatisfaction with the government, tensions between ethnic groups from the east and west provinces of the country, and rivalries among the military and police forces threatens to plunge East Timor into civil war.

Foreign Minister Ramos-Horta acts to head-off the threat, placing a request for an intervention by a foreign peacekeeping force.

Australian troops arrive in East Timor at the end of May. They are joined by security forces from New Zealand, Malaysia and Portugal.

Gusmao takes direct control of the East Timorese security forces. Ramos-Horta takes over the defence portfolio. After a month-long stand-off, the incumbent prime minister resigns on 26 June. A new government headed by Ramos-Horta is formed on 14 July.

2007 - Gusmao does not stand for another term in presidential elections held on 9 April, stepping down instead to lead a new party, the National Congress for Timorese Reconstruction (CNRT), in parliamentary elections held on 30 June. He is replaced as president by José Ramos-Horta.

When no party wins an overall majority in the elections, the CNRT, with 24% of the vote and 18 of the 65 parliamentary seats, forms a coalition with the Association of Timorese Democrats-Social Democratic Party coalition (11 seats) and the Democratic Party (eight seats), putting Gusmao in a position to claim government.

José Ramos-Horta appoints Gusmao as prime minister of a coalition government on 6 August. The new government is sworn in on 8 August.

2008 - An aftershock of the 2006 political crisis hits Gusmao directly early on the morning of 11 February when his convoy is ambushed by a band of rebel soldiers as it travels from his house to his office. Gusmao escapes unharmed from what is thought to have been a botched assassination attempt.

José Ramos-Horta, however, is not so lucky. An earlier attack on his house by the rebels leaves him seriously injured with multiple bullet wounds. He is flown to Darwin in Australia for medical treatment the same day.

Gusmao declares a state of emergency and the situation is quickly brought under control by international peacekeepers stationed in East Timor.

2012 - Gusmao's CNRT party consolidates its position at parliamentary elections held on 7 July, winning 30 of the 65 seats.

The CNRT forms a coalition government with the Democratic Party and Frenti-Mudanca (a breakaway from Fretilin). Gusmao remains prime minister.

The UN Mission of Support in East Timor winds up its operations on 31 December. The Australian-led troops from the International Stabilisation Force established following the crisis of 2006 begin to withdraw early in 2013. East Timor is left to stand on its own for the first time since Portuguese settlement over 450 years ago.

2015 - Gusmao resigns as prime minister on 6 February, two years before his term is due to expire. He is replaced by Rui Araujo, a member of Fretilin and former deputy prime minister. Araujo heads a new unity government composed of all political parties. Gusmao stays on as minister for planning and strategic investment.

In March Gusmao announces that he and his wife, Kirsty Sword Gusmao, have separated.

2016 - At the end of August, Gusmao travels to the Netherlands to lead negotiations on maritime boundaries between East Timor and Australia at the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague.

East Timor seeks to have a 2006 boundary agreement between the two countries overturned. The agreement did not place the boundary at equal distances between the two countries and ceded the majority of a large offshore oil and gas field to Australia. East Timor argues the agreement was not reached in good faith because the Australian Government bugged East Timor's cabinet rooms during the negotiations.

A new agreement that sets the boundary at equal distances is finalised in March 2018. Under the agreement about 80% of the Greater Sunrise gas field is included in East Timor's economic zone. East Timor will receive between 70% and 80% of the revenue from the field when it is developed.


Freedom fighter, poet, leader. Gusmao is a voice of reason and moderation in the debate over the future of Timor-Leste (East Timor). Like South Africa's Nelson Mandela he advocates reconciliation rather than retribution as the best method of healing the country's wounds.

In his acceptance speech at the presentation of the 1996 Nobel Peace Prize, José Ramos-Horta said, "This speech belongs to someone else who should be here today. He is an outstanding man of courage, tolerance and statesmanship. Yet, this man is in prison for no other crime than his ideas and vision of peace and freedom ... Through Xanana, I bow to my people in profound respect, loyalty and humility because they are the real heroes and peacemakers."

Speaking after East Timor was liberated, Ramos-Horta said of Gusmao, "I tell you this, and I tell you frankly, this is the most extraordinary human being I have met in my life and I have met many, many great people."