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Timor-Leste’s deep politics and the enigma of Xanana Gusmao

Edited extract from Island Encounters: Timor-Leste from the skin in (ANU Press, 2021).

Timor-Leste turns 20 on the 20th of Might 2022. It has a freshly minted new (and former) president, Dr Jose Ramos Horta who might be sworn into energy on the identical day. Contemporary parliamentary elections await a date to be fastened someday over the following 12 months.

Xanana Gusmao paces within the wings. After his celebration was unexpectedly out-manoeuvered by his rivals in a authorities shake-up in 2019, he appears intent on regaining formal management. But whether or not he has ever misplaced precise management of the tiny nation of 1.3 million is a wholly totally different query. The previous resistance chief was Ramos Horta’s kingmaker in 2008 and 2022, as Xanana has been the kingmaker for each different president within the nation’s twenty years lengthy historical past. In 2002 he himself was the president.

Within the 2018 parliamentary elections, Xanana Gusmao, main his political celebration CNRT, ran for presidency invoking lulik sacred ancestral energy with two different heavy hitting leaders. His personal energy because the pre-eminent FALINTIL armed resistance hero through the Indonesian occupation, then as former president and prime minister of the brand new nation was joined to that of former president and FALINTIL commander Taur Matan Ruak and rural youth and mystic martial arts chief from the central mountains, Naimori. Via their speeches it grew to become obvious that the three had aligned themselves (and their political marketing campaign) with the three sacred mountains of Timor-Leste.

On this consubstantiation, Xanana’s energy was linked to the nation’s tallest and most sacred mountain Rame Lau, Taur with Matebian, the “mountain of the useless” within the east, and Naimori with the third tallest mountain, Cabalaki, which was the stronghold within the early 20th century of Timor’s first “nationalist” hero, Dom Boa Ventura.

Throughout their remaining political rally in 2018, Xanana Gusmao was singled out by his operating mates Taur and Naimori for the best reward. They each referred to him as Timor’s biggest ever chief. Xanana himself didn’t make a speech. As a substitute, he selected to tackle a task akin to that of courtroom jester, humouring and thrilling the gang along with his larger-than-life physique language and antics. All of the whereas, Xanana stated little or no. He didn’t want to talk; his mystique and energy preceded him.

The enigma of Xanana was clearly revitalised in that election marketing campaign. His CNRT celebration had misplaced the earlier 12 months’s elections on what is likely to be thought-about a modernising ticket of progress and mega-projects. President Lu Olo had given his FRETILIN celebration (who had gained probably the most—however not majority—seats) the chance to type a minority authorities. Devastated by the shock loss, Xanana had left the nation for a lot of months. He justified this absence as needed for him to give attention to renegotiating the Timor Sea Maritime Boundary Treaty that may lastly resolve the decades-old oil and fuel dispute with Australia. At a distance, Xanana started to regroup politically.

Again in Dili, the brand new minority FRETILIN authorities was faltering. They may not go provide and the funds wanted to ship even primary companies have been operating out throughout a political stalemate over the funds. It was then that Xanana pounced. He summoned his former political rivals, Taur Matan Ruak and Naimori, to satisfy with him in Singapore. From there, the three leaders held an emotional joint press convention, saying the beginning of a brand new coalition, the AMP, that may maintain FRETILIN to account.

For some time, Xanana was nicknamed the ‘tele-commander’ and it was clear that the writing was on the wall for Xanana’s long-time nemesis Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri, chief of the FRETILIN authorities. An election was known as in 2018, across the identical time that, towards the chances, a brand new maritime boundary with the Australian authorities was introduced. Xanana returned to Dili, victorious and able to marketing campaign once more to take energy.


When issues go mistaken within the lives of Timorese individuals, they often return to their roots. Issues are addressed by opening up channels of communication with their ancestral lulik (spirit world), a realm ordinarily forbidden and taboo. In troublesome instances, individuals think about summoning their sources to hold out the mandatory rituals to implore their ancestors and potent nature spirits to redress their struggling.

This it appeared was what Xanana was doing when he regrouped with the AMP alliance. A reframing of his modernist imaginative and prescient by means of a lulik alliance signalled a return to his cultural roots that assisted in regaining his waning charisma.

Whereas the lulik alliance had labored the gang right into a frenzy at that remaining marketing campaign rally in 2018, feelings had additionally run excessive at earlier rallies in locations like Oecusse, the distant website of one of many nation’s flagship mega-projects, a particular financial zone (ZEESMS). Initially championed by Xanana, it had change into the managerial brainchild of his nice rival Mari Alkatiri. Hypothesis was that ZEESMS had been proffered as a type of peacemaking present to Mari after FRETILIN misplaced energy within the nation’s post-2006 political disaster. But banishing Mari Alkatiri to Oecusse had backfired. He had used ZEESM as a platform to return to the nationwide stage and, on the again of his personal modernist agenda, he had staged a political restoration. The promise of modernism may, nonetheless, solely take every of those leaders to date. Now, in Oecusse at the least, it appeared the individuals needed Xanana again.

Election impressions from Timor-Leste

An annotated photograph essay on what makes Timorese election campaigning distinctive.

The obvious distinction between Alkatiri and Xanana was their management types and skills to succeed in out to individuals and draw them in. On this regard, Xanana was peerless. Mari Alkatiri was extensively identified and revered, by supporters and political opponents alike, as an astute supervisor. Nonetheless, even his supporters recognised his lack of charisma and incapacity to attach. In Oecusse, his technocratic governance fashion in the end proved each unpopular and detrimental to the FRETILIN agenda. I used to be informed of a girl who pleaded to Xanana although her tears on the AMP rally in Oecusse: “Why did you give us to Mari?”.

But others whispered that it was now not a optimistic lulik behind Xanana’s newest push for energy. By time of the 2018 marketing campaign, these individuals believed, Xanana’s energy had its supply in one thing rather more sinister. Hearsay was rife {that a} malign supernatural power (biru) had taken over his physique and that this highly effective power was feeding his return to energy. As with all such type of non secular trade, it was understood that Xanana should feed it in return.

Concepts about such malevolent forces pervade Timorese political life and their want for sacrifices is evinced, in such accounts, by latest Timorese political historical past equivalent to when Ramos Horta narrowly averted demise from bullet wounds in 2008. The previous and in-coming president almost succumbed in a insurgent assault, a results of the 2006 political disaster.

Given these supernatural forces, in 2018 it was understood that Xanana’s energy would solely develop stronger. His longevity already attested to this. Even his fiercest critics believed there was nothing he couldn’t do. In response to these FRETILIN supporters, Mari now wanted to train excessive warning; his managerial brilliance was merely not equal to the biru enveloping Xanana.

These claims weren’t a lot private as a practical recognition of the darker energy of lulik and the supernatural. When you honour it and pay your respects, it can assist you/not hurt you. When you go towards it, look out.

Vital political points are buried in these supernatural beliefs: all drawing concurrently on emotions of respect, awe and worry. Xanana’s political rhetoric of oil and fuel riches and mega-project growth within the nation holds out the promise of sunshine (versus the darkness of the ancestral realm) and modernity. So, too, does FRETILIN’s technocratic agenda.

But, Xanana’s maintain over the East Timorese individuals is of a distinct order. His energy can be deeply enmeshed in Timorese methods of understanding the world and of their on a regular basis ancestral practices and beliefs. Folks in Timor consider within the powers of lulik and of their ancestors, as they consider within the company of malevolent spirits (a few of whom is likely to be angered ancestors) to regulate others and to wreak havoc. The ability of lulik is extraordinarily potent and all the time influential. The spirit world has energy to do good in addition to ailing, and it will probably activate individuals and make them captive to its whims.

Xanana—not the person however slightly the general public figurehead—represents these processes and extra to totally different individuals, in numerous methods, at totally different instances. He, greater than another individual, embodies each quintessential Timorese energy figures and the deep paradoxes of darkness and light-weight, custom and modernity which proceed to pervade and underpin the politics of Timor-Leste.



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