22 March 2009

East Timor’s First President Recalls His 9-Day Term

Jakarta Globe 18 March 2009 Charles Anderson East Timor's First President Recalls His 9-Day Term - I was president, yes, unfortunately," Francisco Xavier do Amaral says looking over the letter in his hands.


He looks up and smiles.

"It was only by chance."

The first president of the Republic of East Timor sits on a concrete porch overlooking the Dili esplanade, surrounded by roosters, chickens and a lone yellow-crested cockatoo. To hear do Amaral's voice over the clamor is difficult. He speaks softly, with measure and with a faint resonance of mucus in his throat.

Do Amaral was an unlikely leader. A leader of chance. And, by his own definition, a leader of un-fortune. He was no politician.

He almost became a priest and then a school teacher. And then on one day in late November 1975, after more than 400 years of Portuguese occupation, do Amaral became the leader of the eastern half of a little-known island in Southeast Asia called the Republica Democratica de Timor Leste. Ten days later, he was no longer leader and he was on the run.

Indonesia invaded Timor Leste on Dec. 7, and the party that do Amaral helped found fled into the Timorese hinterlands. The first president of an unrecognized independent East Timor was swept aside in the fervor of party politics. But it was still his hands that pulled up his nation's black, red and green flag in central Dili as recognition of their defiance of an occupying power.

Do Amaral seems unlike many elder statesmen. And now at 75, he is an elder.

He lives in a small whitewashed bungalow set back from the road. It has a blue corrugated-iron roof and out the front is a dusty courtyard. In the middle of the yard is a flagpole, but on this February day there is no flag flying.

The former president lounges comfortably outside at a table with a green cloth, methodically opening letters with a small knife, ready to tell his story.

In 1963, do Amaral was finishing his studies at a theological college in Macau. The week before he was to be ordained as a priest, he decided not to go through with it, which meant his would take a very different course.

"I said to the bishop of East Timor 'If you send me to another country far away from East Timor, then OK, I will be a priest. But I cannot be a priest here.' I will go to church every morning and I will have to preach to the people about your brothers. To love your neighbor as yourself and respect human life and not to treat people like slaves," do Amaral says.

Under Portuguese occupation, do Amaral saw none of these things in the community in which he was born.

Every morning of every day the East Timorese were required to pay a head tax. If they did not pay, they were punished.

Do Amaral picks up a pen. "Punished by this. How do you say?" He fashions a crude drawing on a discarded envelope. It has a handle and two tails.

"I am not a painter," he laughs faintly.

"Yes, a whip. They would bring this and hit you two or three times, and then on the hand," he says.

While do Amaral goes over the drawing, a quiet colleague sitting with us leaves the table and goes inside. After a minute, the man returns with the actualization of the sketch.

"Yes you see." He takes my hand and pretends to beat it with the old leather two-tailed weapon.

"This is a chicote ."

Do Amaral saw this every day. "What I was preaching in the morning was contrary to what I was seeing every day of my life," he said. "I told the bishop it was contrary to my heart. How am I meant to go there and preach to the people you must consider everyone as your friend and brother, and then I come out and see my own brother beaten?"

Do Amaral wheezes and looks around the table for medicine. To no avail.

"That is when I started asking myself how?" he continues, gathering himself. "How can this happen?"

So do Amaral did not become a priest. For a while, he became a pauper. "I had no money" he says. "Not even for cigarettes." But soon he was approached by a private school that offered him work teaching Portuguese and math.

"At that time, it was very hard to find a teacher for younger children, so my name was circulated around. People knew who I was," he says.

It seems his name was also circulating among the Portuguese military, which recruited do Amaral to teach English to the wives of their officers.

He stayed this way for a decade, in which time do Amaral became a known name. In 1974, an opportunity presented itself to him: The Portuguese regime fell to revolution.

Enter an early rendition of what were to become East Timor's first internationally recognized political rulers. President and Prime Minister.

"[Jose] Ramos Horta and Mari Alkatiri came to my house. They told me we couldn't meet outside on the road because it was secret. They told me 'We came here to invite you to found a political party.' I was completely outside the political world. I told them to give me one or two days to think about it, and they said OK and went away.

"The following day they came back with a written paper by Horta asking for total unconditional independence. I said 'OK, tomorrow I will give you the answer.' Horta answered me. 'You sign it today or I will tear it up and we won't think anything more about independence and we will live like slaves under Portuguese.'?"

Why did they want him?

"I don't know. I didn't think to ask him. I still don't know."

But Horta was convincing. So Frente Revolucionaria de Timor Leste Independente, or Fretilin, was born.

And they had support. Do Amaral would speak around the markets. He would borrow food carts from local Chinese and stand on them addressing the crowds.

"The Portuguese have been here for [more than 40 years]. What did we get from them? Nothing. They have taken everything and then they what did they give us? Education? Zero. [Four hundred years] and no Timorese can speak Portuguese. Why? Maybe because we are stupid. I don't think so. If they tried to teach, they'd see. But nothing of this happened. From now on I want immediate independence, if possible today."

He says about 80 percent of the people he saw supported him. Maybe 10 percent wanted to continue under Portuguese rule. "That was fine," he says. "You are free. Maybe you can organize something. Maybe you can go live in Portugal and become as white as possible. But that was not for me. I was born black."

Soon do Amaral proclaimed East Timor's independence. But more un-fortune was to bestow the island.

"What happened?" he says shrugging his shoulders. "The Indonesians came."

They mounted a massive air and sea invasion under what was known as "Operation Komodo."

The party and its constituency fled to the hills, fighting, hiding, constantly moving and organizing under the cover of the deep, green jungle.

"Our people were suffering from starvation and all kinds of diseases, and I felt that if they wanted to surrender themselves, they should be permitted to do so," do Amaral says.

He saw many Timorese women who had stayed in Dili had actually been accommodated into society.

"So maybe Indonesia came here to kill all the Fretilin members. As long as females were allowed, there was a possibility to trade with Indonesia. You can hate them, that is fine, but once you are free to move inside Dili, you can get medicine, pills for malaria, all kinds of things for us."

"Yes," do Amaral nods. "This was the real idea, but the Fretilin thought not."

Do Amaral says he explained it to Nicolau dos Reis Lobato, who was once prime minister under him but had since become president of Fretlin. But Lobato thought that if do Amaral supported the women who had surrendered to the Indonesians, it was likely that when times became harder, do Amaral would come out of hiding and surrender himself as well.

"They thought this was a step in the wrong direction," he says.

So do Amaral spent a year as a prisoner of a radical faction of his own party, being dragged across East Timor's mountainous landscape as the Fretilin attempted to outrun the Indonesian army. They held him in a bamboo cage to "starve me slowly," he told a reporter in 1983.

"I feel it was something normal in the life of a politician in East Timor," he says now. "This was my time to suffer."

Do Amaral coughs. Hoiks and spits. And wipes his mouth.

"I am sorry. Leave me for a while OK."

He stands and wanders into his home. By now the Dili traffic is in full voice and his cockatoo is perched with his serpentine tongue sticking out.

Do Amaral was eventually abandoned by his captors when they were seized in an Indonesian ambush. The first president was a prisoner once again.

He was one of Indonesia's symbols of the illegal insurgency and was boasted in front of the media before being transported to Bali. There do Amaral became a servant in the residence of an Indonesian general, Dading Kalbuadi.

When Kalbuadi moved to Jakarta in 1983, do Amaral went with him, staying as a prisoner of Indonesia for 22 years.

In 1999, he heard the call that the United Nations were holding a referendum to decide East Timor's independence; a reality that do Amaral had been wanting for so many years.

He emerges with lozenges. "It was a great day. I thought 'God bless us.'?"

After being accepted back into the Timorese political spectrum more than 30 years after he started, do Amaral decided to run against another revolutionary hero, Xanana Gusmao. He lost. Do Amaral always said that he expected to lose by a landslide to Gusmao.

"If we put [forward] only one candidate, it means that we have no clear idea about democracy," he told the BBC after his loss.

But now with his former comrades in authority, his vision is unclear.

"I see sometimes inside the government it is not clear. The people they represent are poor people who are happy to give all the facilities to those who are in power.

"It seems that sometimes the boss has changed, but the system has not changed. On the contrary. I am old. I know that I cannot do anything any more, but as I am still alive, and as long as I can open my mouth, and until God closes my eyes, I will continue to criticise and try to inform people. I still praise the leaders. I still feel relieved they are there, but I hope they are changing a little. Step by step."

Photo: Francisco Xavier do Amaral ran against Alexandre "Xanana" Gusmao, below, left, in East Timor's 2002 presidential election. (Moreira, JG)

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