Who dares, wins: What we can learn from Timor-Leste's Xanana Gusmao
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Who dares, wins: What we can learn from Timor-Leste's Xanana Gusmao

Today finds me in Timor-Leste.

Not too many Australians are aware of this tiny nation just 40 minutes off the coast of Northern Australia. But our influence over this brave band of just over a million people has been enormous.

I’m here on purpose. To meet, perhaps for the last time, Xanana Gusmao who has been one of the country’s great heroes throughout its post-colonial days. Timor-Leste was a Portuguese colony up until 1975 when it was overtaken by Indonesia after just nine days of independence. In those years, it was known as East Timor.

Timor-Leste's independence hero Xanana Gusmao.

Timor-Leste's independence hero Xanana Gusmao.

Photo: AP

On witnessing the arrival of Indonesians, Xanana fled into the hills and in time became the leader of the resistance. He is a man of the highest integrity. Admittedly I don’t travel the world meeting resistance commanders, but Xanana Gusmao is in my mind the Nelson Mandela of our region. He has seen the brutality of warfare first hand, been imprisoned in solitary confinement and emerged a man of peace and forgiveness.

His prison term in Indonesia did not embitter him. In fact he maintained contact with the outside world through a young Melbourne woman, Kirsty Sword, who he later married and had three children with. As well as being a military leader, he is also a painter, photographer and published poet.

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Xanana had been free for less than two years when I first met him in October 2001. I was the President of the Melbourne Festival and Xanana had been invited to open the festival by delivering a poem for peace.

Illustration: Cathy Wilcox

Illustration: Cathy Wilcox

It was a spellbinding performance. His guttural Portuguese held the packed outdoor audience at the Sidney Myer Music Bowl in reverential silence. Here was a man from a country which had lost a third of its population in a long and barely recognised war, appealing to us to work for peace while “others speak of war”.

Modern Australia’s first significant relationship with Timor-Leste was in World War 2 when the Timorese gave essential support to our Z Force commandos, the precursor of the SAS, who were trying to halt the Japanese.

However, the help given by the Timorese to our men has rarely been fully reciprocated. In 1963 when President Kennedy was taking an interest in the region, our Attorney General Sir Garfield Barwick told the Americans “I completely fail to see how pouring money into Timor to raise the standard of living is going to solve this problem”.

A decade later, Prime Minister Billy McMahon aggressively sought to get far more than Australia’s fair share of the oil and gas reserves that lay beneath the Timor sea. Veteran political journalist Laurie Oakes is quoted in Kim McGrath’s remarkable book Crossing the Line, Australia’s Secret History in the Timor Sea, which exposes Australia’s disgraceful dealings with East Timor. Oakes describes McMahon as a “devious, nasty, dishonest individual who lied all the time”.

On the way to recovery

By 2001, when I met Xanana, East Timor was well on the way to independence with the help of Prime Minister John Howard and the Australian Army East Timor contingent led by Major Peter Cosgrove, now Governor-General, and his Chief of Staff, now Lieutenant General Angus Campbell, the new Chief of Defence.

The visit I am making today is to pay tribute to Xanana Gusmao and his brave people who took back their country 17 years ago in a terrible condition.

One figure I still remember is that Timorese women had an average of eight children- the highest in the world. Women knew that at least two would probably die, but six would remain to rebuild their country.

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The figure is now five, and the country is on the way to recovery.

In 2008, Timor-Leste was still in the top ten “at risk” countries according the global peace index.

By 2017 it was ranked alongside Singapore, Norway and the United Kingdom as having a ‘high state of peace’.

In the Boston Consulting Group’s 2016 Sustainable Economic Development Assessment, Timor-Leste ranked 7th of 160 states for making the most progress in converting economic growth into wellbeing.

But there’s more to do.

Negotiating with Australia

It’s been widely reported that Australia has finally agreed to the long-standing Timor-Leste claim for a median line maritime boundary which will give the tiny nation equitable access to its oil and gas resources at last.

Not before time. Since 2005, Australia has collected $1.4 billion from oil and gas fields from the Timor side of the median line and also reaped $25 billion in downstream benefits from ConocoPhillips’ LNG plant in Darwin.

But there’s still some fine print to be negotiated and I hope the Australian government shows goodwill.

In any case, Xanana and his people are battle hardened and they deeply understand the SAS motto “Who Dares Wins”.

They won’t be denied, and nor should they be any longer.