Indonesia in mourning: Xanana Gusmao bids a tearful farewell to B.J. Habibie …

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Xanana Gusmao, first President of Timor Leste, stands in grief and prays at B.J. Habibie’s gravesite, TMP Kalibata, Indonesia Heroes Cemetery, last Sunday. Xanana came to convey Timor Leste’s condolences. (photo: IO/Yoga)

IO – After the death of former Indone­sian President B.J. Habibie a video went viral on the internet showing Timor Leste’s first president, Xanana Gusmao kneeling at the sickbed of former Indonesian President Habibie. Xanana speaks to Habibie and then kisses his forehead. Habibie reaches out to place his hand around Xa­nana’s neck, drawing him down to hug him. Xanana then leans over and places his head on Habibie’s chest and they remain in that posi­tion for a few minutes, reminiscent of a father with his son laying his head on his father’s chest. See: https://www.kompas.tv/article/54579/di-balik-video-viral-habibie-dan-xanana-gusmao

President Habibie passed away peacefully of heart failure on the 11th of September 2019 and many ques­tion why Xanana came and why the two leaders who were formerly at war with each other were hugging each other, and as though it were, for the last time.

Xanana Gusmao arrived in Jakar­ta on Saturday the 14th of Septem­ber for the third day of the mourning period at Habibie’s house where the Habibie family were holding 40 day prayers, he was received by Habibie’s eldest son, Ilham Habibie. The next morning Xanana with the Timor Leste Ambas­sador to Indonesia, H.E. Alberto X.P. Carlos and members of the Timor Leste community visited the Indone­sian heroes’ cemetery in Kalibata to pay their respects at Habibie’s grave. They prayed and layed flowers on the grave. Xanana took his time and was extremely patient in providing photo-ops for the dozens of journal­ists gathered there, and who were very insistent in questioning Xanana about the video. Xanana however, refused to be drawn into answering merely repeating, “I believe that at times facts speak more loudly than words and I think that in this case I need not explain what happened that day. Facts are more expressive than words, no? My words are really not relevant here….”

Timor Leste Ambassador Alberto Carlos explained that the scene on the video had taken place, “At the RSPAD (army) hospital on the 22nd of July 2019 when Pak Xanana and I went to visit Pak Habibie. We had intended to visit President Habibie at his residence to invite him to Timor Leste to attend the 20th anniversary of the Timor Leste referendum and the inauguration of the B.J. Habibie Bridge. When we heard that he was admitted to hospital we requested permission to visit him there instead. When we arrived and Pak Xanana saw Pak Habibie’s condition, he was so saddened that he knelt beside the bed and began to cry and kissed him.”

So, are those the facts that Xa­nana Gusmao was referring to? Or would exploring the facts further back to the last century help in better understand what happened between Xanana and Habibie. Here is what I know and experienced in those years:

Xanana Gusmao was at the sickbed of B.J. Habibie in July of this year. He came to invite Habibie to attend Timor Leste’s 20th Commemoration of the Referendum and the inauguration of the B.J. Habibie bridge. (photo: courtesy of YouTube)

I was at the home of Aristedes Ka­toppo, editor-in-chief of Suara Pem­baruan newspaper back in 1996 or 97 when Maria Pakpahan, a political activist who later became a member of the Central Board of the PKB, Gus Dur’s National Awakening Party, ap­proached me and asked me wheth­er I would like to accompany her to Cipinang Prison where many of the political prisoners of that era were be­ing detained and give some support for Nuku Sulaeman, a student of the Universitas Nasional (popularly abbreviated to UNAS) where my father Sutan Takdir Alisjahbana had been rector for many years. Nuku was serving a prison sentence of 5 years for spreading a political joke about Soeharto. I agreed to go and give the former UNAS student support.

On visitors day at the Cipinang prison the inmates were always gathered in one great hall and I was introduced to prisoners ranging from the PRD (Partai Rakyat Demokratik or People’s Democratic Party – it was not a parliamentary party) lads such as Budiman Sudjatmiko and Wilson, to Mochtar Pakpahan the labour leader, to Colonel Latief who was accused of being involved in the murder of the generals in 1965, Sri Bintang Pamuncak and Xanana Gusmao.

Cipinang had a two kilometer cir­cumference with gardens and fish ponds where the prisoners cultivat­ed fresh water fish and grew vege­tables except for Wilson of the PRD who insisted on growing flowers. The Communist prisoners later placed a sign over his garden quoting Mao Zedong, “Let a hundred blossom bloom”. At certain times the fish were harvested and the prisoners and their families would have a big fish fry. Xanana bred ducks.

I became a regular Sunday visitor and slowly came to know the pris­oners including Xanana Gusmao who since his capture was to serve 7 years before the fall of the Soeharto government and Reformasi released him. What I quickly realized about Xanana was that he was a highly in­telligent man with an extremely sharp analytical ability. His twenty years as a guerrilla fighter was proof not only of a physically tough and courageous man but also one who could make his way around the jungle and sur­vive despite the lack of food and med­icines.

Cipinang was a five-star pris­on and people were eager not to be transferred to other prisons – which was one of the punishments for mak­ing trouble. Prisoners were not beat­en or tortured there and those who had access to funds could have the wardens buy food for them to cook or materials for hobbies or handicrafts for them to sell. Xanana liked to paint. One day he promised to paint pictures for Maria Pakpahan and my­self. When I received my painting, it looked rather bleak: an isolated piece of drift wood full of knobs and whirls in shallow water. “It looks so lifeless and without hope,” I told Xanana when I next saw him and he began to tell me about himself. “Just because a thing looks dead does not necessar­ily mean it is dead,” he began. “You know I was just an ordinary person when the war began. I had no par­ticular political views. I joined the Fretilin because all my friends were there. After a while I sat on the cen­tral committee but I was low in rank. However, within 6 years everyone was dead except for a few of us and we had to run the show. We knew noth­ing really about politics and statecraft so we began reading books about it.”

“What, in the jungle?”

“Yes, in the jungle. We found most of the philosophers hard to under­stand but not Karl Marx. He was simple to understand and with him we could even predict the future. So, we became Marxists… but I am not that anymore. I have seen that it does not work.”

He then continued to tell me how hard it was in the jungle and how at times they captured Indonesian army supplies of supermie, kretek cigarettes etc. “We were starving but I could not eat that stuff. I hated In­donesia so much. I had seen so much violence… I fought in the jungle for 20 years and now I have been sen­tenced to 20 years in prison but do not think that just because I am in prison I have stopped growing and learning. And the first thing I had to learn here was to give up my hatred for Indonesians because here I was surrounded by Indonesians and they were also prisoners and had also suf­fered under the government.”

Painting of drift wood made by Xanana Gusmao while he was in Cipinang prison, for Tamalia Alisjahbana. The foetus at the centre represents Timor Leste, a nation waiting to be born. (Painting and photo copyright with Tamalia Alisjahbana)

Then he pointed at the painting and said, “So just because a thing looks dead does not mean that it is dead. His finger indicated the knobs and whorls. There is a foetus here,” and indeed that is what it looked like. It indicated to me not only his psy­chological toughness and resilience but also that he was a person who was interested in spiritual and psy­chological growth.

I also came to realize that he had an instinctive understanding of peo­ple which is an indispensable element of truly great leaders. I first noticed this when he told me that there had been a lot of violence and even stab­bings among the prisoners, and that he had told the prison warden that he could bring down the level of violence if the warden followed his advice which was to build a basket ball court and create teams and competitions which all the in­mates could compete in or watch. The violence level decreased drastically.

Later after he was freed and re­turned to Timor Leste I watched on television his first speech to the peo­ple of Timor Leste: the poor, the old, the young stood before him. Many had suffered very much during the war. They were a traumatized people and as they gazed at him wearily, he said only three words to them, “Timor Lorosa’e…. Timor Lorosa’e…. Timor Lorosa’e (at the time the new name for East Timor),” and as they heard his cry, tears began to fill their eyes. At the third cry they were sobbing as a nation for all they had suffered and all they had lost and for the freedom and for the peace.. I never saw such mass cathartic release as in those few minutes. He knew instinctively what his people needed for healing.

Sometime after the Soeharto gov­ernment fell I attended the funeral of Ferdy Salim at the heroes’ cemetery in Kalibata. There Dewi Fortuna An­war President Habibie’s spokeswom­an was speaking. She said that the matter of Timor Timor would be set­tled as President Habibie would free Xanana Gusmao from prison, return the Catholic Church her lands and he would grant autonomy for Timor. It turned out that the government had never spoken to Xanana before and as I would be see­ing him that afternoon at Cipinang I offered to act as a go-between and ask him what his thoughts were on that. Dewi Fortuna agreed. When I put Habibie’s offer to him Xanana re­sponded, “I don’t care if I am freed or if the Church gets back her lands. What we want is a referendum, not autonomy.”

Xanana Gusmao during house arrest in Jakarta addressing Timorese students after the referendum in 1999. (Painting And Photo Copyright With Tamalia Alisjahbana)

With a sinking heart, I asked him, “How would it be if you accepted au­tonomy for 5 years and then a referen­dum?” for having been there recently I knew that with an imme­diate referendum the Timorese would vote for independence.

“Tell Habibie – 10 years autonomy and then a referendum – if he wants. During that period Indonesian forces will become peacekeeping troops and everyone should be allowed to express their views. The Indonesian govern­ment will have 10 years to win back the hearts of the people of East Timor. If at the end of that period they vote to remain with Indonesia I guarantee that the Fretilin will lay down its arms and stop fighting. If however, the peo­ple vote for independence, tell Habibie that I would want a warm and close relationship with Indonesia and that we would keep the rupiah and the Indonesian language and that there should not be visas required for travel between Indonesia and Timor Timur.”

I passed on the message to Dewi Fortuna who told me that the For­eign Office was delighted and felt that they could negotiate with him. To my amazement slightly more than a year later Habibie held a referendum in Timor and the people voted for in­dependence. Later I asked Dewi why Habibie had made that decision and she told me, “What was uppermost in Habibie’s mind was that we need­ed to do right by East Timor, and that human rights was part of the democratization process for Indo­nesia. Secondly, it was an econom­ic decision. We had spent an enor­mous amount of money on Timor in the past to showcase it to the world and now Indonesia was facing an economic crisis. We might spend so much money again for ten years and then they might still vote for independence. If they want to go it would be better to let them go now. A third very important reason was that we intended to also give autonomy to Aceh and to Irian Jaya. If we gave Timor a referendum after autonomy, there was a danger the others would be demanding that too and finally, even with autonomy if the issues were not settled and anything went wrong, Indonesia would still be blamed by the international commu­nity.”

But to return to the subject of forgiveness, at one point in his life Xanana spoke to a former Timorese fighter who had been captured and tortured. He was crippled for life and had lost family members when Xanana met him and asked him how he dealt with his hatred for Indonesia. The man said simply, “I just forgive them.”

“How can you? After all they have done to you!” Xanana declared.

“When someone has hurt you so badly that you are filled with so much hatred that you either have to kill them or kill yourself then it may be time for you to consider the option of forgiveness,” he replied.

When Xanana Gusmao became president of Timor Lorosa’e he made forgiveness an official part of his gov­ernment policy. I do not know if he is a Catholic but I doubt it nevertheless, he is a person who has understood the essence of Christ’s central mes­sage very well. When one looks at the facts: Xanana and Habibie were both humanists who understood very well that both Indonesia and Timor Les­te’s best future is one of friendship, cooperation and peace. They were naturally drawn to each other but I think that both also realized that their example of friendship and love would more than nearly anything else help both their countries. Their last interaction was not simply an act of friendship but also an act of the finest statesmanship. (Tamalia Alisjahbana)