On his 70th birthday, Sara Niner reflects on the life of Timor-Leste’s fierce independence fighter and long-time leader, Xanana Gusmao.

What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty! … And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust? Man delights not me. — “Hamlet”, Act 2 Scene 2 

Xanana Gusmao’s life has been Shakespearean, like the story of the nation he represents.

During the brutal 24-year war with Indonesia (1975-1999), Gusmao was transformed from a young and ambivalent political aspirant into a hardened guerrilla commander and keen political strategist who ultimately became the central unifying figure of East Timorese nationalism. He became the new nation’s first President and then Prime Minister. In Timorese political culture Gusmao is a virtual deity, Ita bo’t, Elder Brother, or the Commander, to many of the ema kiik, the little people on the lowest rungs of the socioeconomic ladder, who for the most part still live in deep poverty according to indigenous lore. Although the long war finished 15 years ago, a critical question about whether his ongoing leadership is suited to the new nation’s development, remains blasphemous.

Indigenous myth attributes the high mountain chain that runs like a spine down the center of the crocodile-shaped island of Timor to Mother Earth’s dying movements when she retreated underground. This mountain chain, more pronounced in the eastern end of the island, the territory of Timor-Leste, often protrudes directly down into the sea along the rugged northern coast. This is where the Gusmao family originates. Manatuto is Xanana’s mother’s hometown, while his father, came from the small village, Laleia, about 20 kilometers further east. Both parents have passed away, but his birth on 20 June 1946 was attended not only by the native midwives of Manatuto, but the Grande Dame, of European colonialism, Portugal. This light-skinned baby boy was delivered into the old world of Portuguese Timor, a society founded on the greatness of Portugal’s early discoveries and fed by racism and colonial oppression.

Part of tiny local colonial elite, Mãe and Pai Gusmão baptised their first son José Alexandrě Gusmão and these were the names he was known by until, as an adult, he reinvented himself as an indigenous nationalist. The middle syllable of Alexandrě, ‘Xan’ (pronounced ‘shan’), is the root of the nickname Xanana (pronounced ‘Sha-na-na’), which he says was inspired by the early 1970s hit ‘Sha La La La La’ by Danish Glam Rock band, the Walkers. Looking for a pseudonym under which to write poetry and articles in the 1970s he adopted the quirky, modern nickname and it stuck.

After the Indonesian invasion, Xanana, as an emerging guerilla leader, lived and survived around Mount Matebian near the eastern tip of the island. The grand old couple Matebian Mano and Matebian Feto, the male and female peaks, rise up shoulder to shoulder, sometimes their heads crowned with mist. This beautiful image is tinged with the horror of Xanana’s stories of the encirclement of Matebian by Indonesian forces in 1978:

Soon the enemy advanced and I was sent to the west of Matebian. Explosions, death, bombardments, cries and retreats. But the people were calm: maybe resigned, maybe truly prepared for us all to die there.

The civilians that had fled to mountains with the guerillas were bombed mercilessly by napalm and scatter bombs for 24 hours a day for weeks. The bombs were delivered by low-flying aircraft sold to the Indonesians by the US government. The Australian government knew full well about these campaigns, said nothing, rudely dismissed refugee reports and continued trading with Indonesia to get access to the rich petroleum deposits in the Timor Sea. Many Timorese were killed and tortured on and on throughout the 1980s while former PM Gough Whitlam testified to a UN hearing that he had visited East Timor and everything was fine, and Australian DFAT officials wrote jokes about rape in the margins of reports of humans rights abuses. Gusmao’s antipathy to Australia is easy to understand.

Xanana and a few other Companheiros escaped down the back of Matebian and lived hand to mouth for the next few years. He reconnected with other guerillas who had survived and emerged as leader. For a while he lived in a hole dug into the earth hidden deep in the bush. Guards slept in the first chamber and Xanana slept in a second little room with a sleeping platform. Tiny and claustrophobic, it symbolises the precariousness and desperation of their existence over these years. How real and present the danger must have been to take such enormous precautions. Those who fought and survived this guerilla war have been affected by displacement, imprisonment, torture, and loss of family and fellow soldiers, close friends and colleagues. Mothers, wives and daughters were often victims of sexual abuse by the Indonesian military.

How Xanana and others who lead the nation deal with all the fear and loss, along with everything his soldiers and citizens sacrificed is an ongoing national process. The war heroes are remembered and hugely significant in Timorese society. Pensions and payments to male veterans are one of the biggest expenses for the government, and veterans are favoured for important government positions and in the awarding of government contracts. Outsiders see it as a kind of corruption; the veterans see it as their due. Anthropologists have described an indigenous belief that those who fought and sacrificed “purchased” the nation with their own lives and are therefore owed a living.

As in most post-conflict societies, demobilisation failed to deal with the deep imprinting of violent masculinities in former combatants and the effects of militarisation on society overall. A national crisis in 2006 shattered the process of national reconstruction in a bitter internal conflict within the predominantly male political leadership. While this has been the peak of ongoing episodes of national violence they have continued. In 2008, President Ramos-Horta was shot, nearly killed, Xanana shot at; some of the assailants killed, some inexplicably pardoned. A reprise in 2013-15 saw the insurrection of ex-guerrilla Mauk Moruk and his ex-judicial slaying.

This kind of tough, brutalised masculinity is what is being emulated by many young men all over Timor. In a recent survey administered by the Asia Foundation, somewhere between 20 to 30 per cent of men admitted to rape. This may be linked to even higher levels of sexual abuse of the men themselves. A shocking 42 per cent of the over 800 men surveyed reported being sexually abused before the age 18, which is nearly double the rate that a corresponding group of women reported. There are other men working and advocating for an end to violence against women, alongside Timor’s beleaguered women’s movement but it needs a leader like Gusmao to show more political will on gendered violence.

In February 2015, Xanana resigned as PM and appointed Rui Araújo, a younger man with more formal education from the political opposition. The decision won much praise for Xanana and the nation feels more stable, reflecting the apparently peaceful transfer of power from the older leadership of veterans to a younger leadership of educated professionals. Xanana may have finally engineered the government of national unity that has been seeking since the early 1980s, reflecting a mode of indigenous political consensus.

Yet Xanana remains deeply politically engaged as the minister responsible for a new super-ministry covering strategic planning and economic development. He still has ‘his hand on the tap’, as Timorese say, able to turn on and off the water supply to the rest of government. However, he has positioned himself further and further from the spotlight and perhaps now leads as he did from his guerilla hideouts, through a small, tight network of trusted couriers and lieutenants, strategic relationships with outsiders, and little counsel but his own.

There is no disputing that Gusmao completed a Herculean task in leading the East Timorese people to independence and his resolute leadership and bravery will never, nor should ever, be forgotten. But as Shakespeare’s Hamlet famously expressed, there is an enormous difference between the best aspirations of men, and how they actually behave.

Sara Niner is a Lecturer in Anthropology at Monash University. Her new book “Women and the politics of Gender in Post-Conflict Timor-Leste” will be out in August 2016 published by the Women in Asia Series, Routledge. More info here