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E. Timor's Xanana Gusmao: Guerrilla-Turned-Statesman

As East Timor prepares for its first elections later this month, all eyes are on Xanana Gusmao. The former guerrilla commander led East Timor's 24-year struggle against Indonesian rule, some of it from a prison cell. Now the guerrilla-turned-statesman is likely to become East Timor's first president - a job he says he does not want.

He is the symbol of East Timorese independence. Jose Alexandre "Xanana" Gusmao is the one-time journalist who went on to lead East Timor's ragtag guerrilla army to victory over the Indonesian Armed Forces.

For much of East Timor's two-decade struggle against the Indonesians, Mr. Gusmao embodied the spirit of the resistance movement. His likeness was spray-painted on the sides of buildings and buses throughout East Timor, his photo held aloft at rally after rally. In the two years since East Timor won its independence from Indonesia in a U.N.-supervised ballot, the assumption by most East Timorese that Mr. Gusmao would become East Timor's first president has only grown more prevalent.

"He's the one who organized the war," says one man. "So he'd be a good president."

"Mr. Gusmao is the one who fought for 24 years and kept fighting even though he went to prison," says another. "So he has the right to be president of East Timor." The only son of a schoolteacher father, Mr. Gusmao, now 55, is frequently compared with South Africa's former president, Nelson Mandela, who waged a campaign against the injustices of that country's government from a prison cell. Mr. Gusmao was imprisoned - sentenced by an Indonesian court to 20 years on charges of subversion in 1993. But he continued to command Falintil, the East Timorese guerrilla army, from jail and later while under house arrest. It was when the guerrilla leader took on the role of Indonesia's most famous political prisoner that many began considering Mr. Gusmao to be the obvious choice to be East Timor's first president. It is an idea that Mr. Gusmao admits he has considered. But that changed years ago when he was confronted by some of his own soldiers. They said the sacrifices they were making were intended for the good of East Timor, not Mr. Gusmao's political aspirations.

"They told me before the war, 'you're married, you experimented in love, you have experience of being a normal person,'" said Mr. Gusmao. "'A normal man. Human being. You have experienced everything of a normal life. Not us.'"

Mr. Gusmao says he took that confrontation by his soldiers to heart and put an end to his own political aspirations. "It was two to three years of moral and psychological problems in our camp. And we all realized that we were fighting to defend a more important goal," he said.

Now, two years later, Mr. Gusmao continues to say he does not want to be East Timor's president. But some are wondering whether Mr. Gusmao is merely waiting for the right moment to leap into the political arena. "All I can say is, don't pay any attention to what he's been saying," said Jose Ramos Horta, East Timor's acting foreign minister and a close friend of Mr. Gusmao.

"He's an exceptional individual with very natural talent as leader, and he has failed to persuade me," he continued. "He is always very persuasive. On this issue he has been totally unpersuasive. I have told him so, and I'm not at all worried like many people, because I know that he will run for president and he will be elected by at least 95 percent."

East Timor is not likely not to hold a presidential election until just before it achieves full independence early next year, and that poses a problem for East Timor's U.N. caretakers. Mr. Gusmao is so extraordinarily popular that many are under the mistaken belief that the August 30 ballot to election an interim council to write a constitution is really a presidential election, and thousands have declared their intention to vote for Mr. Gusmao.

Whether or not he declares his candidacy, it seems the only question that remains is whether Mr. Gusmao will embrace or begrudgingly accept the fact that he is already East Timor's most prominent leader.