Timor-Leste independence hero Xanana Gusmao casts his ballot during the general election in Dili in May 2018. (Photo: Valentino Dariell de Sousa/AFP)
Xanana Gusmao is a famed national icon for Timorese people at home and abroad.
The 75-year-old politician is hailed as a hero for his role as a guerrilla commander who fought for the independence of the tiny Catholic nation from Indonesian occupation, served lengthy jail terms as a political prisoner and led the independent country as its first president from 2002-07 and fourth prime minister from 2007-15.
For his illustrious nationalist and political career, many even compared him with Nelson Mandela. However, Gusmao’s recent controversial actions have shown he is a shadow of his former self and is prepared to risk his legacy by tarnishing the image of the nation.
Last week Gusmao was filmed slapping family members of a man who died in a hospital in capital Dili. The authorities said 47-year-old Armindo Borges tested positive for Covid-19 before his death on April 11. It was the second death from the pandemic in a country that was acclaimed globally for tackling the virus successfully despite a lack of resources.
Gusmao joined the protest with family members and supporters who dismissed the government claim that Borges died from coronavirus and asserted he died from a stroke. He supported family members to demand the release of the body to be buried in their village following customary rituals. The government refused by saying the body of a Covid-19 patient must be buried according to mandatory protocols.
In protest, Gusmao joined Borges’ family members and slept for two nights on the street in front of Vera Cruz Isolation Center where the body was being kept.
Yet Gusmao is more concerned about political maneuvering than lending support to the embattled government
It is still unclear why Gusmao slapped two women and a man who were mourning and shouted at them to shut up. Observers commented that he was angry because their wailing seemed too weak a form of protest. Even if that is true, it is disgraceful for a national icon to slap people on the face in broad daylight.
Despite the tiny Southeast Asian nation scoring well in battling the pandemic, Gusmao has been strongly criticizing the government’s response to the virus, including the state of emergency and strict lockdown. Interestingly, he has not provided any alternative plan.
The government is facing a two-edged disaster. The second wave of the pandemic has seen total infections reach 1,368 with 671 active cases. The government’s efforts to contain the virus have been hit by deadly floods and landslides that killed dozens and displaced thousands. Health experts warned about the outbreak of diseases in affected areas that could spiral out of control.
Yet Gusmao is more concerned about political maneuvering than lending support to the embattled government. He has participated in some programs for recovery from the pandemic and flooding, but independent media reported that his gesture was more about self-publicity than humanitarian.
In fact, his latest actions follow several other political stunts that can be termed as acts of political expediency in a country where he lost his grip on state power in the 2018 election. Despite his party, the National Congress for Reconstruction of Timor (CNRT), winning a majority, his allies outsmarted him and formed a government by keeping him out of power.
Gusmao was in power for more than a decade but he is accused of not doing enough to pump up the economy, which is still largely dependent on foreign aid, and a failure to reduce endemic poverty. Moreover, he couldn’t become a unifying force in the nation of more than 10 million where dysfunctional and confrontational politics are the order of the day.
Gusmao is not as popular as he was after independence in 1999 and he is well aware of it. He has been scratching his head to regain his lost glory.
The budget failure forced the government to rely on monthly instalments to run the country
Last year the national budget of US$1,668 billion failed to pass in parliament after Gusmao’s CNRT abstained from voting in a bid to upset the government of Prime Minister Taur Matan Ruak. Despite the government addressing CNRT’s concerns, the party remained adamant and opposition votes against the bill killed the budget.
This was an extraordinary move in a country where the economy runs mostly on government spending. The budget impasse led the nation to a political crisis and the PM even intended to resign, which ultimately didn’t happen. The budget failure forced the government to rely on monthly instalments to run the country.
It is believed Gusmao’s party took revenge by blocking the budget against President Francisco “Lu-Olo” Guterres’ refusal to install nine nominees for ministers following the 2018 election, citing judicial inquiries into misconduct or “poor moral standing.” Lu-Olo is from the opposition Fretilin party and his stance was pivotal in the formation of Taur Matan Ruak’s government with other coalition partners. The political standoff continues.
Amid all the backfiring shots, Gusmao’s most disgraceful action occurred on Jan. 26 this year when he visited his longtime friend Richard Daschbach, 84, at his residence to greet him on his birthday. They cut a birthday cake, drank wine and posed for photos and videos accompanied by music.
Daschbach is an American self-confessed pedophile who was dismissed from the priesthood by the Vatican in 2018. He is under trial and faces 14 charges of child sexual abuse and pornography committed against numerous children of a center he founded in 1993. He is also a wanted criminal in the US for fraud.
The case against Daschbach, the first against a clergyman in Timor-Leste, is a litmus test of confronting one of the nation’s inner demons
In February, Daschbach traveled by boat to attend his trial and Gusmao accompanied him.
Gusmao faced a backlash from media and social media, and even his former wife, children and friends criticized him for cozying up to Daschbach.
Timor-Leste has high levels of violence against women and children. The case against Daschbach, the first against a clergyman in Timor-Leste, is a litmus test of confronting one of the nation’s inner demons.
Gusmao’s affectionate visit and support of the pedophile not only rubbed salt into the wounds of Daschbach’s victims but was also a totally irresponsible act from a national icon.
Xanana Gusmao needs to shed his overarching ego and acts of political expediency that keep letting his nation down in times of crisis. If not, he risks losing his legacy and further failing many people who revered him as a hero and savior.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.