Leader who led East Timor to freedom quits as PM

Xanana Gusmao has been either president or prime minister since East Timor gained its independence in 2002. Picture: AP
Xanana Gusmao has been either president or prime minister since East Timor gained its independence in 2002. Picture: AP
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East Timor independence hero Xanana Gusmao resigned as prime minister yesterday, stepping down ahead of an expected restructuring of the government next week.

The former guerrilla leader spearheaded East Timor’s drive for independence when Indonesian rule ended in 2002. He was the new country’s first president, holding that position from 2002 until becoming prime minister in 2007.

East Timor voted overwhelmingly in 1999 to end 24 years of brutal Indonesian occupation that had left more than 170,000 dead, but the country has struggled to develop economically. About half its 1.2 million people live in poverty.

In a statement announcing Mr Gusmao’s move, minister of state Agio Pereira said: “Members of government, staying, leaving and incoming, are all working together, prioritising the national interest.”

Mr Gusmao’s replacement has not been announced, but the structural reshuffling is expected to bring more opposition figures into the government.

Speaking after a meeting with the president, Mr Gusmao said: “I call for East Timorese people to accept and support my decision.”

An adviser to Mr Gusmao who did not want to give his name said the outgoing premier felt now was the time to pass the responsibility of governing to the next generation.

Former president and Nobel Peace Prize winner Jose Ramos-Horta was not expected to be in the new government, the adviser said.

A government restructuring is expected to be announced next week in which the cabinet will probably be reduced from 55 to 34 ministers and become more inclusive, with opposition members among those appointed.

A government statement said Mr Gusmao, 68, had submitted his resignation to president Taur Matan Ruak.

“The prime minister encouraged all members of government to work calmly in this time of transition until the new government is sworn in,” the statement said.

Mr Gusmao did not rule out staying in the government in a different role, saying that would depend on the new prime minister.

Mariano Sabino, a spokesman for the coalition of three political parties that support the government, said the parties agreed with his decision to resign. He said an announcement of the new prime minister to lead the country for the next two years would probably be made tomorrow or on Monday, followed by a swearing-in ceremony.

Mr Gusmao led the military wing of the Revolutionary Front for an Independent East Timor, which fought against Indonesian occupation. Before Indonesia invaded in 1975, Portugal had ruled East Timor for centuries.

Mr Gusmao was imprisoned in Jakarta towards the end of Indonesian occupation but continued to lead the struggle for independence from behind bars.

East Timor was a colony of Portugal until it declared independence in 1975. It was then invaded and occupied by Indonesia until a United Nations-backed referendum in 1999 led to it becoming a sovereign state in 2002.