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The Southeast Asian island nation of Timor-Leste, formerly known as East Timor, will celebrate 20 years of independence in May. The former leader who led the country in its early years spoke with NHK  about those difficult first steps, and his hopes for the future.

Xanana Gusmao, 75, spent more than two decades fighting for Timor-Leste’s freedom from Indonesia’s control and became the country’s first post- independence president. He was still at the helm in 2006, when a military dispute sparked nationwide unrest and violence that lasted for three years.

Gusmao’s views on conflict- resolution proved instrumental in bringing peace to the country.

The following interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

You fought for independence for 24 years. What motivated you to keep going for so long?

Our ancestors’ will. For 500 years, we were under Portuguese domination. But our people did not sleep. They fought many rebellions. Not accepting the domination of foreigners. It was what moved us.

How would you evaluate your country’s progress since becoming independent?

We just became independent in 2002. Next May will be 20 years. You have to understand that we fought for 24 years, but we didn’t prepare ourselves to be ready for the independence stage. With inexperience, we started. Then in 2006 it was a cycle of crisis until 2009. We solved it. No more conflict.

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