Friday, May 11, 2007

Jose Ramos-Horta wins East Timor's first presidential election

Jose Ramos-Horta has claimed an overwhelming victory after Wednesday’s presidential run-off election in East Timor. Ramos-Horta ended up with 70 per cent of the vote to claim a clear mandate to rule. "I'm happy with the result," Ramos-Horta told Australia's ABC Radio in the capital Dili, "I will carry out my duties according to the constitution and listen to advice from everybody so I can take Timor Leste to a better future."

Ramos-Horta is the first directly elected president. He replaces Xanana Gusmao, the former resistance leader, who has led the country since independence in 2002. Ramos-Horta’s defeated opponent, the parliamentary speaker, Francisco "Lu-Olo" Guterres conceded defeat this afternoon. The Fretelin backed candidate is now turning his attentions to parliamentary elections next month. “What is important now is to prepare ourselves to face the upcoming election," he said. "We will also observe how they (Ramos-Horta’s administration) will manage the country."

The election result now needs to be rubber-stamped by the court of appeal. The mood in the capital Dili was calm with no sign of celebration parades or protests. The country’s security forces had been on high alert after trouble marred the first round of elections last month. The EU has 40 monitors in Timor to monitor the two presidential elections and the parliamentary election. EU head of mission Jose Pomes Ruiz said the run-off was more peaceful than last month's poll, but he also criticised both candidates for “unnecessary aggression”.

Jose Ramos-Horta is a former Nobel Peace Prize winner who spearheaded the overseas end of the campaign for East Timor's independence. Born in Dili in 1949 to a Timorese mother and Portuguese father, he was educated in a Catholic mission and became involved in the struggle for independence from Portugal. He was exiled for two years before returning to take a role in the short-lived East Timor republic of 1975. Aged 25, he was appointed foreign minister. He left the country to appeal to the UN three days before Indonesia invaded. It would the start of a long exile from his homeland.

As well as promoting the cause of a free East Timor, he had an illustrious academic record. He studied Public International Law at The Hague Academy of International Law, gained an MA from Antioch University in the US and did post-graduate at Columbia University, Strasbourg and Oxford. He is fluent in five languages: Tetun (native language), Portuguese (official), French, English, and Spanish.

In 1988, he left Fretelin, the dominant East Timor party he helped found. He would henceforth be an independent voice for freedom. In 1996, the Norwegian Nobel Committee honoured the East Timor struggle by awarding the Peace Prize jointly to Ramos-Horta and fellow countryman, Bishop Carlos Filipe Ximenes Belo. The committee consider Ramos-Horta the “leading international spokesman for East Timor's cause since 1975” . They cited the two men’s “sustained and self-sacrificing contributions for a small but oppressed people” and hoped the award would spur efforts to find a diplomatic solution to the Timor conflict “based on the people's right to self-determination”.

When East Timor finally did regain its right to self-determination, Ramos-Horta was the obvious choice for the nascent country’s Foreign Minister. He resigned this role in 2006 after a military crisis that embroiled the country. Ramos-Horta relieved the aggrieved soldiers of duty who marched through Dili demanding to be re-instated. The protests that followed saw police shoot against soldiers, killing five and causing 20,000 people to flee the city in terror. Ramos-Horta assumed Defence Ministry responsibilities during the crisis. Weeks of anarchy followed with the rebels backed by Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri. Ramos-Horta resigned from the government in protest. With pressure growing internationally, Alkatiri resigned and Ramos-Horta was installed as interim Prime Minister.

Ramos-Horta is widely viewed as more friendly to the West than the Fretelin Party he has defeated. He wants to see more foreign investment in what is Asia’s poorest country. The country still relies on foreign aid but its best economic prospects lie in tourism, fisheries, coffee and gas. Ramos-Horta told a 2006 interview he wants Australia to give it a “50/50 per cent share of the resources in the Greater Sunrise area. Greater Sunrise is one of the richest gas fields in the entire Asia Pacific region”. With Australian foreign minister Alexander Downer leading the plaudits for the new president, now might be a good time for Ramos-Horta to press home his country’s claims.

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