Subject: Lessons from East Timor - Jorge Sampaio

International Herald Tribune

February 17, 2008


Lessons from East Timor

The attempted assassination of President José Ramos Horta and other leaders of East Timor shows the vulnerability of the country's democracy. But it is also an opportunity to take an important step toward building the state.

At the time of my last visit as president of the Portuguese Republic, in February 2006, divisions were beginning to appear among the East Timor defense forces. During my talks with all the Timorese leaders, especially with President Xanana Gusmão and Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri, I underlined the need of the government to support its senior officers.

Unfortunately, the presence of international military forces, including detachments of the Portuguese National Republican Guard, under the framework of the United Nations continues to be necessary for security reasons. They should never have left.

The lesson to be taken from the crisis is the need to impose the authority of the state and of the armed forces of East Timor with firmness, for they can no longer tolerate an ambiguous co-existence with armed rebels.

Ramos Horta will have the opportunity to unite the Timorese leaders within the Council of State and other institutions. The leaders who founded the Timorese state, such as Xanana Gusmão, Ramos Horta and Mari Alkatiri, must show that they continue united in essential matters.

This will not be the last crisis. But preventing the first new democratic state of the 21st century from becoming yet another failed state lies largely in the hands of Portugal, Australia and the UN. It would be a mistake to give up halfway. This warrants continued international effort and cooperation in East Timor.

Jorge Sampaio, Lisbon The writer is the former president of Portugal 

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