Subject: Ramos-Horta says East Timor finds peace at last

Agence France-Presse, Updated: 5/20/2010

Ramos-Horta says East Timor finds peace at last

East Timorese President Jose Ramos-Horta said his young country had finally achieved peace and could look forward to prosperity as it celebrated eight years of independence from Indonesia on Thursday.

Thousands of people gathered along the capital's waterfront ahead of a flag-raising ceremony at the presidential palace which will kick off festivities culminating in the inaugural Dili Half Marathon on June 20.

Residents enjoyed traditional music and dancing, cockfights and carnival games in stark contrast to the massacres and bloody uprisings that benighted the seaside city before and after the painful birth of the nation.

Nobel laureate Ramos-Horta said the former Portuguese colony, which was annexed by Indonesia in 1975, had at last turned a page on its violent past.

"The situation in Timor-Leste remains very, very calm, peaceful," he told AFP, using the country's formal name.

"We do have (from) time to time sporadic incidents involving youth groups, but in terms of security and the definition of security, it is of minimal concern."

A UN-supervised referendum on August 30, 1999, saw almost 80 percent of East Timorese people vote in favour of independence, signalling the beginning of the end of the Indonesian military's brutal 24-year occupation.

At least 100,000 East Timorese lost their lives during the occupation, through fighting, disease and starvation.

The referendum triggered a spasm of bloodletting by Indonesian-backed militias which killed some 1,400 people and ended only after the arrival of an Australian-led military stabilisation force.

Formal independence came in 2002, but the mainly Catholic country of 1.1 million people was soon in violent turmoil again.

Festering internal rivalries erupted in 2006 with fighting between factions of the security forces that killed 37 people on the streets of Dili, displaced more than 150,000 and required the return of UN peacekeepers.

Then, in February 2008, rebels shot and almost killed Ramos-Horta outside his Dili home. The rebel leader was killed by the president's guards and his uprising fizzled.

Two years of relative calm have convinced many that the resource-rich country is finally on the road to peaceful prosperity, even if it remains dependent on foreign aid and wracked by poverty and unemployment.

Top UN economist Jeffrey Sachs, visiting Dili in March, predicted that East Timor would grow faster than China over the next decade if the government spent its treasure chest of oil and gas revenues wisely.

The UN mission is starting to hand over law-and-order responsibilities to local police, while New Zealand withdrew 75 troops -- half its 140-strong contingent -- on Wednesday.

"We have increasing confidence in Timor-Leste's journey towards permanent stability," New Zealand Defence Minister Wayne Mapp said Tuesday.

Despite the brighter outlook, some observers point to sustained tensions among disenfranchised youths, an ineffective judicial sector and the ill-equipped police force (PNTL) as causes for continuing concern.

The country's Ombudsman for Human Rights and Justice has received more than 1,000 complaints, many against the PNTL, of human rights violations.

The 3,000-strong PNTL has taken back six of 13 districts from UN police but some analysts fear unrest if the international community pulls out too soon.

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