Subject: East Timor's new PM makes return of refugees a priority

Also BBC Profile: Jose Ramos-Horta


East Timor's new PM makes return of refugees a priority

LISBON, July 9 2006

East Timor's new prime minister, Jose Ramos-Horta, said Sunday that one of his priorities will be to boost security in the country so the more than 100,000 people who fled Dili and outlying areas during a recent wave of violence will return home.

Among his other priorities will be the reopening of public schools in Dili, the start of national reconciliation talks and the appointment of a new cabinet, he told Portuguese daily newspaper Publico in an interview.

"I hope I don't betray the confidence of the many East Timorese people from all walks of life who have sent me hundreds of messages in the last hours," he said.

East Timor's President Xanana Gusmao on Saturday named Ramos-Horta as the former Portuguese colony's Timor's new prime minister, raising hopes for an end to weeks of turmoil in the young nation.

Ramos-Horta, a Nobel peace prize winner who has served as East Timor's foreign minister since the territory gained independence from Indonesia in 2002, will be sworn in on Monday.

He replaces Mari Alkatiri who resigned on June 26 amid allegations that he was responsible for violence which saw at least 21 people die and 150,000 flee their homes for makeshift refugee camps.

The refugees are living in makeshift camps watched over by a 2,700-strong Australian-led peacekeeping force, which they are reluctant to leave while armed groups still roam the capital.

Alkatiri sacked about 600 members of the 1,400-strong army in March after they protested against discrimination, triggering clashes between rival factions of the army and police.

The violence was the worst to hit the nation since it voted for independence from 24 years of rule by Jakarta in 1999 in a United Nations-backed referendum.

Ramos-Horta shared the Nobel Peace Prize in 1996 with the Roman Catholic bishop of Dili, Carlos Ximenes Belo. They were cited for their peaceful resistance against occupation by Indonesia, which invaded the former Portuguese colony in 1975.



Published: 2006/07/08 15:33:44 GMT

Profile: Jose Ramos-Horta

For more than 30 years, Nobel Peace Prize winner Jose Ramos-Horta has been a key figure in East Timor's political life.

He helped lead the country's campaign for independence from Indonesia, overcoming widespread international indifference to put East Timor's fate near the top of the global agenda.

When the nation finally became self-ruling, Mr Ramos-Horta served as foreign minister until unrest brought down the government of Mari Alkatiri.

In the uncertainty that followed, the Nobel laureate soon emerged as the figure most likely to restore stability and was appointed East Timor's second post-independence prime minister.

Difficult journey

Mr Ramos-Horta's journey to the top has been a long and difficult one.

After fleeing the former Portuguese colony just three days before Indonesian troops invaded, he spent 24 years in exile lobbying foreign governments and the UN on the East Timorese cause.

Years of pressing the world to care about the plight of East Timor turned his life into what he once described as an "emotional rollercoaster".

Branded a criminal and a traitor by the Indonesian Government, in 1996 he was jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize alongside Bishop Carlos Belo, the leader of East Timor's majority Catholic population.

At the time the Nobel committee said it hoped its decision would spur efforts to solve East Timor's problems "based on the people's right to self-determination".

Forgotten conflict

The award brought international attention to Mr Ramos-Horta's efforts and to reports of widespread abuses conducted by the Indonesian authorities in their efforts to quell opposition to Jakarta's rule.

"This was about to become a forgotten conflict and we wanted to contribute to maintaining the momentum," said the then Nobel chairman, Francis Sejersted.

Before that, when East Timor was as Mr Ramos-Horta put it "an obscure footnote of the Portuguese colonial empire", his political activism caused him to be banned from the territory from 1970-71 for spreading subversive allegations against Portuguese rule.

In 1975, the hasty departure of the colonial power, led to outbreaks of fighting between rival East Timorese factions, many of them backed by Jakarta. As signs grew of an imminent Indonesian invasion, Mr Ramos-Horta fled in a last-ditch effort to persuade the UN Security Council to back his cause.

His efforts failed and three days later the Indonesian occupation force moved in. Around 200,000 people, or around half the territory's population, are thought to have died as East Timor was forcibly integrated into the Indonesian republic.

Three of Mr Ramos-Horta's own brothers and one sister were among those killed.

From his bases in Australia and the US he became a harsh critic of Indonesia's then ruler, the authoritarian President Suharto, whom he accused of being the architect of the Indonesian invasion, and lobbied governments to cut ties with his regime.

Independence vote

He upped the campaign for self-determination after Indonesia plunged into an economic crisis and the Suharto regime fell apart in May 1998.

The following year, the people of East Timor held an independence vote in which 78.5% of them chose to break from Indonesia.

The ballot was marred by horrific violence but the territory came under UN control and Xanana Gusmao, the detained leader of East Timor's armed struggle for independence, was freed.

Mr Ramos-Horta returned to his home country after the historic vote, and East Timor was declared fully independent in 2002.

Under the premiership of Mari Alkatiri and his Fretilin party, the former exile became the new government's head of diplomacy.

Four years later, however, the post-independence honeymoon was over and East Timor was gripped by unrest.

Mr Alkatiri was widely blamed for the violence, which erupted after he sacked 600 members of the 1,400-strong army.

At least 21 people died in clashes and some 150,000 others were forced from their homes.

Mr Alkatiri resigned in June and nearly three weeks later, Xanana Gusmao, now the country's president, announced that the widely popular Mr Ramos-Horta was the new prime minister.

Just a few months earlier, Mr Ramos-Horta had been touted as a possible candidate to replace Kofi Annan as UN secretary general.

But in a July 2006 interview with the AFP news agency, he dismissed those rumours.

"What notice would be taken of the secretary general if I abandoned my own country in its time of need?" he asked. Story from BBC NEWS: 

Published: 2006/07/08 15:33:44 GMT

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