Subject: JRH's New Directions for E Timor

Canberra Times

July 7, 2007 Saturday


AS A firebrand young revolutionary in the 1970s, Jose Ramos-Horta used to say that when the Portuguese colonised East Timor they came with a Bible in one hand and a gun in the other, but left nothing.

Last Thursday, at his hilltop home above Dili, the newly-appointed president of the Democratic Republic of East Timor spoke with a Bible at one hand and the Constitution of the fledgling state within reach of the other.

He's travelled a long route from firebrand to reborn Catholic and head of state, and recalled a hungry, barefoot childhood high in the mountains. ''At my Soibada mission school we ate low-grade corn for breakfast, lunch and dinner, not the nice corn of western supermarkets,'' he told The Canberra Times, ''Our best meal was boiled rice once a month, or better still, buffalo or deer meat if Master Narciso, the father of [nationalist hero] Nicolau Lobato, had gone hunting''.

Those who voted him into power hope that, unlike the Portuguese in his anti-colonialist legend, Ramos- Horta will leave something significant behind. In the immediate future, they hope he will be able to weld together a viable government from the contenders in last weekend's parliamentary elections.

Even before results of voting between the 16 competing parties (two running in two-party coalitions) were announced, he was consulting key players on the shape of the future government. It is a thorny task because it involves managing a major political groundshift bordering on regime change, in which Fretilin, the historic party of liberation, is the most-voted party but unlikely to govern.

Final counting is to be confirmed, but provisional results show Fretilin's vote has dropped from 57.8 per cent, in 2001 parliamentary elections, to 29 per cent. Remaining votes are spread across several non- Fretilin political blocs Xanana Gusmao's National Congress for the Reconstruction of Timor (CNRT in the Portuguese acronym) won 24.1 per cent, an alliance of the Social Democratic Association of Timor (ASDT) and the Social Democrat Party (PSD) won 15.8 per cent and the leftist Democratic Party (PD) polled 11.3 per cent. With another nine small parties backing a CNRT coalition, this group will command well over half the seats in the 65-seat parliament.

After governing for six years with a huge majority, Fretilin suffered a backlash against its radical, centralised style of government and perceived insensitivity to East Timor's alienated youth, who have been at the centre of recent political violence. The only group willing to enter into a coalition with it appears to be the monarchist-led KOTA-PPT alliance, which holds a mere 3 per cent of the vote. Swinging round from the Bible to grab the Constitution, Ramos-Horta remarks, ''On the face of it the combined votes of the non-Fretilin parties ensure an almost two-thirds majority in parliament. The question is whether they are able to form a functioning, sustainable, effective alliance for the next five years''.

He finds Article 106 and reads aloud, ''The prime minister is nominated by the most-voted party or by the alliance of parties with a parliamentary majority, and appointed by the President of the Republic, having heard the political parties represented in the parliament''.

Fretilin, he said, has no viable partners. ''I do not believe that any major party wishes to offer itself to a compromise with Fretilin. It is evident that a Fretilin government would not be able to have its programme, its budget, passed in parliament'.'' Ramos-Horta and CNRT leader Gusmao need urgent solutions to the violence plaguing East Timor. In 2006 it was sparked by the desertion of around a third of the army over alleged racial discrimination.

Underlying issues included Fretilin's choice of Portuguese as the country's official language (linked to the marginalisation of a younger generation educated in the Indonesian system), and the failure to deliver justice to victims of Indonesian human rights abuses.

Modifying the language policy is a priority but may be tackled gradually. Ramos-Horta favours placing Timor's four main competing languages, the indigenous lingua franca Tetum, Portuguese, Indonesian and English, back on the equal footing the UN administration gave them between 1999 and 2002 .

He believes Tetum, not Portuguese, should be the principal language, ''Tetum has to be obviously number one, compulsory, but we do have to modernise, to make it a truly modern language.'' The 2006 events divided East Timor into pro-Australian and pro- Portuguese camps. Opponents of Gusmao and Ramos-Horta claim Australia backed them in an oil-inspired ''coup'' against hardline Fretilin rival Mari Alkatiri, while CNRT supporters say the real conspiracy involved Alkatiri's fanatical Portuguese backers who run a hate blog edited by the anonymous Malai Azul (''blue foreigner''). The president dissociates from neo-colonial aspirations on both sides. ''I am not pro-either. I have good relations with leaders in Portugal, such as President Cavaco Silva, and I know Australians right and left. I have a good rapport with Downer and John Howard, but last year Kevin Rudd stayed with me here.'' He wants East Timor to join the British Commonwealth, as its Portuguese-speaking ally Mozambique has done, ''Supported by a significant group of players, this will be possible. We just have to subscribe to the values the Commonwealth represents.'' He is aware that English usage is insignificant in East Timor, but would like to promote its teaching, and to see Indonesian on school curricula, as well as Portuguese. ''English is a reality in our region in commerce,'' he stressed.

He is also modifying his position on the justice issues which are paramount for many Timorese. Two years ago he and Gusmao initiated a much-criticised Truth and Friendship Commission (TFC) with the Indonesian government, offering amnesties to Indonesian officers accused of war crimes if they testified truthfully. He visited Jakarta last month to see Indonesian counterpart Susilo Bambang Yudyhono, and the pair agreed to extend the bilateral commission by six months, but Ramos-Horta says it must end then.

He was angered by ex-military chief General Wiranto's performance before the TFC. In a recent appearance Wiranto denied all wrongdoing. ''It is disappointing that General Wiranto and others who testified were not honest,'' Ramos-Horta said. Despite a reputation for forgiving rights violators, he has not promulgated a law Fretilin pushed through parliament before the elections offering amnesty for perpetrators of 2006 violence. They include Fretilin's deputy president Rogerio Lobato, serving seven years on arms and manslaughter counts, and fugitive soldier Alfredo Reinado. He instead asked the Appeals Court to rule on its constitutionality. ''I'm not against an amnesty law but it cannot be tailored to an individual or group of individuals.''

The US embassy's July 4 celebrations produced a glittering parade of Dili's political elite, from Ramos-Horta as speechmaker, through Fretilin prime minister Estanislau da Silva, with some glum ministers, to PD leaders Fernando Lasama and Constancio Pinto, representatives of the disenfranchised younger generation.

Vote counting was in its final stages and journalists and diplomats networked frantically, seeking clues to the future.

Lasama and Pinto were of particular interest word being that the PD might not enter the CNRT- led coalition both leaders are embittered by the election outcome. They campaigned on an anti- Fretilin platform: against authoritarianism, corruption, police brutality and for war crimes justice, yet feel left out in the cold. Pinto said, ''CNRT claimed they were going to steal votes from Fretilin, but instead they stole from us. We are so, so disappointed.'' Asked if the party might back Fretilin, rather than the coalition, Pinto replies, ''Why not? We don't exclude it.'' Ramos-Horta said they have agreed to back the coalition, but with much hard political dealing ahead, it's brinkmanship time in Dili.

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