Supreme diplomat faces his biggest challenge

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 15 July, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 15 July, 2006, 12:00am

For a hint of the diplomatic skills of East Timor's new prime minister, Jose Ramos Horta, consider his actions during the recent soccer World Cup.

His tiny, fragile country imploding around him, Mr Ramos Horta found time not only to watch Australia's unlucky 1-0 defeat to eventual winners Italy two weeks ago, but to extend quickly his sympathies to his southern neighbour.

'Although Italy is one of my great countries of people, I have to confess I root for Australia,' he told ABC radio from Dili.

'I was heartbroken that Australia lost but they ... should not be too mortified.'

It was described by diplomatic observers as classic Ramos Horta - a display of the genial thoughtfulness that has won him friends and respect over the past three decades.

The day before, Mr Ramos Horta had resigned as foreign minister of the world's youngest nation. It was a move that increased pressure on then-prime minister Mari Alkatiri, who has been blamed for the recent violence between breakaway police and army factions.

At least 21 people were killed in May and parts of the capital torched by those supposed to be keeping order. An estimated 150,000 fled their homes.

The government, headed by President Xanana Gusmao, was forced to seek help from Australia, Malaysia and East Timor's former colonial master, Portugal. About 2,200 peacekeepers are now on patrol.

Initially appointed acting prime minister soon after Mr Alkatiri's resignation, Mr Ramos Horta was formally sworn in as prime minister by Mr Gusmao this week.

His tact and discretion never deserted him throughout. At the height of the tension, he sought to smooth roiling waters surrounding East Timor's relationship with its immediate neighbour, Indonesia. When asked about rising fears in Dili that not enough was being done to tackle the human rights abuses of the recent past, he spoke of practical realities, while not ruling anything out.

Describing Indonesia as a 'very fragile nation', he acknowledged the challenges in dealing with the former enemy that once branded him a traitor but now worked with him as a friend. 'Those of us who are its neighbours have to understand the difficulties of dealing with a country in transition,' he told Time magazine recently. 'We have to work with them to find the best way of dealing with the past.'

It was a far cry from the days when the demands of his struggle saw him dismiss Indonesian officials as 'pigs' and 'liars'.

That relationship with Indonesia, of course, has defined the creation of East Timor - and the international stature of Mr Ramos Horta along with it.

Four centuries of languid Portuguese rule degenerated into violence at the height of the cold war in 1975, as Lisbon's new left-wing government pushed ahead with de-colonialisation plans. The leaders of the independence Fretilin movement declared a new state but the next day Indonesian-backed forces, with quiet political support from the west, invaded. East Timor was formally annexed - a rule marked by allegations of civilian massacres and torture.

The remnants of Fretilin took to the jungles of the island's interior in an armed struggle against the Indonesian military, led by the charismatic Mr Gusmao who was later captured and jailed. By the time peace arrived in 1999 - in a deal between Indonesia, Portugal and the US to accept a UN-supervised referendum - an estimated 200,000 people had died. The figure represented nearly half of East Timor's population.

More violence followed, as East Timorese voted overwhelmingly for independence. Under international pressure, Indonesia withdrew tacit backing of the violent militias and the newly minted East Timor joined the UN in September 2002. The world's youngest nation was born, with Mr Ramos Horta returning home as foreign minister.

He was the natural choice. A founding member of Fretilin, Mr Ramos Horta had kept East Timor's international light burning during his long years in exile.

He forged a reputation for his dignified and shrewd persistence, travelling constantly - from the US and Europe to Australia - as he kept the cause alive at the UN.

Money was always a problem, but his work ensured a stream of international support. For months at a stretch he operated from a cockroach-infested apartment in New York's Bronx, as he lobbied daily in the corridors of the UN headquarters.

'He was a thorn in everybody's side ... but he always knew when to lay on the charm and when to put on the brass knuckles,' said one Australian diplomat with long experience of East Timor.

'Whether it was western or Asian nations, all too keen to ignore the plight of East Timor in favour of getting along with Suharto's Indonesia, it didn't matter ... Ramos Horta had the contacts and would keep up the pressure against the odds. You may not have liked to hear what he was saying, but he had the ability to get to you to listen. In the end, he always had the ability to be very reasonable.'

That respect, and way he forced the plight of East Timor into the international arena, saw him awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1996.

The struggle took a deeply personal toll, however. Born to an exiled Portuguese father and a Timorese mother, Mr Ramos Horta was one of 11 children. Four died in Indonesian military crackdowns.

It was, he once said, an 'emotional roller coaster'.

A whole new ride is about to begin. Now 56, Mr Ramos Horta faces arguably his biggest challenge. His diplomatic abilities will have to be matched by the practical ability to lead, bang heads together and make tough decisions, if he is to win a second chance for his troubled nation.

As president, Mr Gusmao sits above him, but the constitution ensures that this is largely a symbolic role. The day-to-day work of running the government and dealing with the outside world falls to the prime minister.

The recent violence - the worst since the independence vote of 1999 - has highlighted the vast challenges ahead.

Despite a massive international aid effort earlier in the decade, East Timor's 1 million people remain the poorest in the world. Annual per capita gross domestic product is estimated at just US$400.

The UN-led aid effort essentially had to start from scratch, as tens of thousands of refugees flooded back home after independence. What economic infrastructure was not destroyed in 1975 was wiped out as Indonesian forces withdrew in 1999. Illiteracy is widespread, organised farming is minimal and most of the population ekes out a living on the outskirts of Dili.

A fledgling civil administration and economic system is now in place but the recent violence has highlighted the gap between expectations and reality among the population. A bizarre smattering of aid projects remain, with Portuguese teachers filling the schools and doctors from Cuba training hospital staff.

Mr Alkatiri has been widely blamed for the recent violence, having sacked 600 soldiers who had deserted their barracks. Frictions over pay and the role of a poorly trained fledgling police force rapidly escalated into rioting.

Mr Ramos Horta has quickly laid down reform plans, pledging a profound re-organisation of East Timor's defence forces and strategy. 'We should focus on a better police force,' he said. 'We do not face conventional external security threats now or in the foreseeable future - we face internal security threats,' he said.

'We allowed [military tensions] to drag on and fester. There was a certain laissez-faire attitude that has proved very costly.'

Mr Ramos Horta seems well aware of the culture of high expectations, since the optimism of independence gave way to the reality of a broken nation.

'The high expectations of urban people haven't been realistic,' he said. 'Nevertheless, the government could have done more to address the demands of the poorest people by investing quickly in infrastructure development to provide jobs.

'Instead, it has been too careful not to spend money without first having the legislative framework in place ... sometimes social pressures and expectations can't wait for that.'

Mr Ramos Horta's stature and diplomatic skills have seen him considered a contender to replace Kofi Annan when he steps down as secretary-general of the UN later this year - a role for which he never ruled himself out.

For the time being, however, he knew other challenges came first as he accepted the oath of office in a simple ceremony with plastic flowers in an unpainted room. Maybe the UN could wait until 2012, he said. His country came first, he said.