No freedom yet for Ramos Horta
The Australian, 10 February 2012, by Ted McDonnell
A WEEK after announcing he would contest this year's presidential elections, East Timor's leader Jose Ramos Horta is clearly focused on one goal: being returned for a second five-year term to the helm of the struggling island nation 600km to Australia's north.
Since the attempt on his life in 2008, in which he was gunned down by rebels and nearly died, the Nobel Peace Prize-winning President has been seriously contemplating retirement. ??Those close to him say he has changed his mind on the question of a "simpler life" at least a dozen times.
The 62-year-old had two choices: retire to France to write books -- his long-time dream -- occasionally lecturing at East Timor's university and joining the world's lucrative speakers circuit, or put in another five arduous years as President and work towards further stabilisation for the fledgling republic.
For this career freedom advocate, choosing his own freedom was no simple matter. Ramos Horta has already put in almost four decades fighting for his country's emancipation from Indonesia.
Independence for East Timor came in 2002, culminating in his election first to foreign minister, then prime minister, then President. ??To many of Ramos Horta's supporters, retirement would be understandable in light of the attempt to assassinate him.
On that dark day, four years to the day tomorrow, the dream of a united and peaceful East Timor was all but snuffed out.
The newly formed nation's leader lay critically wounded on the lawn of his poorly guarded Dili residence, shot by a small band of army rebels led by the disillusioned renegade army officer, Alfredo Reinado, who lay dead nearby.
Neighbouring countries reeled in shock with the news. Ramos Horta, recovering from his life-threatening injuries in Royal Darwin Hospital, also reportedly struggled to comprehend why a handful of his own countrymen -- and women -- after 24 years of brutal Indonesian occupation, had gone to such extreme lengths to kill him.
"This was a very difficult time in my life," Ramos Horta told The Australian in an exclusive interview last week. "The assassination attempt greatly puzzled me." ??His initial response was to tell the world he would likely retire from the presidency.
"I will not promise the country that I will serve the full term," he declared seven weeks after the shooting.
"Before I take a step in resigning, I have to consider all of these implications; the people of East Timor, our neighbours," adding that he had responsibilities to key neighbours Indonesia and Australia because "they trust me". ??Ramos Horta said at the time he did not know if he was coping with the emotional trauma of almost dying in the ambush.
"I will know only when I get home to my own house, to the site where I was shot," he said. ??It seems once the President was finally home, his desire to contribute to a prosperous and stable future for his people reasserted itself.
Although he would never admit it, he has had a tough life that began decades before he was shot after taking a morning jog in Dili.
In fact, being shot by ill-informed countrymen was more of an insult than anything else.
In December 1975, at age 25, Ramos Horta left East Timor on a trip as foreign affairs minister. Just days later thousands of Indonesian troops invaded his homeland, killing tens of thousands of men, women and children.
During the next 24 years he became ambassador in exile, addressing and lobbying UN Security Council after UN Security Council, foreign governments and aid organisations. His unwavering goal was to free East Timor.
During these decades, Ramos Horta had no real home. His bed was a sofa at the homes of acquaintances in cities such as Sydney, Lisbon, London and New York. He never settled in one place, always vowing that one day he would return home.
That time came in late 1999 when Australian and UN troops took back control of East Timor from the murderous militia and Indonesian military.
Despite his efforts over decades, and his popularity, Ramos Horta wears a label in East Timor of being "too forgiving".
In recent years he has pardoned the men who tried to kill him in 2008, and he has reprieved the Indonesians and militia who killed in excess of 100,000 of his countrymen, women and children during a reign of terror lasting 24 years.
"These men who tried to kill me, like me, were victims. It was the inability of the political and military leadership to address these soldiers' complaints and problems and resolve the crisis," he told The Australian. ??"These men were used by the conspirators against me."
Angelita Pires, the partner of Reinado, was found not guilty of conspiracy by the East Timorese courts, although another 23 of Reinado's men were found guilty in relation to the attack.
Forgiving the Indonesians is controversial publicly and privately for Ramos Horta. His 84-year-old mother vehemently disagrees with his stance. ??Of his 11 siblings he lost two brothers and a sister in the violence.
His sister's body was found and exhumed in 2003, but the bodies of his brothers Nuno and Guilherme were never found, a fate shared by tens of thousands of other East Timorese who disappeared during the 24 years of occupation.
He admits many other East Timorese mothers also disagree with him.
"I say the greater justice is that we are free." ??Many East Timorese see the war crime tribunals of Bosnia and Cambodia and wonder why their politicians aren't seeking such justice for the crimes committed over decades to them and their families.
Ramos Horta says he prefers to adopt a law that puts an end to the tragic past. He is actively seeking compensation for families aggrieved during East Timor's darkest days.
He told a US magazine recently: "Let us not forget the victims and heroes, but let us forgive those who did harm because God gave us a greater gift: our independence. Let's forget about an international tribunal -- it will never happen."
He says Indonesia was "left humiliated" and it's up to the Indonesians to deal with the perpetrators of violence in East Timor. He believes in time they will. ??Ramos Horta's forgiving nature is one reason why, with Bishop Carlos Belo, he won the 1996 Nobel Peace Prize "for their work towards a just and peaceful solution to the conflict in East Timor".
Today life in East Timor is very basic and the President lives relatively simply. He still wears his Maoist-styled jackets and can often be seen driving around the streets of Dili in his beloved Mini Moke, without a bodyguard.
He has a prized if somewhat rusty collection of Volkswagens. ??However, an almost embarrassing contradiction for the President -- not of his making, it must be pointed out -- is the massive, blue-roofed, Chinese-built Presidential Palace, which sits on the main road to the airport and is in stark contrast to the way the majority of East Timorese live with their "off-and-on electricity", open sewers, high unemployment rate, floundering education system and the fact that most families live on less than $US80 a month.
There is a lot of talk of potential violence during the March 17 presidential election and June general election. Ramos Horta disagrees with this assessment.
"The conspirators who caused the trouble between 2006 and 2008 are either dead or no longer have the power or will to cause trouble," he says. "The East Timorese will not be misled or threatened this time. The people want to get on with their lives." ??He adds: "Look, I can drive the streets of Dili in my Mini Moke without any bother whatsoever.
Tell me what world leader could do that?" ??The streets in Dili are, in fact, peaceful and thriving with activity. The people are happy with their meagre existence because, as Ramos Horta puts it: "We have peace and freedom." ??As he approaches the election, the one-time reluctant leader admits he has unfinished business.
His journey, he says, won't be complete until he frees his countrymen of another tyrant: the economic hardship that has plagued East Timor for decades. ??He faces 14 opponents, including the legendary Fretilin (Revolutionary Front for an Independent East Timor) leader Francisco "Lu Olo" Guterres; popular former major-general and head the armed forces Taur Matan Ruak; former Fretilin powerbroker Jose Luis Guterres; and the Democratic Party's Fernando de Araujo.
Ramos Horta knows and respects each of his four main rivals as "friends and brothers of the East Timorese resistance to Indonesian rule". But tensions exist and Ramos Horta's critics are lining up.
There's a common belief that the President has "kowtowed" and is too beholding to Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao, whose influence and CNRT Party ensured Ramos Horta's win in 2007. Once such critic is the man he defeated in 2007, close friend Lu Olo, who told The Australian last week that if he wins the presidency, unlike Ramos Horta, he will not become part of the "cheer squad for the elected government", even if Fretilin wins the general election in June.
"This government, the government of Xanana Gusmao, has robbed the East Timorese people of more than $4 billion over the past four years through government waste and corruption," Lu Olo says. ??"The President should have exercised his role more to ensure the widespread allegations of corruption during the term of this government were investigated. ??"So far, we have had two presidents -- Ramos Horta and previously Xanana.
Both have acted like pop stars and not presidents.??"Timor-Leste has had two presidents of the republic, but not yet had a head of state. When I win, this country will finally have a head of state." ??There is also criticism from people on the streets of Dili, who believe Ramos Horta should have done more.
Controversial presidential candidate Angela Freitas echoes this belief. ??"President Ramos Horta has for 10 years in various roles presided over the rising unemployment, diminishing living standards and increasing government corruption," she told The Australian last week. ??"He has done nothing to bring the country under control."
Ramos Horta is willing to wear the criticism and does not believe a potential defeat in the presidential race will be a bad thing for him or his countrymen. ??"I feel bad about running against TMR and Lu Olo.
They are great East Timorese warriors and spent 24 years fighting in the jungles for our people while I was in exile trying to gain our freedom through diplomacy," he said. "We have always had a common goal." ??"I will not be campaigning against them.
The people can campaign on my behalf and if I win I will work jointly with TMR and Lu Olo to make East Timor a better country. If I lose, I will support them with my experience and wisdom. And, if I do lose, I finally win my freedom." (*/the Australian/CJITL)