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East Timor celebrates independence anniversary, new ruler

Former East Timorese independence fighter and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Jose Ramos-Horta is due to be sworn in as president of Asia’s youngest country on Thursday evening as it celebrates its 20th anniversary of independence .

Banners and posters filled the streets of Dili, the capital, where thousands of people gathered for festivities including speeches, musical performances and fireworks to commemorate Indonesia’s independence, which invaded the former Portuguese colony in 1975.

Ramos-Horta, 72, who led the resistance during Indonesia’s occupation, takes the oath shortly before midnight, the time the country declared independence 20 years ago.

In his victory speech last month, he pledged to reduce poverty, improve health services for mothers and children and promote dialogue to restore political stability.

Ramos-Horta defeated incumbent President Francisco “Lu Olo” Guterres, his fellow independence fighter, in the April 19 runoff election. He held a commanding lead among 16 candidates in the first round, but did not receive the 50% threshold required for victory.

More than 76% of the votes went to figures from the resistance era, showing how they still dominate politics after two decades.

East Timor’s transition to democracy has been turbulent, with leaders battling massive poverty, unemployment and corruption as the country continues to grapple with the legacy of its bloody battle for independence and the bitter politics of the factions that sometimes erupted in violence. Its economy depends on dwindling offshore oil revenues.

Residents voted overwhelmingly for independence in a 1999 referendum held under UN auspices, despite widespread intimidation and violence from Indonesia. The vote had been unexpectedly offered by an overconfident Indonesian government following a long but largely unsuccessful resistance struggle.

The Indonesian military responded to the referendum results with a scorched earth campaign that devastated East Timor. Australia led a UN military mission to restore order after the departure of Indonesian forces.

It took nearly three more years for the semi-island nation of just over a million people to become an independent, sovereign country on May 20, 2002.

Ramos-Horta lived in exile for nearly three decades and returned to East Timor in late 1999, after he and Bishop Carlos Felipe Ximenes Belo were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1996 in recognition of their work “towards a just and peaceful solution to the conflict” in the country.

Ramos-Horta, who served as prime minister from 2006 to 2007 and president from 2007 to 2012, and Guterres blame each other for years of political paralysis.

In 2018, Guterres refused to swear in nine Cabinet candidates of the National Congress for the Reconstruction of East Timor, known as CNRT, a party led by former prime minister and pro-independence leader Xanana Gusmao, who later backed Ramos-Horta’s candidacy for the presidency.

Guterres is a member of the Revolutionary Front for an Independent East Timor, known as Fretilin, which led the resistance to Indonesian rule.

Fretilin has accused Ramos-Horta of causing a crisis as prime minister in 2006, when dozens of people were killed as political rivalries escalated into open conflict on the streets of Dili.

Ramos-Horta and Gusmao were targets of assassination attempts in 2008 by rebel soldiers. Ramos-Horta was shot in the stomach. After leaving government in 2012, he worked with the United Nations.

Tensions between Fretilin and CNRT, the two largest parties, over the past four years led to the resignation of Prime Minister Taur Matan Ruak in February 2020 after the government repeatedly failed to pass a budget.

But he agreed to stay on until a new government is formed and oversee the fight against the coronavirus pandemic. His government operated without an annual budget and relied on monthly injections from its sovereign wealth fund, called the Petroleum Fund.

The Independent Gt

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