Ramos-Horta's greatness lay in his ability to remain above the fray

Michael Leach
March 21, 2012
OPINION - source: The Sydney Morning Herald

In a relaxed speech at Dili's presidential palace, East Timor's incumbent head of state, Jose Ramos-Horta, conceded he has lost the race for re-election. With the opposition party Fretilin's candidate Francisco ''Lu Olo'' Guterres and the former defence commander Taur Matan Ruak having finished first and second, Ramos-Horta would not make the presidential run-off election in April. Though it marked the end of an era, it may not quite prove to be his political epitaph.
Lacking big party backing, Ramos-Horta's road to re-election was always more difficult than in 2007, when he was supported by the Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao's National Congress of Timorese Reconstruction. Their formerly close political alliance has since broken down, with the President often critical of government performance and transparency. Though Ramos-Horta believed he had a deal with Gusmao's party not to formally back any particular candidate, it endorsed the popular former guerrilla leader Ruak shortly before the campaign.
Born in Dili in 1949, Ramos-Horta was a founder of East Timor's anti-colonial movement Fretilin, leaving three days before the Indonesian invasion in 1975 to serve as the key external envoy of his country's long struggle for self-determination. He spent the next 24 years in exile, sharing the Nobel Peace prize with Bishop Belo in 1996. After independence in 2002 he became foreign minister and briefly served as prime minister after the 2006 crisis, when divisions within the military and police saw the country descend into chaos. He was elected president in 2007 with 69 per cent of the run-off election vote.
The task then confronting Ramos-Horta could scarcely have been more complex: balancing divided political factions, newfound regional tensions between East Timor's eastern and western districts, and negotiating with multiple international security forces. While the new government addressed the nuts and bolts of policy problems, Ramos-Horta carried the burden of keeping a divided country together.
In 2008 he was shot during an armed invasion at his residence by troops under the command of the major-turned-rebel Alfredo Reinado. He survived through the timely intervention of an Australian army medical unit. East Timor has since been relatively stable, for which the President is entitled to take considerable credit. There is probably no other leader in the country that could have negotiated this task as effectively. He has had his critics - the powerful Catholic Church has never embraced his life as a single man about town - but his greatness lay in his ability to stay above the fray where others polarised. His pardons of former pro-Indonesian militia furthered reconciliation with Indonesia, but proved controversial among a people seeking justice for past crimes. But he could not be accused of hypocrisy: Ramos-Horta also pardoned his own would-be assassins, believing the country would better heal as a result.
Though little known outside the country, the remaining two candidates are both national heroes, and "24-year" veterans of the East Timorese guerrilla force Falintil, that fought in the mountains from 1975 until the independence referendum of 1999. Whatever the final result, the new president will have less international presence than Ramos-Horta, which may be emblematic of East Timor's readiness to move on from 13 years of being an international cause-celebre and a focus of successive peacekeeping missions. The front-runners are also leaders who at times better articulate the suffering of the East Timorese people during the Indonesian occupation, because they were there with them. In some ways Ramos-Horta has paid the price for his years of exile and, perhaps, for the relative stability of the last four years.
His endorsement of a remaining candidate was eagerly awaited yesterday, but he instead declared it a breach of presidential neutrality to favour either while still in office. Despite the bitter feelings he must hold for being cast aside by former allies, this statement spoke volumes about his integrity and ability to put the country first.
Significantly Ramos-Horta has not ruled out taking an ''active part'' in the all-important parliamentary elections to follow in June, when he is no longer head of state. While he would not necessarily be a candidate, he has publicly reserved the right to campaign for a particular outcome. His considerable influence should not be underestimated and this could yet prove one of the more significant developments of the presidential poll.
In the past fortnight, East Timor lost its first president Xavier do Amaral, who proclaimed its short-lived independence in 1975. With Ramos-Horta soon leaving the presidency, there are clear signals to other members of the ''1975 generation'' that they may soon have to hand over to a younger generation. Whether it is Gusmao himself or the opposition Fretilin leader Mari Alkatiri, one other senior figure will likely move on when a new government is formed in June.
Fortunately for East Timor, Ramos-Horta has not ruled out serving a new government in some capacity. Whether the remaining two presidential candidates can unify the country in the same way remains to be seen. One is a senior party political figure and the other was commander at the time of East Timor's debilitating military crisis in 2006. As Ramos-Horta said yesterday, the winner will have to make an extra effort to build bridges. As international security forces prepare to depart East Timor at the end of this year, much is staked on their capacity to do so.
Michael Leach is Associate Professor in Politics and Public Policy at Swinburne University of Technology in Melbourne.

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