East Timor Gets New Leadership

Times Staff Writer

Jose Ramos-Horta, who received the Nobel Peace Prize a decade ago for his efforts to win East Timor's independence, was named prime minister of the tiny nation Saturday as it tried to overcome months of violence and internal strife.

Ramos-Horta replaces Mari Bin Amude Alkatiri, who stepped down June 26 as prime minister after months of violence that claimed at least 30 lives and prompted 150,000 people -- 15% of the population -- to flee their homes and take refuge in makeshift camps.

Alkatiri had been accused of encouraging factional fighting between residents from the eastern and western parts of the country in an attempt to hold on to power. East Timorese authorities are investigating whether he authorized the arming of civilian hit squads to silence his political opponents.

The appointment of Ramos-Horta, 56, was announced by President Jose Alexandre Gusmao, who is immensely popular as the former leader of the guerrilla resistance against Indonesian rule but who has limited power under the constitution.

Gusmao said he hoped the appointment of Ramos-Horta would help "bring about the process of healing and bring peace and stability to the people of East Timor."

East Timor, the world's newest nation, won independence from Indonesia in 1999 but only after pro-Indonesian militia groups killed more than 1,000 people and destroyed 70% of the country's buildings.

The United Nations helped rebuild East Timor, which officially became a nation in 2002, but the world body withdrew its peacekeepers last year in a move that U.N. officials now recognize was premature.

Violence erupted in April after Alkatiri fired 600 soldiers, or nearly half the army, for protesting that they faced discrimination because they came from the western part of the country. Alkatiri called in loyal troops to quell the protests and they opened fire on civilians, killing at least six people.

The country destabilized further when the police and army began fighting each other, then fled the capital, Dili, leaving the city in the hands of arsonists and gangs armed with machetes.

A 2,700-member international peacekeeping force led by Australia arrived May 25 and has succeeded in restoring order, although arsonists continue to set fire to homes and businesses belonging to their rivals. A house in Dili was set ablaze hours after Ramos-Horta's appointment was announced, the Associated Press reported.

Ramos-Horta, whose name has been floated as a possible successor to U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, held the posts of foreign minister and defense minister until he quit last month in protest over Alkatiri's refusal to step down. Alkatiri's resignation came the next day.

Gusmao and Ramos-Horta are said to be close allies in a government that is dominated by the Fretilin party, which led the independence movement in East Timor and now controls 55 of parliament's 88 seats. Gusmao and Ramos-Horta once were members of Fretilin, which Ramos-Horta helped found.

Elections are scheduled for next year, and Fretilin's popularity has suffered under Alkatiri. In meetings with Gusmao, Fretilin leaders agreed to nominate Ramos-Horta as one of four possible candidates for prime minister even though he was no longer with the party.

Ramos-Horta fled East Timor, a former Portuguese colony, just before it was invaded in 1975 by Indonesian troops. For more than two decades, he traveled around the world campaigning for East Timor's independence. He and Bishop Carlos Ximenes Belo, who stayed behind in East Timor, were jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1996.

In an interview with The Times last month, Ramos-Horta said the impoverished country had not managed its resources well, noting that $600 million in oil revenue was waiting to be allocated.

He said he would favor using some of that money to provide food, healthcare and education for the poorest residents. He also said he would like to rebuild the nation by offering tax-free status for up to 10 years for foreign businesses willing to invest there.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World