Subject: 'Fragile Peace' Goal of East Timor

Associated Press December 18, 2000

'Fragile Peace' Goal of East Timor


SINGAPORE (AP) - East Timorese Nobel laureate Jose Ramos-Horta said Monday that maintaining a ``fragile peace'' is the greatest challenge on the road to independence for the island territory.

Ramos-Horta, vice president of the territory's main pro-independence coalition and foreign minister of an advisory Cabinet set up by East Timor's U.N. administration, was in Singapore on an official visit.

Ramos-Horta denied that he and former rebel leader Xanana Gusmao were at odds over the timing for full nationhood. Late 2001 is still the target date, but they're willing to wait a few extra months if preparations for an election are not in place, Ramos-Horta said in an interview with The Associated Press.

``The biggest challenge in my view is maintaining peace and security,'' he said. ``Without that all the investments and building infrastructure will be futile.''

Ramos-Horta has traveled the world drumming up investment for the territory. About 70 percent of East Timor's infrastructure was destroyed during an eruption of militia violence after the people voted last year overwhelmingly to end 25 years of Indonesian rule in the former Portuguese colony.

The half-island nation has been administered by the United Nations since then. Although most people still speak the Indonesian language and spend the Indonesian currency, East Timor's new official language is Portuguese and the official currency is the U.S. dollar.

The Nobel peace laureate said he considered Indonesian President Abdurrahman Wahid's suggestion of a trade grouping that would include East Timor, Australia, New Zealand and Papua New Guinea ``most interesting.''

East Timor hopes to join the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, he said, adding that joining a new trade group should not be at the expense of ASEAN membership. ASEAN's biggest member and East Timor's former ruler, Indonesia, has been pushing for ASEAN to accept East Timor as a member.

Despite recent clashes on the border with West Timor, Ramos-Horta described East Timor as ``an oasis of peace'' in Southeast Asia and said that despite having 70-80 percent unemployment, it has one of the lowest crime rates of developing countries because the people ``have so much dignity.''

``People would rather look for food in the garbage dump ... than go begging,'' he said.

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