Subject: LAT: East Timor's Last Hero Faces a Daunting Task
Los Angeles Times
East Timor's Last Hero Faces a Daunting Task
After years of efforts to win freedom for his people, a Nobel laureate now finds himself trying to keep his new nation from unraveling.
By Joel Rubin, Times Staff Writer
August 28, 2006
DILI, East Timor At times, it seems Jose Ramos-Horta thinks he can solve East Timor's problems one person at a time.
Winding his way through the inhospitable mountains of his troubled nation recently, the new prime minister ordered his driver to stop. A frail, elderly man approached, bowing deeply. He asked for nothing, but Ramos-Horta pressed $10 into his bony hand. He turned to a group of women, and bought three heavy sacks of beans from them $60 worth.
An hour farther down the washed-out road, Ramos-Horta gave the beans to a mother sitting in a thatched hut with her children and blind father.
"It's incredible," the 56-year-old said in a deep baritone shot through with a strong Portuguese accent. "Look at these people, they are so poor and yet they ask so little. And even that little, we are not giving them."
But the man is also tired. He wishes East Timor didn't need him again.
Twenty-four years in exile spent roaming the world's corridors of power trying to win freedom for his tiny nation have left him weary. What he wants now, he says, is to sleep late and pass lazy days at the beach.
"I am scared by their trust. I know my weaknesses," said Ramos-Horta, who has never been accused of having a small ego. "They think I am a genius, they think I am a prophet, when I am really a sinful character. But somehow, because of the way I am, they trust me…. I feel the weight of the country on my shoulders, and how can I now say no to the common people?"
Ramos-Horta, who shared the 1996 Nobel Peace Prize with Bishop Carlos Ximenes Belo for their efforts to bring freedom to their homeland, has been drawn back into the role of savior as East Timor threatens to unravel four years after it became the world's newest nation.
After centuries as a Portuguese colony, East Timor was invaded by Indonesia in 1975. Days before, a young, ambitious Ramos-Horta fled to Australia, sent by East Timor's political elite to serve as the country's link to the outside world. Four of Ramos-Horta's nine brothers and sisters were among the 200,000 people who Amnesty International estimates were killed or died prematurely during the occupation.
Indonesian rule came to a jarring end in 1999 when the government allowed East Timorese to vote on independence. The referendum sparked a horrific spasm of violence as militias aided by the Indonesian military killed more than 1,000 people and laid waste to villages and towns. With East Timor in shambles, the United Nations took control for 2 1/2 years, maintaining order and struggling to build a foundation for self-rule.
This summer, political chaos and rioting returned to this capital city. As the unrest toppled the government and threatened to send the country into free fall, the parliament selected Ramos-Horta to take over as prime minister.
Though his adversaries grumble about the political jockeying that led to Ramos-Horta's appointment, critics and allies agree that he was the only choice to assume control at this volatile crossroads. The country's beloved president, Jose Alexandre "Xanana" Gusmao, who led an armed resistance against Indonesia, is tiring of his public role.
Ramos-Horta is East Timor's last hero.
"There are only two people on this island who the people know and trust," said Gelasio da Silva, a parish priest in the devoutly Roman Catholic nation. "He is one of them."
In many ways, Ramos-Horta is an anomaly in his country. His hand-tailored shirts and sport coats are a rarity among the ragged clothes most East Timorese wear. On an island where few have ever stepped off its shores, Ramos-Horta's impressive thatched villa is filled with gifts from world leaders: a large box of cigars from Fidel Castro, a bust of his hero, Robert F. Kennedy, given to him by the family.
His shelves are lined with books in five languages, in a country where about 45% of adults are illiterate. And despite a strict Catholic education, Ramos-Horta is no longer particularly religious.
His skin is lighter than that of most East Timorese, a reflection of his mixed background: His father was a lieutenant in Portugal's navy until he was banished to East Timor for taking part in an ill-fated mutiny.
Since its emergence as a nation, East Timor has struggled under the heavy expectations of an international community eager for proof that nation-building can work.
"There is a good argument to be made that they've got one more chance to get it right," U.S. Ambassador Grover Joseph Rees said. "And that's the problem, because a lot of us have been hoping and expecting that East Timor would be the example for the developing world that it would be the case that proves that freedom, independence and a free economy are not just the playthings for rich countries."
Ramos-Horta is familiar with rich countries. After fleeing East Timor, he served as its champion. Bouncing from Washington to New York to Geneva, he lobbied world leaders to apply pressure on Indonesia.
Now, far away from the glass offices of the United Nations and comfortable couches of senators' offices, he insists that if he is going to be involved in the rebuilding of East Timor, he is content to leave the traveling behind.
"Being here surrounded by these wonderful people majestic, natural … I would have to be an incredible hypocrite, cynical, to be insensitive and miss the glamour of life as a diplomat, a foreign minister, elsewhere," he said. "In the last years I have been everywhere around the world, in palaces with kings, with queens and with millionaires…. Here I am dealing with real people who test my own humanity."
Still, at times Ramos-Horta seems to go a bit stir-crazy within the small, unrefined confines of the island that his nation shares with the Indonesian province of West Timor. He talks excitedly about an upcoming gathering in the U.S. with several other Nobel laureates. He waxes nostalgic about sipping cappuccinos in Rome and Paris.
And he is fond of telling stories from the old days: how he stumbled and slipped as he walked in snow for the first time on his way to address the U.N. General Assembly in New York; the day in 1993 when he sneaked into the bathrooms at the World Congress on Human Rights in Vienna to plaster the stalls with stickers reading, "Free Xanana, Boycott Bali"; and how he refused to buy more than one fork and plate when he rented an apartment in New York.
"I wanted the illusion that I was in transit," he recalled. "I wanted to think that I would return home soon."
Today, Ramos-Horta is under pressure to restore a sense of calm and stability to Dili. The rioting by gangs and renegade troops, touched off by his predecessor's controversial firing of 600 disgruntled soldiers, has largely subsided, but not before at least 30 people were killed, scores of homes torched and government offices ransacked.
Amid the chaos, Ramos-Horta ventured into neighborhoods and hospitals in the middle of the night in an attempt to ease tensions. Later, when he announced an amnesty for people who handed in their weapons, he gave his cellphone number, offering to collect the arms himself.
He has demanded that the U.N. return in force to help secure the country. In recent weeks he has criticized the world body sharply, saying it has abandoned East Timor too quickly. Last week, the U.N. Security Council approved plans to send about 1,600 police officers to the island for at least six months but refused to approve Secretary-General Kofi Annan's request to bolster the new force with hundreds of peacekeeping soldiers.
But many East Timorese are looking to Ramos-Horta to do more than bring peace to the country. They want a better life.
In East Timor's few years as a sovereign nation, the government has made little headway on that front. Although millions of dollars in revenue from oil fields have begun to flow in, the country still has a severe shortage of capable people. Most ministries are woefully lacking in staff and training needed to undertake the basics of governing.
For example, welfare and pension systems have not been established, while unemployment among young men in Dili hovers at 40%. No formal penal code has been adopted, and the country's few operating courts staffed almost entirely by foreign judges and lawyers because there are too few qualified East Timorese are helplessly backlogged. Roads are in disrepair, and electricity outside Dili is usually cut at night.
Ramos-Horta promises improvements. In speeches and in interviews, he says often that he wants to help the poor. When villagers at a meeting in a remote mountain town complained about feeling isolated, for example, he said he would look into providing televisions for each of the country's roughly 400 villages. He says money already has been set aside to build new offices for hundreds of villages.
But some who know Ramos-Horta fear he doesn't understand how hard it is to turn words into action in such an undeveloped land. That, mixed with his high hopes for the country and his image as savior, could be setting the country up for another fall.
Ramos-Horta readily acknowledges that he has only a fleeting interest in and a weak grasp of the intricacies of running a government. He relied heavily on two vice prime ministers to guide him through parliament's recent budget debates.
"He talks about his dreams for this country, and I just hope his dreams do not become nightmares," said Ana Pessoa, a respected minister in the government who was briefly married to Ramos-Horta and is the mother of his only child. "We have asked him to refrain from dreaming without first pondering … because when you speak in a way that people believe you are promising to do something tomorrow, it can be tricky when tomorrow comes."
"If he fails, we have no else to turn to. We have no one else."