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Jose Ramos-Horta's Ian Thorpe moment

  • 20 March 2012

It has been clear for some time that 2012 would be a watershed year for East Timor. In addition to marking 500 years since the arrival of the Portuguese and 100 years since the fabled Dom Boaventura led a robust revolt against them in 1912, 2012 also marks ten years since full independence and will see two elections.

The first of these was held last Saturday and involved 12 candidates competing for the presidency. The poll results indicate that the Timorese spirit of independence, exemplified by Dom Boaventura and more recently by the Resistance, has been rediscovered and is alive and kicking. Cashed up with revenue from the petroleum fields in the Timor Sea, proud that it has put the crippling crisis of 2006 behind it, and chafing in harness with the UN, East Timor has decided to go it more alone even to the point of living dangerously.

The UN and international military contingent led by Australia have been asked to leave later this year. It is as though the East Timorese have heard the ghost of Borja da Costa, East Timor's most famous poet, executed in 1975 by the Indonesian military, whispering to them again: 'Why, Timor, do your children doze like chickens ... Awake, take the reins of your own horse.'

The poll count is virtually complete and none of the four leading presidential candidates has won a simple majority. This means there will be a run-off second round on 21 April between the top two vote getters: Francisco Lu'Olo Guterres,  president of Fretilin (28 per cent) and Jose Maria Vasconselos, better known by his Timorese nom de guerre Taur Matan Ruak (TMR), head of the Timorese military until he resigned last year (25 per cent).

Both men exemplify East Timor's tough, independent streak, having fought as guerrillas throughout the 24-year war with Indonesia. The runners-up, who each received about 18 per cent, were Fernando La Sama Araujo, speaker of Timor's parliament, and Jose Ramos-Horta, the incumbent president, who has conceded defeat.

It is the electorate's dumping of Ramos-Horta that is the big surprise. Their rejection of his offer to serve for a further five years is breathtaking and, in my view, living far too dangerously.

Ramos-Horta is a national treasure.