Former independence fighter and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Jose Ramos-Horta was sworn in as president of East Timor ahead of celebrations marking the 20th anniversary of independence for Asia’s youngest country.
Crowds cheered late Thursday night as Ramos-Horta travelled by motorcade to parliament, where a ceremony kicked off nationwide festivities commemorating the country’s 2002 independence from Indonesia, which invaded the former Portuguese colony in 1975.
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Ramos-Horta, 72, who led the resistance during Indonesia’s occupation, called for national reconciliation and unity as he took the oath of office shortly before midnight local time, the time that the country declared independence 20 years ago.
“Today more than ever, we must be fully aware that only in unity will be able to achieve the development goals that we propose,” Ramos-Horta said.
The new president pledged to reduce poverty, improve health services for mothers and children, and promote a dialogue to restore political stability. He said he expects East Timor, formally known as Timor-Leste, to become the 11th member of the regional bloc the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in the next two years.
In a wide-ranging speech delivered in four languages, Ramos-Horta called for national unity between rival parties that have had a tumultuous relationship in recent years.
“I will fulfil with loyalty the functions that have been invested in me… and will dedicate all my energies and knowledge to the defence and consolidation of independence and national unity,” the bespectacled leader said.
“Peace will only be real and lasting when it is achieved through dialogue and mutual respect in which neither party feels coerced and humiliated,” he added, addressing a crowd of military and diplomatic personnel.
Portuguese President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa and Indonesian Coordinating Minister of Political, Law and Security Affairs Mohammad Mahfud were among those who attended the inauguration.
Ramos-Horta defeated incumbent Francisco “Lu Olo” Guterres, his fellow independence fighter, in an April 19 election runoff. Ramos-Horta, who was prime minister from 2006 to 2007 and president from 2007 to 2012, and Guterres have blamed each other for years of political paralysis in East Timor.
At one point in the ceremony on Thursday night, Ramos-Horta received an embrace from his presidential predecessor Guterres.
Living in exile for almost three decades and returning to Timor at the end of 1999, Ramos-Horta was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1996, along with Bishop Carlos Felipe Ximenes Belo, in recognition of their work “toward a just and peaceful solution to the conflict” in the country.
“He is a great hero in the era of our struggle for independence,” Aderito Herin Martins, a resident of the capital, Dili, said of Ramos-Horta.
“Now it’s time for him to work on the critical issues of poverty and unemployment that still face our country as he promised in his campaign.”
East Timor’s transition to a democracy has been rocky, with leaders battling massive poverty, unemployment and corruption as the country continues to struggle with the legacy of its bloody independence battle and bitter factional politics that have occasionally erupted into violence.
The country’s economy is reliant on dwindling offshore oil revenues.
The United Nations estimates that nearly half the population lives below the extreme poverty line of $1.90 a day, and for every 1,000 babies born in the country, 42 die before their fifth birthday because of malnutrition.
Residents voted overwhelmingly for independence in a 1999 referendum held under UN auspices, despite widespread Indonesian intimidation and violence.
The vote had been unexpectedly offered by an overconfident Indonesian government following a long-running but largely fruitless resistance struggle. Indonesia’s military responded to the referendum results with a scorched-earth campaign that left East Timor devastated. Australia spearheaded a UN military mission to restore order from the chaos as the Indonesian forces left.
It took almost three more years for the half-island nation of just over one million people to become an independent and sovereign country on May 20, 2002.