17 March 2009

Excerpts from the speech by East Timorese President Jose Ramos-Horta to the Northern Territory Legislative Assembly 30 October 2008

Before I proceed any further, allow me to bow in tribute and respect to the original owners of this vast land of Australia, one of the most ancient nations in the world, the Indigenous people of Australia. I know the many problems afflicting the Indigenous peoples of this country, and my heart bleeds with their pain, but my message to them is: do not despair, never lose hope of a better future.

There has been much written about an east-west ethnic divide in Timor-Leste. This is an over simplification and exaggeration. I have spent countless hours since 2006 dealing with the conflict in the suburbs and villages, meeting with youth and gang leaders. I believe I have a good degree of understanding of the nature of the conflict, somewhat better than those who pay short visits and write up fancy academic papers or newspaper articles, mostly forecasting doomsday scenarios for our nascent and vibrant democracy.

In 2006 there was opportunistic violence and crimes committed by common criminals who in the absence of a strong law and order force, robbed, looted and killed. There was the well documented armed stand off and shooting involving elements of our police and defence forces and of Mr Reinado. There were also political leaders whose words and actions either have caused the flare up of tensions and violence or, at least, were not helpful in the tense situation.

However, much of the violence had a more elementary and important reason, and that was dispute over land and housing, market and job opportunities. With the neutralisation of trouble-makers by our special police units in partnership with our defence force as a deterrence force, and generous financial packages to the so called petitioners, IDPs, as well as to veterans and vulnerable groups, we have been able to make good progress in normalising the situation in the country.

Much remains to be done to discipline our police and defence forces, provide them with more training and education, as well as basic infrastructure and tools that are in desperate need. Let me add that I am not being overly optimistic. I have always warned my colleagues in the leadership and my countrymen about how fragile the overall situation has always been in our country. Anyone poring over my media remarks and speeches over the past eight years will easily find many references to the fragile peace in our country.

Peace has been, and is, fragile because fragile are all our state institutions and economy, and because there is still widespread extreme poverty, and because it takes time to undo the decades of violence and the humiliation that have entered each East Timorese family.

However, 11 February was a profound shock to our nation and everybody took a pause and stepped back from the edges. On 17 April, on my return, tens of thousands of people took to the streets to say no more to violence. I believe that the possibilities of consolidation of peace are there and the risks of renewed violence, as desired by the prophets of doom, are very much minimal.

As the Head of State, I will spare no effort in continuing to unify the nation, in healing the wounds, and in creating conditions for a better life for the people who have nothing or very little and, yet, deserve so much. In this noble endeavour, no man is island and no man can nor should expect to carry the burden alone. I know I can count on my compatriots and on our friends around the world.

You will be asking how long should the United Nations and the International Stabilisation Force remain in Timor-Leste. I have stated on a number of occasions that the East Timorese leadership, the UN and our friends should not make the same mistakes of the past. There should not be any hasty withdrawal. We need the current United Nations mission size to remain more or less intact up to 2012, with some minor adjustments as deemed advisable. As far as the presence of ISF in Timor-Leste is concerned, I hope that Australia will maintain a capable force on the ground to fulfil this critical function until 2012.

We have made modest progress in reactivating our police force, but I believe that it will take us at least another three years before we can declare that we have turned the corner in the redevelopment of our police force. The same can be said of our defence force. I very much favour closer defence cooperation with Australia and the United States that includes the development of maritime security capability. I welcome the offer of assistance made by Australia and the United States, and I wish to see this offer taken up by our government.

I love Australia. I feel very much part of it. The blood within my body is Australian, donated by young Australian soldiers. But I love my country and people more, not only because it is my country, soaked with the blood of too many in the fight to attain freedom, but because my country is small and weak, my people are poor and have been victimised for too long. You are rich and powerful. So, I have to side with my country and people who are weaker and poorer. I hope you understand this.

Read the full text of the Assembly proceedings record.

Image added by ETLJB: The Northern Territory Legislative Assembly chamber in Darwin, Australia.
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