East Timor’s new president lauded the “maturity” of his young country’s democracy yesterday at celebrations marking 10 years of independence, which comes as UN forces prepare to leave at the end of the year.
“It was on this day 10 years ago that we took over the destiny of our country from the hands of the UN,” East Timorese President Taur Matan Ruak said in a speech, referring to the 1999 UN mandate that followed Indonesia’s 24-year occupation.
Ruak, a former guerrilla leader, spoke only hours after being sworn in shortly after midnight and said the peaceful elections he won testified to “the maturity of our democracy and bears witness to the stability” of East Timor, known as Timor-Leste in Portuguese.
His speech followed a minute of silence for fallen heroes of the resistance against Indonesian occupation, before invited guests who included Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and about 400 ordinary Timorese gathered outside the gates of the presidential palace in Dili.
After his speech, Ruak inaugurated a new Resistance Museum in the capital, saying now “our children will have the opportunity to learn about the most important legacy that previous generations have bequeathed unto them.”
The celebrations included traditional dances to be followed by an evening concert with local, Indonesian and Brazilian musicians.
In his inaugural speech earlier, Ruak urged his countrymen to work hard to lift the country out of poverty and turn the page on its bloody past.
East Timor, one of Asia’s poorest nations, has enjoyed several years of relative peace and is in a crucial period, with general elections due in July and UN forces stationed there since 1999 set to depart by the end of the year.
However, despite having left bouts of major unrest behind it, the half-island country of 1.1 million people remains hobbled by extreme poverty and corruption.
Ruak, 55, took over the presidency from Nobel laureate Jose Ramos-Horta in an emotional ceremony at the beachfront area of Tasi Tolu near Dili, where East Timor declared its independence exactly 10 years ago.
“There was a time in the past when blood and fighting spirit was what was demanded from us,” the ex-army chief said, to loud applause from thousands of people. “Today, what is required from us is sweat and hard work.”
Ruak also called for the country to diversify its economy — more than 90 percent of state spending currently comes from oil and gas earnings.
“It is imperative to change the essence of the economic system on which the country is currently based,” he said at Tasi Tolu, calling for “the diversification of our economy” and “reducing our dependency from abroad and from oil.”
The nation first declared independence on Nov. 28, 1975, after Portugal ended four centuries of colonial rule, but was immediately invaded by Jakarta’s forces.
Up to 183,000 people died from fighting, disease and starvation under the Indonesian occupation.
Since independence, the nation has endured a political crisis in 2006 that killed 37 people and displaced tens of thousands, and Ramos-Horta was lucky to survive an assassination attempt in 2008.
“Our history is a narrative of struggles and of hard work,” said Ruak, who spent decades in the mountains fighting Indonesian forces.