Win for E. Timor's Founding Fathers

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Early poll results indicate that Nobel Peace Prize laureate José Ramos-Horta has won a landslide Presidential election in the tiny Southeast Asian nation of East Timor. Formerly the country's Prime Minister, Ramos-Horta may very well be trading jobs with his Presidential predecessor, Xanana Gusmão, who is tipped to become Prime Minister after legislative elections slated for June 30.

In its five years of independence, the former Indonesian province has been ruled largely by the same coterie of independence campaigners whose 24-year struggle to free East Timor from Jakarta's grip resonated with the nation's 1 million citizens. Gusmão fought for East Timor's freedom as a guerrilla commander in the mountainous jungle, while Ramos-Horta pleaded his homeland's cause in the halls of the United Nations. Even Francisco Guterres, Ramos-Horta's opponent in this week's presidential run-off, had been a veteran resistance fighter against Indonesia, under whose rule up to 200,000 East Timorese perished. "The old generation in East Timor is still very strong," admits Ramos-Horta. "Maybe in five or 10 years, the new political generation will mature. I see some hopefuls. But they need to get experience and exposure."

Even though the Presidential post is largely ceremonial, Ramos-Horta, 57, has vowed that he will roll up his sleeves and tackle some of his nation's many problems. East Timor is the poorest country in Southeast Asia, and despite hopes that offshore oil and gas reserves will boost the economy, many East Timorese still struggle just to feed themselves. Incomes have stagnated, while unemployment has risen. Equally worrisome, geographic and factional divisions that had been papered over during the independence struggle are now tearing at the nation's delicate social fabric. Last year, an internal army dispute between soldiers from the country's West and East triggered widespread civilian riots that killed dozens. Tens of thousands of people are still displaced from their homes as a result of the violence.

"Yes, there are many challenges," concedes Ramos-Horta. "But don't dismiss us too quickly as a failed state ... Our society was nearly destroyed by Indonesian occupation. It will take more than a couple years to fix things."

With a grin, Ramos-Horta goes on to argue that even after 60-odd years of independence from the Dutch, the Indonesians themselves have yet to build a rock-solid nation-state. "Nation-building is a slow, laborious process," he says. "The biggest mistake foreign observers made was thinking that things could be done overnight in East Timor. It will take time, effort and lots of work." Just a year ago, both Ramos-Horta and Gusmão had hinted that they might retire from politics — and give the younger generation a chance to govern. Now, it appears, both aren't quite willing to give up the reins just yet.