Promoter of E. Timor's independence looks set for presidency

With 90 percent of the ballots counted, Jose Ramos-Horta has won about 73 percent.

Jose Ramos-Horta 88 (photo credit: )
Jose Ramos-Horta 88
(photo credit: )
Jose Ramos-Horta, who Thursday appeared headed for a landslide victory in East Timor's presidential election, is a Nobel laureate who rose to prominence promoting his nation's right to independence during 24 years in exile. With 90 percent of the ballots counted from Wednesday's vote, Ramos-Horta had won about 73 percent, election commission spokeswoman Maria Sarmento said Thursday. "I will not celebrate, because it's going to be five years of hard work," he said. "I went to the countryside, met with fantastic, wonderful people," he said, recalling weeks of campaigning. "Barefooted, illiterate, humble people. They made me a better person, they're better than me. I will do my best to serve them, not fail their trust." A Roman Catholic, Ramos-Horta is one of 11 children, born in the capital, Dili, to Portuguese-East Timorese parents. He was educated as a boy at a Catholic mission and later obtained a masters degree in peace studies at the Antioch University in the United States. Ramos-Horta's political career took off at the age of 27 when he joined a short-lived East Timorese government as external affairs minister after the half-island gained independence from Portugal, and just days before the Indonesian invasion in 1975. He fled to New York where he became the resistance movement's permanent representative to the United Nations and its youngest diplomat in history, according to Ramos-Horta's Web site. The 57-year-old, who speaks five languages fluently, shared the 1996 Nobel Peace Prize with fellow countryman Bishop Carlos Belo for leading a nonviolent struggle against Indonesian occupation. He was the country's first post-independence foreign minister. In July, he became the country's second prime minister, taking over when the left-wing government was toppled amid a wave of violence that killed dozens and drove 155,000 people from their homes. A charismatic speaker, Ramos-Horta told reporters recently: "If I win the election, I will bear a wooden cross almost as heavy as Christ's. If I lose, I will win my freedom." Close to the church, he has promised to boost government spending on religious schools. During a 5-year-term as head of state, he would face a daunting task of healing deep social divisions and severe economic problems in the impoverished Southeast Asian nation that was a Portuguese colony for more than three centuries until 1975. Mark Aarons, an author who has followed East Timor since the 1970s, said Ramos-Horta is the country's natural leader with the right temperament to reconcile bitter political divisions. As president and commander in chief, Ramos-Horta will make it "a high priority to heal the wounds among the armed forces and the police," Aarons said. The job is largely ceremonial, but Ramos-Horta has vowed to use his political influence and international contacts more actively than his predecessor and ally, outgoing President Xanana Gusmao. He promised to tap oil and gas reserves to reduce poverty, rebuild the shattered infrastructure and encourage long-term foreign involvement in security. The Norwegian Nobel Committee honored Belo and Ramos-Horta for their "sustained and self-sacrificing contributions for a small but oppressed people," which helped bring about a UN-led independence referendum three years later. Four of his siblings died under Indonesia's brutal rule during which more than 100,000 people were killed or starved to death. He is divorced with one child.