'Two Sharp Eyes' For Timor


East Timor’s new president Taur Matan Ruak will be officially sworn into office on 20 May, the same day the nation celebrates 10 years of independence, marking the start a new era for the country.

José Maria Vasconcelos, known by his resistance name Taur Matan Ruak meaning "two sharp eyes", will be the third president and part of a new generation of leadership in East Timor. Over the last decade, the positions of president and prime minister have rotated between three men, Jose Ramos-Horta, Mari Alkatiri and Xanana Gusmao.

With the nation preparing for the withdrawal of international troops and the UN after more than four years of peace, Ruak will inherit a vastly different set of challenges to those of his predecessor José Ramos-Horta in 2007.

Photo courtesy of Meagan Weymes

While on the international stage Ruak holds a low profile, the 55-year-old received more than 61 per cent of the vote in the second round of the presidential elections and gained the official endorsement of Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao.

Ruak and Gusmao share a history dating back to the Indonesian occupation, where they both fought as part of the resistance. When Indonesia invaded in 1975, the then 19-year-old Ruak fled into the mountains and joined the resistance army Falintil.

He spent 24 years in the jungle, moving up Falintil’s ranks and travelling across the country. Like many of his fellow resistance fighters, he was captured by the Indonesian forces in 1979 and spent 23 days imprisoned before escaping back into the mountains to fight.

After East Timor voted for independence in a UN organised referendum in 1999, Ruak replaced Gusmao as Commander of East Timor’s military (FDTL). Then in late 2011, after more than a decade in charge of the military, he unexpectedly quit the post to announce he would move into politics, running for the position of president.

Photo courtesy of Meagan Weymes

One of his controversial policy platforms during the election campaign was the introduction of compulsory military service. Ruak told New Matilda the policy would help to tackle the problem of unemployment and what he describes as "an erosion of the value system which is traditional and secular in this country".

"We need to prepare the youth with a strong sense of patriotism, of ownership of our country, of responsibility for its future and, above all, citizens who are engaged in serving the country and the people."

Technically, introducing such a policy is beyond the powers of the president, but the former military commander says he will advocate the policy to new government.

Poverty is another challenge facing East Timor, and Ruak told Timorese NGO La’o Hamutuk before the election his plan for tackling poverty involves reducing dependence on foreign imports and building up local industries like agriculture and tourism.

The majority of East Timor’s state spending comes from a US$9.9 billion government oil fund, fed by reserves in the Timor Sea. Ruak insists one of the biggest problems with this is "corruption of the oil money".

"To get out of petroleum dependency, Timor-Leste should invest strongly in human resources, increase the capacity of the private sector and other productive sectors."

When it comes to international relations Ruak has made general commitments to building regional relationships but appears to prioritise domestic problems over international issues.

Ruak says he appreciates the relationship of respect between East Timor’s neighbours, Indonesia and Australia, but says this relationship should be raised from a relationship of good neighbours to that of allies.

"I truly believe that it will benefit the peoples of our three countries, our states and the region."

East Timor is currently seeking membership of ASEAN, which Ramos-Horta has repeatedly stated is one of the most important priorities for the nation. Ruak says he supports ASEAN membership, but has made no commitment to prioritise the issue.

"There is so much we can gain and learn from ASEAN member states and the organisation. Whether as a member of ASEAN or not, (East Timor) is irretrievably part of the region."

Photo courtesy of Meagan Weymes

On the issue of the Greater Sunrise oil and gas field, subject to an ongoing stand off between Australian company Woodside and East Timor’s government over how to extract the gas, Ruak is non-committal.

The current government has stated it will not approve a development plan for the gas field that doesn’t include a pipeline to an LNG plant on the south coast of East Timor. In a provocative move, Prime Minister Gusmao yesterday unveiled a section of pipeline which he says could be used to carry gas from the disputed field into East Timor.

Ruak would not reveal whether he supported the current government’s policy of building a pipeline to East Timor.

"The most important stance that Timor-Leste may take to is to dialogue with all parties involved," he said.

Upon being sworn in, the new president will take on one of his most important functions, appointing a new government, which is likely to involve some form of coalition with either Gusmao’s CNRT party or the nation’s biggest political party Fretilin.

Until then, Ruak says the priority is to make sure the parliamentary elections, on 7 July, run as smoothly as the presidential elections, a step that will "reinforce the maturity of democracy in East Timor". 

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.