‘Much to be done’: new president brings Timor-Leste hope for a better future
Francisco ‘Lú-Olo’ Guterres says he will pursue the long-running matter of maritime and land borders with Australia and Indonesia
National pride is a serious business for Timor-Leste, a young country with a violent history. So on the eve of a presidential inauguration and the 15th anniversary of the nation’s independence, the capital Dili is covered in flags. They adorn houses, fences, bikes and cars. They are draped over balconies and the arms of the half-dozen flag sellers on each block.
As the sun sets on Dili, the seaside road fills with cars, bikes and bemos taking thousands to the historic Tasi Tolu, a park on the outskirts of the city that is deeply embedded in the story of Timor-Leste’s path to freedom. It is where Pope John Paul II once led a mass in the local language, Tetum. It is also where thousands first rallied against the Indonesian occupation, where thousands more sheltered during political upheaval, and where in 2002 the government formally proclaimed its independence.
Francisco “‘Lú-Olo’ ” Guterres, a former guerrilla fighter, won the March presidential election in a single round of voting. He is the country’s fourth president but its first to come from the nationalist leftwing party, Fretilin, born from the decades-long resistance movement.
The 12-hour inauguration ceremony – the first since UN peacekeepers left in 2012 – began at 6pm. During inexplicably long pauses, the crowd remained quiet and solemnly respectful of the event, which represents a sovereign freedom won at a great cost.
The military parade across the wide concrete grounds separated the dignitaries and world leaders under awnings draped in the national colours from the thousands of citizens standing in the dusty park or on the back of utes.
Lú-Olo and his predecessor, Taur Matan Ruak, arrived about midnight by motorcade. Speeches and formalities, the bestowing of the Great Necklace of the Order of Timor-Leste, a 21-gun salute, the raising of the flag, a lap of honour in a military jeep, and more than one rendition of the anthem, followed.
Fireworks marked the end of formalities at 3am, before a public concert entertained those who were still awake at dawn.
Lú-Olo formally took over the presidency and claimed a mandate to “preside over the destiny of the nation”.
“We should be proud of so much that has been done during the last 15 years, but we should be aware that there is still much to be done,” he told the crowd.
He indicated that his administration would push Timor-Leste on to the world stage, fostering relationships and defending its hard-won sovereignty.
“I will follow with particular attention and interest the process to establish demarcation of our permanent maritime and land borders with our neighbouring countries, Australia and Indonesia,” he said, referencing the long-running and frequently bitter dispute with Australia – now before the Hague – over rights to an estimated $40bn oil and gas reserve in the Timor Sea.
Domestically, he pledged sustainable development, political stability, national unity, and action on violence against women and children, and poverty.
Nona and Angelina Fernandez, 19-year-old twins who grew up learning of the troubles that began before they were born and continued until they were young children, stayed most of the night.
“I remember this independence, and now I am going to see our new president so we can welcome him,” said Nona. “And so he can see how we are going to support our leaders … For me, the president is very important in my life.”
Another woman, 22-year-old Melania, said she hoped the new leader would make education a priority.
“I believe he can build a good nation and be a better president for our country,” she said.
The presidency is largely ceremonial but is influential and seen as a figure of unity. Lú-Olo’s election – after two previous unsuccessful attempts – was assisted by the backing of the CNRT leader, Xanana Gusmao, a beloved former president and political kingmaker.
The 62-year-old is a veteran guerrilla commander and was president of the national parliament following independence.
Jose Ramos Horta, the independence leader and former president and prime minister, has previously told the Guardian the country is not so tied to its revolutionary heroes as observers suggest, but at least for those who attended the inauguration, freedom fighters are the obvious choice to now take the country through its adolescence.
Andre Rangel Gomes said they had a “moral responsibility to make a contribution to the nation”.
“It’s important because their contribution for all these years show these people really are here to contribute to the nation building.”
Gomes, who told the Guardian he was a survivor of the 1991 Santa Cruz massacre – when Indonesian forces shot and killed at least 250 Timorese pro-independence demonstrators – said Lú-Olo’s most important task was to maintain stability for Timor-Leste.
Josera de Costa, a public servant, also noted Lú-Olo’s guerrilla past, and said he was very happy to be at the inauguration.
“As leaders of the country they have a lot of experience. The younger generation need more preparation for the future,” he said.
“Lú-Olo has to do everything to make people’s lives better in this nation. Access to education, electricity, sanitation, water, housing for people.”
Nona said: “I want my president to see all these people who are poor people. To make the roads go to the village, and see how poor all the people still are far from the city.”
Poverty in Timor-Leste is decreasing, but remains a way of life for about one-third of the population. In 15 years, the country has come far but as Lú-Olo notes, it still has far to go.
Parliamentary elections will be held in coming months and Ruak is expected to run with his newly formed Peoples Liberation party.
Should the PLP win, Ruak will follow in the footsteps of several predecessors who have held the presidency and prime ministership, including Gusmao and Horta.
He will hold more power as prime minister, steering the country through economically dangerous times. The country’s leaders acknowledge its precarious over-dependence on oil and gas revenues – these contribute between 90% and 95% of the annual US$1.3bn-1.5bn ($1.75bn-$2bn) budget but current reserves are due to run out in the next few years. There is a lot of hope and investment riding on a favourable outcome in the dispute with Australia.
The vice-finance minister, Helder Lopes, told the Guardian before the inauguration that warnings the country could become a failed state were “partially correct” but the government was well aware of what it needed to do.
More than US$16bn has been funnelled into a sovereign wealth fund, which is partially invested but also heavily utilised in public spending. East Timorese ministers and diplomats are unapologetic about the government’s front loaded expenditure on infrastructure, arguing that without good roads, reliable electricity, and fast internet, investors will stay away.
Lopes noted the low 10% corporate tax rate and generous investor incentives as he described his government’s hope that Timor-Leste would become a manufacturing and finance hub in the region. He said Timor-Leste was geographically well placed and politically stable, making it an attractive option for foreign investors if the infrastructure was up to scratch.
“The next election is key. If we don’t have any problems, I believe we will give a positive signal to private sector investors.”
The Guardian travelled as a guest of the Timor-Leste embassy.