Jose Ramos Horta shot

Shock. Jose Ramos Horta is not the kind of guy who gets shot — even if he was a member of a liberation movement in exile, and is now the second elected President of recently-independent but still troubled East Timor. He is gentle, conciliatory (mostly), and determinedly non-violent.

Reuters photo in The Age of Ramos Horta being taken into Royal Darwin Hospital in Australia

But apparently about 12 hours ago, he was shot, three times, in an attack in which, it now appears, one of his body guards and at least one of the attackers were killed.

Jill Jolliffe, a journalist who has long specialized in East Timorese affairs, and who had just returned from a trip there, said in an audio report for The Age of Australia that Jose Ramos Horta was shot during a “heavy exchange of fire” that she said she had been told had lasted about 20 minutes. The area is now under the control of Portuguese UN troops, Jolliffe said.

Yes, he was my friend, too. Or, perhaps I should rather say that I am his friend … and I, too, am praying for him now, as I have in the past. He got more or less introduced himself, either in late 1979 or early 1980, in the corridor between the Security Council chambers and the Delegate’s Lounge at UNHQ/New York, where he spent many years in exile, rather sucessfully lobbying (from a position of real initial weakness) and representing his people’s cause at the United Nations with the support of Mozambique, then China, then Portugal, and some American and NGO sympathizers. He said he loved Japanese food and sushi. And he made a delicious chicken-and-celery stew that he served with rice.

But, all the journalists knew him.

He had many friends — and very few enemies. He even worked hard to distinguish between the Indonesian (Muslim) military personnel who persecuted his people (mostly Catholics), and other Indonesian political figures, who he sought out over the years, as he tried to build alliances and find a political resolution to his people’s oppression.

But, religious allegiances were important to him, not least because of their political significance …

He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1996, jointly with the Roman Catholic Bishop Belo of Dili.

As CNN wrote today, “East Timor, a former Portuguese colony, gained independence in 2002 after voting to break free from more than two decades of brutal Indonesian occupation in a U.N.-sponsored ballot”.

They won, while other liberation movements have languished and floundered. They gained their independence –both by luck and by the political skill of the Fretilin and associated Timorese liberation leaders, not least among them Jose Ramos Horta.

The BBC reported that “The attack on Mr Ramos-Horta happened at around 0700 local time on Monday morning (2200 GMT Sunday). Two cars drove past the president’s house on the outskirts of the capital, Dili, shooting him on the road outside”. The BBC headline reads: “East Timor President shot by rebels” — a line in tone with comments on the attack by Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, who said, according to the BBC report, that the “attempt to assassinate the democratically elected leadership of a close friend and neighbour of Australia’s is a deeply disturbing development … It’s obviously a destabilizing time, with rogue elements at play. Therefore an appropriate show of force is necessary.”

Ramos Horta’s condition is described as critical, but stable. He underwent initial surgery at an Australian military hospital in East Timor, and has been flown to Darwin, Australia for further treatment. A medical update says he has been put in an induced coma and is on a ventilator, in intensive care.

The attacker who was killed, reportedly, is the notorious / legendary Rebel leader Alfredo Reinado. That is simply amazing. Why would he come out of hiding to carry out such a high-profile attack? Does it make any sense? He would know that there would be some sort of security around the country’s president. Unless, of course,it was an attempt to get very personal revenge … Or, unless the whole thing is a horrible set-up in a very dark drama …

IF this report is true — IF it is confirmed, Australian reporter Jolliffe said — then she said that she fears violence from both his young supporters, and also from the supporters of Ramos Horta as well.

The Age reports elsewhere that “Police in Dili have shown reporters photos of Reinado’s body, confirming his death in the shootout”. This report can be viewed here.

The Associated Press writes that “Analysts predicted Reinado’s supporters may riot in the coming days, but said his death had removed one of the major obstacles to peace in the country”. This AP report is here.

So some people are happy that Reinado is out of the way…

The BBC says that East Timorese “Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao, who was also attacked in a second and apparently drive-by shooting, said it was an attempted coup and called for calm….Shots were also fired at the prime minister’s car shortly afterwards, but he was not hurt. Mr Gusmao told a press briefing that the situation was under control. “I consider this incident a coup attempt against the state by Reinado and it failed,” he said. “This government will guarantee security and development will continue.”

Gusmao, Alkatiri and Ramos Horta were all active in the FRETILIN movement for East Timor’s independence. Gusmao stayed inside the country, and led the resistance. He was captured and jailed by Indonesia. Alkatiri (of distant Yemeni origin, therefore distantly Muslim), was the “Foreign Minister”, who otherwise lived in a farm offered as a means of support and self-sufficiency by the Mozambican government down by the border with South Africa. And Ramos Horta was mostly in New York.

In 2002, Gusmao became the country’s first president. Ramos Horta was the Foreign Minister, and Alkatiri became Prime Minister.

Post-“peace” divisions ensued: Ramos Horta and Gusmao were increasingly favor of a close alliance with Australia to “develop” East Timor (having realistically forgiven Australia’s attempt to exploit East Timor’s offshore oilfileds, during the height of the Indonesian military repression and the years that the FRETILIN independence movement was considered hopeless and irrelevant).

Alkatiri was considered more “leftist”. He was forced to resign, and disgraced, after the 2006 riots which he is judged to have mishandled, and was replaced as Prime Minister by Ramos Horta.

In 2007 Ramos Horta and Gusmao changed positions: then-PM Ramos Horta replaced Gusmao as President, and in subsequent elections Gusmao became Prime Minister.

This deepening drama is very strange indeed.

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