East Timor parliament sworn in, no deal yet on government

The Associated Press

Published: July 30, 2007

DILI, East Timor: East Timor’s newly elected parliament was sworn in Monday, but there was no sign of agreement over the formation of the next government a year after violence brought the country to the brink of civil war.

The Fretilin party won parliamentary elections in June, but fell short of a ruling majority. It insists it has the right to lead any new government, but is up against a coalition of parties that controls more seats in the legislature.

President Jose Ramos-Horta has repeatedly urged the two sides to form a national unity government but both refuse, with one of the biggest disputes being who should be named prime minister.

After Monday’s swearing-in ceremony, lawmakers unanimously selected Fernando “Lasama” de Araujo of the Democratic Party as president of the 65-member body, triggering small protests by supporters of the man he replaced, Francisco Gueteres of Fretilin.

Dozens of youths clutching steel pipes and machetes hurled rocks at passing cars and motorcycles in the capital, Dili, and shouted, “Lasama has robbed Fretilin’s position.” Others burned tires, but witnesses said they were quickly dispersed by police.

East Timor, which broke free from decades of often brutal Indonesian rule in 1999 following a U.N.-sponsored ballot, descended into chaos last year when clashes between rival security forces spiraled into gang warfare and looting.

At least 37 people were killed and another 155,000 forced to flee their homes before the young government collapsed and foreign troops arrived to restore order. But isolated acts of violence continue and the political deadlock has raised fears of prolonged unrest.

Ramos-Horta said if parties failed to reach a compromise, he would use his constitutional power to unilaterally form a government by the week’s end.

De Araujo, the new parliament chief, meanwhile promised he would use his position “to represent national interests, not those of individuals or certain parties.”

“We won’t act as a mouthpiece for the government,” he told the legislature. “Rather, we will be the ears of the poor, who have been longing for true independence and a better, decent life.”

East Timor, a tiny nation of less than a million people, is facing major security, humanitarian and economic challenges just five years after it officially became Asia’s newest state.

Unemployment hovers at around 50 percent, and aid agencies have warned that a fifth of the population is threatened by food shortages after crop failures. []

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