Attacks on East Timor’s leaders are latest upheaval in young democracy

Assassination attempts were made on the president and the prime minister.

.DILI, East Timor (AP) – This tiny nation declared independence six years ago after centuries of harsh foreign rule and conflict, its people dreaming of a life of peaceful self-determination.

The infant democracy was thrust back into upheaval when rebels attacked its newly elected leaders last Monday.

The assassination attempts on President José Ramos-Horta and Prime Minister Xanana Gusmão were stark reminders that it may be years before stability takes hold in a territory where militants are supported by many in the public.

The setback is part of East Timor’s struggle for democracy after more than four centuries as a Portuguese colony and 24 years of Indonesian occupation. It occurred despite intensive U.N.-led efforts to nurture the newly independent nation.

But the transition to democracy is never smooth, said Charles Scheiner of the nonprofit East Timor Institute for Reconstruction, Monitoring and Analysis.

“The overwhelming majority of countries in the world at this stage have instability, insurrections, dictatorships or coups,” Scheiner said.

“To see these things as being particularly unique to Timor Leste is wrong,” he said, referring to the country by its local name.

The United Nations guided the Southeast Asian territory out of an era of darkness and began rebuilding from the ruins of a scorched-earth campaign by departing Indonesian troops in 1999. East Timor declared independence in 2002, with a fanfare of fireworks and traditional dancing.

The euphoria was shattered in 2006, just as the U.N. was leaving, when the police and army disintegrated into warring factions and the government collapsed amid widespread looting, arson and gang warfare. The unrest left 37 dead and drove 155,000 from their homes.

Thousands of foreign police and soldiers rushed back to restore calm, prompting accusations that the international community had packed its bags before its job was over.

Ramos-Horta and Gusmão, revered icons of resistance during 24 years of Indonesian occupation, became president and prime minister in elections last year.

They came under attack last week by rebels from their own army in a bizarre departure from their status as untouchable heroes.

It was a sudden escalation in a bitter dispute between the government with its loyalist troops and several hundred ex-soldiers who were fired in 2006 after going on strike to protest alleged discrimination.

Ramos-Horta, the Nobel Peace prize-winning president, was struck twice by bullets and expected to make a full recovery after several rounds of surgery in an Australian hospital.

Gusmão, who was unharmed in an ambush on his motorcade, declared a 12-day state of emergency. East Timor Defense Force soldiers and Australian-led forces were combing the rugged jungle mountains outside the capital for dozens of heavily armed assailants who fled after the attacks.

It is unclear if they were attempting a coup, or were taking a gamble aimed at gaining an upper hand in negotiations with the government. Either way, it backfired with the killing of popular rebel commander Alfredo Reinado and one of his bodyguards.