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Interview with Jose Ramos-Horta

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  • "We can turn East Timor into a sort of Dubai in Southeast Asia"
  • "I have not seen a politician in this country fighting each other with guns"
  • "If in a few months... they realized that it was a mistake... just let me know"
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(CNN) -- Dr. Jose Ramos-Horta is the president of East Timor, the former Portuguese colony shattered by conflict in 1999. The Nobel Peace Prize laureate recently spoke with CNN's Richard Quest in the presidential office about his lifelong work fighting for his people, achieving independence, and the 2006 violence that plagued the country. Ramos-Horta also spoke about the role the United Nations plays in his country and how he has reconciled with the Indonesian army.

Dr. Jose Ramos-Horta, president of East Timor

Dr. Jose Ramos-Horta, president of East Timor


RQ: Hello, welcome to Talk Asia. I'm Richard Quest in Dili, East Timor. Look at the picture behind me, it is picture-postcard perfect. White sandy beaches, crystal-clear blue water, a nice spot for a bit of tourism. But this is East Timor, a country driven by decades of strife and violence. My guest this week on Talk Asia is the new president of the country, Jose Ramos-Horta. This is Talk Asia.

We met in Dili where the international community is still working to make East Timor a safe place to live.

RQ: For three decades, you fought for independence. And then you got it, and you went one better, you became president of the country. But you are in that very small group of people in the world, who are in many ways, above politics, above party politics. And I think of the prime example, Nelson Mandela, the people who are, have transcended the daily fight.

JRH: Well, of course I don't want to create any, mislead anyone. I definitely do not compare myself to Nelson Mandela. I'm me, with my limited qualities and my many flaws, my many sins. But yes, I abhorred party politics in this country. I quit party politics almost 20 years ago, to be fairly neutral -- not to be above anyone, but I simply refuse to be involved in our petty partisan politics. It does not mean that there are not many good people in the political party system. Of course there are, there are many good people, and because of them that I have hopes for our country and for democracy in this country.

RQ: You are that rare breed of international politician, a Nobel Peace Prize winner, but nobody says no to you.

JRH: I'm fortunate that having spent 24 years abroad, but I put a lot of effort in cultivating people. I have many good friends in Washington, in U.S. Congress, in Europe, in Australia, in Asia, everywhere. But because I did it out of respect for these people whom I came across, and they were very caring about East Timor. So today I'm very privileged to say that I'm in the good favor of someone like Bill Clinton, I'm in good favor of many senators in Washington.

RQ: Which countries around the world do you believe you can, if not emulate, at least imitate?

JRH: Well we, of course, we are a bit over a million now. 1.1 million. Population growth is very, very high, I don't know if it's something we should be proud of. But we have oil and gas resources, tremendous potential for tourism, our coffee is, I would say the best in the world. I would see East Timor develop as Dubai. We have a United Arab Emirates, particularly Dubai. We have oil, we have gas, if we invest strategically, wisely. If we diversify right now our current investment portfolio, where we have 1.5 billion dollars in U.S. treasury bonds, we get 100 million dollars every month, and this will increase in the next few years from other fields. We can turn East Timor into a sort of Dubai in Southeast Asia.

RQ: What do you see as being the U.N.'s role here? What do you think of the United Nations?

JRH: Well the U.N. obviously is not made up entirely of Mother Teresas and the Einsteins. The U.N. is us, all of us. East Timor is a member of the U.N. And we all are the qualities and the flaws. The U.N. in our country was extremely important particularly in 1999, when the Security Council, in a very expeditious manner, authorized a peacekeeping force, peace enforcing force to come to Timor Leste. But then the Security Council authorized the then U.N. transition administration, to be here only for two years, to build a nation-state from ashes. Well, I told friends in the Security Council, not long ago, a few months ago in New York: Do you realize how long does it take to make a small takeaway business, takeaway restaurant in New York, Manhattan, profitable? Well, three, five years. Do we want to make a nation-state viable in two years?

RQ: How long will it take, do you believe, to create this nation-state then?

JRH: Well, we need... because we started from zero in 2002. The U.N. had two-year mandate to build the institution of the state. In two years! It's mind-boggling, you know, that they thought in New York that you can build a nation-state in two years. But it was not only the fault of the U.N. Many of our own people here, leaders included, were in a hurry to get in the panels. After 24 years, after 500 years of Portuguese rule. I was a lonely voice who argued at the time in New York and here, we should try to get the U.N. to be here for at least five years and then independence come only at the fifth year. But by the time the U.N. left in 2002, we have basically the sketch, the skeleton of a state, not a really functioning state.


After years of calm...

RQ: From the outside looking in, you fought for so many years for peace and independence. You got independence. So why is there still violence here?

JRH: Well, sometimes, it's obviously there is much exaggeration in the way the situation here is reported. The politicians fight each other, but I have not seen a politician in this country fighting each other with guns. The violence that took place last year was mostly done by some elements in the armed forces, in the police, that were... resented each other. There were rivalries in discipline and there were violence carried out by gangs, youth gangs, partly because of drugs, alcohol, partly because of feeling of alienation, of poverty and unemployment.

RQ: But you did call in an external military force from Australia and New Zealand.

JRH: That's true, we could have prevented a civil war on our own, maybe. But at that time, I was foreign minister still. I discussed this dilemma with my friends, my colleagues, including with the bishop. Our pride aside, we simply thought we should not take chances; we should not risk more people getting hurt. We thought no, we could not risk lives here. There are divisions, deep divisions within our police force, deep divisions within our defense force. The two institutions that are supposed to guarantee security and tranquility to our people were divided up, were fighting each other. So we decided no, let's call support from our friends like Australia, New Zealand, Malaysia and Portugal.

RQ: I've met many people for whom I've used the phrase "They've lived in exile." But I've never understood. So tell me sir, what is it like to go into exile? What's it like?

JRH: Well, you know when I first arrived in New York, December '75. Having never been in a big city in my life, have never seen snow in my life, and my duty was to speak before the Security Council at age 25 or 26. My first meeting was with the-then Soviet Union ambassador Mr. Yakov Malik. Someone in his seventies. He was already Soviet ambassador in San Francisco, when the U.N. was founded. Well, the whole time I was talking to him, briefing him about East Timor, he was sleeping. And because you're sleeping and because I'm very polite, I talked even more softly because I didn't want to wake him up. And also I was worried, if I talked too loudly, he'll wake up, he gets annoyed at me for waking him up. So that was my first great diplomatic encounter in New York.

RQ: I suppose you spent a lot of time explaining to people where East Timor is on the map.

JRH: That's true. Most people... Well, in the U.N. they knew. But Americans, New Yorkers, every time I tell someone that I'm from East Timor, they say, you mean you're an Eskimo? Or they'll say, oh you're from Istanbul? Just to explain to people where we are, who we are, what we want...

RQ: You never gave up, what kept you going?

JRH: No, I actually never thought of giving up. Or every time something like that cross my mind, I would... A voice would tell me, my conscience would tell me, that if I were to give up, I would be betraying those who trusted me to speak for them.

RQ: Your personal loss during the years of struggle was quite huge, wasn't it?

JRH: Yes, I lost a sister and two younger brothers.

RQ: Two of whom you don't even know where they're buried?

JRH: Exactly. Yes. Till today, we don't know how they were killed, where they were killed. The sister, the luckiest one, she was killed. People saw she's been killed, she was buried. The local people, humble people, barefoot, poor, kept watch on her for 24 years. Then when I came back, I went to that village, we dug out her body and we reburied in the family grounds in Dili. The other two, we don't know where, how they were killed.

RQ: How do you live with that?

JRH: Well I absolutely... unable to. It's part of the enormous sacrifice many other Timorese, thousands of Timorese paid for it. My mother, who today lives in Australia, she doesn't... cannot bring herself to accept that reality. She's very angry why I and the other brothers and sisters, we tend to forgive. She is not prepared to forgive.

RQ: But where is your anger, Mr. President?

JRH: Well in the worst of the violence in '99, I was very angry. I wanted to see an international tribunal to charge those responsible for the violence. But then as Indonesian troops vacated East Timor, they were humiliated. You know, Indonesia is a very proud country. Their army was not defeated here, they left because there were changes in Indonesia that took place -- the Suharto dictatorship fell. And they swallowed their pride and they left. Should we wrap the wounds, no, I at that time said no, we must understand them and with them, normalize relations. We met within weeks of our country's freedom in '99. The deal was still burning. I was already in Jakarta meeting with some of the generals, whose names I heard and when I saw their nametag, I recognized some of their names that were orchestrating the violence here.


RQ: You won the Nobel Peace Prize and then you gave away the money and you gave away the medal to be sold for your people.

JRH: Yes, I gave away the medal, yes. To those who really deserved it.

RQ: What was it like winning the peace prize?

JRH: How was it like?

RQ: What was it like, yes?

JRH: Well, I was embarrassed, I was shocked when I heard the news, I couldn't believe. I thought others deserve it more than I did, and of course then it was extraordinary to advance because of freedom of democracy for my country.

RQ: But there's no doubt that winning the Nobel Peace Prize vests the recipients in an authority that nothing else does.

JRH: No, the individual, the individual in himself or herself must have had already a lot of credibility. Otherwise you will not win the Nobel Peace Prize. Because of his record, her record, he got the Nobel Peace Prize and then you have international recognition, visibility, and make his life, his work easier.

RQ: Vice President Al Gore is the latest recipient of the Prize.

JRH: Well, I congratulate Vice President Al Gore for winning the Nobel Peace Prize, for his work on the environment, and on this occasion, I wish to think of the many more whom I know, who have been struggling for the environment for their case in my vicinity, Australia, that is the Australian politician, Doctor Bob Brown. He's been struggling for making environment an issue for 30 years. I don't know whether writing a book and making a film is enough to win a Nobel Peace Prize, but I congratulate Al Gore for that, I don't know what he did. Eight years in White House, whether he did much to advance the cause of the environment, when he was, he was a powerful vice-president of the United States.

RQ: So this is your presidential...

JRH: Yeah, that is my humble office. Although I'm moving to an office you've seen here on the beachfront.

RQ: Is this the one that's being built with the help the Chinese? (JRH: Yeah.) It's fast! Why do you need such a big palace?

JRH: Well, we have, we're walking towards membership in ASEAN. We will need at least 250 staff, and actually the building was designed for 150. So actually it's going to be small.

RQ: But I'm very impressed and encouraged sir, your palace is over the road from your people.

JRH: Yes, and I always say hello to them and my office is open to their bare foot. Just now I met with some eight to 10 people who came from some remote villages of the country. And I was sitting there chatting with them, and to start implementing with them, the anti-poverty problem, some of the projects that I picked.

RQ: How easy is it for an ordinary member of your country to get to see the president?

JRH: Well, of course there are many, many who want to see me, not everybody manage this because of time factor. But yesterday I spent quite a bit of time twice with an old, old lady, such a lovely delightful woman, very simple, illiterate, maybe in her seventies. She came all the way from the rural area, traveling at least four, five hours on a bus to come to see me. Fortunately I saw her, and immediately walked, invited her into the office. So I see people often.

RQ: Did she like it?

JRH: Oh yeah, yeah. And I enjoy them, it's not only my obligation but I actually enjoy them simple people, you know chatting with them, hearing stories from them, but also of course trying to help them.

RQ: You said to me sir, if the going gets really tough, and it all gets really nasty, and everybody starts saying... You'll tell them what?

JRH: Well I tell them, you know, on camera I have to be diplomatic, but I say these. I don't need this job, I don't want this job, so don't waste your time with demonstrations, don't waste your shoes, don't do shouts, don't scream, it's just a few of you. Write up a letter to me, saying, Sir, you should resign, and I'll resign. I'm not Musharraf, I'm not Saddam Hussein, I'm not George W. Bush, who hangs in there eight years, all these. I don't really care. I'm here because so many people pushed me. I got 70 percent of the votes. People seem to like me, but if in a few months from now, they realized that it was a mistake, well, just let me know.

RQ: Mr. President, thank you for talking to Talk Asia. Thank you, sir.

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