A year after surviving an assassination attempt, President José Ramos-Horta is feeling good about his country. Peace seems to have taken hold in East Timor, where U.N. peacekeepers have been based almost continuously since 1999. The economy is bucking trends in the region with a 12 percent growth rate last year. And Aug. 30 marks the 10-year anniversary of the vote for independence from Indonesia. For Ramos-Horta, who shared a Nobel Peace Prize in 1996 for his nonviolent work toward independence and was elected president in 2007, things could hardly look better.
Proud of recent success and touting plans for more, Ramos-Horta spoke to Foreign Policy from his new Chinese-built presidential compound in Dili, East Timor’s capital. He criticizes the West’s misunderstandings about his country and discusses the progress it has made in recent years. Despite challenges ahead — from security reform to corruption to widespread poverty — Ramos-Horta says that the United States is closer to being a “failing state” than the country he leads. Excerpts:
Foreign Policy: The United Nations decided in February to extend the mandate of its peacekeeping force for another year. How is security-sector reform in East Timor progressing? Are the East Timorese police ready to resume full responsibilities from the United Nations?
José Ramos-Horta: I am confident that the PNTL [National Police of East Timor] can assume full responsibilities. I prefer that the handover be at a prudent pace alongside continued training and institutional reform. I would like the U.N. police to give backup until 2012, and I know there is political will among contributing countries for this.
I see a two-to-three-year horizon before we have progressed enough in redeveloping our defense forces. The Army has recruited new soldiers to fill projected numbers. In the next two years we face a generation[al] change, as resistance veterans retire after serving this country for 30 years.
FP: Many of the personnel involved in the 2006 East Timor crisis have retained senior positions in the security forces. Are elites exempt from justice? How will this affect people’s confidence in the country’s institutions?
JRH: Some American and European “geniuses,” who write in newspapers and so-called academic journals, have labeled ours as a failed state. Well, I can only cite another American institution, the International Republican Institute, which did a two-month survey in late 2008 and reached the following conclusions: Confidence in the president is 83 percent, confidence in the police is 82 percent, confidence in the prime minister, I think, is 79 percent, and more than 60 percent had confidence in how the country is being run.
Some of these pseudo intellectuals in the United States seem to forget that Timor-Leste [East Timor], along with China, is the one financing U.S. debt. So who is the failing state — the United States or Timor-Leste?
FP: Generating employment is vital, given East Timor’s youthful demographics and the links between unemployment and gang and/or political violence. What needs to be done to address this?
JRH: For a few years now, the government has to be the agent that takes the lead in economic development in this country. We need massive investments in roads and roads and roads. If we are serious about developing our agriculture and ensuring food security, if we want to promote tourism, if we want to provide our people access to services such as education and health, we need roads. This will create thousands of jobs for many years to come, and this [project] will last 10 years. We will build 4,000 kilometers of roads, a new airport, and a port. Foreign investment will come from tourism as we develop this infrastructure.
We are negotiating with Digicel to become the second mobile carrier here, to complement Timor Telecom, which is majority-owned by Portugal Telecom [PT]. We have started dialogue with PT for them to agree to our preference, which is [market] liberalization. PT should abide by European standards — so no monopolies here, as in Europe. As prices are reduced, you will see a huge expansion of mobile-phone users. Timor could have 500,000, maybe even 800,000 users, rather than the current 150,000 out of a population of 1.1 million.
FP: East Timor will soon celebrate its 10-year anniversary of the end of Indonesian occupation. How do you plan to mark this date?
JRH: We will celebrate August 30 in a booming economy. Dili and the rest of country are at peace; the police and Army are reconciled; and we are celebrating at a time when cooperation between Timor-Leste and Indonesia is at its best — no two countries on the planet have a better bilateral relationship.
FP: What plans are in place for post-conflict justice for the crimes committed during the Indonesian occupation and around the 1999 referendum?
JRH: My personal preference is to adopt a law that simply puts an end to the tragic chapters of the past. Let bygones be bygones. Let us not forget the victims and heroes, but let us forgive those who did harm, because God gave us a greater gift: our independence.
Let’s forget about an international tribunal — it will never happen.
Indonesia has been remarkable. It left humiliated, after investing in Timor-Leste in a way that the Portuguese never did. Indonesia is today the most vibrant democracy in Southeast Asia. It has made remarkable progress, and I leave it to them on their own watch to deal with the perpetrators of violence in Indonesia and Timor-Leste.
I lost two brothers and a sister [in the violence]. We were able to exhume the body of my sister in 2003, but we have never been able to trace [my brothers,] Nuno or Gil [Guilherme]. My mother disagrees with me, and many mothers do not share my accommodating stance with Indonesia. I say the greater justice is that we are free.
FP: How would you assess the role of the United Nations and the international community since they first intervened in 1999?
JRH: I am eternally grateful to the international community, which has invested so much in this country. With mixed results, for sure — the U.N. is not a perfect organization. But we have to accept our share of responsibility for developments so far. It was not the U.N. that decided the police and Army should fight in 2006. It was not the U.N. that told [former president and now prime minister] Kay Rala Xanana Gusmão and [former Prime Minister] Mari Alkatiri to quarrel. There are many more-important issues facing the U.N. and the international community than Timor-Leste.
FP: Prime Minister Gusmão has recently been accused of approving a large contract with a company of which his daughter was a major shareholder. What is your response to these corruption allegations?
JRH: I remain 100 percent confident in Xanana Gusmão. He was right in assigning contracts to 15 Timorese companies, and his daughter happened to be a minor member of one company. Should he have said that this company cannot take part just because of that? I don’t know the details of how this was done. But I can guarantee that Xanana Gusmão is the most decent, most caring person you will find in this country.