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Wednesday, 12 June, 2002, 13:55 GMT 14:55 UK
East Timor's Jose Ramos Horta

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Nobel peace laureate and East Timor's foreign minister Jose Ramos Horta answered your questions in a live forum.

For almost a quarter of a century he was a leading figure in East Timor's campaign against Indonesian rule. The country finally became independent last month.

Jose Ramos Horta fled the former Potuguese colony a few days before Indonesia invaded in 1975, and worked in exile to lobby for a free East Timor.

He was jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1996 alongside Bishop Carlos Belo, the leader of East Timor's majority Catholic population.

Now he is East Timor's foreign minster, with a key role in building the country's future.

Jose Ramos Horta answered your questions in a live forum.

The topics discussed in this forum were:

  • Struggle for freedom
  • Relations with Indonesia
  • Economic future
  • National language
  • Corruption
  • Religious conflict
  • Citizenship

    Bridget Kendall:

    Hello and welcome to this News Interactive forum. I'm Bridget Kendall and today I'm joined by Jose Ramos Horta, East Timor's Foreign Minister and a man who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his role in the country's campaign for independence against Indonesian rule. East Timor got that independence last month and Jose Ramos Horta has played a leading role since in securing security and stability for what is the world's newest nation.

    Welcome Dr. Horta. We've had hundreds of questions for you. The first two that I want to put to you relate to the fact that really East Timor is in a very unique position and is seen by the United Nations as really the jewel in its crown - a country that it's been able to give independence to.

    Struggle for freedom

    Abid from the United States says: Why do you think that the United Nations took the firm stand in case of East Timor? Because there are many areas around the world that also want independence, for example the Palestinian people, the people of Kashmir. Is it because it's a Christian issue and not a Muslim area under occupation?

    Jose Ramos Horta:

    No it has absolutely nothing to do with the fact that East Timor is Christian Catholic because let us not forget that East Timor was occupied and forgotten for a quarter of a century. It was only until 1997/98 with an economic and financial crisis that shook the region - South East and East Asia and brought down the Suharto regime because of corruption, cronyism and nepotism of the regime that Suharto came down crumbling, there was a new president and there was strong international pressure to resolve the problem of East Timor.

    Bridget Kendall:

    Zahid Ali who is in the United Kingdom asks: As far the Palestinians or Kashmir people go, do the people East Timor and you yourself have a message to them - these people who have a struggle for freedom?

    We have also another question along the same lines from Serge Tshamala, who is from Kinshasa in the Congo, although I think he is writing to us from the United States. He says: What is your advice to the separatist movements in Somalia who are attempting to become independent?

    Jose Ramos Horta:

    I would say that the individuals and the groups of individuals, communities, who have legitimate grievances or who have legitimate causes, whatever they may be - seeking independence, full independence, seeking autonomy from the central government but continuing to stay within that country. My recommendation and appeal from the bottom of my heart as a human being as someone who went through 25 long years - often of frustration, of loneliness, desperation - I would say do never surrender yourself to violence, to hatred, do not resort to violence against innocent civilians.

    I simply cannot conceive of a nation based on a record of killing civilians - how would a Palestinian state, for instance, look in 10 years from now - assuming there is going to be Palestinian state - I believe it will be, they deserve it. But how is it going to look when it is filled with so much hatred, so much violence? Are they going to be able to provide peace, tranquillity, justice to themselves and their own people?

    The same would go with the Kashmir and to the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka. My message is: abandon violence, push your cause with dignity, with honour and without violence and you will have the sympathy of millions of people. Let us assume in Palestine today - someone in Palestine would say to the people - let's all drop violence, let's all drop our guns, let's all follow Mahatma Gandhi's approach of civil disobedience. They would paralyse Palestine and they would have millions of people around the world supporting them. It would be far more effective than the suicide bombings and the terror tactics.

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    Relations with Indonesia

    Bridget Kendall:

    Dr Horta what about the future of your country though? It's still new and very fragile. We've had a question from Doug in Australia: Do you think that Indonesia would like to see the newly independent East Timor fail, so that other problem provinces will lose the desire for independence?

    Jose Ramos Horta:

    It's a very, very interesting question. I presume some in Indonesia who are not happy with seeing East Timor being free, would like to see East Time fail - become economically backward, ungovernable because of instability. But others in the government - the president, the foreign minister and many others, more rational individuals, they would like to see East Timor stable. Indonesia is supporting our efforts to join ASEAN, the grouping of South East Asia nations, of which Indonesia is a leading member because an East Timor that is stable and prosperous can help also with trade and developing other parts of Indonesia that are near to us to prosper. And if Indonesia is also stable and prosperous, East Timor will benefit tremendously because we have much more trade with Indonesia than with Australia. So it's in our interest for the two sides - for East Timor and for Indonesia to stabilise and prosper.

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    Economic future

    Bridget Kendall:

    What about the economic future? Jason King in Iceland says: Now that we have a free East Timor, what is your plan for economic sustainability and growth given the country's scarce natural resources and knowledge capital?

    A further question from Sharaad Kuttan in Malaysia: East Timor has become independent in a region facing some of the severest tests in terms of economic and political management? What role could ASEAN could play to help East Timor?

    Jose Ramos Horta:

    To answer first the question from the gentleman from Iceland. I would like first to say how Iceland has been very supportive of East Timor - one of the few countries in the world that from the very beginning supported self-determination for us. The Icelandic Government itself is providing some modest assistance in terms of helping us with our fisheries. We have abundant fishery resources that are not properly tapped at the moment. We have more than 100 fishing vessels fishing illegally in our waters from all over the region. We have oil, we have natural gas. We have signed a deal with Australia that will bring about at least 200 million dollars a year in revenue for East Timor three years from now.

    But yes, we are very short in human capital - we need to develop our human resources. And for this reason, our government is spending more money than any country in the world in terms of education - about 30% of our budget goes to education, by next year it will go up to 40% or more. We are conscious that if we want to develop a country, we cannot just pour money into roads and bridges, into buildings and not pour money into human resources - into education.

    But at the same time, in terms of our relationship with our neighbours, it's vital for East Timor's development that we develop strong foundations of relationships with our region. The ASEAN countries have been very supportive - the Philippines, Thailand have had peacekeeping troops there. Singapore has modest peacekeeping troops there as well but they have been very supportive. Malaysia has been in the forefront also now in supporting us. We are paying an official visit to Malaysia - we are attending the ASEAN ministerial meeting at the end of July. So as you see have a very active foreign policy that is on the move in forging relationships with the region and this will be the foundations of our security - the foundations of our economic wellbeing.

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    National language

    Bridget Kendall:

    Dr Horta, I want to explore a little bit this question of education which you were putting such emphasis on. We've had a lot of questions from people wanting to know why East Timore has chosen Portuguese as the national language.

    Peter Kemp in Australia asks: Why have you chosen Portuguese as a national language? Was this a political or a practical choice?

    Another question from Australia, Ron Walker says: I appreciate that the real lingua franca of East Timor, Bahasa, carries political baggage that makes it unattractive to ex-freedom fighters; but isn't the most valuable use of language communication rather than political posturing?

    Jose Ramos Horta:

    First let me say that Bahasa in Indonesia is not the lingua franca - the lingua franca is Tetun. Bahasa is spoken by 30 - 40% of the people, particularly young people. Tetun, the native language of East Timor is spoken by about 80% of our people. The Tetun language and the Portuguese language are the two official languages. Often we are misrepresented that Portuguese is the only official language - no, we have two official languages: Tetun and Portuguese. But Tetun is still a rudimentary language - it still needs to be developed. Like Bahasa has borrowed hundreds of words from the Portuguese language itself. If you speak Bahasa you know that there are hundreds of words that were borrowed from the Portuguese - from early Portuguese colonisation of the region before the Dutch came in.

    Some people say, why don't we use English? Well, English does not resolve all our problems. Of course we teach English in schools - hopefully 10 - 20 years from now, we will have 5 - 10% of our people - our elite, our youth speaking English to enable them to access science, technology etc. But this is different from making a language an official language. It has to do with the history, the culture and the identity of the country. So when we went for Portuguese and Tetun, it was a strategic decision to strengthen the uniqueness of East Timor, the national identity of East Timor. We are not that idiotic to forget the importance of Bahasa or English. People can continue to use Bahasa if they so wish, we are not forbidding Bahasa - we still teach it in schools.

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    Bridget Kendall:

    Our next question is about the dangers of corruptions. This comes from David Hayter who is e-mailing us from Cambodia. He says: Governments who receive large amounts of foreign aid, after emerging from war or civil strife seem to have a tendency to be very corrupt, thereby alienating themselves from the population they claim to serve. What are your strategies to minimise the chances of this happening in East Timor?

    Jose Ramos Horta:

    We have a very good working relationship with the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. Many other countries do not have the same positive experience but we do have a very positive experience in working with the World Bank and IMF and they have helped us to strengthen our banking system - our government system. At the same time we promote a culture of non-corruption and we will take drastic action against corruption in the civil service. We are aware of the dangers.

    We inherited some legacy from the Indonesian time in terms of our corruption but I can assure you, as far as this government is concerned, as far as our president is concerned, we will stamp out corruption wherever it might emerge. Our people paid a heavy price for the independence of our country. We don't want to go down the path of so many others with broken dreams and promises. I would feel ashamed myself - someone who is known around the world, who has so many friends who trust in me, believe in me that one day I have to come forward and defend a corrupt government - I would never be in such a position. Many others in my government and my country share the same sentiments so I am confident that East Timor is not going to be like a few other countries in the world that are ridden with corruption.

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    Religious conflict

    Bridget Kendall:

    Our next question is from Alexander Danga in Romania: As Indonesia is the biggest Muslim country in the world, facing growing violence between Muslims and Roman Catholics, do you expect East Timor to become a refuge for all the Indonesian Catholics? Do you support the separatist movements (on religious grounds) in other Indonesian provinces?

    Jose Ramos Horta:

    Indonesia is a huge, diverse country. Ethnically speaking, there are about 250 or so ethnic groups and speaking about 500 languages and inhabiting thousands of islands - there are 17,000 islands in Indonesia. So in the best of times it is always very difficult to govern Indonesia. So we cannot but express our most sincere sympathy to the government of President Megawati Sukarnoputri that is presiding over the fourth largest country in the world and presiding over extraordinary efforts in reforming the political system, reforming the armed forces and at the same time having to deal with the centrifugal forces in Asia and elsewhere trying to pull in different directions - trying to obtain independence from Indonesia.

    We on the East Timor side have to make very clear, we will not support the dismembering of the Indonesian republic - it will not serve the interests of the region. At the same time, we commend the Indonesian president for putting forward the autonomy package which was unthinkable two years ago. I also personally two years ago, if you had asked me - would Indonesia grant autonomy is Aceh and West Papua - I would say no. They have surprised everybody. The autonomy package they have provided to Aceh and West Papua are unique opportunities that I would hope the Acehenese and West Papuans would seize on it. If they accept autonomy and if they drop demands on independence, they will be able to negotiate with Jakarta from a position of strength. The Indonesian people would support it and the international community would support it. If they keep demanding independence, they will not have the support from the international community and no support from the Indonesian people.

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    Bridget Kendall:

    Shibu Varkey in the United Arab Emirates asks: I would like to know about citizenship and naturalisation of East Timor. Will you accept foreign nationals interested in settling down in this tiny nation just as the Canadians/Australians do?

    Jose Ramos Horta:

    We are adopting a nationality law of which I am not entirely familiar with because it was adopted soon after I left. But we not close down the doors to foreigners who want to settle and obtain nationality. I think you are required to be living there for five or ten years. If a foreigner was married to a Timorese man or woman, they would be required to be married for five years. We don't require visas to enter East Timor - anyone arriving at the airport would immediately get a three month visa. So we facilitate access to East Timor by outsiders.

    In response to the questioner from United Arab Emirates - I have met with some diplomats from the United Arab Emirates - they came to our independence. I have met with some very, very charming people from Kuwait. We are also interested in developing relations with the Arab world. We are working with some Arab countries - Muslim countries - in getting us observer status in the Islamic conference.

    Although Timor is predominately Catholic - 98% Catholic - our prime minister - the very first prime minister in our country is a Muslim of Arab background - his ancestors came from the Yemen. I don't want to be arrogant in terms of saying that we set an example, but the fact of the matter that you have a country of 98% devout Catholics and a prime minister who is a Muslims when Muslims are no more than about 1,000 - 2,000 people in my country - it doesn't even count as a percentage of the population - I think it is a sign of hope that religions and ethnicities should not divide people.

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