José Ramos-Horta on power politics, regional relationships and generational change
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José Ramos-Horta on power politics, regional relationships and generational change

The President of Timor-Leste speaks to Michael Fullilove about the fallout from Russia’s war in Ukraine, his country’s relationship with Australia, and handing on power to a new generation of leaders.

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In this episode of The Director's Chair, Michael Fullilove speaks with His Excellency José Ramos-Horta, the President of the Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste. José and Michael discuss the fallout from Russia's invasion of Ukraine, relations between Timor-Leste and Australia and the role of China's in the Indo-Pacific region. José reflects on his time in leadership roles, and the need for his generation to effectively hand on political power to younger generations.

José Ramos-Horta was Timor-Leste's first foreign minister when it declared independence from Portugal in 1975. Following Indonesia’s invasion later that year, he became the international voice of the Timorese people. In 1996 he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. When Timor-Leste became a new nation following the Popular Consultation of 1999, he returned from exile to serve as the new nation’s first foreign minister. From 2006 to 2007 he served as Prime Minister, and from 2007 to 2012 he served as President. This year he came out of retirement and returned to the presidential palace. He was inaugurated on 20 May, which was 20th anniversary of the restoration of Timor-Leste’s independence.



Michael Fullilove: Mr. President, thank you very much for joining me today from Dili on The Director's Chair.

José Ramos-Horta: Thank you. Thank you. A great pleasure. Michael.

Michael Fullilove: I want to ask you about your life, but first, I do want to ask you briefly about the biggest international story of the year, and that is Russia's invasion of Ukraine. The reason I wanted to ask you about it is, the Timorese story is all about resisting invasion and occupation by a much larger country. And your history is also studded with larger than life freedom fighters. So perhaps I can just ask you to begin with what do you make of the moral and physical courage demonstrated by President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and the Ukrainian people since February this year?

José Ramos-Horta: Well, President Zelenskyy is the most unlikely person to be like the new Winston Churchill being who he was, a comedian turned president. And he has shown to be such a inspiring leader for his people, for the Europeans. He has shown enormous courage and wisdom, superb skills in mobilising global public opinion. When he was elected president, well, it was the promising spring of Ukraine. That Ukraine with him would start cleaning a most corrupt country in Europe, in the world and with him coming from his background (as a ) non-politician there was tremendous promise for Ukraine. And Ukraine is not such a small country is a huge land territory and is still a lot of people. Having said that, I don't know, understand how President Putin could have underestimated, misjudged - because it is not like you're invading a small country of 1 million or 2 million. Putin should have guessed what would have been the reaction of the NATO countries, because there is no way on earth that the NATO countries would remain as indifferent or inactive. It was already bad enough for NATO. They were powerless to do anything to roll back Russia's intervention and annexation of parts already of Ukraine, let alone, you know, this major invasion with tens of thousands of troops. And Crimea was a huge challenge - embarrassment, humiliation for Ukraine and for NATO. So Putin should have guessed, all of this. But it's obvious that he totally underestimated, miscalculated. So we end up now - Europe and the world - in a situation with no light at the end of the tunnel. I was in New York a few weeks ago for the UN General Assembly, met with the Secretary-General Antonio Guterres. He confessed his pessimism, his deep concern about how the war is going to progress, progress for the worse. He didn't see any solution, at least in the short term. I hope that the two sides, particularly Russia - Russia is the one that invaded - that Putin would show his wisdom and audacity, finding a way to back down because no way NATO's going to back down. The US cannot back down. Ukraine, least of all to back down. Russia has shown it is incapable of holding on to any piece of land that it conquered apart from Crimea. But even Crimea is under challenge.

Michael Fullilove: Let me take you from Ukraine's fight for freedom to Timor-Leste's fight for freedom. José, what are your memories of that period in 1975 after the Declaration of Independence?

José Ramos-Horta: We were utterly alone. In '75, on the eve of the invasion, I was still here in the country. I couldn't have felt more alone. We couldn't have felt more alone. We were absolutely on our own. The only foreigner in the country was Roger East from the Northern Territory who had come to Timor-Leste in October '75. At my invitation to work with me to set up a new service to be called East Timor News Agency, ETNA. That was my choice of the name, and working for ETNA was Roger East and and myself. On the eve of the invasion, I was already and we, Roger East were planning to go to the mountains, to the country. We were very determined to resist any attempt at subjugating us. At that time, the Suharto regime miscalculated. They were probably very disdainful of the Timorese. Such a backward, poor country, a small country, 700,000 people. How could they resist? Their intelligence services misled them. In the very first few days, few weeks of the invasion. Indonesia took a lot of casualties. If it were not for the US administration, first Gerald Ford and Kissinger, later by Jimmy Carter, providing them with massive amounts of weapons, helicopters, aircraft, maybe by 1977, there would have been a solution. Because by 1977, Indonesia had lost thousands of troops in Timor Leste, was running out of equipment, ammunition. This is based on U.S., our own intelligence services at that time. So this is only to say that even when a major power dealing with what appeared to be a weak adversary, a miscalculation or underestimating an adversary based on wishful thinking, based on faulty intelligence information, can lead to debacle. This is the lesson of Timor- Leste that, of course, we are not Ukraine . We are many, many times smaller and we didn't have an actual army. We had a few thousand troops that had been trained by the Portuguese. We had inherited a few thousand weapons which inflicted a lot of damage to the Indonesian side in the first few months years. So the lesson, the lesson from us is, think through, think carefully before any country launch into a war. Tragically, for the Russian, the Russian people, a great nation, a great civilization and their leader Putin is dragging them into an unnecessary war. Of course, you know, you are a senior international expert, you know, Putin, Russia had its own motives. Its thought it was not only, maybe it was not territorial conquest, as some argue, it is its own perception of NATO's encroachment on Russian territory that led them. Why did they invade Crimea? Well, with the regime change in Ukraine to a more pro-Western, pro-NATO regime, can you imagine Crimea, the naval base of Crimea, fall under NATO's control? So you have all of these considerations, however, how legitimate it may be, how truthful Putin is concerned maybe - it was a miscalculation that it will be a walkover, that they would be welcomed by the Ukrainians. So, c omplete misreading. And now I don't know what is going to be the solution.

Michael Fullilove: I think it's a clear lesson from the 20th and 21st centuries that it's very difficult to invade and occupy another country regardless of how powerful you think you are. Let me ask you, Mr. President, about the relationship between Timor Leste and Australia. We have a complex connection. It's always struck me almost like a familial connection that's marked by both intimacy and estrangement. We remember the aid that Timorese people gave Australian commandos during the Second World War. But we also recall Australia's recognition of Indonesia's occupation of Timor Leste. We are proud of our role leading INTERFET to stabilise Timor-Leste in 1999, but we also acknowledge our vexed history of espionage in your country. When I last visited Timor-Leste in 2015, I was struck by the level of anti-Australian feeling. Happily, since then we've had the circuit breaker of the 2018 agreement on our maritime boundaries. Australia has played a positive role delivering one million COVID vaccines and also was able to provide relief to those affected by the floods last year. So as of 2022, Mr. President, how would you assess the bilateral relationship and how would the average Timorese person on the streets of Dili or in the villages feel about Australia?

José Ramos-Horta: I'd say over all the Timorese people have have had always a very genuine appreciation of Australians as a people, even in the more tense time of the controversy on the maritime boundary issue and the espionage situation. Vast majority of the people throughout Timor-Leste who are not even aware of the details of all these because people are not informed. The more educated people, yes, in the urban areas were aware and were upset about it, and rightly so. But Australia has shown that they can stand above pettiness because in trying to expropriate Timor-Leste from its rightful ownership of oil and gas in the Timor Sea on the median line area, it was petty, you know, for a country as big as Australia. It was relatively easy, fast to negotiate with Australia because Australians by natural - Australians whom I know - always stand with the underdog. And Timor-Leste is all the, the underdog. So we generated the case, generated strong public opinion in Australia in our favour. The Australian Government was able to read that, the Australian mood, and at the same time giving up Australian claims to the Continental Shelf was not like a huge loss to Australia. They understood that. And the same time probably people like Julie Bishop and others, they were already reading from a long time ago the dangers of Timor-Leste leaning to China. If we had not resolved the maritime boundary to the satisfaction of Timorese people based on the law of the Sea, who knows what would have been today the Timorese relationship with Australia and the relationship with China? Probably we would have been pushed to Beijing's embrace. So it was wise on the part of Australia. There are no alternatives. Timor-Leste has interests - our national interests reside in a close partnership, friendship with Australia - and Indonesia. These two countries, for any Timorese leader of minimum IQ, would have to understand. These two countries are our best, best option. There are no third option here. We have to continue to expand the relationship between Australia and Indonesia. As long as, I hope, that the Prime Minister, Anthony Albanese, whom I respect, who I consider to be a friend of mine and a friend of Timor-Leste will respond in kind to my public statements, that we want to expand the relationship with Australia and that we resolve the issue of the development of Greater Sunrise. Xanana Gusmao, he spoke only couple of days ago at our Catholic University where he was very emphatic about insisting that the pipeline should come to Timor-Leste. So, I understand Prime Minister Albanese and Foreign Minister Penny Wong are also very keen to find a solution to this standoff. n Timor-Leste's interests, for our financial, economic independence, we have to develop Greater Sunrise. It cannot wait too much longer.

Michael Fullilove: You mentioned China. If Australia and Timor-Leste had not had a rapprochement, then perhaps Timor-Leste would have been pushed into the embrace of China. Of course, that notion unnerves a lot of people in Australia who are concerned about China probing in the Pacific and in South East Asia. I know when you were asked in about China at the National Press Club in Canberra last month, you pointed out that China had never invaded any of its neighbours and it doesn't have a history of aggression. B ut of course it does have a history of militarising disputed features in the South China Sea. It has very many grave human rights concerns within its own borders and it has waged a campaign of economic coercion against Australia in recent years. So talk to me a little bit more, if you would, about China as an international actor and as a potential partner for Timor-Leste.

José Ramos-Horta: I might be naive, but I know China reasonably well. I first went to China in '76. Zhou Enlai had passed away. Mao was still alive. And over the years, I've been back to China countless times, observed Chinese politics. I do not believe that China has any interest beyond being a global economic and financial superpower, acquiring the sophisticated defence force that it has - long range aircraft, submarines, aircraft carriers. It's consistent with a superpower, with global interests. Partly as a deterrence, partly to protect its own sea lanes. B ecause China is much more dependent on overseas strategic minerals, strategic food supplies than the United States. China has huge disadvantage geographically vis a vis United States. The US has the vast Atlantic, Pacific Oceans. It has the whole of Europe as allies. Quite a few formidable allies in Asia, namely Japan and South Korea. Not to forget Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, Thailand, the Philippines, etc.. So I do not think that China has any illusion about overtaking the United States economically, technologically and militarily. It wants simply to affirm itself as a global power, to protect its own hard- won advantages in terms of international trade. If anything, the Russian intervention in Ukraine probably is tremendously helpful to China to think through its own policies towards Taiwan. That no matter the amount of force a given country might have, the cost to itself, the cost to China, hard worn wealth, progress, you know, of the last 30, 40 years would be enormous. So I don't think we should worry about China's military aggressiveness. I do not think so. Their presence in the, in South China Sea yet is dictated by a simple problem in that China, unlike the United States, which has open seas, Atlantic Ocean, Pacific Oceans, China has very limited navigational freedom. It has too many neighbours in every direction. And by militarizing in the South China Sea, the Chinese, they say we are putting military facilities in the South China Sea as a forward for humanitarian rescue, humanitarian support in case of cyclones and so on. Well, if that being the case, maybe it's true? B etter to work out with all the neighbours of the region so that everybody has access to that facility that the Chinese have built. Made available to every country in the region for humanitarian rescue, to support fishermen, we ensure that everybody participate. Yeah, that would be a way out for China - to dismantle it now, I doubt. But to negotiate with Southeast Asian countries, with the United States, with others, so that the South China Sea area becomes a zone of peace, a zone of international cooperation and decrease the military presence of everybody there. Why not a security arrangement for everybody in the South China Sea, but for humanitarian, natural disaster prevention and rescue activities? Because this was one of the arguments the Chinese made in the past. Well, if that being the case, let's work a regional security arrangement, talk with them on that. And this would go a long way in lessening tensions between China and Australia, China and Japan. Korea, China and the United States. It would enable China maybe to continue One Belt, One Road, which I believe it's nothing to do with wanting to dominate the rest of the world. No, One Belt One Road is to further link all the economies of the region to the benefit of China. It is in the Chinese economic trade interest, the One Belt One Road.

Michael Fullilove: I like talking to an optimist and you're right, that would send a powerful signal. So let's to see if if China is prepared to do that. Let me ask you, Mr. President, a few questions about Timor-Leste. Your country has just celebrated the 20th anniversary of the restoration of its independence. And since 2002, you've made impressive steps in increasing your literacy rate, life expectancy in your country, and reducing infant mortality. You've also held your democracy together, unlike many other societies emerging from conflict situations. On the other hand, the economy hasn't diversified, perhaps in the ways that you would have liked to have seen. The government remains reliant on the petroleum fund. Dili today is an impressive city, but when you drive through the countryside up to Balibo, for example, you see a very different Timor-Leste. So let me just ask, when you think about the last 20 years, what makes you proudest and about what are you most disappointed? Where would you like to see more progress in the next 20 years?

José Ramos-Horta: I start with the most disappointing and most unexplainable: that with all the resources we have from oil and gas, we still have extreme poverty. We still have extreme child malnutrition. We still have one of the highest levels of stunt for children. That is just unforgivable. Something went wrong in the allocation of priorities. The moment we had petroleum revenues, together with our international partners, we should have focused on eliminating extreme poverty and child malnutrition. We have to correct that in the next five, ten years. I know it is not a simple solution in terms of putting more money in the budget. It is one way, but it has to do a lot with our culture. A lot with habits. A lot with the lacking of human resources in the country to deploy a program, to deploy people, to implement the best programs of the country. Because we look at the budget execution right now, it is very low. Then when we talk about bringing child nutrition to the remote villages, well, how are you going to do that? So it is not that simple. So I acknowledge, I acknowledge that. But that cannot be an excuse if we cannot do it ourselves. Let's outsource to UNICEF, outsource to the international NGOs that have experience in that. Let's outsource to the World Food Program because we do have the money. If we don't have a human resources to execute the best possible program to eliminate child malnutrition, mothers malnutrition, let's outsource to those who can do it, and we pay them to do it. So that's what we have to do. And I will, as President, I will not accept any excuses from anyone. But at the same time, areas of pride? Yes, reconciliation. Unlike so many countries in the world, unlike the Middle East, the Balkans, and many countries in Africa - well, we have zero political violence, we have zero ethnic or religious- based violence, there is no persecution or harassment of people who in the past collaborated on the other side. Zero persecution of that. And a great relationship with Indonesia. But also, that's also a tribute to Indonesia. Because for us to have the best possible relationship with Indonesia, it couldn't be only us wanting it. The Indonesian side, even though they left the country in a most unpleasant manner, you could say humiliated, they didn't their possible feelings of rejection to say the Timorese, they want the independence, they rejected us and now be on your own. No. They turned around and accepted the hand of reconciliation, of friendship from Timor-Leste. It shows Indonesia's own wisdom, their own statesmanship.

Michael Fullilove: Thank you for that. Mr. President, when you spoke at the National Press Club during your visit to Australia, you said that the 1975 generation is 'walking towards the sunset'. A very memorable phrase. And yet next year's election to some extent will still be dominated by the revolutionary generation. When will be the right time, do you think, for that generation to set aside the burdens of leadership and pass them to the next generation of Timorese?

José Ramos-Horta: Let me clarify some points there. Actually, today if you look at our national parliament, not a single person from the '75 generation is there. All the members of Parliament are from the post '91 generation. The post Santa-Cruz generation. If you go to our judiciary, the justice sector, all the judges, prosecutors, legal aid people, they are all new generation from post '91. The current government, there is not one person that I recall from the '75 generation. Matan Ruak, the Prime Minister, he came from a generation after me, and so on. What is valid is to say, but the '75 generation still exercise a lot of influence on the direction of the country, are still part of the tensions in the country between leaders and so on. Age is unforgiving. By 2027 - the next five years after this - Xanana will be close to 80. Unless he gets some vitamins from Mahathir, or me, if I get some, some of the recipes from Mahathir, we will be incapacitated. So, the next five years, absolutely crucial that we hand over it now while we are President, while we are Prime Minister, we hand over the main decision -making to the ministers who are younger. Let them talk. Let them make their decision. Let them make proposals. So that's the important part of the next five years. They are there in government. They will be there in the parliament. We should not intervene too often. Let them make the decisions so that by 2027, our disappearance from the political scene is totally flawless.

Michael Fullilove: Well, I hope you do get those vitamins. José. Let me finish by asking you about a different subject. When I was last in Dili, I visited you in your house and we were sitting on the veranda, I think, having a drink. And I heard a 'clip clop' behind me and what do I see? But a domesticated deer coming up to the coffee table and helping itself to some of the snacks. It seemed to have the run of the place. Tell me about that. I've always wondered about that scene. Tell me more.

José Ramos-Horta: I grew up as a child in the wild with lots of animals, birds and monkeys, deer, buffaloes, horses and all of that. I 'm particularly very fond of the deer. When you raise one, since a baby deer, she becomes like a cat, like a dog, very tame, very docile, very friendly, likes a lot of attention. E at anything and everything. I had quite a few in the house, ten of them. Most born in captivity. Because they are becoming too many, I sent them to a farm that belonged to a friend of mine. Now I have about 40 of them in that farm that belonged to a friend of mine. At home I still have a two female deers, Bambi and Bambina. That's their names. So they're still there. Everybody's very fond of them, very affectionate to them, because they're very affectionate animals once they are raised with you.

Michael Fullilove: José, it' been a great pleasure to speak with you today. I hope the next time we catch up will be in person in Timor Leste, perhaps in the presence of Bambi or Bambina. Many Australians feel very warmly towards Timor Leste and we wish you and your country all the best. Thank you very much for joining me today from Dili for The Director's Chair.

José Ramos-Horta: Thank you. Michael for your kindness and giving me such a time. Thank you. God bless you.


Areas of expertise: Australian foreign policy; US politics and foreign policy; Asia and the Pacific; Global institutions