Subject: E Timor Foreign Minister attacks Australia's oil fields policy

The Courier

East Timor Minister attacks Australia's oil fields policy

By Catherine Best

Thursday, 3 June 2004

JOSE Ramos-Horta exudes a warmth and charisma that belies his nation's bloody struggle for independence.

A freedom fighter for more than three decades, the Foreign Minister today champions the cause of East Timor on a global platform.

Sitting in his home in Aeria Branca, in the East of Dili, Dr Ramos-Horta contemplates a hectic ministerial schedule which involves meeting a foreign dignitary at the airport that afternoon. Days later he will be at a rock concert in Lisbon, Portugal, speaking alongside performers Sting and Britney Spears.

But today he has made time for a foreign reporter and her Ballarat entourage.

Speaking over a glass of coconut water about his homeland, which includes comical references to pigs and Martians, it is hard to believe the genial presence of Dr Ramos-Horta. This is man who in 1970 was exiled from East Timor for three years for advocating independence against Portugal. A man who for almost 25 years lived outside his homeland to galvanise international condemnation of East Timor's Indonesian oppressors.

Ask Dr Ramos-Horta what buoyed his determination at a time when his fellow countrymen were being slaughtered, and the affable minister is blunt but humble.

"Justice in terms of improving the living conditions of the poorest, respecting individual freedoms and choices, honouring pride and dignity," he said.

"I am very happy for the people, for the country. Happy that I contributed somewhat to the success of the struggle. I feel privileged in the course of the 24 years of my own involvement, I came to know some extraordinary people around the world whose own commitment and generosity really strengthened me. I probably would have given up if I did not meet the many hundreds of people around the world who were so generous so kind and gave me support."

Dr Ramos-Horta is a realist. While he celebrates his country's triumph, he acknowledges that East Timor still has a long way to go.

In 2002, East Timor became an independent state, inheriting from the United Nations a nation still reeling from the destruction following the 1999 independence ballot.

East Timor is one of the world's poorest countries and supports a people beset by poverty and disease. Forty per cent of the population is under five, unemployment and domestic violence are rife and almost half of the population live on less than a dollar a day.

Dr Ramos-Horta said the fledgling nation had made "enormous progress" in developing basic infrastructure, services and education, but said the country was stymied by a poor justice system.

"One of the problems that we do have with a weak judiciary is that potential foreign investors are discouraged because one thing foreign investors want to know is what are the rules of the game. They want legal certainty they want to know that whenever there is a dispute there is a strong independent judiciary that handles it professionally with integrity, this is not the case in East Timor at the moment."

And then of course there's the pigs.

According to the Foreign Minister, the four trottered vermin have got to go, but convincing the Muslim Prime Minister could be difficult.

"This country must be one of the countries in the world with the highest per capita population of pigs. They're the ugliest species on earth, the ugliest and dirtiest.

"They roam all over every town, every backyard, every frontyard, they walk into people's living rooms dragging along a lot of diseases.

"If I were to become Prime Minister of this country I would give one week's notice to every pig owner and dog owner in this country - have your pig or dog contained in an area that can be looked after and kept clean, or I'll have them slaughtered and (the meat) given to orphanages and hospitals."

On an economic front, East Timor is still wrangling with the Australian Government over rights to oil and gas reserves in the East Timor Sea. Dr Ramos-Horta will meet with Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer on June 17 to try and secure a better deal for East Timor.

Under a maritime boundary agreement signed with Indonesia in 1972, Australia has rights to oil and gas reserves at the boundary of the continental shelf, which Dr Ramos-Horta said extends up to 50km from the East Timor coast.

He said the agreement was "extremely disadvantageous" for Indonesia (and East Timor) and had enabled reserves, believed to be worth $1 million a day, to be "vacuum cleaned" by Australia.

The East Timorese perceive oil and gas as their tickets to economic stability.

"We have demanded respect for international law and practice which establishes an equal distance between two coastal states. If we follow the equal distance principal all the existing oil and gas fields would all be 100 per cent East Timorese," Dr Ramos Horta said.

"Australia is one of the richest countries in the world. East Timor is one of the poorest in the world.

"Australia's attitude in the Timor Sea reminds me of a great photo montage in the UK in the 80s showing Margaret Thatcher, the then Prime Minister known as greedy and ruthless, stealing the purse of a very poor British pensioner."

When the Foreign Minister has finished talking politics, he excuses himself for being "unkind" and offers a personalised tour of his home. Inside his house - which our host proudly announces is designed, built and decorated by him - are relics of an extraordinary life. Under the thatched cathedral roof, university certificates share wall space with a Nobel Peace Prize and pictures of Dr Ramos-Horta with celebrities including Harrison Ford.

It's a humbling experience. And who knows, one day the inspirational leader may even visit Ballarat. There are rumours East Timorese President Xanana Gusmao will be in Ballarat for the 150th anniversary of Eureka in December this year. But don't count on Dr Ramos-Horta making it.

"It is a possibility, who knows," he said cheekily. "By then East Timor could be invaded by the Martians (and) I could have been proclaimed governor of the new Martian province of East Timor."

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