Subject: Last Word: José Ramos-Horta

Last Word: José Ramos-Horta

'I'll be a moral force because i know many people look up to me. They listen.'

By Joe Cochrane

Newsweek International

June 25, 2007 issue - Ten years ago, José Ramos-Horta was a painful pebble in Indonesia's shoe. The charismatic East Timorese intellectual earned a Nobel Peace Prize by trolling the halls of power in dozens of capitals around the world, telling anyone who'd listen that the former Portuguese colony was under a savage occupation. Now he's the establishment: last month, he was sworn in as the second president of independent East Timor (also known as Timor Leste). On June 4 he made his first state visit­to former foe Indonesia, which is now his friend and neighbor. NEWSWEEK's Joe Cochrane spoke to Ramos-Horta in his hotel suite overlooking Jakarta. Excerpts:

COCHRANE: What's the significance of making Indonesia your first presidential visit, given its brutal occupation of East Timor from 1975 to 1999?

RAMOS-HORTA: I always place enormous importance on our relationship with Indonesia since the changes that occurred in 1999­changes for the better. Ever since, I have made every effort to normalize and gradually cement relations with our giant and powerful neighbor.

Given the history, is it difficult to come here and be friends? Thousands of Timorese lost their lives, but so did many young Indonesian soldiers. Today we are free. A great injustice was corrected and Indonesia itself has moved away from its turbulent past, and today is an impressive young democracy.

Last year, members of the East Timorese armed forces rebelled, sparking bloody clashes in Dili and forcing Australian military intervention. What is the situation today? With the assistance of our neighbors and friends, we have been able to stabilize the situation. The country is almost back to normal, the economy is picking up, infrastructure is being built. But we need to thoroughly reform and reorganize our police force, improve the standards of our defense force, while at the same time investing massively in job creation to absorb the thousands of unemployed youth. I intend to push very hard for significant expenditures on the youth and the students, widows, orphans, the elderly. The events of 2006 were part of the process of nation-building. Our state was born in 2002 following years and years of traumatic experience. We have a traumatized nation. So violence can flare up easily as a result of this recent history.

The violence was sparked by old rivalries dating back to the 1970s? Actually, the rivalries are a result of the failure of leadership and politicization of our police force ... and creating rivalries between the police and the Army. But I think it's an exaggeration to say that because of that, Timor Leste is a failing state. We're only five years old.

What will you do as president to foster peace and reconciliation? Will you use your constitutional powers, or just act as a moral force? I'll be a moral force because I know many people look up to me. They listen. I will continue to use this trust to appeal to the people, particularly the youth, to forgo violence. As president, I will use every inch of my authority with Parliament and the government to allocate sufficient moneys for the youth. And we can do this because we have money from oil and gas.

Are you flush with cash? Then why haven't you spent any of the hundreds of millions of dollars you have in savings? Right now in our fund we have $1.2 billion. An average of $100 million is transferred into that account per month. So we are very fortunate. We are not Kuwait or Brunei, but we have more than enough to kick-start the economy. And we can do it through simple things and wise things like direct cash transfers to the poor.

We want to save for the future, but that doesn't necessarily mean keeping the money in the bank. Saving for the future means spending it right now on our youth. They are the future. We have to pay for their schools; we have to pay for our students to study abroad. We have to provide them with Internet, sports, cultural facilities, with libraries.

What kind of jobs can you create to keep young people from roaming the streets in gangs and causing trouble? I advocate massive forest-, water- and land-preservation programs that immediately create thousands of jobs. By planting trees, we save the environment and we create wealth for the future. Trees that we plant today, 15 or 20 years from now will be income for the country.

What has improved in East Timor that you aren't getting credit for? In the past five years we have rebuilt more than 900 schools. TV coverage is now extended to most of the country, and telephone coverage now extends to most of the 13 districts. It's not world-class communications, but it works compared with a few years ago. Health coverage is far better than in 2002.

Ten years ago, you might have been arrested for setting foot in Indonesia. Today you are a visiting head of state. Are you amazed at how quickly things can change? God, yes. Ten years passed by so fast. I am the greatest fan in the world of the Kennedys, and I often plagiarize Ted Kennedy's speech at the Democratic convention in 1980: "The dream shall never die." When we have ideas, convictions and dreams, do not give up on them. Work on them and they can be realized.


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