Subject: BusinessWorld (Philippines): Future of E Timor
Date: Sun, 01 Aug 1999 11:34:30 -0400
From: "John M. Miller" <>

BusinessWorld (Philippines)

July 30, 1999, Friday


Arnold S. Tenorio

How true is it that you have become less of a radical and more of a moderate after so many years of struggle, asked a woman in one of several occasions wherein the Timorese Nobel-laureate spoke before his Filipino hosts during a recent visit.

To which Jose Ramos-Horta answered that his ideological orientation, which he began espousing in 1973, had always been of a social democratic bent, following that of Northern European states like Sweden and the Netherlands.

Yet while a pacifist, he said there were times when force was necessary to fight evil. "Definitely, I'm not the Dalai Lama, nor Bishop Desmond Tutu," he told the crowd gathered at a Makati hotel. "Maybe that's because of (my) watching too much TV."

The last line was an attempt to inject satire, but his serious disposition was in full view during the forum with local Rotarians. The question, and the answer Mr. Horta gave, demonstrated the difficult choices the East Timorese people will face if they gain independence from Indonesia after the scheduled referendum next month.

Having struggled long and hard against the occupation of their land, the East Timorese will vote on Aug. 30 on whether or not they still would want to remain part of Indonesia. The referendum, which is being organized by the United Nations, is part of an agreement signed last May 5 between the international body and the governments of Indonesia and Portugal. If successful, the referendum would lay the ground for a very different kind of challenge: nation-building.

While true, Mr. Horta's description of his beginnings was in stark contrast to the image painted of him by observers, who once saw in the younger Horta a radical who fired up crowds, asking for immediate independence and wide-ranging restructuring of the Portuguese colonial system, and later inciting his fellows to fight the Indonesian occupation.

The fiery passion he probably exhibited back then is understandable. Having lost four of his siblings during the brief war with Indonesia in the '70s, he said that he knew of the burial place of only one of them. The rest, he said, languished, and perhaps died, in obscurity.

But that was nothing compared to what a fellow activist lost. That friend, he said, lost all his siblings to the war, and to the equally wide-ranging repression instituted by Indonesia after it annexed the former Portuguese colony.

Earlier, during the introduction to the Timorese dissident, the audience could already sense an air of caution about their guest speaker. Throughout the introduction, which was done while everyone else was still digging into his dinner plate, the Nobel prize-winner could only manage a spoonful of food.

Instead of relishing the hotel fare like the rest of the participants, Mr. Horta could be seen looking intently upon something in front of him on the presidential table. Occasionally, he would look the speaker's way, apparently bracing for the next word that came out of the latter's mouth.

He would later explain his caution about words written of him - and surprisingly through a hilarious anecdote - during an interview with a broadcast journalist in his hotel room. Asked how he managed to earn a living while pursuing his political convictions, Mr. Horta related how he began looking for other journalists who dared misquote him after winning a libel case against an Australian magazine. The court awarded him a hefty sum, he said. Since then, "my economic status has changed a bit."

Indeed, the once young and fiery orator is now also a seasoned diplomat, especially after having represented the East Timorese for more than two decades before different fora in the international community. True, his commitment to his people's freedom has not wavered, but he has matched his grave countenance with a warm sense of humor that not even close Filipino friends knew of him before. In the words of a Filipino activist, it may only be a recognition that the Timorese are in it for the longhaul. For in such a situation, a good sense of humor can tide someone through the most confounding predicaments.

Mr. Horta left for the United Nations to represent his people a few days before Indonesia forcibly annexed his newly liberated homeland. Since then, he has not been able to return to it, owing largely to a ban imposed by the Indonesian government.

It is with regard to this very ban that he is now rallying the support of many nations, including that of neighboring Philippines. Pro-independence groups inside and outside East Timor have been urging Indonesia to not only lift the ban, but more importantly ensure that honest and free elections are held next month.

Apart from staging the referendum, the agreement between the UN and Indonesia and Portugal called for organizing a multinational police force whose members come from six countries including the Philippines. The multinational police force will advise the Indonesian police on the conduct of the vote.

But international observers sent to the former Portuguese colony said that the Indonesian police largely have been ineffective in preventing the abuse of the rights of indigenous Timorese. They said that pro-autonomy militias have stepped up the abuse since registration for the referendum got under way. The assault of these militias, who are believed to be supported by the Indonesian military, has led about 18,000 to 52,000 Timorese to flee their homes.

While aware of these cases of rights abuse, the United Nations Mission for East Timor (UNAMET) is incapable of addressing them, owing to the international body's limited mandate. Under the tripartite agreement, the Indonesian police are solely tasked with maintaining peace and order.

Indeed, after more than 20 years of Indonesian occupation, the East Timorese are somewhat back to where they were immediately before the Indonesians invaded the former Portuguese colony in December 1975. Like in the early '70s, a section of the Timorese population is doggedly pursuing liberation from colonial rule, while another group is insisting that the Timorese remain with their present overlords.

In fact, the Timorese, in the early '70s, were faced not with just two, but with three choices: remaining a province of Portugal, becoming an autonomous province under Indonesia, or acquiring full independence. The option to go under the Portuguese flag has since gone out of style, following Portugal's decision to divest itself of its empire.

Apart from the narrower range of choices before them, the Timorese are now living under an international environment very much different from that which prevailed in the '70s. Unlike before, when the rest of the world was transfixed on the modern empire building triggered by the Cold War, now the international community is more supportive of decolonization in general, and of self-rule for the Timorese in particular.

But again, the Timorese are faced with the nagging question of whether they could make it on their own. "Unfortunately, East Timor had been thoroughly destroyed for 23 years," Mr. Horta told BusinessWorld. "Indonesia did not build anything there, contrary to their claims that they poured money there. Where, I still wonder where they put the money. Factories, there's not one. Because of that, we have serious humanitarian problems that we have to address."

Indeed, groups supportive of the pro-independence movement have begun a campaign to funnel humanitarian aid to the Timorese, which, while an indication that it cannot yet stand on its own, is no reason to postpone self-rule, said Mr. Horta.

"Do you think the Philippines should be closed down as a country just because it has huge humanitarian problems, and its still dependent on tens of millions of dollars from the World Bank for its social needs, from UNICEF or USAID?" he said.

"Now, most developing countries, including our colonizer Indonesia, have enormous social problems, and yet they are supposed to be independent."

Anyway, he foresees the transition to full statehood to last for only three years, after which it would all be in the hands of the Timorese leadership, whoever that may be.

"We do have serious environmental problems caused by the 23 years of Indonesian economic policy and the war," he said, adding that Indonesian loggers have depleted the sandalwood, once an export winner of the island.

"The Indonesian military, using the scorched earth strategy, has burnt to the ground acres of forestland. So, one of our priorities after independence is to repair our environment. Our development approach will be based on the recommendations from the environmental conference in Rio, the social and economic conference in Copenhagen," he said.

While hewing to the market approach, he said the likely Timorese development strategy would be based on several factors.

"We will be extremely careful not to repeat the mistakes of the ASEAN (Association of South East Asian Nations) countries and South Korea. We will be very careful taking care of the environment, at the same time addressing the social and educational needs of the people. We'll try to walk a careful line between economic growth and some kind of protection for the environment and the poor in our country," he said.

As early as last April, pro-independence groups have been planning for the transition period. He said a Melbourne conference that month brought together over 100 East Timorese with diverse academic backgrounds. In the said conference, the participants reportedly discussed a large number of issues, including the legal system, the code of investment, currency, customs, banking system, and agriculture.

"East Timor has tremendous potential in the field of energy: oil and natural gas. We also have a lot of marble - green and blue marble. We have the best limestone for cement factories," he said. "We have natural resources that can be transformed into income for the country. I did not mention tourism but (it's) one tremendous potential source of income. So, we have various possibilities."

However, the blueprint reportedly is still in the early stages. He said the same group that met in Melbourne is planning an international donor conference to thresh out the details sometime in October or November; that is, provided the Timorese vote in favor of independence.

Already, businessmen from Hong Kong, Singapore, and the US reportedly have expressed interest in investing in Timor. One thing attracting them to the island is the fact that they stand to benefit from free tariff access to the European market. Having been a former European colony, Eastern Timor qualifies under the Lome Convention, which regulates the relations between European countries and their ex-colonies.

"So, a factory established in Timor, with at least 40% Timor component, can export to Europe without tariffs. This is only one way of how we can generate income, on how we can activate the economy," explained Mr. Horta.

The Lome Convention, which was established in 1975, is an agreement that enables former colonies of European countries to avail of structural adjustment loans from a common fund put up by the same European countries.

Mr. Horta said the Melbourne conference also looked into what kind of trade and economic relations the future nation was going to establish, and with which countries.

"For us, its not an issue of big brother or little brother, it's an issue of making the strategic choices as to our privileged relations. And Australia and New Zealand, the two countries closest to East Timor, fit the criteria for us for special privileged relations," he said.

Asked what these criteria were, he said, "We have thousands of East Timorese living there (Australia and New Zealand), historic relations going back to World War Two, tremendous popular support in the country for us, a stable solid democratic country (in the case of) Australia, with which you can have a transparent relationship."

Asked whether the choice of Australia and New Zealand as strategic partners was dictated by political pragmatism, that the East Timorese were seeking a counterweight to the potential threat of an Indonesian invasion, he said, "Maybe. I wouldn't say we fear another invasion. But if you use the expression counterweight from the point of view of diplomatic and economic counterweight, yes, that is one reason."

"We're looking for a geographic and strategic partnership with countries that are more reliable, where we have a chance of an even relationship. (But) it doesn't mean that we're going to ignore Indonesia," he said.

Apart from Australia and New Zealand, he said he and his colleagues were looking towards the Philippines and Singapore. "We intend to pursue energetic relations with the Philippines because there is so much commonality (between the two countries), such as historical, cultural and religious similarities," he said.

In the case of Singapore, he said "(it) is also a strategic choice for us. It's a small country that has proven that you don't have to be a large country with natural resources to be successful economically."

Singapore could help in terms of building infrastructure, harbors, airports, airlines, and the banking sector. "Being a small country, they understand our needs and problems in terms of having to survive amidst a very bully neighbor," he said, in reference to Indonesia.

"With Indonesia, obviously, it (has been) 23 years of war and aggression - the wounds are too deep - and it will take 10 or 20 years before Indonesia (becomes) a democracy. We will obviously have relations, but frankly I don't think it will be a special privileged relationship," he said.

Naturally, he said Suharto's alleged ill-gotten wealth looms large in East Timor's development program. The Suharto family controls 40% of the entire land area of East Timor, most of which reportedly were illegally transferred by an acquiescent Timor leadership.

"If there are legitimately acquired interests in Timor held by Indonesians, whoever they are, civilian or military, we would honor (them). Because even in Indonesia itself, Indonesian people are now investigating corruption (and) nepotism. In East Timor, of course, we cannot do worse than the Indonesian side when it comes to fighting corruption," he said.

So far, he said that his group has spoken with Australian, American, and British companies already operating in Timor that may have arranged their contracts with the Suhartos. "They should not fear the independence of East Timor. We will honor the existing contractual arrangements. Yes, (even those arranged with the Suhartos)," he said.

"We know there is no quick shortcut to international litigation. An attempt to seize all or part of the Suharto wealth is a long drawn-out process, enormously time-consuming and costly. But we will pursue it because we believe it is not only for the benefit of the East Timorese, but also the people of Indonesia, and the other (victims) of future dictators," he added. "So, whatever we do now in fighting for justice, in pursuing to have the Suharto wealth frozen, (it is meant) to compensate his victims, such as what (is) happen(ing) in the Philippines in the case of the Marcos fortune. If we do that, it will be a service to international humanitarian law."

He admitted that while all their efforts to recover the wealth may come to naught, at least they should have put up a good fight.

"We'll prefer, instead of following the Indonesian, Filipino, or Malaysian economic model of fast, big economic growth, the consequence of which we see today, we'll prefer to follow a more humble, modest, sustainable course, based on a very few basic principles," he said.

These principles include: * Feed the people with local resources; * support rural development; * avoid the concentration of capital investment in the urban places; * support basic commodity production like rice, corn, and potatoes; * support small fishing industry; and * introduce the "best possible education system."

Asked how he would cope with the high illiteracy rate among East Timorese, he said, "Indonesia is not exactly a model of transparency, accountability and efficient management. Before Indonesia came to East Timor in 1975, there was absolutely no corruption in East Timor even in the bureaucracy. It was a very lean and efficiently-run colony."

But 23 years of Indonesian rule reportedly led to corruption at every level. "East Timor is only a little mirror image of the rest of Indonesia. To do better in East Timor, compared with the Indonesian economy, does not require too much effort. But we are conscious of the need for developing a strict code of conduct for our civil servants, our businessmen. In that regard, I see Singapore as a better (model)," he said.

Indeed, the Western-schooled dissident said that East Timor is blessed with more graduates now than other developing countries at the time they gained their independence.

"We have more than 1,000 university graduates in Australia, the US, New Zealand, Europe, Portugal, and Indonesia. In fact, the total number of East Timorese graduates today is much higher than that of Indonesia (at the time) it gained its independence," he said.

But he acknowledged that a lot needs to be done in terms of human resources development. "Because what we lack for real progress - and this is true also for other developing countries like Indonesia and the Philippines - is a highly educated people," he said. "My humble view is that an independent East Timor should not spend for an army, and the money saved from not buying weapons should be used to provide the people the best possible education. That is the real guarantee for the future."

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