“I am Not Worried [That China Is Not a Democracy]”
(Ponto Final/João Carlos Malta) – José Ramos Horta is one of the leading figures in lusophony, a pragmatist who in recent times has advocated greater economic proximity of Timor-Leste to China, to combat dependence on Indonesia. In an interview with PONTO FINAL, he says that no one will give Beijing lessons on the political system to adopt. And he prefers to look at what the Chinese have conquered, and not so much for what they do not yet have.
At 69, José Ramos Horta says he is tired, despite his apparent excellent physical form. Journeys from one place to another, especially the transcontinental ones, are already heavy. But then he lists four or five trips a month. “They are all close by,” he devalues. For Europe, it guarantees that it cancels all. The last departure from Timor was to visit Macau, where it will be until tomorrow and then go to inland China. After having held the highest political positions in Timor-Leste, he is currently a State Councilor, and in these functions, he participates in the 10th International Forum on Investment and Infrastructure Construction, which brought thousands of guests to the mega-show that runs until today at the Venetian. In an interview with FINAL POINT, the Nobel Peace Prize does not shy away from China-related issues and asks in a challenging way: “How can anyone criticize the regime they have in a country with 1.4 billion people?” Regarding Timor, he praises the “brutal leap” given in the last 20 years but confesses that it is still far from what is desirable. He emphasized that remarkable progress had been made in the area of health and education, but in the face of the malnutrition numbers plaguing the country he exclaimed: “They are unacceptable!” It points out the responsibilities for the lack of quality of management, and the staff of the public administration, which despite having improved, are far from what is required. Ramos Horta says that Portugal, even with all the recent incidents, is “our best friend”. And he adds that Portuguese has never been so widely spoken in Timor. For Macao, there is only praise, and it extends the treadmill so that there can be Macanese investment. The MSAR money is precise and desirable, defends the man who was the voice of Timor abroad during the years of struggle against the Indonesian occupation.
In Portugal, we began to look first at you as an activist, an element of resistance. After the years passed, he became a politician, later speaker at conferences around the world, and also advisor to many world leaders. What has Ramos Horta changed in the last decades?
First, I am delighted to have contributed to Timor-Leste’s independence, and for the past 17 years, since independence, I have participated in the promotion of peace, stability, reconciliation, and consolidation of our democracy. the day is classified by the conservative think tank “Freedom House” as the best democracy in Southeast Asia. Also, the institution that monitors freedom of the press in Brussels puts our country as having the most freedom of the press in the region and is even one of the best in the world in this regard. I have contributed not only as a foreign minister but also to have our constitution prohibit the death penalty and life imprisonment. And, lastly, I promoted national reconciliation. In this regard, I have not changed anything about my convictions before independence and during the struggle.
Nothing has changed?
I have many international activities today, but I am reducing them because they require too much travel. I came to Macau, and I’m going to Chongqing. Two weeks ago I was in Shanghai, but because it is relatively close. I canceled many trips to Europe.
Are you tired?
Yes, transcontinental travel is very complicated. Before I even went to economy class, now I’m sorry, but I do not. I’d rather stay at home.
Do you feel less romantic and ideological, but more pragmatic?
In a book about Timor, already in 1975, there was a whole chapter dedicated to me, entitled “Ramos Horta, the pragmatist.” The text was even flattering in 80% of its length, the rest was not necessary. It will not be a faithful picture of me, but it is the opinion of the one who wrote, and who does not have to be nice. But I continue to believe in the great principles of solidarity, freedom, and justice, and that with more or less effort we will create in a better world, and that we can convert all those who are on one side that we believe to be wrong, including some autocratic regimes …. But how can anyone criticize China for having the regime they have, a country with 1.4 billion people? If you started to invent a European democracy, where would China really be?
Do you, then, think it impossible for China to have a Western democracy, and for the country to be governed in that way?
I would say that China has to have the regime and the political system that they understand. The Chinese know from their ancient experience what is best for China in terms of its stability and prosperity.
But this assumption does not call into question some of the human rights embodied in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which Ramos Horta claims to defend?
It may be challenging, but it is impressive what this country has been able to do mainly from the modernization initiative launched by Deng Xiaoping – which has freed hundreds of millions of Chinese from extreme poverty – by restoring the dignity and pride of China as a nation in the world. They were invaded by all: French, Americans, British, who imposed two wars of opium, and Japan as well. The greatest barbarities were perpetrated against the Chinese by the great European Christian civilizations. And millions died in the hands of poverty, died to build other countries – those that were erected railroads in the United States, or those who sought better lives in Latin America and Africa.
But will not all the social and economic development you are having, will not force other political steps, and the population itself will not become more demanding?
I have known China since 1976, when I first went to Beijing. From then on there was political evolution, at the time, for economic reasons but also political reasons, there was not a Chinese to travel individually by the world. Today there are tens of millions who do so freely, as tourists. Millions are studying abroad, in the United States, Europe, Australia, and Latin America. Free movement is a fundamental freedom. There is a phenomenon I see neither quoted nor mentioned: if China were such a closed, so totalitarian regime, there were not millions to travel, and to recycle US dollars and to benefit other countries. Secondly, these millions of Chinese would not return to the country. The percentage of those who study at American, European or Australian universities, and who stay there, is minimal to say nothing. If they did not feel free and satisfied with what they have in China, they would not come back as they do in so many other countries. Here they all return.
So the fact that China is not a democracy for you in this context is not a problem?
I’m not worried about anything. Because? China has evolved politically. Today there is much more scrutiny of the ruling elite, and the system has alternation. The Chinese President holds a ten-year term. Perhaps now Xi Jinping can prolong it, but it is nothing new in relation to other democratic countries, in which the presidents want to go beyond the constitutional limit. They have a very strict political scrutiny consensus.
I said earlier that you were defined as a pragmatist, and, I believe, you see that way. Is this characteristic that makes you stand up against the voices that in Timor challenge the increasing presence of Chinese investment?
The criticism is minimal and comes from some usual NGO. I respect them, but these individuals from civil society, before entering politics and being rulers present the most miraculous solutions to the challenges in the country. Many of them are in the Government today, and they have forgotten these miraculous solutions that advocated in the civil society audiences. I know them all. This does not happen only in Timor. Some NGOs would never be elected to any, they are only good at analyzing and criticizing. But it’s always useful, let’s read what their reports say.
However, do you not attach importance to them? In your view, is there not a popular feeling of fear about China’s entry into the nerve-racking sectors of the Timorese economy such as infrastructure and energy?
I do not care about myself or the overwhelming majority of East Timorese because it is not only China that is present in Timor. Indonesia has a much larger presence, there are many more Indonesians since independence, we are much more dependent on Indonesia than on any other investor. The country defends the diversification of its relations: today, 70% of our trade is with Indonesia. I want to see this figure decrease, at the moment we are totally dependent on Indonesian airlines and travel agencies.
Is that the dependency that worries you the most?
We are much more dependent on Indonesia than in China. If China has more presence, with airlines flying to Timor, and tour operators, they help us to be less dependent on Indonesia and Australia.
It contributes to the diversification of funding sources.
For the diversification not only of the economy but also of regional relations.
Is the Timorese economy still monocultural?
Oil and gas are the true wealth of Timor, and coffee after these two, but far below. The Government has done little to improve coffee culture. We talk a lot about it, a lot of agriculture, but we have done very little. We are very dependent on oil, and there is no reason why we have not duplicated the production and export of coffee these days. It is a major failure of the Government. There is also nothing to justify, that we are currently a major importer of rice. But attention, in other areas we have made progress. I know more than 100 countries in the world, and there are places with 50 years of independence that are worse than Timor.
Why do you say that?
It is enough to see the UN Human Development Report, which is the best there is, in terms of assessing the economic and social development status of each country. Here we are above all sub-Saharan Africa, with the exception of South Africa and Cape Verde.
Changing the subject, it is now 20 years since the proclamation of Timor’s independence. When I was in the resistance to fight for a free country, is it the one that exists today with which I dreamed?
Our dreams … (pause) took place in relation to having a dignified, sovereign country that was not crushed by any foreign power. This was the biggest dream. As for giving people material goods, which are the dividends of independence, I believe we have done a lot: in 2002, there were 19 doctors, today there are a thousand; this year there was no modern regional hospital, now, in addition to the national hospital, we have five regional hospitals, although they do not compare to those in Portugal and Macao, it is better than what did not exist. In 2002, it was said that there was no Timorese staff. Now we have hundreds of masters and doctors, not only in Timor but in Portugal, Australia, Thailand, Philippines, Indonesia, Singapore, United States, Brazil. Fifteen years ago, if it were to the Ministry of Finance were between 50 to 100 foreigners, now there is not a single. At our Central Bank, which is very credible internationally, it does not see a single foreigner working, only a few consultants.
So the jump was brutal?
It was brutal. Even so, our public administration, despite not being among the best in the world, has developed over the past 20 years. Our productivity is among the lowest in the region, be it agriculture or Public Service, but it has also improved a lot. Corruption has increased, we have not escaped this temptation, which we learned from neighboring Indonesia, a master of corruption, we learned from Thailand and the Philippines. But once I sent an email to a friend, and, commenting on the corruption in Brazil, said: “The Timorese and the Portuguese compared to our Brazilian brothers are muggles.” (laughs) In Timor, we have a justice that does not play with corruption and sometimes exaggerates. I do not believe that in Portugal, and in any country in Asia, there are so many senior officials and politicians serving a prison sentence for corruption.
On the other hand, in Timor-Leste, almost half of children under five suffer from hunger and two-thirds show signs of anemia. About a quarter of women are underweight (data from the European Union and Oxfam Australia). This is the picture of a country with serious problems, what is it that has failed?
These numbers you cite are exaggerated. I do not know if they are correct. That the children go hungry is false, they can say that there is undernourishment. There is no famine in Timor. They are different things. There are 30 to 40% of the undernourished population in Timor [in 2017, UNICEF talked of 58.1% of the population suffering moderate and severe malnutrition]. Extreme poverty still exists, and this is unacceptable data. In 17 years of independence, with the resources we have, even without any international help, there should be no undernourishment or extreme poverty.
So why does this happen?
Poor management, poor planning, poor execution.
By the rulers?
Yes, one of the cases is in agriculture. It is the basis for combating malnutrition and improving food security. It is the political and ethical priority, number one. We have an obligation to give the people clean water and sanitation.
But Timor has seen GDP growth almost every year, and this year it is expected to grow by 3.9%, and by the next 4.9%. Is there a poor distribution of wealth?
The problem is the best definition of priorities, but that’s not all. It is necessary to allocate resources to these priorities. The problem is the lack of human resources, of competence. It’s one thing for someone to have an academic degree recently acquired because someone with a master’s degree or an MBA from Harvard does not automatically become a great executive who solves problems. If that were so, with hundreds and thousands of MBAs coming out of world universities, there should be no more failures in the world’s economies. A common failure in third world countries is that we can not have a competent, dedicated and honest administration. We can have a prime minister with great vision, elements of the Government highly qualified, but without a public administration that gives them body, they can have all the most romantic and applauded visions, but they do not arrive.
The country has experienced moments of great political instability, referred to as a weakness of Timor by international institutions like the World Bank. Last year, the difficulty of union for the formation of Government, led him to make a direct appeal to Xanana Gusmão. How is your relationship with him?
I continue to have very good relations with him and to admire him. Over the years, Xanana has proven to be a phenomenal person of phenomenal intelligence. He risked and fought in the fight for Timor’s permanent maritime border with Australia. He had to believe that Timor had this right, in the light of international conventions, and the conviction to take action. I would not assume the responsibility of challenging Australia within the framework of international law, and in the context of our situation. He barely had a chance – which resulted from the discovery that Australia was spying on electronic equipment in our offices, which in itself could not be enforced in the international tribunal – and Australia relented. We have the maritime border exactly as we wanted it. This is 100% responsibility of Xanana’s genius and his courage. Not that I’m always right.
So what is this almost permanent political instability in the country?
I will respond to what I have already said in response to many young people who have asked me questions about this. It was not the Americans or the Portuguese who had imposed this Constitution on us. It was the Timorese politicians who proudly did it: first multiparty, with certain powers allocated to the President of the Republic. It was not enough for Parliament to supervise the Government, the President was given other powers that sometimes lead to the veto of the State budget or the entry of members of the Government. I do not agree with this, the people elect the majority party, the party governs, they must appoint the prime minister, and then it will be up to the courts to judge if the ministers are accused of serious crimes.
These powers of the President of the Republic came from the Portuguese system.
Exactly, it was a copy of the Portuguese Constitution …
But it is rare in Portugal that the President of the Republic does not accept the appointment of ministers ..
In Portugal it works, it has been a country for 800 years. It has greater maturity and greater democratic experience.
Is it against multi-partyism?
No, no. But I told these young people that it was easier if we had the only party like in North Korea. And I said, ‘Is that what you want?’ Everyone said no. So we have to know how to live within the political modality that we choose. But one thing is certain, despite the instability, budgets have passed in 2018 and 2019. There has not been a single case of political violence in Timor.
Does this political tension have social correspondence, or is it just power struggle?
It has nothing to do with divisions, nor social, nor ethnic, nor religious. It’s just a power struggle. But regardless, there is no political violence in our country, even the crime rate is very low. We do not have organized crime like there is in Macau or Hong Kong, Indonesia and Thailand.
The political personalities in Timor are the same as 20 or 30 years ago. Is it difficult to have a generational renewal in power?
No. This is a beauty of respected and esteemed journalists and respected and respected scholars (laughs). Just let them count from one to ten, and you’ll realize how many of the old generations are in the Government today. There is none. Alkatiri is out, Xanana is responsible for oil, the Prime Minister is the new generation. In the Government, there is nobody of the generation of 75. And in the parliament also no. The judiciary is still younger. But it is also true that being in power or not, there is a great influence of the generation of 75, for two reasons: we have a legitimacy that comes from the elections, but mainly from the historical ballast. Age is very respected in Timor. The elements of the new generations are afraid of taking responsibility. They complain, but in the end, they are always waiting for Xanana and Mari Alkatiri.
Papua, a poor people with weak health conditions, wants to separate from Indonesia. Ramos Horta defended the dialogue, which does not seem to play with what was Timor’s past. Why do you think this is a different fight from the Timorese?
There are struggles that are similar, but because they are similar, the same things may not apply. Since 1975 we have said that Timor was a colony of Portugal, for 500 years, all other Indonesian provinces, which make up the great Indonesian nation, result from the Dutch colonization. Papua was part of that process. Indonesia has never claimed Timor as Portuguese territory. In this case, I was invited by Jakarta to visit Papua. After going, I shared with the Indonesian entities my point of view, which is nothing out of this world. Indonesia is a multi-ethnic, multi-racial and multi-religious country, although it is the largest Muslim-majority country in the world. It is up to the Indonesians to make the ethnic minorities in particular – if they want to maintain unity and territorial integrity – feel that they are part of this nation, and of that great society.
This is not happening in Papua.
Jakarta is making a huge effort to develop the territory. The 2017 budget for Papua, which has four million inhabitants, was ten billion dollars. However, I told my Indonesian friends that there are problems in society that are not just solved with money. The questions of the soul and the heart are not solved like this. That tribal community with thousands of years complains about other things, not necessarily independence, as many people think. Indonesia has given genuine autonomy to the provinces. Papua has an elected local government, an elected governor, and the commander of the entire Indonesian navy is from Papua. It is up to Indonesia to study the best form of autonomy for the region.
So it does not compare to Timor’s struggle?
There is no comparison either in the historical framework or in international law.
Let us now speak of relations with Portugal, the case of Tiago and Fong Fong Guerra (judged and sentenced to eight years in jail and to whom the Portuguese embassy has given two passports to leave the country) marked much the recent relationship between Portugal and Timor, or does this historical connection, in your opinion, remain strong?
Relations between Portugal and Timor remain exceptional. Portugal is our best friend, although not a neighbor. Even in the difficult situations of the past, where on our side there were mistakes in approaching problems, such as in the expulsion of judges, I learned from seeing how this situation was handled on the Portuguese side. My respect for Portuguese rulers only rose, such was the elegance, finesse, calmness, and serenity with which they dealt with such a delicate matter. As for the two citizens convicted of money laundering, I do not comment on the substance of the case, because I respect our Attorney General and the judges. I did not agree with the sentence attributed, as I do not agree with sentences in our country to certain cases of corruption.
But it was not only the application of the penalty, Mari Alkatiri himself considered serious the action of Portugal.
There was a detail from our side, it was never clarified to Portugal, while the process was proceeding, which could not issue the passports. They are citizens, they asked for the document and it was issued.
Was it a procedural mistake of Timorese justice?
That’s what I was told. But I do not agree with the excessive penalties in cases of corruption that have been applied to Timorese citizens, including rulers. Above all, for me, there has to be compassion and proportionality. It is one thing to steal $ 100,000, which can even be recovered, another is to kill someone whose life is not recoverable. Apply five years of prison to a minister in a case of four thousand dollars? If they were 100 thousand perpetual pickings? A million, would it be a firing squad? There has to be proportionality. A woman, too, and sick. Why not a suspended sentence and recovered the four thousand dollars? In Portugal, you are much more benevolent, the staff of BES is free and happy. (laughs)
A few months ago, a member of the Khunto party, one of three of the Timorese government coalition, argued that the use of Portuguese should definitely be excluded in parliamentary debates, to facilitate Members’ understanding. Is this just an episode or a trend?
I do not know if this MP speaks Tetum, at all. Both languages work in parliament. Maybe her frustration is because she does not speak any of the two languages. It was never a problem in our parliament. There are recent polls in which most Timorese youths think that Portuguese is important to our identity. In 2019, we have more Timorese speaking the language than in 1975, the last year of the glorious Portuguese colonization. At that time, only 7% were talking about it. Now we are at 30%.
Do you feel that it is important in connecting to the world?
Portuguese is not a language like English or French, but it is part of the Timorese identity. And this is based on some pillars: Catholicism, 98% profess this religion, and the Tetum language, which was spread throughout the country by the Portuguese missionaries. Today, in every 10 Tetum words, seven are derived from Portuguese. Any Portuguese who comes to Timor and hears the Tetum, can understand. It can be compared to how easily you have to perceive Spanish.
Finally, Ramos Horta knows Macau well, he has visited the territory several times in the last decades, what are the differences that you notice in the Macao SAR?
I think that the Central Government of China, smartly and strategically, invested socially and economically in Macao. This is a small territory, is slightly larger than my residence in Dili, which I bought in 2011 for less than $ 10,000. At the time of the Portuguese, Macau was 16 square kilometers. The fact that China allows the opening of more casinos and Chinese gambling – 80-90% of the clientele – is a deliberate strategy to make this region a great financial and commercial intervention, and to make it not so subaltern in relation to Hong Kong, or have an inferiority complex. China has every interest in developing Macau. Congratulations also to the Chief Executives of this territory, who were always well chosen by the Macao population, and sanctioned by China, who knew how to make use of the determination of the Central Government.
Is the relationship between Macau and Timor as deep as it wanted?
I would like to see Macau, given its status as a great autonomy, and given the “surplus” it has, could sponsor concrete projects in Timor-Leste.
There is no direct investment from Macao?
No. Only one private investor with shares in Timor Telecom. Other than that, there is not.
But why does not that happen?
Partly because of our failure to present ideas and proposals on how Macau can sponsor initiatives in Timor. There are thousands of East Timorese who came to Macao, but today we would like to have a Macao house in our country, and that this could be the umbrella to finance health projects, to combat malnutrition, and to be an active point to attract investment of the Macao SAR and the rest of China. It is not happening, because we do not enjoy the goodwill that exists in Macao.
Source in Portuguese: Ponto Final