Nobel Peace laureate and former president of East Timor, Mr Jose Ramos-Horta, spoke to a fully packed room at University Museum and Art Gallery of HKU about the journey to his country’s independence and stressed humanitarian needs. He shared his deep perspectives on on East Timor’s relations with other Asian countries, ranging from its troubled history and brighter future with Indonesia to a rising China aiming to spread its influence in the region.
Mr Ramos-Horta was in the city on September 6 to launch his new book titled Words of Hope in Troubled Times, which features his speeches and writings from 1992 to 2017 addressing current affairs.
Mr Ramos-Horta is best known for advocating independence for East Timor (or Timor Leste in Portuguese), a Southeast Asian country next to Indonesia. The country was first occupied by Portugal until 1975, then by Indonesia until 2002.
His efforts have helped make East Timor the youngest democracy in Asia.
A journey for peace
He worked tirelessly to campaign for the freedom of his people. Decades of international campaigning culminated in a peace plan in 1992 to seek self-determination for the East Timorese people.
In 1996, Mr Ramos-Horta received the Nobel Peace Prize together with East Timorese bishop Carlos Filipe Ximenes Belo for their “work towards a just and peaceful solution to the conflict in East Timor.” Their work was not done, however and would still take years to be realised.
The peace objectives were reached in 2001, following a UN-supervised popular referendum in August 1999 that supported the country’s independence.
“When you seek independence, it is for the rights to freedom and dignity,” he said.
Despite the decades-long conflict between East Timor and Indonesia, Mr Ramos-Horta claimed the two countries now have the “best possible relationship in ASEAN.”
“The biggest investment is from Indonesia, followed by Australia and the EU.” said Mr Ramos-Horta. “Indonesia has been more active in supporting our membership application to the ASEAN.”
To date, East Timor is not yet an ASEAN member. It made its original application to join the club in 2011.
Words of hope
As the founder of the pro-independence party Fretilin, Mr Ramos-Horta said he grasped every opportunity to spread his messages on international media, such as the BBC and the CNN, when he was in exile from 1975 to 1999.
“When we felt lost, we heard your voice,” Mr Ramos-Horta recalls he was told on his return. “You need to live up to your obligation and loyalty to the people.”
His humanitarian drive has led him to focus on concerns shared by the global community – climate change, water pollution, hunger and so on.
“If we were to spend less on armaments, we would be able to spend more on education, health, and food security for all,” said Mr Ramos-Horta.
East Timor has rolled out a strategic development plan for 2011 to 2030 to tackle poverty and improve living standards.
“Before, we had 19 medical doctors. By 2020, we will have more than 1,000,” Mr Ramos-Horta mentioned twice that evening.
He also said the country is now giving one meal per child at school.
With a population of 1.26 million, East Timor is still one of the poorest countries in the world. As of 2017, it has a GDP of US$2,104 per capita, ranking 139 out of 192 countries in the world.
Many friends make light work
As China pushes its Belt and Road agenda in Southeast Asia, it is gaining presence in the region. But Mr Ramos-Horta stressed that China’s role in his country’s development is minor.
“The biggest investment is not from China, as the media often claims,” he said.
China helped East Timor build the foreign ministry building, the presidential office and the Ministry of Defence building, which he called “modest” infrastructure.
The former president of the country seems to be more inclined towards building stronger ties with its ASEAN neighbours and Australia.
Last month, he called for formal defence and security ties between East Timor and Australia.
“Our defence and the police are extremely happy with the quality of the assistance with our army and the police force,” Mr Ramos-Horta told The Australian.
“But we can move further, and further expand this security partnership, but also the development partnership. That is in the interests of Timor Leste,” he said.
“Australia has ceded to China in far more sensitive and strategic areas. For instance, China has a 100-year lease of the Darwin port… We haven’t leased any maritime facility to China,” he added.
For East Timor, the geopolitical ties could even go further up north to Japan and South Korea.
“We have a good relationship with South Korea, not North Korea,” he said jokingly to the audience.
(Printer – R&R Publishing Limited, Suite 705, 7/F, Cheong K. Building, 84-86 Des Voeux Road Central, HK)