Right at the start of the interview, Jose Manuel Ramos-Horta had only one thing in mind – pushing Timor-Leste to a whole new level.
Being re-elected president in April, Ramos-Horta is realistic about Timor-Leste’s capabilities. Having gained independence 20 years ago, and with a population of just 1.3 million, Timor-Leste is relatively young and unexplored. Located on the east of Timor island, it is the new kid on the Southeast Asian block.
And being young, in this day and age, isn’t a bad thing.
“In two or three years’ time, we will have far better connectivity than now,” Ramos-Horta said, in an exclusive interview with Twentytwo13 this morning.
“We have submarine cables from Asia. In addition, the Dili International Airport (Presidente Nicolau Lobato International Airport) is being expanded, while the Baucau International Airport is being rehabilitated by the United States Army.
“On Nov 30, we will formally inaugurate the new port of Dili. That is a major port, considered to be the most modern in Southeast Asia, boasting an enormous capacity and being automated.”
Ramos-Horta said Timor-Leste has managed to attract many potential investors from Brunei, Singapore, and even Malaysia.
“On Nov 25, we will see a major Singapore investment of US$800 million … to build a 700-room hotel, villas, hospital, and a hospitality school. The old port of Dili … the area there, will be redeveloped into a modern marina.”
Timor-Leste’s government is also planning to buy out Brazilian operator Oi’s majority stake in Timor Telecom next year.
Still not an Asean member
Despite being in Southeast Asia, Timor-Leste’s membership into the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) is still pending.
“We applied to join Asean in 2011, when we faced more challenges economically. But things have changed for the better in Timor-Leste over the last 10 years.
“We have hundreds of thousands of our people pursuing their education in China, Korea, Japan, India, Australia, Europe, the US, and as far away as Brazil.
“We are filling some empty spaces in the human resources sector. We have worked hard.
“We can only be grateful to the leadership of Asean nations, including Malaysia and Indonesia, all of whom have been supportive of our membership bid.”
Ramos-Horta added that many citizens and ranking civil servants from Timor-Leste had studied in Singapore and Indonesia to upskill.
Timor-Leste’s entry into Asean has been met with some objections by certain member states, claiming that the nation is economically small and remains underdeveloped.
However, Timor Leste shares a similar score of 0.607 with Asean member Laos in the United Nations Development Programme’s Human Development Index. Myanmar is placed lower, with a score of 0.585.
According to the latest Global Freedom Scores by Freedom House, Timor Leste scored the highest at 72/100. It scored better compared to Malaysia (50) and Singapore (47).
Nevertheless, Freedom House, had in its overview, noted that Timor Leste’s democratic institutions remained fragile, and that judicial independence was undermined by serious capacity deficits and political influence.
“We are quite ready (to join Asean) and there is a consensus (among Asean members) that Timor-Leste should join (the bloc).
“I believe it could happen in 2023. I cannot anticipate the announcement made by the (Asean) leaders … but it’s public knowledge. There have been at least three high-level technical missions that have been to Timor-Leste over the past three years and they are very happy with us.”
Sports diplomacy key in promoting Timor-Leste
Tomorrow, the capital of Timor-Leste will host one of the country’s biggest sporting events following the Covid-19 pandemic – the Dili International Marathon 2022.
It has already attracted over 1,500 runners from 10 nations to compete in the four categories – 3km, 10km, half marathon and marathon.
“The region and the world have faced multiple challenges. We have the Russia-Ukraine war that has resulted in the spike in commodity prices. Now, we may face global recession, but life goes on,” said Ramos-Horta.
“When I was elected in May, we took new initiatives to pacify minds, to re-energise people through hope.
“The Dili International Marathon is part of marketing Timor-Leste … to show how peaceful it is, tranquillity in a turbulent world. We have zero political and ethnic, or religious violence. Despite the impact of Covid-19 and the Russia-Ukraine conflict, we still can get our economy going.”
He added that sports diplomacy was vital in promoting Timor-Leste.
“Through many generations, sports played an important part in national, and cultural activities, and in international diplomacy.
“We have participated in the Olympics, our first being the 2000 Sydney Olympics. We have athletes who participated in the SEA Games.
“We are a new country, we don’t have a major sports institute, and we don’t have a major national private sector. The New York Marathon or Tokyo Marathon, for example, are carried out by private groups.
“Here, because of my international experience, also in peacebuilding, we have to use devices, and instruments like sports to promote peace, to market the country, and to attract tourists.
“That’s why I am involved (in the Dili International Marathon), to take the lead.
“In November, we have a major cultural and music event in Ataúro Island. It will include cultural music groups from indigenous people from Australia and Indonesia.
‘We are not involved in the US-China dispute’
Ramos-Horta did not discount the possibility of marketing Timor-Leste as a sporting and environmental hub.
“We are unexplored, people are curious. Timor-Leste is one of the safest countries in the region, if not the world,” he said.
“We are not involved in the US-China dispute, we have good relationships with our neighbours. Timor Leste can be a haven for sports, culture, and literacy. That’s my belief … and we can do it.
“We also have the richest biodiversity in the world. We have pristine waters and totally unspoilt coral reefs, far better than the Great Barrier Reef of Australia, and that of Indonesia.
He added with smart investments in digitalisation, connectivity, and smart policies, Timor Leste can add value to Southeast Asia, turning it into a dynamic region.
“We are expanding our coffee plantations. We are looking at digital currency, to go fully online with transactions. I hope to enhance our economic trade partnerships with Indonesia… we will be having a meeting in Bali next week, following my visit to Indonesia in July.
“We will give priority to investments from our Asean neighbours. I will also be visiting Cambodia soon to expand trade between both nations,” he added