Tony Jones speaks with the East Timorese Prime Minister, Jose Ramos-Horta http://www.abc.net.au
TONY JONES: Well, we're joined now by the East Timorese Prime Minister Jose Ramos-Horta, and, as you've seen, he's just come from delivering the Hal Wooten lecture at the law faculty of the University of New South Wales. As we said earlier, he'll be meeting the Prime Minister John Howard on Thursday. Thank you for joining us, Jose Ramos Horta.
DR JOSE RAMOS-HORTA: Thank you, Tony.
TONY JONES: I'm sure you're aware of the recent SBS television report, hinting darkly that Australia may have been involved behind the scenes in a coup against Prime Minister Alkatiri. What's your response to those allegations? We've certainly not heard it so far.
DR JOSE RAMOS-HORTA: Well, that is absolute nonsense. I was a member of Alkatiri's Cabinet. I was very familiar with his own leadership, in terms of negotiation with Australia on the Timor Sea arrangements. He was the one who successfully secured agreement - two important agreements, which providing us with the normal revenues that making us financial independent. And he's the one who led the negotiations on the second agreement on greatest horizon maritime boundary, and he was praised for that. So, I don't see any other reason - what the reason that Australia would want him out. No, that's absolute nonsense.
I always say, you know when we fail, we are civilised leaders, we should have the courage and the humility to say. So we fail in many respects. We succeed in others. Mari Alkatiri succeeded in many aspects of his governance for the first four years but, on the issues of the military, on the police, the way we handle the problem over the petitioners, we should have handled it two years ago, three years ago - we didn't. The way there were alarms on our police behaviour, abuse by the police - all of that. We failed, and it is the accumulation of unresolved problems that led to the violence in April, May.
TONY JONES: The allegations on the SBS Dateline program, put baldly, is that last year two senior army officers were approached by two Timorese and two English speaking foreigners to encourage them to mount a coup to depose the then Prime Minister Alkatiri. You give no credence to that at all?
DR JOSE RAMOS-HORTA: Well, that is absolute nonsense. Of course there are many individuals in the country, including the church, the powerful church – we must respect the church that, way back in May 2005, mounted a month long protest, wanting the dismissal of Prime Minister Alkatiri. So, there is strong native home grown resentment towards our government, towards Dr Alkatiri in particular. So, that is not new at all. But, from there, to say that some English speaking individuals well, maybe, who knows? They could be from any country. How many English speaking countries are there in the world? But to immediately point the finger at Australia or any other neighbour of ours, it's just plain wrong. I'm familiar with - I would have known, you know, and I know there was no involvement from Australia, the US or Indonesia or anyone in our troubles.
TONY JONES: In the same interview Mr Alkatiri suggests a motive. He says that he was moving against Australia's interests by commissioning an independent feasibility study into having a pipeline to take gas from the Sunshine oil fields directly to East Timor and to build an ENG - LPG plant in East Timor. Do you know anything about this?
DR JOSE RAMOS-HORTA: That's – that’s absolute nonsense. Well, yeah, he has not moved on his independent commission – I move in on the independent commission. I have secured the agreement from the Kuwaities to pay for the independent commission. The Australian side, both the government as well as Woodside, Konoko Phillips, they all agree with these independent study to establish the technical feasibility, the commercial feasibility, but beyond the technical feasibility and the commercial feasibility of a pipeline going either direct to Darwin or Australia, we have the Timorese – we have to be realistic to wonder whether there are not legitimate concerns on the part of Woodside, Konoko Phillips, about sovereign risks.
If I were an investor from Australia or from the US and I have to decide to put an investment in Darwin which is rock solid stable and in my own country, East Timor, well, what would be the choice? Not so difficult. So we are the ones who have to be smart and find maybe some other incentives to lure the investment into our country, in spite of the sovereign risks, rather than start blaming some outside entities.
TONY JONES: So, you are - by the sound of it, you would accept that a pipeline to East Timor is not really feasible?
DR JOSE RAMOS-HORTA: No. a) I want the pipeline to come to East Timor. Why not? Far closer to East Timor. But that is my desire. My desire doesn't mean necessarily that this is the best option. That's why we say let's have an independent study, neutral from East Timor and Australia, that determines is it technically advisable? Most people say, yes, it's possible to do that. But being technical adviser doesn't mean necessarily there are no risks. We don't know yet the content of the subsoil between Australia and East Timor. But, beyond that, building a pipeline to Timor and building an entire infrastructures non existent in Timor to accommodate the gas plant and all of that could be immensely cost. So, we have to see and that's why we decided, all along, Dr Alkatiri in the past and myself, let's accept and go for independent study and then accept their recommendations. And so I already decided, have told the Timor Sea authority and others, my colleagues, the minister for energy, with the Kuwait offer, to move fast on this study.
TONY JONES: Now, what's going to happen in your Parliament with a ratification of this oil and gas deal? It hasn't been ratified yet in East Timor or in Australia, as it happens. Are you going to wait until this feasibility study is completed before finally ratifying the deal?
DR JOSE RAMOS-HORTA: No, it doesn't have to wait for that. I have already scheduled for discussion in my own Cabinet and then I hope that some time in November it will be voted in our national Parliament. This Greater Sunrise agreement - we began negotiations under the Alkatiri leadership, Fretilin leadership, way back, some three years ago. We cannot run the risk of being thoroughly discredited internationally - that we negotiate an agreement lasting several years, with many, many top experts on all sides involved. We brought in Norwegians, Americans, Portuguese, Malaysians, Singaporeans - advising us. And then, in the end, we say, "Sorry, but we signed agreement with the Prime Minister but now we change our minds." We are not kids, we are not children. We would look absolutely irresponsible. We would not be trusted in the region and internationally if we start negotiation or agreement - we have signed agreement and then have second thoughts and say, “Well, sorry, we are not going to ratify this.”
TONY JONES: It's estimated that East Timor's share of the royalties will be more than $US20 billion over the next two decades. Do you have a specific economic plan of what you're going to do with those royalties?
DR JOSE RAMOS-HORTA: Well, Tony, if, obviously, I were the Prime Minister beyond May 2007 –
TONY JONES: We'll come to that question in a moment, because I know you made a statement about that today. We'll see whether you're going to stand by it.
DR JOSE RAMOS-HORTA: Yeah. Well, what I say is that we have the money from - we have $700 million in a petroleum fund. We are financially independent, although we still have considerable assistance for our economic development. But our budget is almost 100 per cent funded by the Timor Sea resources. What should we do with it? My belief, the belief of all my colleagues in the Cabinet and in the country, we should use the money from the Timor Sea to combat poverty. And how you do it? Well, you can do it two ways. Line up everybody from one end of the island to another and start to distribute cash. I'm not going to do that. We have to invest more in education, in health. That is part of development. We have to invest more in infrastructure, such as roads, bridges, a new port that we badly need, housing for the poor. For centuries our people don't have housing.
Well, the other day I was telling my Cabinet we must quickly develop a master plan to build housing for the poor of the country, for the widows, for the veterans, for civil servants, and most people agree with that. So, in the next few weeks, we will do that, and also I have asked the World Bank and IMF to advise my government to review the entire fiscal policy, to review the entire tax system, to make it more attractive for investors, both foreigners and local.
We have a cumbersome tax system. We have a very complicated bureaucracy and regulations that really hamper efforts to inject money into the economy. So, in the next few weeks, we might see some significant changes in the way we govern the country.
TONY JONES: One of the problems, obviously, for small countries handling large sums of money in the past, and there are plenty of examples of this, is the corruption and maladministration means these large sums of money can be frittered away. How are you going to prevent that from happening?
DR JOSE RAMOS-HORTA: Well, one thing I call a party congress in Dili the other day, talking to the nation. I said, “I, Jose Ramos-Horta - I can accept any charges against me as an incompetent Prime Minister, but no one would ever be able to accuse me of stealing the money from the people.” So fighting corruption is one of our priorities and fair to say from my predecessor Dr Alkatiri, he was also very, very serious on these issues. At the top leadership level of my country we are committed to that.
The important thing is that we give incentives to the civil servants, so that they don't feel the need to steal $50, $100 here and there to feed their children. And as soon as I took office I called in the Inspector-General. He is the one who conducts inspection into the practice, the behaviour of state institutions and the government leaders, and I told him, "Don't waste time with petty corruption of individuals in the bureaucracy who have - who might get $10 here and there to feed children. Pay attention to us, the big fish. If there is corruption, serious corruption, it always starts from those in power. We are the ones who enable corruption, by closing our eyes or by, unfortunately, being directly involved." If we in the leadership level – we are very are tight in this, we are able to prevent Timor from falling into the corruption trap of many other developing countries.
TONY JONES: OK, Jose Ramos-Horta, you've just laid out a plan for a number of years hence and yet you are actually saying, and said so today, on the PM program that you're not even going to run for Prime Minister in the next election, next year. Are you serious about that?
DR JOSE RAMOS-HORTA: Yes, I'm dead serious about that. I'm an individual, primarily with sentiments, with feelings, and I sincerely believe that the new generation of our country should take the reins of the government of the country.
TONY JONES: But what if that new generation and indeed the new party, which you are now endorsing and spoke to very passionately not so long ago, ask you to reconsider that position and to run as Prime Minister because they need an experienced hand, not an inexperienced young person?
DR JOSE RAMOS-HORTA: Well, first I have to say I am not involved with any party whatsoever yet, at least. I work with all of them. I seek to support them in creating level playing field for all the parties to have the same chances in the coming election, 2007. If and that is a big 'if'- in an extreme scenario where out of a million or so people in my country they can't find someone else for a president or for prime minister, then I might - and I emphasise "I might” consider.
I gave more than 30 years of my life for the country to be free. There are many, good young leaders in the country. I'm impressed with many of them. People in their late 20s, their 30s and after all, what we, the older generation have shown to them. Well, many admire us for what they achieve, but the recent crisis, you know, is our responsibility and should they continue to trust us? Or they should be courageous, have a chance, take the leadership and we and President Xanana stand behind them and give them a chance, support them. That is my preference.
TONY JONES: Finally I have to ask you, are you preparing for possible bad news from the UN inquiry? By which I mean, are you worried that political allies of yours, are you worried that senior military people that you've associated yourself with could be implicated in the violence by the UN report?
DR JOSE RAMOS-HORTA: Well, there are some aspects of the report, I presume, that will not constitute news. The killing of the police civilians, civilian police elements in Dili - that was in broad daylight, everybody knows who did it. That was done by the military. The distribution of weapons everybody knows. On the part of the government, at least one person acknowledged that the former Minister of Interior - but what is not known is whether it is true or not the allegations that Dr Alkatiri actually directly or indirectly was involved. I doubt - I've said back then and today I emphasise it again. But the problem is that there is a certain perception readiness in the country to judge a particular individual in a certain fashion, and if the report turns out to be different from their perception, that expectation, that's when they might be angry. But I hope that all of us accept the report with honesty, with humility, because I believe the report will be very enlightening to us about our mistakes, the weakness of the institutions, including of the United Nations, and then let the judiciary take its course.
If there is criminal evidence against particular individuals, then let the Prosecutor General of the court do their job.
TONY MARTIN: Jose Ramos-Horta, we are out of time. We could probably speak longer on these subjects. I'm sure others will be talking to you about them very soon. We thank you very much for taking the time to talk to us tonight.
JOSE RAMOS-HORTA: Thank you.