Subject: Jose Ramos-Horta: A reluctant politician

NZ Herald

Jose Ramos-Horta: A reluctant politician

15.09.2002 By AUDREY YOUNG

Jose Ramos-Horta, East Timor's Foreign Minister, is everything his country is not: highly educated, sophisticated and stylish.

For 25 years he roamed the globe as an international spokesman for East Timorese independence, acquiring degrees, a doctorate and a Nobel Peace Prize on the way.

He has made countless speeches in the name of justice for East Timor.

This week was his first visit to New Zealand as Foreign Minister, but he protests that he is a reluctant politician.

"I am still ambivalent about it. I do not like being in Government.

"I am very independent-minded. I'm very private. I prefer to be able to do what I want, to say what I want, to wake up when I want, to go to work when I want," he says the morning after a private dinner at a Wellington restaurant hosted by New Zealand Foreign Minister Phil Goff. It almost sounds as though he might have preferred a night out with Winston Peters.

The time for theory has passed. Ramos-Horta and his colleagues in Government face the reality of maintaining a decent water and power supply, and establishing a halfway functioning justice system.

New Zealand is one of dozens of countries helping East Timor on the road to nationhood. Our contribution has been across broad areas including the military, education, police, customs and prisons.

Despite the gratitude, it has emerged that New Zealand's efforts were not trouble-free, especially when it came to prisons.

To put it simply, the Timorese thought New Zealand was too soft on prisoners.

The Corrections Department helped to set up three prisons, which involved 40 Corrections staff, the last of whom withdrew in May. Almost immediately there was the philosophical clash you might expect when you put a First World prison in a Third World environment.

The primary objector was Ana Pessoa, the Minister for Justice and Ramos-Horta's former wife. She wanted less modern-style rehabilitation and more punishment.

When she ordered that toilet paper and soap be removed, leaving it to the prisoners' families to supply them, there was a riot.

Ramos-Horta is diplomatic: "Certainly we have some different views in the country itself on what philosophy, what system, to adopt.

"We are debating if this society should feed and pay for the accommodation for criminals who spend the whole day either sitting around or playing cards or watching television and have three meals a day when people outside the prison walls maybe don't have three meals a day, don't have a television."

After the Corrections Department completed its mission, the East Timorese took over, with apparent limited success.

A couple of weeks ago there was a mass breakout at Becora Prison in Dili. More than half the prisoners, over 100, escaped. Only 30 or 40 are still at large, says Ramos-Horta. But he clearly has some sympathy for the hardliners, having made a surprise visit to Becora while the New Zealanders were still running the show.

"I was surprised with the conditions in the prison. Very clean. I arrived around mealtime and I was shocked with the quality of the food served to the prisoners.

"People outside the prison walls were complaining. Some of my people say we should send the prisoners to the south coast for hard labour, to work in the agriculture sector."

Independence for East Timor was formally ushered in on May 20 before an array of international guests, including Bill Clinton, Kofi Annan and Megawati Sukarnoputri, each welcomed on to the stage like an old friend by Ramos-Horta, switching effortlessly between several languages. Ramos-Horta speaks Portuguese, plus English, French, Spanish and the most commonly spoken East Timorese language, Tetum.

East Timor is now a hotbed of competing influences, not least among them the former colonial ruler, Portugal.

Under the new constitution, the Government controversially reverted to Portuguese as an official language - along with Tetum - replacing Indonesian.

It is reported that only 17 per cent of the population speak Portuguese, 63 per cent Indonesian and 91 per cent Tetum.

It has led to problems in court hearings, for example, where three translations are sometimes necessary - for those who are lucky enough to get a court hearing.

"Our courts do not function," Ramos-Horta told the Herald. "They do not function because we do not have trained judges, prosecutors, public defenders in sufficient numbers. The courts are totally clogged with unresolved cases so it means the prison system is totally clogged with people ... awaiting trial; when maybe someone has stolen a chicken, stolen a bicycle and is there for a year in prison."

Ramos-Horta has been to New Zealand half a dozen times, his first visit being in July 1975, five months before the Indonesian invasion of the former Portuguese colony.

He remembers being greeted by long-haired activists who have become friends.

These days it is limousines to befit a visiting dignitary, but his new status has had no effect on his 5 o'clock shadow, which is well established by 10am.

His mandarin jacket is adorned with two badges - one to signify independence, and the other a miniature of the grand cross of the Order of Freedom presented to him by the President of Portugal.

He is the son of campaigners - a Timorese mother and a Portuguese father who was exiled to East Timor by Portugal's Salazar dictatorship.

Four of his 11 brothers and sisters were killed by Indonesian forces.

During his visit, Ramos-Horta raised the possibility with Goff of extending help from New Zealand in tourism, the environment and re-afforestation.

"The bubble economy that has been generated with the massive presence of the United Nations is bursting.

"We have severe unemployment and we have to look at creative ways to generate employment for the short term," says Ramos-Horta.

He does not see the millions due from royalties within three years from the Timor Sea oil and gas as a silver bullet.

"We are very conscious that the oil can be a blessing, but it can also be a curse in the sense that if we have it too easy - with oil and gas money - we can lose the incentive to work hard in the other sectors of our economy.

"We are going to continue to focus on supporting our agriculture sector, fisheries, tourism, developing small industries."

Ramos-Horta is effusive about New Zealand's contribution, its style as much as its substance, which he puts down to having "no ulterior motive".

"I think New Zealand's contribution in East Timor has been remarkable."

Asked what he meant about "ulterior motive", he says: "Does New Zealand have any neo-colonial imperial ambitions anywhere? It is a totally 'innocent' country that no one looks at with suspicion because of its size, because of the way it conducts itself in its relations with others.

"When New Zealand wants to help East Timor, no one questions New Zealand's motives."

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