President For The Poor People Plays down Allegations Of Corruption, Collusion and Nepotism.
President Jose Ramos-Horta in a conversation with Australian journalists and a Timorese journalist in his residence on 18/06/09. During an hour long interview most journalists challenged Mr. Horta with the issue of corruption, nepotism and collusion within Timor-Leste Government.
East Timor is the poorest country in south East Asia and Pacific.
Follow the questions and answers between President Jose Ramos Horta (PRH) with the Jornalists from the below transcription:
Question: After Ten years East Timor independence and there is still seems to be a strong presence of the Australian international Force and Police also United Nations When do you think East Timor would be able to stand on it's own feet?
PRH: Well, I believe that by 2012, the current size and the mandate of the United Nations mission will significant police force will ended. And similarly in the next years or two the current mandate and agreement with the international stabilisations namely Australian and New Zealand will be a significantly reduce and Maybe the mission the ISF (The International Stabilisation Force) will be restricted to a providing training to our defence Forces particularly in the field of engineering Constructions so civil training for our defence Force.
Question: You recently watched the Balibo movie. What your though on that?
PRH: Well….any thing the is a sort of understatement of the true cruelty of what happened to the five journalist in Balibo and to the six of Roger East on December 7. Because from numbers and numbers interviews I had at the time immediately after the killing at Balibo, Survivors from the Balibo. Attacked and the people from the other side with attacking Forces in October 75 on Balibo, The death of the five in Balibo were in the most cruel form. Not the simply execution stile with bullet, you died instantly without to suffering and without humiliation.
Question: So how does make you feel that former generals wiranto and Prabowo will running in the Presidential elections on July 8. How does make you feel that these people potentially be in power?
PRH: Well A. I don't think Prabowo or Wiranto were directly or indirectly involve in Balibo. Prabowo probably at that time was far too young. I don't recall whether he was even in the army at the time. Wiranto might be but no one and my self include my self have no recollection ever heard of wiranto's name in Balibo or for that matter in East Timor years later. It does not mean that the two individuals particularly General Prabowo were not implicate in the violence in East Timor when he was a Kopassus commander. And particularly in Indonesia it self it is Prabowo and the Indonesian people have to deal with each other for the Prabowo's role in the violence in Indonesia. But it is their sovereign right and their responsibility and their choice.
QUESTION: Mr President, with regards to the issue of corruption within the Government, to what extent to you think corruption is actually rife within the Government, and how high up do you think corruption actually goes within the Government?
PRH: There is a principle that i hold as a sacred one, and that is the presumption of innocence of anyone that one might accuse of whatever sin. In the case of corruption in this country, there have been allegations going back to the first constitutional Government. You might recall that Dr Mari Alkatiri, the former Prime Minister, was accused to have received $2 million from Conoco Phillips. As it turned out, this was never true, and yet the man was publicly tried through the media. So I'm always extremely careful in making judgements on people just because I hear stories one after another.
We have institutions: Government and private ones like some NGOs that do investigations; we have the Ombudsman; we have the Prosecutor-General. I have been briefed by the Government, by the Prime Minister, [and] by the Dept Prime Minister about their efforts to stamp out any corruption that might arise. Right now I know that there are cases on the desk of the Prosecutor General, so we'll wait until these cases prove to be well-founded. What I can say is that I personally spent 24 years of my life struggling for this country to be free, and I do not want my own name—having spent so many years of my life in the fight for this country to be better—to be implicated in a country that could be listed by Transparency International as one of the most corrupt in the world. I don't want to be a part of that.
So first I will fight for us very hard to have a model society, a model country. If I fail that, then I guess I and others have to take responsibility that we failed to prevent corruption and to fight corruption.
QUESTION: Are you confident that the actual tendering process that people need to undergo when these tenders are put out, are you confident that this process isn't corrupt and that it is transparent enough?
PRH: I have demanded to see some of the major, major contracts. One is the power plant with China: it's a $360 million power plant paid for by our people, by our petroleum fund. I'm reading through the contract to the best of my ability. I have asked my closest advisors, lawyers, to look at it. I have discussed with the Prime Minister some of my own concerns. I have two concerns: one is the reliability on a technical level of this company. B: of course I'm concerned like many of the environmental impact of the heavy fuel project. Three: the cost of it; has anyone actually checked that the $360 million corresponds to the technology, to the quality of the technology that we are buying? Well I don't know, I'm not an expert on that. However, the Government—to its credit—has advertised for an international consultant, an independent consultant, to monitor and inspect every aspect of this project.
How this tender was awarded is a different thing. I was told by the Minister of Finance that there were 14 applicants from Australia, from Korea, more than one from China, from Portugal, and the
tender process awarded to this Chinese builder. Is it surprising? Well, I don't think it's surprising. You know, the Chinese companies beat most of the competitors anywhere in the world because they're cheaper, maybe because they can deliver it faster.
QUESTION: Mr President, you said you would establish an independent body to carry out an environmental impact assessment on the heavy oil plant. What stage is this at, and will you take it's recommendations seriously at this point in the process?
PRH: Well, as you know, I do not have executive powers. I am pursuing ideas on how to set up my own environmental commission to assess the environmental impact of this project. I'm hoping to get some independent technical academic advice from some universities in Australia, and friends elsewhere in the world. I don't have my own money, budget from my office to pay for such a consultant. It would have to be pro bono. No-one is going to give me money to pay for a high-level technical team to look at it.
However, the Government itself has said it will accept any environmental impact [statement] that would counsel the Government either to change course in terms of the project or even cancelling altogether. If there are any serious findings that say it is totally detrimental to the best interests of this country in terms of the environmental impact, in terms of the technology used, and the cost and all of that.
QUESTION: Do you not think it's the responsibility of the Government to do that kind of assessment rather than yourself having to go there and find academic consultants yourself? [Do you think] it's a Governmental responsibility, not yours alone as President.
PRH: The Government has already advertised for an international independent consulting group whose terms of reference include environmental assessment. That's one thing. But apart from that I would feel that, in my conscience, I should make an extra effort. A parallel effort. I have already contacted a Timorese NGO with some expertise, with credibility, [and] some Timorese individuals. My preference is to have East Timorese experts—there are a few who understand about power supply, who understand about the environment, questions including international environmental law, Kyoto obligations that we are bound by as we've ratified Kyoto—and maybe, this Timorese group could be supported by some Indonesian experts because Indonesians have had a lot of expertise in the field with a lot of problems as well. So maybe I can get a solid Timorese group with support from Indonesian academics or NGOs from Australia to compliment whatever the study will be done by the Government. Let me assure you, I have complete confidence in the integrity of the Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao. There is no-one in this country—including me—that can claim, "I care more for this country," than Xanana Gusmao. He fought more than anyone for this country, suffered more than anyone for this country. So I have absolute confidence.
What I don't want—and I told him this today—is that some companies, some countries, might want to make use or exploit the innocence of this country, the innocence of the Prime Minister [and] his good intentions, and sell-out rats for cats or bananas for apples. So that's my concern: I told him I'm looking into this, not because I don't trust the Prime Minister—he's a man of tremendous integrity and love for his own country—but because I don't want anyone, whoever it is, whether it's a Chinese company or an American company, to think we are fools and that we just are some bunch of individuals with no experience who eat peanuts and bananas, and that they can fool us. So I will not allow anyone [to do this] unless I'm also totally stupid and ignorant – then I'm also a fool. I have a bit of experience on these matters, so I will look at it carefully.
QUESTION: Just getting back to the tenders. Who actually has to sign off on these tenders, when it's a significant amount of money that we're talking about; who actually has to sign off on these tenders and are you involved in that process?
PRH: No, I'm not involved whatsoever in any tender. Even when I was in the cabinet in the previous Government, I was never asked, I never took part. I don't have a clue how it is done or who does it. When I was Prime Minister for a very short period of time, I signed off a tender [that was] brought to me by the Minister of Health to give a contract for the building of a hospital in Suai. So that's the only one I remember. The Minister of Health is a man of tremendous integrity—the previous one—and I signed without really understanding how it came about, because he was my Deputy Prime Minister and dealing with that sector, so I simply signed it.
In this particular case, the Ministry of Finance and the Ministry of Infrastructure and the cabinet authorise the signing of such huge contracts that represents basically more than half of our entire budget.
QUESTION: We're talking about large amounts of money though, and corruption is an issue. Shouldn't you not as President at least oversee, or have some sort of involvement in these types of activities?
PRH: No. In our political system, the President does not have executive authority. I cannot everyday interfere in the Government of the country. If that is what I want to do, I might as well run for Prime Minister. That is the responsibility of the Prime Minister.
The Government has to account to me. They have to account to the Parliament. And I have done already a stretching of my interpretation of the Constitution, demanding for access to see the contracts. Two contracts I demanded to see: one was the purchasing of the boats from China, two fast boats for our maritime police, maritime army unit; and the other was the power supply. I demanded to see, and that's my interpretation of my obligations in the Constitution, but someone—a constitutionalist—might challenge, might say, "Sorry Mr President, you don't have the powers to demand from us these contracts".
But I did. The Prime Minister obliged and gave [them] to me. I have had it [the heavy oil contract] for more than a week now, trying to read through and then discuss with him. I sent my people to the Ministry of Finance with specific questions that I wanted answered following my reading of the contract.
QUESTION: Poverty and high unemployment rates do plague this country. Are you concerned about a return in violence or about an uprise in violence?
PRH: Well first, let me use this as an opportunity to tell you the following. I often read in your, err, normal media in Australia and elsewhere that unemployment is 50%, that unemployment is 80% – it's nonsense. The population of this country is slightly over a million, of which half, at least, are children or at least not of working age. And then there's 70% to 75% or more of adults who live off the land, who are subsistence farmers. If you count all of this on top of the 30,000 civil servants—including army, police and schoolteachers—if you travel around Dili at least and see the many thousands of shops, if you go to the back alleys of Dili as I do often, walking around the back alleys, you start wondering where do they get these figures? Unemployment is much, much lower than it is. I believe that it is less than 10% unemployment.
Of course it does not mean that poverty is not widespread. Of course it is, and the statistics show that. The fact of the matter is that people also tend to forget that this country is seven years' independent. As I said once to the UN Security Council in New York and to a group of diplomats: does anyone have an idea how long does it take in Manhattan, in New York, to set up a simple Chinese takeaway business? You know, a small one, family owned. You have them in Australia. Well, I never ran a takeaway business, but I imagined three to five years. A friend of mine actually who lives in Manhattan said actually, it takes five to seven years to have this kind of business turning profit. And people expect Timor-Leste to be stable, to be fully functioning, operational like Australia, like New Zealand, or like Singapore, in seven years.
Well, it's not serious. Not serious intellectually speaking, not serious academically speaking. We are not setting up a restaurant, not running a car mechanic shop: we are trying to build a nation from ashes of destruction in 1999, and we inherited a non-existent state from the UN in 2002. We've tried to heal the wounds of this society, we tried to set up an army, a police force, banking institutions, creating an economy, dealing with our neighbour, dealing with issues of justice in the past. All of this fell into our laps, our hands, and we are told, "Well, in seven years you have produced very little".
Well, I will say no. I have been to 134 countries in my lifetime. Some have been 50 years' independent, others 200 years like Guatemala. I was there a few years ago, and when I look at what Guatemala was then when I was there – they're almost 200 years' independent. Or look at the Philippines, 100 years' independent; and then compare to East Timor – seven years. People make these sweeping evaluations and judgements of what we have achieved or what we have not achieved.
QUESTION: With regards to corruption within the Government, what impact do you think that's having on the development of the country, and on foreign investment from countries such as Australia? Do you think it is stopping foreign investment or delaying the development of the country?
PRH: Allegations are allegations, remain allegations until proven. So far there has not been a single case of an allegation that has been proven in the investigation by the Prosecutor [General] or in court. If potential investors from Australia—just because they hear about allegations of corruption—do not wish to be here, that's they're choice. It's not going to be the end of the world, [and] not going to be the end of Timor-Leste.
Last year, we had 12.5% real GDP growth. This year, I believe with the investments in place in 2009, we will have also maybe double-digit growth. By next year, I believe the world economy will have recovered, [and] we will begin to see the trend of oil prices going up again to the barrier of $70/barrel, so the Government will be able to continue to have funds to inject into the economy. It's no different from what China and the US are doing in terms of their Governments themselves injecting money back into the economy to push growth. That's what we're trying to do.
And of course the private sector is happy with that. You go around town, you talk to some Australian small investor here, and they're happy: their hotels are full, they are selling a lot. You go to investors from China, from Singapore, and they're happy because Timor-Leste's economy is booming. In small scale, you know. Those who are here in small-scale are happy.
A major hotel building will start this year. $300 million investment from Malaysia and Singapore. I have information from friends in the Middle East, from Gulf Countries such as Lebanon and others, who want to come to set up banks, insurance, and hotels. They are familiar with the problems in the Third World [sic]. They are more risk-takers, unlike Australian investors who are less risk-taking. There is a major Irish investor, the owner and CEO of Digicel, a multi-billion dollar business in Ireland and around the world. The CEO himself has been here, and they want to invest in telecommunications.
So I'm not at all concerned about whether the allegations of corruption will scare off investors. If they don't trust us, there are others who will trust us. And those who trust are already, right now, reaping some benefits.
QUESTION: I want to ask you specifically about access to documents, being able to access tenders so that the media or the public have access to contracts. For instance, if a hotel is being built, would one be able to look and see who is being involved. Those kind of things are very hard to access, and it doesn't seem like a very transparent system.
PRH: There are two different situations here. If it is an investment from a private investor, obviously there is no tender. He or she applies for land if he or she wants Government land, and the Government would study and say it merits support because we need it, because it will create jobs. This is what happened to the investor from Malaysia and Singapore; a very well-known investor with his own money. We simply provided the land. We're still in negotiations about the terms, conditions, and how many years we provide the land to him.
And then there is the issue with the tenders. Of course I agree that the tender process has to be the most transparent possible. It is in the interests of our country; it is public money that is involved. I believe that the type and the process has to be very transparent, except where the law stipulates that in the course of the presentation of the tender, it is confidential. Once it is awarded, then all documents should come out, except some aspects where the companies don't want their rivals to know what they're offering.
QUESTION: Turning a little bit further towards the East Timorese refugees who have remained in West Timor. There are those that have expressed concern about coming back to Timor, but I do understand that the Government has on several occasions gone and spoken to them and reassured them that it is safe to come back. Do you think their fears are justified?
PRH: Not at all justified. I tell you one thing, what is remarkable about the East Timorese people. I tell you, I have been to 134 countries in my life, including Bosnia. When I was in Bosnia ten years ago, in 1998, I was invited there by the European organisation for security and co-operation as a Nobel laureate. At the time I was foreign minister of no country, so I was there in my individual capacity. I was shocked with the depth of hatred between the Muslim Bosnians and the Serbians. I met with many from Kosovo, and was shocked with the hatred of Kosovars towards the Serbians. And I found this in many other conflict situations that I have been to.
In this country, has there been a single former pro-autonomy leader killed since 1999? No, there are many, even in the Parliament, in the Government, around the country, in the police. Has there been a single act of violence against an Indonesian citizen? There are many thousand still here, many are illegal migrants. No. Some of the people on the island of Atauro were telling the police that there are some Indonesians who come to Atauro illegally to seek medical treatment because the neighbouring islands don't have hospitals. They didn't know what to do, and I told them—to them and the UN police who were there, I spoke both in Tetun and in English—I said, "I am the President of this country and I'm telling you, if there is ever a single individual on this earth who needs shelter, who lands on our shore, I don't care the reasons, I don't care for his or her passport – you must welcome them". And that is our policy.
I tell this to my own people, in this country. Some are beginning to worry about the so-called illegal migrants taking over jobs. I tell them, "Well, look at the United States; who made up the United States? Migrants. Look at Australia, how it's changed since 30 years ago". A few years ago I was in Melbourne, and was pleasantly surprised when I met with the then-mayor, who happened to be a first-generation ethnic Chinese from Tianamen speaking English with a Chinese accent. Well, 30 years ago he wouldn't have been elected. 30 to 40 years ago, a Greek-origin person would not have been elected a politician. Australia's changed beyond recognition, and is totally open to people of diverse backgrounds. And that's why countries like Australia and the United States are great: they're totally open-minded. Well, Timor has to be like that, and our people are fantastic in this regard.
QUESTION: But Mr President, there's still many thousands of people living just over the border in refugee camps and we lived with them. They said that Indonesia doesn't care about them, and neither does Dili. What do you have to say for them?
PRH: Well, the fact of the matter is, they opted to leave, and they had ample choices before 2003 to return. Those who wanted to return came, and they were helped by the United Nations and particularly by UNHCR. By 2003, those who decided to stay in Indonesia could no longer be classified as refugees, and thus opted for Indonesian citizenship. I know the Indonesians have been very generous with our people living in Indonesia.
Eest Timor also has difficulties; it cannot provide satisfaction to everybody. The doors of this country remain open for anyone who is entitled to Timorese citizenship, even 50 years from now. If they want to return, they still can return. They'll never lose Timorese citizenship, and it's up to them. If they wish to come, with all the challenges and difficulties and possibilities we have, they're welcome. It's their country. So we cannot do anything beyond that.
QUESTION: There seems to be several cases of UN workers who have fathered children by East Timorese local women, and those men have now gone back to wherever they came from and have left these women without any assistance. What pressure can you put on the UN to hold these men to account?
PRH: Well, I have the greatest confidence in the integrity of the United Nations, particularly in the Special Representative to the Secretary General in East Timor. I know he has issued warnings, information in regards to this situation. However, I personally know of some cases. I was in one of the bairos a couple years ago. I looked at the Timorese woman and she had a baby. A very cute little baby. But the baby looked 100% African; I couldn't figure out where this baby came from. And in my naivety, I asked this stupid question to the mother, "Where is this baby from?", and she said, "This is my baby". I asked how come the baby didn't look like the mother, and she said, "Well, my boyfriend is from the African police," but she didn't seem to be upset, and it seemed like the gentleman, actually –
QUESTION: (interjecting) ... I've actually met a woman who was married to a Bosnian man, and he's abandoned her and gone back [to his home country], and the UN gave him another posting in Liberia, knowing the circumstances.
PRH: Well, I don't want to dismiss these cases. I don't know how serious they are. But, is it so different from so many other cases of a man running away from his wife and his kids, or from a wife running away from her husband, dumping her husband? I first looked at it at this level, you know. Is it really systematic, widespread abuse, or is it just another case of a young man coming to this country, like he could have been in New York or anywhere, gotten involved with a woman, and then avoided his responsibilities? It happens all the time, everywhere. Just because it's the UN, [do] we have to criticise it? Of course we criticise the man for doing that, but about the responsibility of the UN?
Frankly I don't know how widespread the case is. In any case, the Special Representative to the Secretary General is taking it seriously. He briefed me about what they are trying to do to discourage this kind of behaviour. But sometimes the UN even went overboard, like in the Congo. They even forbade UN people from socialising with local people. They said it's to avoid out-of-marriage children and things like that. It is totally unnatural for the UN to tell its personnel—and the UN's supposed to be universal, promoting relations among nations—and you tell UN personnel that they cannot socialise with local women or local men.
QUESTION: Could you please comment regarding recent allegations of a 51 year-old male Brazilian UN Police officer sexually assaulting four underage girls in one extended family?
PRH: I have been informed by the police and Prosecutor General that there are such allegations. Without saying that there is evidence, it is still upon the basis of reports and allegations. If indeed it is true, of course, it is a matter of serious concern. It is a crime. Whether it involves Timorese minors or foreign minors, it is totally unacceptable.
Timor-Leste is not going to be a place where people without any scruples—from wherever they are—bring minors into this country, because there are reports of forced prostitution of Chinese brought from mainland China here, and from Thailand. There have been instances where we've managed to detect the network and have the woman repatriated under protection back to Thailand. But there are reports that there are organised prostitution rings from SE Asia, and from mainland China. It's more serious when it might involve minors. We will not allow this country to be a playground for organised crime of any sort, and that includes drugs. I have raised this matter with the US side, with the Australian side, to provide us with expert advice and training to combat drug trafficking, money laundering, prostitution, and so on, and Australia is providing such strong support. The US will provide FBI training for our personnel.