Diplomatic Access: Timor-Leste

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Diplomatic Access: Timor-Leste

Timor-Leste Ambassador Domingos Sarmento Alves on regional connectivity, fighting poverty, and more.

Diplomatic Access: Timor-Leste

For spring 2015, The Diplomat presents “Diplomatic Access,” a series of exclusive interviews with ambassadors from the Asia-Pacific region. By talking to these diplomats, we’ll give readers a sense of each country’s perspective on various regional economic and security trends — from TPP to the Silk Road Economic Belt; from the South China Sea disputes to the Islamic State. Check out the whole series to date here.

In this interview, His Excellency Domingos Sarmento Alves, Ambassador of Timor-Leste to the U.S.,  talks about the unique challenges and opportunities facing this young country.

The Diplomat: From Timor-Leste’s Perspective, what are the greatest threats to regional security?

Amb. Alves: First of all, if I am allowed, I would like to look at the threats to regional security from two standpoints — the common security threats (external threats) and individual country’s internal security threats.

Looking at Timor-Leste’s geographical position, it is at the crossroads of Asia in the north and the Pacific in the south, of the Indian Ocean on the north coast and the Pacific Ocean on the south coast. It is between more heterogeneous government systems with different level of economic development in the north and more democratic, homogeneous, and developed countries in the south.

Since the restoration of its independence and recognition by the international community in May 20, 2002, Timor-Leste has made great strides in its efforts to reintegrate itself in the community of nations. In this context, during 13 years of independence, Timor-Leste has shown its unequivocal determination to rejoin the community of nations and, in this process, it has confronted numerous challenges, internally and externally. Among those challenges, the biggest one has been, in fact, security and stability.

Timor-Leste is located in a region where the security is very volatile — a region where almost two-third of the world population lives and where poverty is a predominant reality. Apart from the Southeast Asia Nuclear-Weapon free zone treaty, there are, affirmatively, three countries (China, India and Pakistan) that have nuclear weapons and perhaps North Korea also has become another nuclear power because it has been conducting a series of nuclear tests in the last years. It is imperative to underline that almost all of them, albeit in a different scale, have gone through incidents of hostilities that involved armed confrontations in the past.

Furthermore, the constant tension on the Korean Peninsula and the situation in the Taiwan Strait; the disputes over maritime borders in the South China Sea; the disputes over the Senkaku Islands between China and Japan; terrorism and the organizations of transnational crimes as well as internal instability or political turmoil and insurgencies, with different demands in each individual country in the region, are all of great concern for Timor-Leste.

So, by putting this way, it is obvious that there are both collective security threats and each individual country’s internal security threats in the region. Both collective and internal security threats will always have a negative impacts on Timor-Leste in particular as well as on the countries in the region in general. On one hand, the outburst of any armed conflict between two or more countries will, no doubt, affect the security and stability in the whole region and, on the other hand, any domestic instability or political turmoil and violence as well as religious conflicts in a certain country will have negative effects on the security in the region.

As for Timor-Leste, its greatest concern is poverty. Failure in meeting the high level of expectation that living standards were going to improve soon after our independence had generated a high level of frustration in every family. As a direct consequence of not meeting the expectation and of the unsuccessful battle against widespread poverty to reach a more decent standard of living, these frustrations frequently lead to various endings such as:

  • generating constant internal conflicts (political and social), mostly violent, that will jeopardize the functioning of the established democratic institutions which are still in the process of consolidation;
  • easily engendering political turmoil and violence that will cause internally displaced people or great number of refugees to neighboring countries;
  • the propensity to be exploited by transnational crime-organizations (human trafficking and prostitution, drug trafficking, etc.);
  • being prone to various organized crimes and insurgencies, including organizing and arming the veterans of war to be easily incited to go against the democratically elected government, so as to create favorable conditions for their operations in the country and so forth.

Another great security concern for Timor-Leste is the threat of pandemic diseases (Ebola, avian flu, etc.) that spread across geographic boundaries. Timor-Leste has no ability whatsoever to deter the threats of those infectious diseases.

Moreover, global warming has also emerged as Timor-Leste’s security concern, since it is an island nation. Timor-Leste shares its concern and expresses its solidarity to countries such as Maldives and Pacific Island Nations that are affected by global warming. Most of their large costal areas have been covered by the rising sea level. Maldives, for example, desperately called international attention to this issue by conducting a Council of Ministers Meeting under the sea in 2009.

What can be done to address these threats?

Concerning the collective security threats, the best tool to diffuse and dilute the threats as well as any mutual suspicion between member countries of the region is through permanent and creative ways of exploring new avenues that will lead to a constructive, genuine, and frank dialogue to peaceful solutions over any dispute in the region, taking into consideration the international laws, rules and regulations.

Diplomacy and political dialogue should always be the essential tool to reach peace and security in the region. In today’s world, as modern and civilized nations, constructive and genuine dialogues should always be indispensable options in our efforts of searching for long and lasting solutions to any divergence or conflict that might take place between nations in the region. Dialogue should prevail over military options.

Secondly, coordination and cooperation among countries in the region are of paramount necessity to fight against pandemic diseases, terrorism, and various organizations of transnational crimes such as drug-trafficking, human-trafficking and illegal fishing as well as to promote collective efforts to tackle environmental issues (global warming).

As for the individual country’s internal security threats, the political leaders of the respective countries in the region should find creative ways of bringing solutions and taking preventive measures for any potentiality that might inflame religious, political, or social conflicts, most of which have roots in poverty. Any mishandling of these aspects will, certainly, endanger internal security and stability that is an essential condition for development at all levels – political, social, economic and cultural.

Furthermore, as I mentioned above, the consequences of any internal security threat will never confine itself within the borders of that individual country. The negative impact of any internal unrest will always resound in the region, especially in the immediate neighboring countries.

Accordingly, establishing and nourishing good relations with neighbors to enable mutual trust might be a decisive security measure. Promoting good relations not only between governments but also through people-to-people relations will lead to a wider possibility of social and cultural interactions and, consequently, will create favorable conditions to increase the level of cross-border economic activities among neighboring countries. The cross-border economic activities that involve big multi-national companies will dictate the need of mutually assuring security and stability by the relating countries. Security and stability then become a common concern and essential for economic development that will bring benefit to all involved parties.

Timor-Leste believes that poverty is the root cause of political and social unrest. This poverty could also be a “fertile land” for transnational crime organizations. If transnational crime organizations gain space in this kind of situation, they will abate every effort of the government and of the state as a whole to consolidate the established democratic institutions and to safeguard law and order. Consequently, the state institutions will not operate properly in delivering services to the public and a failed state might be at hand.

Recognizing that it has limited resources to fight against organizations of transnational crimes, especially drug and human trafficking, Timor-Leste is taking significant measures by closely coordinating and cooperating with its neighbors to deter the insatiate desire of criminals in exploring and taking advantage of the poverty situation as well as other fragilities of the country.

What is the status of Timor-Leste’s bid to join ASEAN? What would Timor-Leste bring to this grouping, and what would the country expect to gain from ASEAN membership?

Geographically, Timor-Leste is part of Southeast Asia. In its efforts to reintegrate itself in the community of nations, obviously, Timor-Leste will have to harmonize its national interests with its immediate neighbors’ (Indonesia and Australia) as well as with ASEAN neighbors in particular and the region in general. So, the accession to ASEAN is part of Timor-Leste’s effort in the process of fully reintegrating itself in the community of nations.

As an independent and sovereign country, Timor-Leste is proud of what it has achieved in just 13 years since 2002. Timor-Leste has overcome political and social tension, which is typical and characterizes post-conflict countries, to establish a foundation of constant high economic growth. Due to this attainment, Timor-Leste is frequently an example of a success story in nation building and state building. Nevertheless, Timor-Leste’s future depends on its creative efforts of successfully assuring its regional integration and actively fostering friendly and proactive relations with all countries in the world. Without international connectivity, Timor-Leste simply cannot progress and prosper.

Driven by the above viewpoint, Timor-Leste submitted its formal request of ASEAN membership in March 4, 2011. The Timorese people are very grateful to all ASEAN members since they all have positive responses to our application and they all agree Timor-Leste should be part of ASEAN, including Singapore. Yet Singapore still has reservations on some aspects, such as a lack of qualified human resources to attend ASEAN numerous meetings throughout the year and, therefore, requested Timor-Leste to conduct proper preparation before its application for full membership is being officially accepted.

Since Timor-Leste is vigorously pursuing its objectives of being an integral part of this community of nations (ASEAN) that now constitutes one of the most peaceful, secure, and prosperous regions in that part of the globe, it has passionately attended to the Singaporean demands. With unwavering support and assistance from Indonesia, Timor-Leste has been preparing itself to be more suitable for membership in the organization. Last year, during Myanmar’s presidency, Timor-Leste was allowed to join technical-level discussion meetings.  So far, there have been serious exchanges of views among the members of the organization to determine the suitable time to formally accept Timor-Leste’s full membership in ASEAN.

Joining ASEAN is not intended to seek financial assistance from ASEAN members but to assure Timor-Leste’s long-standing determination to join the organization as part of the process of fully reintegrating itself in the community of nations as well as for the sake of its own security and stability, apart from the expansion of opportunities for trade and economic cooperation with ASEAN members.

Timor-Leste is fully aware of its limitations and of the challenges imposed on it to be an asset to ASEAN but being a member of the organization will, undoubtedly, expand the opportunities for its own development in diverse areas – economic, social, political and cultural.

It is imperative to underscore that Timor-Leste, despite being a poor country and not yet being a full member of ASEAN, has been actively involved in providing humanitarian assistance to countries in the region, rich and poor, afflicted by natural calamities. Without mentioning other countries affected by natural disasters in other parts of the world, Timor-Leste has provided in-cash support to victims of natural disasters in Australia, Japan, China, New Zealand and some Pacific island countries as well as to a number of ASEAN countries such as Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, Thailand and the Philippines, totaling close to $11 million in the last four years.

Furthermore, by joining ASEAN, Timor-Leste is determined to encourage and reinforce the development of democracy, human rights, the promotion of economic prosperity, social progress, and cultural interconnection as well as to enable favorable conditions for open and genuine dialogue between ASEAN members to bring solutions to various common problems and to assure security, stability and peaceful coexistence.

The expansion of opportunities will enable Timor-Leste to achieve economic development that will have a great impact on social, political, and cultural development and, in turn, will reduce poverty and consequently will reinforce security and stability. In other words, economic development will enable improvements of the standard of living, reducing poverty in a way that will be essential for security and stability and, subsequently, will be a pre-condition for economic development.

In conclusion, Timor-Leste’s national security and stability will be best served when it integrates itself successfully in ASEAN but it is also in the interest of ASEAN, from the standpoint of security and stability, that Timor-Leste be part of that regional organization. Timor-Leste’s Prime Minister, Mr. Rui Maria de Arraujo, summarized eloquently these common interests and interdependencies of countries in the region in a simple sentence: “One for all and all for one.”

When Prime Minister Kay Rala Xanana Gusmão visited China in April 2014, Timor-Leste indicated its support for China’s Maritime Silk Road Project. What progress has been made so far? What can Timor-Leste gain from inclusion in the Maritime Silk Road?

Timor-Leste supports the revival of China’s Maritime Silk Road because this initiative is much in line with Timor-Leste’s perspective of constantly exploring creative ways to face the countless challenges of regional and international security and stability, as I have mentioned above.

For Timor-Leste, the Silk Road is a road of friendship, of international solidarity, of spreading dialogue, of exchanging ideas, of sustainable development, of trade and economic growth. It is a road that will lead to poverty alleviation, to common prosperity, to consolidating people to people relation, to promoting and nurturing tolerance, peace, and understanding.  Since ASEAN is implementing this year, 2015, its policy of economic integration toward a single market and China is ASEAN’s largest trading partner, the Silk Road could also serve as a highway for the mobility of capital, goods and labor as well as for the improvement of infrastructures such as transport and communication connectivity.

So there are a lot of benefits that Timor-Leste can gain from its inclusion in the revival of Maritime Silk Road, since Timor-Leste perceives it as a new growth driver for the prosperity and peace for the Asian region in addition to a potential sharing of development opportunities and promoting cooperation, tolerance, peace, and understanding.

The revival of China’s Maritime Silk Road can become a great opportunity to drive global growth, cooperation and interconnectivity that will help shaping Asia’s future. It will also provide a broader opportunity to improve the security and stability in the region as well as a framework for cooperation to fight against terrorism and transnational crimes.

Taking advantage of being at the crossroads of Asia and the Pacific, as I mentioned above, Timor-Leste can play a role in linking Asia to the island states of the Pacific and can act as a bridge between Asia and the Portuguese speaking countries in Africa, namely Angola, Mozambique, Guiné-Bissau, Cabo Verde and São Tomé e Principe, while Timor-Leste is the only Portuguese speaking country in the region.

Finally, to answer the question on what progress Timor-Leste has been made so far after supporting this initiative of the revival of the Silk Road in April 2014, I would say that this is a long process to make these connections a reality. So, one cannot expect to reap, instantaneously, the fruits of this initiative that involves very complex and multidimensional aspects in just a year span – but the potentiality is there.

One of Timor-Leste’s key goals is to become an upper-middle-income country by 2030. But it faces several challenges, including poverty as well as a heavy reliance on oil for economic growth. Are you confident that your country will be able to overcome these challenges to achieve this goal?

Your question recalled me to the difficult times of our struggle to self-determination and independence. Knowing that Timor-Leste was fighting a powerful country in the region, incomparable in number and in arms, and supported economically, politically and militarily by other powerful countries in the world, many Timorese supporters and friends asked whether we were confident that we could achieve our goals of regaining our right to self-determinations and independence — since we were, practically, fighting against the whole world!

As in the past, affirmatively, the answer is YES!  I am quite confident! We, the Timorese people, have proved ourselves as tenacious and resilient people in pursuing the attainment of our goals. With the same strong sense of self-determination that led us to achieve our independence, we are determined to face and find creative ways to address the many challenges ahead and, subsequently, bring about our noble aspiration of becoming a prosperous and modern nation.

Timor-Leste, a small island country with a land size of 15,000 square kilometers and a population of 1.2 million, over a half of which is under the age of 19, combined with a strong political will and economic potential, I am confident that we are well placed to achieve our goal of becoming an upper-middle-income country by 2030. I can describe more in detail about each of these key attributes but I believe there will not be enough space; thus, allow me just to highlight some aspects that are more relevant to your question.

Poverty, as I described above, is one of our main concerns and since we perceive it as one of the key factors that poses a serious threat to our internal security and stability, the people, the government, and the state as a whole are all united and committed to fight against poverty.

The Strategic Development Plan that involved all sectors of the society for consultation, especially the common people in remote villages during the early stages of its inception, is a perfect testament of our solid commitment to face this great challenge of poverty. It is a reflection of the strong will and determination of the Timorese people to own and control its development path – the path that leads us to attain our delineated goals, to become an upper-middle-income country, with a healthy, well-educated and safe population by 2030. It provides a framework for identifying and assessing priorities, which enable us to delineate appropriate plans and strategies to address the immediate needs of our people so as to alleviate poverty that will, subsequently, generate positive repercussions on security and stability in the country, necessary for economic development.

Concerning the heavy reliance on oil for economic growth, Timor-Leste is fully aware of this reality. Hence, the formulation and the launching of the Strategic Development Plan was clearly intended to change this reality – heavy reliance on oil and gas for economic growth. It is important to remember that the implementation of the Strategic Development Plan is still, relatively, short or still in its initial stages — less than four years. But let me underline that, in its efforts to diversify its economy, Timor-Leste has made use of the revenues from the petroleum sector to set up strong foundations for the development of agriculture and tourism sectors, so as to enable our young country to gradually release itself from dependency on the petroleum sector. Meanwhile, the revenue is also invested in education and healthcare services as well as in the infrastructures (roads, ports and airports, telecommunications) necessary to achieve strong economic growth and to establish effective connection not only for the movement of goods and people between urban and rural areas in Timor-Leste but also between Timor-Leste and the rest of the world.

Timor-Leste formally gained its independence in 2002 from Indonesia following a violent period. Both countries have been trying to improve relations over the past decade or so. With President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo now in office, what is Timor-Leste hoping to accomplish in its relationship with Indonesia over the next few years?

Timor-Leste has reaped the fruits of its peace and reconciliation policy, implemented since day one after regaining its dignity as a people and a nation in May 2002.

Guided by a clear perception that Timor-Leste should not be built on hatred and revenge, our founding fathers, such as Xanana Gusmão, Ramos-Horta, Mari Alkatiri, Lu-Olo and Taur Matan Ruak, promoted and implemented the policy of peace and reconciliation not only among Timorese people but also with our former occupier, Indonesia. Consequently, Timor-Leste and Indonesia succeeded in, a very short time, in overcoming our common bitter history of the not-so-distant past. By closing this chapter, the two countries embraced a new paradigm of building a future-oriented relationship rather than stagnating in the unpleasant past. We can only enjoy full freedom if we succeed in unfastening or liberating ourselves from hatred and revenge, from our bitter past.

Indonesia and Timor-Leste have been enjoying a healthy and excellent relationship both at the government level and in people-to-people relations. This reality has created favorable conditions for genuine dialogue for bringing solutions to various problems that affect the two countries and also has generated positive condition for economic, social and cultural cooperation.

The land-border demarcation is on the verge of conclusion; 99.9 percent has been concluded. More than 70 percent of our economic and commercial activities are with Indonesia and the big constructions companies in Timor-Leste are predominantly Indonesian companies. Indonesia is also the main supporter of Timor-Leste’s bid to join ASEAN.

Moreover, during the last months of President Susilo Bambang’s time in office, Timor-Leste and Indonesia explored the possibility of sharing the experiences of peace and reconciliation between the two countries with other countries around the world through the establishment of an institution. These are the achievements of the policy of peace and reconciliation that the two countries are enjoying and very much proud of and that has engendered favorable conditions for social, cultural and economic cooperation between the two countries. So, whoever becomes president of the Republic of Indonesia, the two countries will keep on nurturing and consolidating the existing healthy and excellent bilateral relationship for further cooperation and development in many aspects for the well being of our two peoples.