|Note: This is an edited translation of the original Portuguese interview.
“God wanted me to live on, that I survived, but He left me with scars and some discomfort, permanent pain, a small ordeal that I must endure for the rest of my life. I live with this pain every day, thanking God for giving me the beauty of life, for imposing on me this suffering, so that I can better appreciate the gift of life.”
In February of this year former President of the Republic of Timor-Leste, José Ramos-Horta, will assume, “with serenity”, the office of the Special Representative of Ban Ki-Moon in Guinea-Bissau. A mission that many consider almost impossible given the absence of a strong state and functional government in the country, and the government having yielded to the influence of corruption and control of international drug traffickers.
Undiscouraged, the Nobel Peace Prize winner wants to help the country out of the “cycle of instability and no peace” and believes that Guinea-Bissau is “not a lost cause.”
You have just been chosen by the secretary-general to lead the UN mission in Guinea-Bissau. The United States and many international organizations say that the country is already practically a narco-state. Is your task compromised from the outset?
The drugs are not being produced in Guinea-Bissau. They are not being consumed in Guinea-Bissau. Our brothers Guineans are ultimately victims of the production and marketing of illicit drugs. Of course, the problem of Guinea-Bissau is not only the issue of drugs. It results in part from the crisis of the state and its democratic institutions. But Guinea-Bissau is not Somalia, Congo, Syria. Fortunately. I am convinced that, with goodwill, increased support of the European Union and the United States, a better partnership, a greater alignment of political thought and strategy with the African Union, the CPLP and CEDEAU, the UN may succeed. It will not be an easy mission. Obviously not.
You know many of the political and military actors in Guinea-Bissau. How do you assess the ongoing conflict in the country? Is it about rivalries, personal ambitions, ethnic issues? And what will your mandate as Special Representative of the UN Secretary General allow you to do on the ground?
I cannot and should not say much at this point about what I can go on the ground. First I have to listen to directives in New York, the Department of Political Affairs, which manages the dossier of Guinea-Bissau. With my colleagues in New York, listening to ECOWAS, the African Union, the CPLP, the European Union, we can forge a common thought and strategy. But most of all are our brothers Guineans to say and decide on their future. The UN does not replace national leaders.
You have widespread international support, even in Guinea-Bissau. But given the past history of the country, what led you to accept a mission where so many others have failed?
I was fully active with a new regional non-state organization, the Asian Peace and Reconciliation Council launched last September and based in Bangkok, involving highly respected leaders from across Asia, dedicated to dialogue and mediation of conflicts in Asia. I also had invitations and projects in Japan, Germany and Switzerland. I also have a draft of a book / thesis on Asia – “The Challenges of the XXI Century for Asia.” I asked my friends and colleagues in the group dispensation for a year and they all agreed and encouraged me to accept the mission in Guinea-Bissau. Given the history of Timor-Leste with Guinea-Bissau, I could not say no to an invitation from the UN. Timor-Leste owes much to the UN and, in my experience, the organization can help the leaders and people of Guinea-Bissau to end the cycle of instability.
As you know, Portugal and the international community do not recognize the current government in Bissau. Do you think this situation will complicate your task?
No. We’ll find a solution.
What means will you have to enforce the UN resolutions and fulfill your mandate on the ground?
The UN provides technical and human resources needed for each situation, not always great, enough, but we need to know how to act and handle the situation with the resources that we have and not with the resources that we dream about. Sometimes people exaggerate on the resources, demand more , and in fact complicate things. And in the end we end up spending too much time managing the internal aspects of the mission itself, instead of paying attention to the situation on the ground, for which we were mandated.
How will you approach your first test, the elections in Guinea-Bissau?
Let’s talk about your country. Timor-Leste is much different today than it was a decade ago. Do you think that democracy and democratic institutions are already conveniently consolidated?
There is always room for improvement and need. Our institutions are young, so fragile. But the democratic culture is rooted.
What do you see as the role of Portugal since the independence of East Timor?
Timor-Leste will be forever grateful and indebted to Portugal, for the central role that Portugal played for Timor-Leste’s freedom, with courage and dignity, in the diplomatic arena. But we could never minimize the role of brother countries, Angola, Cape Verde, Guinea-Bissau, Mozambique and Sao Tome and Principe, Brazil, that were behind us on the diplomatic front as well. Incidentally, before Portugal took the issue of Timor-Leste seriously, which only came to pass after 1991, these brothers from Africa, with the UN and the Non-Aligned Movement, ensured that the issue of Timor-Leste was not wiped off the international agenda.
At what point is the dispute over oil Timorese with Australia?
There is not exactly a dispute between Australia and Timor-Leste in this regard. The consortium of investors in Greater Sunrise is a multinational consortium of Australian, American, Japanese, etc. The dispute, to use your expression, lies in knowing what the best technology, the best way to explore the region, whether via a pipeline to the south coast of East Timor, or the floating system (GNLF – Floating Liquidfied Gas). The dialogue is ongoing, and the various parties will find a solution with technical and commercial advantages for everyone.
Can the oil can also become a curse for Timor-Leste, as has happened elsewhere in the world?
Oil and gas are contributing to the modernization of our economy, reducing poverty, improving health, education, food security. But it will take more time.
The contribution of Portugal to the State Budget Timorese was significant, with a focus on teaching and spreading the language and the consolidation of the military. But Portugal is undergoing a deep economic and financial crisis. Where are we with the promise of help in buying Portuguese debt with funds from sovereign wealth funds of oil?
There was consensus in Timor-Leste to invest in Portugal’s sovereign debt, but the government changed in Portugal, the arrival of the troika to Portugal, there were elections in Timor-Leste, etc..
What I proposed at the time was a joint initiative of Timor-Leste, Angola and Brazil to invest in the purchase of Portuguese sovereign debt, to the advantage of all.
In Timor-Leste you and Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao seemed to test the model followed in Russia, switching positions. Was this not a sign of weakness of the institutions?
Well … I’m no longer in power in Timor-Leste.
How have you dealt with in the last presidential election? Did not think it was time to stop? What have you done since losing these elections? Have you left a legacy to your successors, or are you witnessing a deliberate lapse by the current administration of the country?
At the stroke of midnight on May 19, 2012, the ceremony of transfer of authority from the outgoing President to the newly President, following the constitutional rules and constitutional timetable, etc.. It was a solemn, beautiful occasion. My legacy? If anything at all, i hope that my legacy, what is remembered, is that my presidency was one that was simple, open, accessible, without arrogance and without opulence.
Looking back, was it better as foreign minister, prime minister or president? Do you regret something you have done throughout your vast political career?
God gave me some modest qualities and virtues, an average dose of intelligence. The All Merciful God did not make me an Einstein. So I did everything only modestly well.
As the President you made a hotly contested statement that it was time to support China, declaring that you recognized “the legitimacy to Chinese sovereignty in Tibet.” Has this caused you any regret? And do you feel any special responsibility on this as a Nobel Peace Prize winner?
Let us not forget that there isn’t a single country in the world that does not recognize Chinese sovereignty over Tibet.
You recently told a newspaper that Portuguese language is gradually recovering its strength in Timor-Leste, with support by Portugal and Brazil. What is your assessment of the extent of this program?
The Portuguese language is gaining space, increasingly. But the effort must continue for another decade or two, so that the Portuguese language may gain irreversible roots in Timor-Leste.
As a Timorese, in the wilds of Asia as a diplomat, what is your vision of effective CPLP and its role in Lusophone?
We should not see a language only by its geopolitical influence. Language and identity, citizenship, history. These are all important. Timor-Leste was forged by Portuguese colonization. Do not underestimate the CPLP – Brazil, Angola and Mozambique will emerge as a major political and economic determinants given the enormous wealth they possess. Within 10 to 20 years, these three countries will influence their regions so decisively, that the CPLP as a whole will be strengthened.
You long political career has surely gained you both friends and enemies. Which is the most numerous?
As for me I have no enemies. Those who may say that I’m their enemy I answer you are my brothers! If I did wrong, I beg your forgiveness, because I am a simple human being who sins and has failings. Christ taught us to love and love means forgiving those who hurt us. Life is so short. Fragile. Why waste it in quarrels, hatreds?
Do you still have memories of the attack you suffered in 2008?
God wanted me to live on, that I survived, but He left me with scars and some discomfort, permanent pain, a small ordeal that I must endure for the rest of my life. I live with this pain every day, thanking God for giving me beauty of life, for imposing on me this suffering, so that I can better learn to appreciate the gift of life.