Rungu-ranga, in Tetun – the official language of Timor Leste, means “chaotic”. President Josè Ramos Horta cited the term to describe the current situation of democracy in the country that will commemorate 21 years of independence on Saturday, May 20, 2023.
Of course, Horta’s assessment is inversely proportional to a number of surveys that measure the democracy index, including The Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) and the Varieties of Democracy (V-Dem) Institute, which place Timor Leste as the most democratic country in Southeast Asia. Meanwhile, Timor Leste’s press freedom in a survey by Reporters Without Borders (RSF) entered the top 10 out of 180 countries in the world.
In an interview with Jaring.id journalists Fransisca Ria Susanti and Abdus Somad at the State Palace, Dili, Timor Leste on Wednesday, May 10, 2023, President Horta refused to boast about the survey results, since Timor Leste is still facing various problems. One of them is the political tension that occurs between the two major parties, namely CNRT and Fretilin. Both will return to fight for the majority of parliamentary seats on Sunday, May 21, 2023.
For more than one and a half hours, we talked about elections, press freedom, and Timor Leste’s plan to become a full member of ASEAN. The following are excerpts from Jaring.id’s interview with President Ramos Horta:
What is the significance of ASEAN membership for Timor Leste?
Being an ASEAN member is significant because of my personal political vision. In 1974, before anyone in Timor Leste talked about Indonesia, I had good relations with Indonesia, especially with the then Governor of East Nusa Tenggara (NTT), Major General TNI (Posthumously) Elias Tari.
At that time, Timor Leste was still called Portuguese Timor. I encouraged the Portuguese government in Timor Leste to invite El Tari to Timor Leste. He arrived in the afternoon on a white private jet. Everyone was surprised and welcomed him. It was an effort to improve relations between Timor Leste and Indonesia because, at that time, there was tension in the border area.
Then, I went to Jakarta in June 1974. I left Dili and went to Kupang. El Tari paid for my ticket to Jakarta because I only had money (for transportation fare) from Dili to Kupang. At that time, our party ASDT had very little money. That was my first diplomatic mission. In Jakarta, I visited Adam Malik. I talked about Timor Leste’s independence and how Timor Leste could join ASEAN.
When I became president in 2007, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono was serving as President of Indonesia. He was a military man who knew the mind, soul, and heart of the Timorese people. He wanted to help. He was very supportive of Timor Leste joining ASEAN.
At the 2011 ASEAN Summit in Bali, Yudhoyono supported Timor Leste’s membership in ASEAN. Ten years later, we are standing at the gate of ASEAN. We are already a member, although we are still an observer. We have received the draft (ASEAN) roadmap and it was fully approved as a member at the ASEAN Summit in Labuan Bajo, in May 2023.
There are so many (international) agreements that we have to adopt and follow up on. Many people don’t see that after signing an international agreement or treaty, we have to match it with national regulations. If the national regulations don’t exist, we have to change the regulations so that we can adopt the agreement.
Some people told me that we can join the next ASEAN Summit in September 2023. I really welcome that. But we need a lot of support from ASEAN member states. For example, I would like Indonesian officials, whether at junior, senior, or retired levels to be posted in our ministries. We would also like to have officials from Singapore, or Thailand. This would be the best and most effective learning option, which is result-oriented.
Cambodian PM Hun Sen once spoke directly to me. When Cambodia joined ASEAN, they had less money than Timor Leste and less preparation. The same is true with Laos and Myanmar. Our preparation was better, but I chose to remain humble and modest.
We are part of Southeast Asia. No one can push us out of here. We can’t change neighboring countries. We have good neighbors, that are vibrant, culturally diverse, increasingly prosperous, and have recently gained influence locally and globally in the ASEAN organization. We want to be part of ASEAN.
Firstly, the benefits we get by joining ASEAN are improvements in terms of economic, mental, and social development for our people. Secondly, maybe we can contribute to helping ASEAN solve some problems in the region, especially Myanmar. I know Myanmar inside and out. Probably better than any ASEAN leader. I first went to Myanmar in July 1994 to run a training program for more than 100 people in the forest, giving lectures and training on human rights, human rights treaties, how to lobby the government, report writing techniques, and how to prepare press releases for the media. I know a lot about Myanmar. The Myanmar military has lost the political war, lost the diplomatic war, and lost militarily. The conflict in Myanmar is not like the one that happened 20 or 30 years ago.
But Myanmar, as well as Singapore, are ASEAN member states that object to Timor Leste joining ASEAN. Is that true?
No. It’s not true. Some people in the media or academia are not really well informed. Myanmar doesn’t mind about Timor Leste joining ASEAN. I sometimes see some intellectuals who don’t have access to political leaders in ASEAN, but then they make up stories. They say Singapore and Myanmar objected that Timor Leste becoming a member of ASEAN. That’s not true at all. Singapore does not object to it. Singapore’s main concern now is about Timor Leste’s readiness in terms of finance and human resources to become a member of ASEAN.
Twenty years ago, Timor Leste was nothing. Twenty years ago, we only had 19 doctors. Now we have 1,200 doctors. Twenty years ago, we only had one Ph.D., the rector of Unpaz (University of Da Paz), Dr. Lucas da Costa. Now we have dozens of Ph.D. individuals, both European and American graduates, who speak five to seven languages, and have hundreds of master’s graduates, including graduates from Indonesia. Compared to 2002, we now have brilliant doctors and smart economists. But still, it is not enough to face the challenges of the country’s development.
Several surveys conducted by international organizations show that Timor Leste’s democracy index ranks highest in Southeast Asia, far above Indonesia. What made this possible?
I don’t think that our democracy index is far above Indonesia’s. We appreciate the assessment that we are number one in Southeast Asia and number 10 for press freedom in the world. But frankly, the reality is different. Our democracy, I would say in the expression of the Timorese people, is “rungu-ranga”, meaning it is very chaotic.
Let me give you an example. Our current government cabinet, which has ended, is called the Ai-tonka government. Ai-tonka means that you can only walk with a stick. Who is walking with this stick? It’s the political party of the current Prime Minister, Taur Matan Ruak (Partidu Libertasaun Popular/PLP-ed).
He only has eight seats (PLP won eight seats on July 22, 2017, elections-ed). The total number of parliamentary seats is 65. Fretilin, which has the most seats in Parliament, offered senior positions to Khunto (Party) which is a self-defense group with only five seats in Parliament. Fretilin offered many positions to secure support from Khunto, and to save Taur Matan Ruak’s position. So, the current Prime Minister is from a party that has only eight seats in parliament and is supported by a small party that has only five seats in parliament, but they occupy 10 senior positions in the government. What kind of democracy is this? Someone can become a Prime Minister even though they don’t get a mandate from the people. That’s why I say it’s rungu-ranga.
But at the same time, Timorese people can always find solutions to difficult problems. When I became president in 2022, everyone expected me to dissolve parliament, and hold parliamentary elections, because the parliament or parliamentary leadership at that time was considered against the constitution and undemocratic. However, I then thought that we just needed to wait one more year. The people had already gone through two elections, the first and second rounds of the presidential election. We have also just gone through two major floods, going through the Covid-19 pandemic, and the Ukraine war. Is it wise for us to call parliamentary elections early? It’s better to have a dialog and let the government cabinet work. I am doing everything I can to allow the government to work. It may seem undemocratic, but the important thing is that everyone can accept it.
Another thing is that this country has no political prisoners, no journalists who have been imprisoned, and no newspapers, radios, and televisions that have been shut down. No government would do that, even if they wanted to. And I can say that we have zero political violence. In the parliamentary elections, there were some incidents, but no political violence. It has been peaceful so far. However, in the campaign, no one talked about how they would develop the economy and earn the country’s budget, no one talked about concrete proposals, they only say promises.
What about CNRT?
CNRT is very different from the new parties. CNRT has a track record, from 2007 to 2018. Fretilin is also a senior party. Whether you agree or not, these are the two major parties that have several years of political and governmental experience.
You can judge the CNRT led by Xanana Gusmao by looking at how Timor Leste was in 2007 and how Timor Leste is in 2018. For 10 years, under Xanana, the country changed. A lot of infrastructure was built in the country. The country changed very drastically under Xanana’s rule.
Xanana has an amazing personality, reminding me of Bung Karno. But besides being charismatic and an eloquent speaker like Sukarno, he also understands economics.
Fretilin also has many good people. Also the Democratic Party or PD. They have many new generations. PD is the number 3 party in Timor Leste which I think will be the base or pillar of democracy. Fretilin, CNRT, and PD. The others are too small, too new.
In this country, there is no one that we can compare to Xanana.
If the CNRT wins the majority in this election and Xanana Gusmao is elected PM, will it be easier for you to work together?
I can work with many parties. When I became president, people were nervous. Fretilin was stressful. Taur Matan Ruak was stressful. They wondered what I would do. Would I dissolve parliament? No, I didn’t. I was the one who contacted parliament and went to them. Power does not blind me. I face people as they are, whether they are big or small.
I would like to see the CNRT, Fretilin, and the Democratic Party working together. Of course, if the CNRT wins absolutely, there is no need for a coalition, and I cannot force Xanana to work with Fretilin and the PD. I can only intervene if neither party gets an absolute majority. They need a coalition. Then I would say, “Don’t waste time in coalition with small parties. It will harm the interests of the country.”
But the competition between CNRT and Fretilin is quite sharp. If neither can achieve an absolute majority, do you think it’s possible for them to form a coalition?
In the polls, the CNRT was predicted to get a big win. But I don’t know if this will prove to be the case. But even if one political party wins an absolute majority, I would still advise them to invite the party with the second most votes. And perhaps also the party with the third most votes to form a stronger government, and a strong parliament, to speed up the decision-making process.
Regarding the freedom of speech and freedom of the press that you mentioned earlier, how do you deal with disinformation?
I have not taken much action on this because I cannot do much myself. I am waiting for the new government. I want them to review the existing Press Law. I want to remove anything stipulated by the previous government and parliament, which cannot be justified for press freedom.
I will not allow any subterfuge in any law that could hamper press freedom. I know there is a proposed criminal code on defamation, and I am against it. What is the point of the government wasting time on creative products when there are more serious problems in the world, and there is more organized crime entering our democracy.
One of these problems is the martial arts groups. Martial arts are not an evil. They can be a great positive force. However, some individuals use martial arts to manipulate the youth who join the martial arts with the full intention of getting into politics, and then gain power. That’s a more serious problem than social media.
Going back to press freedom and freedom of speech, how can the government protect journalists and the public from attacks?
Clearly, media freedom also means protecting journalists. Protecting their rights to write, express opinions or become a medium for the public to express their opinions through the media. Journalists must be protected from any attacks.
But criticism directed at them is not a crime. Intellectual attacks are not crimes. Journalists cannot expect that they are immune from criticism, that whatever they write is like a holy book. Respectfully, I would say “no.”
Journalists have the freedom to cover the news or even write opinion pieces. However, politicians and businessmen also have the rights to maintain their dignity. If they feel attacked, they have the right to sue journalists.
That’s why I always tell journalists, to try to be like a serious attorney general, try to be a serious medical doctor. Investigate, investigate, investigate. Remember, whatever you do can have an impact on people’s lives, on families with children. Think twice. Even if the facts are true, think twice before you publish. Because you’re dealing with human beings.
In light of the tensions between the political elites in Timor Leste, how far will this impact the polarization of society?
No, that’s not the case. We have zero political violence. There have been incidents, but they were not instigated by party leaders. No party is manipulating religion. There is no ethnic or religious tension. But yes, we have political tensions. That’s normal in parliament. All countries experience this. Only North Korea does not have political tension.
But for the next election, I will propose an electoral threshold of five percent. And I will say, no martial arts group or any ritual group can enter politics or establish a political party.