Dili, East Timoria – Jose Ramos-Horta, who came out of political retirement to run for the presidency of Southeast Asia’s youngest nation for a second time, has a slew of challenges as he begins his first full week in office.
Ramos-Horta, who has previously served as president and prime minister, accused his predecessor, Francisco Guterres, better known as Lo Olo, of exceeding his constitutional powers and keeping the economy on the ground. After that decided to re-enter the political arena.
He emerged victorious after going to the second round of the presidential election in April.
Known by many as a revolutionary icon, Ramos-Horta was awarded the 1996 Nobel Peace Prize for his work fighting for the independence of East Timor. His global prominence has made him a respected figure within the country – now formally known as Timor-Leste – and abroad, and has allowed him to build up an impressive network of friends, many of whom traveled to Delhi to witness his inauguration.
Last week, Al Jazeera spoke to Ramos-Horta, who explained why he returned to politics and the kind of leader he hopes to be during his five-year term.
The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
al Jazeera: Why did you decide to run for president again?
Jose Ramos-Horta: In March 2020, I was approached by a large group of people who suggested to me that they wanted me to run for president again. Since 2018, current outgoing chairman [Lu Olo] By refusing to take oath of several cabinet members of the then majority party, he took several decisions which were seen as a violation of the Constitution. They did this two or three times, which in my view and in the opinion of many, was an abuse of power by exceeding the limits of the President’s authority.
The government was also unable to revive the economy, especially in the midst of the pandemic. The president entertained himself by imposing lockdown and stay-at-home measures and it really hurt the economy. Then the government was unable to compensate the people for their work and loss.
al Jazeera: A few days before you were sworn in, former President Lee Olo introduced a bill to further restrict the president’s powers. Why do you think they insisted on this law just before your inauguration?
Ramos-Horta: no one understands why [this bill was passed], For one, it is completely unconstitutional. You have a constitution – you can’t have a set of political parties in parliament that limits the power of the president. This is so silly.
People ask, ‘Well then these laws should be applicable to the Prime Minister, to the Members of Parliament as well, why only to the President?’ But they cannot do so because the sharing of power has been mentioned in the constitution. They are so stupid. it is very delicate [coalition] Sarkar, just like if you marry a donkey to a monkey to a chicken.
al Jazeera: Timor Leste has the lowest GDP [GDP] per capita in Southeast Asia. What is your economic policy?
Ramos-Horta: I understand the extent of the President’s power. I can articulate the wisest policy strategy on how to address economic issues such as strong support for agriculture, but it will be in the hands of Parliament to agree and finance it.
I just hope that I can garner enough public support and enough support from the international community for this. I would instead say to the donors, please don’t give any money to the government – the government has access to its budget – all your money you want to use to help, make sure it goes directly to the communities, as a joint Go through the nation system.
al Jazeera: What will be your approach to tackle unemployment, especially among the youth?
Ramos-Horta: Number one is that we have to reform the education system. We have to focus more on on-the-job training and invest more in science and technology and less on humanities. Many young people go to the humanities because it is easy. So we have to create incentives for students going into science.
I also have no problem with young Timorians going abroad to work. they make a lot of money [abroad] than we will ever be able to pay them and they will send the money home. They learn new skills and they come back changed. It’s like going to university, but instead they go to work.
Another way is to create better education and more jobs for our people. We have to encourage youth to work in agriculture. It’s difficult. If we had industrialized agriculture maybe more youth would want to work but the reality in Timor Leste is that we have small land and not much water resources, so I prefer small or medium sized agriculture for national consumption . We don’t need to dream about exporting abroad.
al Jazeera: As a Nobel Peace Prize winner and longtime politician, you have a great network of international contacts. How could this affect your presidency?
Ramos-Horta: I don’t know if I have any influence on the international community. I spend time building relationships with people – diplomats, ambassadors, government people, but not with a sense of opportunism. I care about people.
My strength is not because I have many titles, those titles have come because of my performance and my commitment over the years. On a human level, I am the most accessible leader anywhere in the world. If I show you my phone, you will see that hundreds of people have my phone number. so many people write me ‘hello grandpa’ and of course i can’t say hello or good morning or good night to 1,000 people but if someone calls me for help i try to help them with my money or In some more serious cases I contact my sources in the country.
al Jazeera: Your inauguration was also the 20th anniversary of Timor Leste’s independence. How has the country changed in the last 20 years?
Ramos-Horta: It has changed for the better. When we started, we had nothing – our annual budget was $63m, now it’s $3bn. Earlier we did not have electricity, now electricity covers 96.2 percent of the country. We had 20 doctors and now we have 1,200 doctors.
We have zero political violence and we have no ethnic or religious violence. We don’t have organized crime – I often joke that we don’t have organized crime because in general, we as a country are very unorganized, so criminals don’t get organized either.
We have serious corruption but it is more in the area of contracts that mark things up. For example, with road construction if it is done by our government, there are networks of officials and while the bids are supposed to be secret, somehow they know and they pass on the information to their friends, the bidders, so that they be able to beat the competitors. Ideally we would require an international and independent auditing to review when a contract was awarded, and review whether it was done properly.
al Jazeera: In your opening remarks, you mentioned growing bilateral relations with China, as well as calling on China to lead the global dialogue for peace. Some reports now claim that strong ties with China are a priority for your presidency. What is your reaction on this?
Ramos-Horta: If you listen to my speech, the only reference I made was really like an indirect criticism. We are one of the few countries in the world that do not have any debt on China and China is not our biggest aid provider either. Yes, Chinese companies win construction projects like road construction, but they don’t win everything.
As I my . I said [inauguration] The most important countries for speech, Timor Leste, are Australia, New Zealand, ASEAN countries, Japan and South Korea. These are absolute priorities. Apart from that, China is important, but not more important.