August 30th in Timor-Leste there will be meaningful celebrations marking the 20th anniversary of the UN-managed referendum when the people voted overwhelmingly to separate from Indonesia after 24 years of a brutal occupation when an estimated 200,000 people lost their lives out of a population in 1975 of 800,000.
A visitor returning to Timor-Leste after the 1999 violence and systematic and almost complete devastation of the country carried out by the departing Indonesian forces and their armed gangs would be no doubt surprised at the dramatic positive changes that have occurred since.
I will try to lay out on a wall, figuratively speaking, a 3D canvas of the many aspects and layers of Timor-Leste challenges and achievements of the last few years and the prospects for the future.
Timor-Leste emerged from centuries of colonization and occupation less than 20 years ago when at the stroke of midnight on 20th May 2002 the blue UN flag was lowered and its tricolor flag of red, black and yellow went up.
I was the MC of that historic event, had the honor of being in charge of the preparations for the celebration and as our treasury was empty I had to raise every cent to cover the costs of the events.
From ground ZERO slowly but steadily over the past 20 years, Government, Private Sector, Civil Society and Development Partners joined hands to manage the multiple challenges and expectations and deliver the peace and freedom dividends.
First we tried to soften the harsh social conditions we had inherited that deprived our people a life with dignity. Anywhere we turned there were destitution, traumas, pressing priorities demanding our attention and action.
We resisted pressures to pursue retributive justice, that centuries old form of justice of the victors over the vanquished. We opted for healing the wounds of the body and soul, reconciled our deeply traumatized communities, and simultaneously extended a hand of friendship to, and reconciliation with, Indonesia, and together chartered a new relationship as friends and neighbors.
Today I can state without hesitation that there are no two countries in the entire Asia region enjoying better relations than Indonesia and Timor-Leste.
If I am to cite some salient examples of achievements in our journey since independence, I would not hesitate to name reconciliation and forgiveness, sine qua non conditions the enablers of peace and development. Led by Mr. Xanana Gusmão our society rejected revenge, all knowing too well that only the courage of the truly brave men and women to forgive and embrace the other side would spare us endless conflict and instability.
Second, we began to build the institutions of the State where none existed. This is a process that is continuing today. But how to build institutions without a pool of highly educated and experienced people?
In 2009 our Govt conceived and launched a very important instrument, the Human Capital Development Fund, with an average annual budget of $30 million offering scholarships towards advanced studies in Science, Technology, Economics, Public Administration, Law and Medicine, in selected Universities in Southeast Asia, Australia, Portugal, etc. Ten years ago walking into a Ministry or Dept you would have seen dozens of highly paid foreign advisers doing line work. Today wherever you go you will see mostly young polyglot Timorese with advanced degrees and certificates obtained in the best academic and professional institutes around the world.
In 2002 at independence we had 19 medical doctors and average life expectancy at birth was less than 60 years. Today we have 1000 medical doctors thanks to a unique program agreed to by our Government and the Govt of Cuba. Life expectancy stands at 69,2 for men and 70 for women. In 2002 malaria was rampant and a major cause of debilitation and death. In 2018 there was one single case of malaria in the whole country and this centuries-old affliction is being eradicated in TL. Leprosy, this heartbreaking bacteria that disfigured and cast away fellow human beings to remote islands and valleys, has been eliminated in TL.
With a Sovereign Fund of $17 billion in 2018 our GNI was US$6,841 and we stood at 132 out of 190 countries in the UN Human Development Index. The Sovereign Fund created by Law In 2004 is rated the best in Asia and third best in the world.
Historically unemployment rate averaged 5.39 percent from 2001 until 2017, reaching an all time high of 9.90 percent in 2001 during the UN Administration of TL and reaching a record low of 3.20 percent in 2012. Overall unemployment rate remained unchanged at 3.40 percent in 2017 from 3.40 percent in 2016. Youth unemployment stands at 11,6%.
We are not afflicted by organized crime, drug cartels, armed bank robbery, carjack, radical religious or political extremist groups. Homicide rate is very low at 3,9 per 100,000 people in 2018 with a total of 49 fatalities resulting from sporadic fighting between rival youth groups and domestic violence.
There is no reported case of violence defined as anti-Muslim, anti-European or anti-Chinese. The US travel advisory travel alert for TL is lowest at Level 1.
TL is 98% catholic with about 50,000 Protestants and a smaller Muslim community. All religions are treated equally, diplomatic passports are issued for leaders of the three main religions, financial assistance is allocated to each major religious group on proportional basis. All Muslim holidays are observed.
On the external front, we enjoy fraternal relations with all regional and global powers some of which are not friendly related to each other.
With Australia we resolved our differences over the maritime boundary settling it in 2018 in the framework of UNCLOS. Our two countries enjoy a special relationship rooted in history and values of democracy and solidarity. Resolution of the maritime boundary dispute paves the way for the development of the Greater Sunrise gas field and other oil and gas potential in the Timor Sea.
I have served with the UN in different functions at the level of Under-Secretary-General, most recently as a Member of the UN SG High Level Board on Mediation (2017-2018) and as Chair of the High Level Independent Panel on UN Peace Operations (2014-2016).
Mr. Xanana Gusmão held the position of Chair of the UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia-Pacific. Timor-Leste chaired and hosted the Community of Portuguese Speaking countries (CPLP) in 2012-2014, a group of countries spread over several continents with a combined population of 300 million people. We have an active voice among the Least Developed Countries (LDC), Small Islands Developing States, the ACP-EU (Africa, Caribe and Pacific, Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), etc. TL is co-founder and leader of the G7plus of Fragile States sharing our experiences as countries in conflict and post conflict and moving from fragility to sustainable development.
We are active participants in regional and multilateral institutions. We have acceded to the ASEAN Treaty of Amity and Cooperation and are active members of the ASEAN Regional Forum, Observers in the Pacific Islands Forum, leaders in the Climate Change debate having decisively contributed to COP 21 Paris Treaty.
Timor-Leste defense and police forces served in UN peace operations in Lebanon, South Sudan and Guinea-Bissau.
Our defense forces are engaged with and greatly benefit from an active relationship with the defense forces of Indonesia, Australia, Portugal and the US. A US Army engineer group stationed in TL provides very valuable training of our army engineer group and contributes generously in rehabilitation of schools, health clinics and rural roads. We also have ongoing defense programs with China, Japan and the Republic of Korea (South Korea).
We have established Embassies in all ASEAN capitals, Beijing, Seoul, Tokyo, Canberra, Wellington and soon in Delhi. In addition we have Embassies in Lisbon, Brussels, London, Rome, Washington, Havana and Brasilia. In Africa we maintain a full fledge Embassy in Maputo covering Southern Africa.
TL is a member of the Asian International Infrastructure Bank. AIIB has received the highest credit ratings from the biggest rating agencies in the world. We also have had two decades of active partnership with the World Bank, Asian Development Bank and the IMF and have not words of appreciation for their steady and continuing support.
The Government is accelerating the process regulating the implementation of the Land and Property Base Law, ranging from land and property laws to infrastructure, creating a business friendly environment, streamlining investment regime, and ultimately fostering private sector investment and growth.
Another good news is the development of strategic economic infrastructure, an indispensable logistic building block to facilitate efficient movement of people and goods, and the flow of services in Timor-Leste. As you know without economic infrastructure there will be no significant private investment in the country.
In this context, in a clear demonstration of the Govt determination to kick start the modernization of strategic infrastructures, close to US$1 billion from our Sovereign Fund was allocated in 2009 towards a state of the art production and distribution of electrical power, grid maintenance and management, now benefiting almost 80% of the country. In addition beginning in 2010 the Government has invested heavily in the improvements and expansion of the road network, port and airport facilities.
The recently inaugurated Oe-cussi International Airport, meeting safety international standards, the new deep water port at Tibar Bay in full swing construction, budgeted at over $400 million on the basis of an innovative PPP model, involving our Sovereign Fund, IFC, the French group Boloret and China Harbour, are among the most salient examples of a national political leadership with vision, clarity and determination to modernize our economy for the benefit of our people.
Serious efforts are being deployed on drafting, approval and enactment of a business recuperation, bankruptcy and insolvency legislation according to international standards and best practices, as well as a secure transactions legislation, to provide credit collaterals and guarantees to the banking sector. Furthermore, a competition law is also being drafted so that business in Timor-Leste can operate on solid grounds of predictability, legal protection of rights and free and fair practices.
Strengthening the private investment legal framework in Timor-Leste, with the new Private Investment Law No.15/2017 entered into force as of 1st January 2018. The new regime is compliant with international best practices, particularly ASEAN guidelines, including ASEAN Comprehensive Investment Agreement, 1998 for the promotion and protection of investment in the region to enhance ASEAN’s competitiveness in attracting inward investment into ASEAN.
There are other legal initiatives either already drafted or under way, such as trade and export promotion, rules of origin, administrative offenses, business conflict mediation and arbitration, according to international standards and best practices.
The Government is open to any business modality, including Private Public Partnerships, already regulated by a legal framework and there are initiatives under way and promising projects in the pipeline and under construction such as the new deep water Tibar Port.
Acceding to the World Trade Organization and ASEAN would mean for Timor-Leste taking a major step forward in “making trade possible”, and being utterly conscious that only partnering with private investors we can “make trade happen” effectively.
Economic Potentials in Timor-Leste
The Strategic Development Plan 2011 – 2030, adopted in 2010 following months of nation wide consultations personally led by Mr. Xanana Gusmão is now in its 8th year of implementation. It remains the central reference for our economic development, with six priority economic sectors as pillars, namely oil and gas, agriculture and forestry, fisheries, aquaculture and marine-culture, tourism, light manufacturing, including agribusiness, and mining.
We believe the ongoing improvements in the business legal framework and procedures, coupled with economic infrastructure development initiatives throughout the country, including in Oe-Cusse Ambeno, the Tasi Mane Project in the South Coast, the Tíbar Port near Díli, Airport Development Master Plans, Road Network Projects, etc., will generate new economic dynamics and more demand from investors.
Some 10 years ago on the steep mountain roads near Manatuto, I saw a Chinese trader on a simple bicycle carrying enormous amount of cargo. I thought to myself, he is not Chinese-Timorese. I thought he had to be an enterprising, humble, extremely hard working new arrival. He reminded me of my childhood living in remotest areas of the island having as neighbor a lonely Timorese Chinese managing a little shop selling some rice, flour, cooking oil, matches, salt, sugar.
There is much talk about growing Chinese influence in TL. Commercially yes, the Chinese are outpacing everyone. True because the Chinese are not discouraged by the difficulties they encounter in trying to set up business in our country. With the traditional Chinese patience and humility they wait, persist, make friends, learn the local language, marry a local woman, make inroads into the bureaucracy.
From that day some 15 years ago, from that humble China man on a bicycle on a dusty road towards Manatuto selling mostly affordable plastic utensils to 2019, much has changed, some giant Chinese oil and construction companies are now full partners operating in Timor-Leste.
We have built a country from the ashes of 1999 to a vibrant democracy, with the freest media in the region, very open, tolerant and inclusive.