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Hoang Dinh Nam - AFP.
Gusmao (right) and Ramos-Horta share a joke during the opening ceremony of the ASEAN ministerial meetings in Bangkok.

'We Paid With our Lives'
Of independence, nation-building and ASEAN

East Timor leaders Xanana Gusmao and JosE Ramos-Horta were special guests of the Thai government at the ASEAN meetings. During their stay, news came in from home that a New Zealand soldier serving on the U.N. peacekeeping force had been killed in a clash with anti-independence militias. It was the 8,500-strong detail's first combat casualty. In Gusmao's hotel suite, both men spoke to Asiaweek's Alejandro Reyes about the situation in East Timor:

What is your reaction to the soldier's killing?
Ramos-Horta: The killing tells us more about the breakdown of discipline and law and order in Indonesia than about peace and stability in East Timor. Evidence shows that members of the Indonesian army, who are beyond control in West Timor, Ambon, Aceh and Irian Jaya, are behind it.

Gusmao: We support a smooth democratization process in Indonesia. We want reconciliation, but this kind of military action against the U.N. is not helpful. We believe that President [Abdurrahman] Wahid is concerned, but it's the lack of control that is the problem.

How is the reconciliation going between pro-independence and pro-integration factions in Timor?

Gusmao: Reconciliation will take time because of the destruction and because we've had so many years of war. We have established a council for reconciliation. Some [integrationist] leaders have returned. Many more will come back and we will involve them.

You were critical of the U.N. initially. Has the administration improved?
Gusmao: The criticism was to push the process toward independence faster. The expectations of East Timorese were very high. We are learning how to deal with the international community, donors, financial institutions. It's not as if we said we don't want them anymore.

Ramos-Horta: Our criticisms were constructive, borne out of the people's frustrations, which were fully justified. But it is understandable why the U.N. was slow. Every single thing was destroyed. They had to bring in everything — chairs, tables, typewriters, cars, even soap.

What is your view on the other places in Indonesia experiencing ethnic and religious strife?
Gusmao: Some people say that we can be an example, but I have to remind them that our situation was very different historically and legally. We respect the integrity of the Republic of Indonesia. That is why we have very good relations with the current administration.

: I told the West Papuans recently: Don't miss this opportunity now. Walk halfway. Grab the olive branch that [Wahid] is offering you in terms of limited but genuine autonomy. The rest God will take care of. Today, the West Papuans and Acehnese are dealing with a new Indonesia so they could have genuine autonomy.

Is East Timor's smallness a liability?

Ramos-Horta: Precisely the opposite. In a globalized world, the size of the territory and the population no longer matters. It all boils down to human-resource skills, know-how, creativity and dynamism. We have resources — oil, gas, the best coffee in the world, all kinds of marble. East Timor can be totally self-sufficient in agriculture and fisheries. There is potential for tourism. And we are at the crossroads of the Asia-Pacific region.

Last year, you called ASEAN "hypocrites," but now you are in Bangkok making friends.

Ramos-Horta: Did I? Are you sure it was me? You must be talking about my twin brother. [Laughs.] ASEAN obviously is very important for us. Our future security rests not so much on a deterrent force or standing army but on a web of relations in the region. ASEAN provides that framework.

Does East Timor have enough skilled people to run a government?

Ramos-Horta: We have more university graduates than Indonesia and Papua New Guinea had when they became independent. But that doesn't mean we have experience. It'll take many years of training.

You have just spoken to President Wahid. What did you talk about?

Gusmao: He expressed concern about the soldier's death, and we offered to help solve the conflict in Ambon. We know what the price of destruction can be. The president was proposing to send the factions to Timor to give them a chance to see the consequences of division.

Was the whole struggle for independence worth it?

Ramos-Horta: The people of East Timor paid with their lives because they were determined to preserve their sense of honor, dignity and freedom. Far be it for anyone to discourage that. Five years from now, I hope we can say we've eliminated malaria, tuberculosis and poverty, and given clean water to people, schools and textbooks to children. Then we can say that we did not betray those who died.

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