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Jose Ramos-Horta: East Timor will survive as oil ends

Jose Ramos-Horta: East Timor will survive as oil ends
From Al Jazeera - December 6, 2017

East Timor, one of the world's poorest countries, could still be an economic success story despite reports its main oil and gas fields will run dry by 2022 and it will go bankrupt by 2027, its former leader says.

Devastated by years of foreign occupation, Southeast Asia's youngest nation has relied heavily on its dwindling energy sector, which accounted for 78 percent of its 2017 state budget.

Speaking on the sidelines of International Civil Society Week in the Fijian capital, Suva, Jose Ramos-Horta - who served as prime minister from 2006-2007 and president from 2007-2012 - insists his country, once seen as a poster child for developing nations, can overcome its economic hurdles.

"East Timor is only 15 years old. If you saw what my country was like at the start of this century, you'd be shocked," Ramos-Horta told Al Jazeera.

Indonesia annexed East Timor, which sits at the eastern end of the Indonesian archipelago, in 1975 when long-time colonial power Portugal set it free.

Indonesian strongman Suharto's military swept across the country in a lightning offensive, laying waste to entire villages with US-made weapons and equipment.

More than 100,000 East Timorese were killed during the 24-year occupation in what academics from the University of Oxford and Yale University have called genocide.

When Indonesia finally left in 1999 following a UN supervised independence referendum, more than 80 percent of the country's infrastructure had been destroyed.

The country became fully independent in 2002 after a three-year period of UN administration.

"In 2002, we had 19 East Timorese doctors in the country," the 67-year-old said. "Today we have close to 1,000."

"We barely had electricity anywhere in the country, including the capital, Dili. Today, we have continuous electricity in 80 percent of the country. The remaining 20 percent uses alternative methods such as solar."

Ramos-Horta, who was co-awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1996 for lobbying foreign leaders for Indonesia's withdrawal, said his government planned for the depleting oil and gas reserves, with the country's economic future no longer reliant on its offshore deposits.

"Unlike many other oil and gas producing nations, we immediately created a sovereign wealth fund. We started with 250m and now we have more than $16bn in the bank.

"At the time, the law said 90 percent of oil and gas revenues will go to buying US treasury bonds. Ten percent, we could use to diversify. Since we did not have a lot of experience in the international market we decided to invest everything in US treasury bonds.

"When the 2008 financial crisis struck, better economies than ours, countries with a stronger international standing like Singapore and Norway, lost tens of billions. East Timor did not lose a cent."

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