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Ramos-Horta optimistic, pragmatic on E.Timor future

By John O'Callaghan

SINGAPORE, Dec 18 (Reuters) - East Timor independence leader Jose Ramos-Horta set out an optimistic future driven by fishing, oil and ASEAN membership on Monday but was equally pragmatic about the task of recovering from 24 years of Indonesian rule.

Praising East Timor's supporters and stressing the need for reconciliation with its former occupiers, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate said a United Nations transitional force was creating the security that was vital to prosperity.

"We are starting from absolutely ground zero," he told a seminar at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore.

"Of course for the next two or three years, we will have to rely on generous assistance from the rest of the world. It is not possible or realistic for us to meet our budget needs and our reconstruction needs."

Ramos-Horta, the former Indonesian territory's first foreign minister, said East Timor had spoken with all 10 members of the Association of South East Asian Nations about joining as soon as possible and had received a "very
positive, very warm response."

"Membership in ASEAN, membership in other regional organisations, active foreign policy, our ability to create a web of interests in relations with countries of the region is what will provide us with the best guarantees," he said.

BUILDING BRIDGES TO ESCAPE THE PAST

The United Nations has run East Timor since the long-time Portuguese colony voted for independence last year in a ballot that sparked a rampage by pro-Jakarta militias, who killed hundreds of people and left many towns in ruins.

Cementing political and economic ties with booming Singapore, Southeast Asia's most stable state, was the key to Ramos-Horta's official three-day visit that included meetings with Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong and trade officials.

But East Timor, set for elections and formal independence in late 2001, is also casting nets to Europe and the United States.

"We are working already in the U.S. Congress to have a special bill adopted to allow East Timor free access to the U.S. market," Ramos-Horta said.

"We will have in a year or two, or three maximum, guaranteed access to the two largest markets in the world -- the European Union and the U.S. -- and that will be our incentive to foreign investors."

Shackled by pervasive poverty, East Timor's first priority will be to develop the agriculture and fisheries sectors to feed its 800,000 people, he said.

Oil and gas will also be exploited, although East Timor would seek to build on tourism and its marble reserves to avoid over-reliance on the energy sector, Ramos-Horta said.

"In the medium term, we will get revenues -- significant revenues -- from oil and gas once we conclude negotiations with Australia for a new revenue-sharing (pact). But of course the full development of oil and gas will take a few years," he said.

SETTING THE STAGE FOR INDEPENDENCE

Ramos-Horta, who fled East Timor just days before Indonesia's invasion in December 1975, said it was essential to set up a civil, judicial and political infrastructure ahead of full independence next year.

"If not, we can postpone. We waited 500 years -- why not one more year, two more years if necessary," he said.

But after so long as a colony of either Portugal, Japan or Indonesia, East Timor realises it is a neophyte on the world stage.

"I won't be too surprised if some of our businesspeople get completely persuaded to sell half of East Timor," he said. "But we will rely on advice from friends." 


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