When Timor-Leste President Jose Ramos-Horta returned home from his trip to Indonesia this week, he has accomplished something most foreign leaders failed to achieve: directly talking to and touching the heart of the people of the host country.
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With his wit and jokes he charmed Indonesia’s intellectuals, senior journalists, entrepreneurs, artists and filmmakers, while with his intelligent, wisdom, experience and sincerity, he delivered touching speeches in front of students of two Indonesia’s biggest universities, University of Indonesia and the State Islamic University (UIN) Syarif Hidayatullah, respectively.
And as the saying goes: you win the heart, everything else will follow.
“When the Nobel committee announced my name as the recipient of Nobel Peace Prize 1996, there must be a mistake. It must be Pak Harto, not Pak Horta,” said Ramos-Horta, the 1996 Nobel Peace laureate for leading his country’s diplomatic and peaceful efforts against Indonesia’s military under Soeharto or also called Pak Harto.
Such a joke invited laughs from all the guests of the dinner specially hosted by Yayasan Hivos and Omong-Omong Media at a restaurant in Jakarta, after the Timor-Leste President met Tuesday morning (19/7) with President Joko Widodo, as part of his state visit to Indonesia.
Pak Harto and Pak Horta misspelling story was only one of many jokes President Ramos-Horta threw during the dinner attended by Indonesia’s influential journalists, intellectuals, filmmakers and entrepreneurs. In another part, when discussing about corruption, Ramos-Horta joked, “In China, people do corruption under the table. In Indonesia, behind the table. In Timor, they take the table.”
By this joke, Ramos-Horta attempted to show how people in Timor-Leste learn to do corruption, and, still part of the joke, bribing and stealing state money are the habit Timorese fast to learn from other countries compared to many other things. Of course, this is a sarcasm and autocriticism from a president to his own nation.
But this shameful mode directly changed into pride when the subject of the conversation moved into democracy. Based on democracy index relesead by Freedom House, Timor-Leste ranks among Southeast Asia’s most democratic country.
Muslim scholar Nasir Tamara, who just published a book on democracy titled Demokrasi di Era Digital (Democracy in Digital Era) was very enthusiastic to know the fact. “This is very important. We can make a study on how democracy works in Timor-Leste.”
Jaya Suprana, a noted businessman and founder of Museum Rekor Indonesia (MURI), also asked: ”Is there any presidential threshold in Timor-Leste?”
“There is no threshold in Timor-Leste,” Ramos-Horta answered.
Unlike Indonesia which has pesidential threshold that favors big political parties and elites as only they can nominate presidential candidates, the absence of such a presidential threshold means everybody can run for president in Timor-Leste. In the latest election in which Ramos-Horta won, 16 candidates competed.
In regard to press freedom, Timor-Leste is the beacon of press freedom not only in southeast Asia but also globally. According to 2022 edition of Reporters Without Borders (RSF)’s ranking on media freedom, Timor-Leste ranks 17th out of 180 countries surveyed, ahead of established democracies such as Canada, Australia and the United States. In southeast Asia, Timor-Leste ranks 100 places higher than Indonesia, which ranks at 117, or way better than any other major ASEAN countries, like Malaysia, Thailand, the Philippines or Singapore.
This fact again was a reminder to Indonesia’s press current condition, considering that the dinner was attended by the country’s most prominent press figures, such as Azyumardi Azra, chairman of Indonesia’s Press Council, and senior journalists, such as Endy Bayuni, former chief editor of the Jakarta Post (now a board member of Yayasan Hivos), Uni Lubis, chief editor of IDN Times.
For her part, Uni Lubis shared her experience when visiting Timor-Leste to give training to the country’s journalists. She said that the training was conducted in Bahasa Indonesia, and all of the journalists could speak the language although it is getting rare that it is used in writing.
I shared the same experience with Uni when I conducted a writing class in June. I delivered my class in Bahasa Indonesia, a testament that Timorese still use the language, and most speak the language fluently. Unfortunately, the use of the language has been deliberately discouraged, especially in writing, and the main exposure to language is through Indonesia’s TV soup operas which are still very popular among Timorese.
As Bahasa Indonesia is a language shared by both Indonesians and Timorese, and can serve as a bridge for mutual understanding and cooperation between people of the two countries, I asked President Ramos-Horta on why Bahasa Indonesia has not been taught in school as part of the curriculum. The Timor-Leste president diplomatically answered the question by stating that some departments and studies at the universities use Bahasa Indonesia. Timor-Leste Foreign Minister Adaljiza Albertina Xavier Reis Magno added that Bahasa Indonesia is a working language in Timor-Leste, meaning the language is used in a daily conversation although the official languages are Tetun and Portuguese.
From language the conversation moved to possibilities that Indonesia and Timor-Leste cooperate on research, knowledge development and education. Najib Burhani, the head of Social Science and Humaniora research development at the Indonesia’s National Reasearch and Innovation Agency (BRIN) and his colleague Fadjar Thufail, BRIN’s head of Area Studies explained how BRIN has various programs that allow collaboration between Indonesian and Timor-Leste’s researchers. They said BRIN would strengthen research on Timor-Leste, and would invite the country’s academics to join it reserach schemes and fellowships. Such collaboration is welcomed as it in line with Ramos-Horta’s priority to boost his country’s human capital.
Yayasan Hivos also expressed its commitment to carry out various programs in Timor-Leste to empower people there.
“We are ready with our programs in agriculture, empowering women and education,” said Tunggal Pawestri, executive director of Yayasan Hivos.
Education is also a main path of developing understanding and sense of friendship, with a real example of how Arief Suditomo, chief editor of Metro TV could have a close ties with Timor Leste’s Chief of Civil House of Presidency, Bendito dos Santos Freitas, as they were classmate when both of them studied in England on Chevening Scholarship from the British government.
When Dipo Alam, Indonesia’s cabinet secretary under President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, asked about Timor Leste’s natural resources, Ramos-Horta explained that his country has various untapped resources which has the potential to create economic progress to the people. He however expressed his commitment to sustanability when Kompas chief editor Sutta Dharmasaputra highlighted that the media has put environtal issues as its priority coverage.
In culture, collaboration between Indonesia and Timor-Leste will be materialized in various events, from films festivals, book and literary gatherings to sports and tourism events. For this, Indonesia Ambassador to Timor-Leste Okto Dorinus Manik said he was ready to support initiatives to strengthen ties between Timor-Leste and Indonesia.
“If so, be ready anytime we knock on your door, Mr Ambassador,” I said, and with that, as a host, I concluded the discussion.