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New Timor-Leste President Jose Ramos-Horta seeks to increase trade and cooperation with Cambodia

Gareth Johnson

In an exclusive interview with Cambodia Investment Review, the President-elect of Timor-Leste stressed his hopes for increased trade between the two countries, as well as his confidence in becoming the 11th member of ASEAN during Cambodia’s chairmanship of the block. 

Mr Ramos-Horta, who has previously served as Prime Minister, President, as well as foreign minister was a leading member of the Timorese independence movement and won the election with over 62 percent of the vote. 

To read more about the 2022 East Timor presidential election click here.

He is also a former Nobel laureate having won the 1996 peace prize jointly with Bishop Carlos Filipe Ximenes Belo. Timor-Leste finally won independence in 2002, with 2022 marking its 20th anniversary as a sovereign state. 

Speaking to Cambodia Investment Review via phone in an interview arranged by the Timor-Leste Ambassador to Cambodia the new President-elect outlined his initial plans stating: “The country is poor and people have suffered during the pandemic. We have a $20 billion sovereign fund and we need to start spending it to make people’s lives better”. 

Timor-Leste is rich in natural resources, which include both oil and gas, with the Timor-Leste Petroleum Fund being established in 2005. 

To read our interview full with Timor-Leste Ambassador to Cambodia H.E. Ermenegildo Lopes click here.

The Cambodia model and ASEAN Membership

As previously reported by Cambodia Investment Review similarities between the two countries were noted, with both being post-conflict states, although the President was also seen to point out the differences, stating: “What happened in Cambodia with the Khmer Rouge was terrible, with a third of the population being killed.” 

“It was though an internal war, while in Timor-Leste we were brutalized by an invading force. Still, the progress that Cambodia has made under the premiership of Hun Sen has been amazing and we also desire strong economic growth,” he added. 

Until the Covid-19 pandemic economic growth in Cambodia had averaged 7.7 percent annually since 1998. 

Jose Ramos-Horta
Cambodia Investment Review reporter Gareth Johnson (L) with Timor-Leste Ambassador to Cambodia H.E. Ermenegildo Lopes (R).

Mr Ramos-Horta also stressed his belief that the country would become the 11th member of ASEAN during his tenure, particularly with Cambodia now chairing the organization.

“With hindsight, we were probably not ready for ASEAN membership when we first applied 11 years ago, but a lot has changed since then. We are now members of the WTO (World Trade Organisation), who essentially have the same criteria for membership as ASEAN, so we feel we are ready,” he said.

“Cambodia and the government of Prime Minister Hun Sen have also been steadfast supporters of our membership, so we are confident they can help make this happen during my term in office,” he added.

Increasing trade between Cambodia and Timor-Leste

The President-elect was also keen to stress his hopes that a free trade agreement (FTA) could be established between the two nations, something that has been suggested by the Cambodian side.

“Currently trade is relatively limited with Timor-Leste and Cambodia, but we have a lot of natural resources, as well as some of the best coffee in the world. We would like to initially sign an agreement with Cambodia and then expand to other countries such as Vietnam and Thailand as we become an active member of the ASEAN community,” he said.

Timorese exports to Cambodia reached a peak of $320,000 in 2019, which dropped to just $10,000 in 2020, largely due to the Coronavirus pandemic.

Jose Ramos-Horta

It is not just in the export arena where the newly elected President saw potential, with him actively courting foreign direct investment (FDI), as we as learning from Cambodia in various fields, telling Cambodia Investment Review: “We could start by buying rice from Cambodia, but more importantly we want to invite Cambodians to come here and help us develop our agricultural sector as a whole”. 

It was though through tourism that he felt held the most potential. 

Timor-Leste as the hidden gem of Southeast Asia

Despite offering stunning beauty, historical relics, fabulous beaches and some of the best diving in the region the country remains the least visited country in the ASEAN bloc, as well as the 5th least visited country in Asia. In 2019 the country recorded just 74,800 tourists, ranking it 179 in the world in absolute terms.

“There is so much we can learn from the Cambodian tourism sector from the bottom to the top-end, as well as the burgeoning eco-tourism sector. This is another area where we would welcome not just investment, but training,” he said. 

The President-elect was also keen to point out the country as a potential tourist destination for both Cambodians and ex-pats within the Kingdom. Timor-Leste is one of the few visa-free countries for Cambodians, with connections via Bali in Indonesia, Kuala Lumpur, as well as Darwin in Australia.

And it was not just tourists that Mr Ramos-Horte was keen to see in the country, stating: “I would like to formally invite Prime Minister Hun Sen to come to Timor-Leste for my inauguration, as well as our 20th anniversary for independence. He has always been a firm ally of the Timorese people and we would be honored to have him attend”. 

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