PICTURE a freedom fighter living in harsh conditions in the mountainous jungles of Southeast Asia. He’s arrested three times by the Indonesian military and on one occasion imprisoned at Jakarta’s Cipinang top security prison, serving a term of more than seven years after being charged with subversion.
Later, this same man is appointed Secretary General of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste in its capital city of Dili. From there, he takes up the position of ambassador of his new country to the Kingdom of Thailand.
These are not the highlights of a script for a new Hollywood movie, but major milestones in the life of His Excellency João Freitas de Câmara.
Mr. Câmara chose a life of sacrifice and personal risk in the resistance movement that finally saw Timor-Leste gain its independence on August 8, 2002. Now he is in the midst of another struggle to bring prosperity to his people and secure his country its proper place in the world community. His chief focus as ambassador is to see Timor-Leste admitted to ASEAN as its 11th member.
Asked about the activities of the government during the past five years, he said the major achievement has been in terms of oil management exploration.
He is proud of the fact that the government of Timor-Leste is rated very highly in the Revenue Watch Index, which measures government disclosure practices in the extractive sector. “Our government is probably the most transparent in the region,” he said.
This interview with the ambassador was the second occasion he’s talked with The BigChilli, the first being shortly after he took up his post in June 2008. At that time there were only a few chairs at the embassy, and Mr. Câmara got around the city mostly by taxi. Now the mission is fully furnished and equipped. His official car is not a Mercedes-Benz or BMW as most ambassadors use, but a Toyota Camry the embassy bought in October 2008 and which does the job with no complaints from the ambassador.
Ambasssador in the making
João Freitas de Câmara was born in June 1955 in Lepo village, in what was then called Timor Portuguese. He finished primary school in 1968 and senior high school in 1974. Soon after, his world and his life would turn upside down, as he describes in his own words below.
“After the invasion of my country that actually commenced in August 1975 by Indonesian troops coming by land, with paratroopers landing in Dili on December 7, I joined the resistance struggle and went to the jungle the next day. There I spent almost four years as a political officer (not a soldier) with the newly formed Armed Forces for the National Liberation of Timor-Leste (FALINTIL).”
“I was captured by Indonesian soldiers in August 1979 and taken back home. I was lucky not to be jailed. At that time the Indonesian military tried to approach people fighting them in the jungles and bring them back to their villages instead of jailing them.
“I managed to get a scholarship from the local Indonesian government in Dili to study in Jakarta, but because I continued to engage in underground activities for independence, I was arrested in September 1986 and sent to a Military Detention Cell and submitted to intensive interrogations. As they didn’t have any evidence against me, I was released after 25 days.
“Following mass killings in Dili by the Indonesian security forces on November 12, 1991, I led a peaceful demonstration of Timorese students against the government which led to my arrest by the military intelligence in Jakarta on November 19, 1991.
“At that time I was a member of a clandestine underground political youth organization called OJECTIL (Timor-Leste Catholic Youth Organization). Our aim was to continue in the political resistance against the Indonesian government and to achieve independence for Timor-Leste.
“I was accused of subversion and sentenced to 10 years in Cipinang prison. Because the political situation was evolving fast, I was released on February 21, 1999, after serving seven years and three months of the sentence.
“When the former president and the current prime minister of Timor-Leste, Kay Rala Xanana Gusmão, was captured in Dili in November 1992 and sent to Jakarta, we stayed in the same prison. We met there many times but lived in different cells. He was released 11 days before me.
“I was fortunate to be arrested in Jakarta because I wasn’t tortured as were those jailed in Timor-Leste. At the beginning the Indonesians treated us badly, but as soon as the International Red Cross and other organizations began making regualar visits, we were handled much more humanely. This was not the case for prisoners in East Timor, who were mistreated because no foreigners could access them.”
After his release in May 1999, Mr. Câmara started working at the office of the Portuguese Embassy in Jakarta. At that time, Portugal was the administering power for Timor-Leste and there were negotiations between Portugal and Indonesia under the United Nations (UN) mediation to find a solution for the country’s future.
Mr. Câmara stayed in Jakarta until July 2001, when he was called back to Timor-Leste to work from March 2002 at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA). Initially he served as director of legal affairs and in 2005 became director of regional and multilateral affairs. He was secretary general of the MFA from September 2006 to May 2008. Shortly afterward he was nominated to be ambassador to the Kingdom of Thailand, and arrived here a month later.
“I came here to set up the embassy on June 4, 2008,” recalled Mr. Câmara. “It wasn’t my first visit to Thailand. I was here for the first time in 2003 for a human rights conference. The second time was in January 2008 for a UN meeting.
Family, duty and life in Thailand
“The embassy has two diplomats, including myself and four Thai nationals,” said Mr. Câmara, adding quickly that this “doesn’t include my wife, Ivia Lay de Câmara. She is very happy in Thailand and she helps me a lot, especially when I am on duty abroad. I am also ambassador to Cambodia and to Laos PDR. She represents me at official receptions and at other functions as well.
“We have one daughter and two sons. My wife is very active in various women’s organizations and also studies at Assumption University. I graduated from there with a Master of Management Organization Development degree in January 2011,” said the ambassador.
“I am very busy every day. I receive invitations concerning both bilateral and multilateral affairs. The former are from the Thai, Cambodian and Laos PDR foreign and other ministries. As for the multilateral, I have to look at invitations coming from ESCAP and other international organizations. Besides that I have to attend official events from all embassies and other national and international organizations.”
Mr. Câmara said the length of his stay in Thailand is not strictly stipulated as the MFA Statute of Diplomatic Carrier is still in the process of ratification by the Timor-Leste Parliament, but he expects it will follow the international norm of three to four years.
He responded to a list of questions supplied beforehand by The BigChilli, in no particular order.
“I can speak Portuguese, English, Indonesia, Tetum – this is our unified national language. We actually have 33 dialects. I speak some but not all. Portuguese is the official language with Indonesian and English as working languages.
“As for my hobbies, often after I wake up I go running. I also like swimming and many types of physical exercise. Sometimes I go out during the weekend with my family.
“I like many things about Thailand, particularly the people, the food and the many places for touring and sightseeing. The locations and the views are just fantastic. So far, I don’t have any disappointments here.
“I travel up-country quite often both for official and private visits. Among other places, I have visited Chiang Mai, Hua Hin, Lopburi and Singburi. The last two were official visits to see projects. I also went with a group of ambassadors and Thai officials to the border with Myanmar to inaugurate a school in February 2010.
“I travel normally three to four times a year to Cambodia and to Laos PDR, according to my annual schedule, but sometimes I get an unexpected invitation. Luckily both countries are not far from Thailand, only about an hour’s flight,” Mr. Câmara said.
Asked what he considers his biggest achievement as ambassador, he paused and said it was a work still in progress. “My biggest achievement would be to convince everyone to accept Timor-Leste into ASEAN.
“What I have already achieved and am very proud of is bringing 106 students here with scholarships supported by the Timor-Leste government. I selected ten universities for them, including Assumption, Bangkok, Chulalongkorn, Mahidol, Kasetsart and Thamasat Thai Chamber of Commerce University.”
He added that one of his primary duties is to protect citizens of Timor-Leste in Thailand. “Now we have 106 students here, and protecting them is my duty.”
Mr. Câmara said his other main duties are “to represent my country and do my best to be present in every official activity, including negotiations for the mutual benefit of Thailand and Timor-Leste, and reporting to my country on the evolution of the situation in Thailand.”
“This year we celebrate the 10th anniversary of bilateral relations and His Majesty the King of Thailand extended his cordial congratulations and best wishes to the president and people of Timor-Leste. Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra also sent a congratulatory message to the president of Timor-Leste.
“Jullapong Nonsrichai, deputy minister for foreign affairs, was designated by the Thai prime minister to represent Thailand at our 10th anniversary celebration of independence, which took place on May 20. The celebration coincided with the swearing-in ceremony of our new president, also a former freedom fighter, José Maria de Vasconcelos.
“Timor-Leste and Thailand established diplomatic relations on May 20, 2002 and ever since these have been excellent,” said Mr. Câmara. “Thailand has provided support to Timor-Leste in many different areas, such as agriculture, health, security, defense and education. Thailand has been supportive of our citizens who come for training in many areas. Also, the Thai government sent military and police officers to the UN mission in our country. Many have returned home, but some are still there,” said the ambassador, adding that at the end of this year the UN will withdraw its peacekeeping force from Timor-Leste.
“So far, the only industries we have are oil and gas and coffee,” Mr. Câmara said. “We have signed a memorandum of understanding with PTT. The company is working with the Timor-Leste Secretary of State for Natural Resources to create and prepare conditions to set up an oil refinery and LNG storage facility along the southern coast.
“In 2011 the volume of bilateral trade between Thailand and Timor-Leste reached more than US$16 million. An agreement signed between our Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry with the Kingdom of Thailand has resulted in Thai ships operating in our waters and bringing fish to Thailand.”
Mr. Câmara says that as yet there are no official cultural or social exchanges between the two countries, but he sees a lot of potential as there are many similarities. “My wife has also been involved in various social activities. She has introduced here our traditional dances, dress and so on.
“As for official visits, in February Foreign Minister Zacarious Albano da Costa paid a visit to Thailand, as a guest of the Thai Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The minister paid a courtesy call on Prime Minister Yingluck at the Government House. They discussed bilateral cooperation and the strengthening of ties between the two countries. In particular, Mr. Da Costa requested Thailand’s support in making Timor-Leste’s dream of joining ASEAN a reality.
ASEAN and Timor-Leste
Mr. Câmara is keen to press the case for Timor-Leste in ASEAN and was pleased to report on the considerable progress being made. “We submitted a formal application to join ASEAN in March 2011. A working group was set up during the ASEAN summit last November in Bali to study the application. The Working Group still has two meetings scheduled for September and early November. We should most likely know the results of the working group’s findings during the ASEAN summit to be held in November in Phnom Penh.”
Mr. Câmara says there is much reason to be hopeful as all ASEAN members, with the exception of Singapore, have voiced approval for Timor-Leste’s immediate acceptance into the regional grouping. Singapore has said it has no objections to Timor-Leste being accepted eventually, but feels that the country needs more time to prepare itself before becoming its member. But Mr. Câmara sees no reason to wait.
“We started preparations for joining ASEAN even before we gained our independence. In fact, our former President José Ramos-Horta even wrote a letter far before we restored our independence in 2002. I, along with my colleague, Mr. Roberto Soares, a former ambassador to Singapore, personally delivered the letter to the ASEAN secretariat in Jakarta.
“Even though all countries except Singapore support us in joining ASEAN now – a nine to one ratio – the group goes by the consensus principal: If one member raises objections the others have to wait until that member accepts the application.”
“Timor-Leste has big potential for tourism and we are in the process of creating the right conditions for this sector. There are a few hotels in Dili and in other districts, but we have to develop more. In the future, I will ask more Timorese to come here and to study tourism in Thailand. We have some foreign investors coming in, especially from Korea, Japan, Singapore and China,” Mr. Câmara said.
“We have lot of foreigners coming to Timor-Leste for holidays from many countries, including Australia, China, Indonesia, Japan, the Philippines, Singapore and Vietnam. Our beaches are very clean and our seas have many species of fish that are not seen elsewhere.
“Tourists can obtain a visa on arrival at the airport. As for security, you are safe anywhere in Timor-Leste. I can assure you of that!”
Mr. Câmara also mentioned that the population of Dili is about 150,000 and the whole country has around 1.2 million people with over 90 per cent of them Catholics. He complained that the increase of cars in Dili has resulted in increasing traffic and pollution.
WHAT is now the Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste and before commonly known as East Timor was colonized by the Portuguese and Dutch in the middle of the 16th century. The Portuguese missionaries who arrived spread the Catholic faith throughout the island. Disputes between the Portuguese and Dutch ended in an 1859 treaty which gave the western part of the island to Holland and the eastern part to Portugal.
During World War II, the Japanese military occupied Portuguese East Timor. Thousands of Timorese fought bravely and many died while fighting with allied forces that included Australian commandos.
Following the defeat of the Japanese, the Portuguese returned to their former colony and remained until the Revolution of Flower in Portugal led by the military to end their overseas provinces on November 25th April , 1975, which consequently, Indonesian military invaded in and was invaded by Indonesian military forces a few days later. Indonesia then declared the island its 27th province.
A struggle for independence followed for over 20 years, resulting in an estimated 200,000 deaths.
On August 30, 1999, in a UN-supervised referendum, the majority of Timorese voted for independence from Indonesia.