Diplomat: Francisco Dionisio Fernandes
IN the Tetum language spoken by native East Timorese, Francisco Dionisio Fernandes given name of “Mau-Kura” means “man who promotes peace,” and that’s exactly what he does as Counselor/Charge d’Affaires at the embassy of the Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste in Bangkok.
His days are also occupied with the same pursuits as other chief envoys in the Bangkok diplomatic corps – improving bilateral relations and trade, providing consular assistance to his countrymen, and in general doing his best to promote the image and interests of his country in Thailand.
Coming of age in a battle zone
Mr Fernandes’ parents migrated from rural areas to the capital city of Dili in 1950. He was born in June 1974, just one year before East Timor was plunged into war by the invasion of Indonesian troops. He started on the path of activism when he was just 16 years old. “I became involved in clandestine resistance activity in 1989. I didn’t fight with the Armed Forces for the National Liberation of East Timor (FALINTIL) or live in the jungle; I was based in Dili.
“The duty of my small group was to mobilize the logistic support and supply information to FALINTIL. We helped to collect intelligence and supply food, medicine, clothes and other things needed by the fighters. We also gave news to foreign journalists.
“I also participated in many other activities like peaceful demonstrations and strikes in Dili. I was there at the Santa Cruz cemetery on November 12, 1991, when Indonesian troops fired on mourners at a funeral in Dili. The military opened fire on several thousand unarmed civilians during a peaceful funeral procession. In all 271 people were killed and many more injured. A large number of people were arrested and never seen again. I was very lucky to survive unharmed, but many of my friends were killed, injured or disappeared.
“On October 28, 1991, two weeks before the massacre, I was with a close friend, also in the movement, who was being sought by the Indonesian military. He and other activists were requesting protection from the church. We were inside the church when Indonesian troops came. One of our comrades was killed. I was arrested about one week after the Santa Cruz Massacre and held for almost two months at the Indonesian military headquarters in Dili. I wasn’t physically tortured but I was subjected to intense emotional and psychological pressure for several weeks before I was released. I was just 17.”
In 1995 he went to university in Malang province of East Java, Indonesia. He returned to East Timor in early 1999 and immediately rejoined the campaign for independence there. In August of that year a UN-organized referendum on independence passed overwhelmingly. Indonesian-backed militias continued their campaign of terror however, and martial law was imposed. A quarter of the population fled, most to West Timor.
“Almost 80 percent of the people voted for independence, but in the weeks and months after the referendum around 1,400 Indonesians were killed and the country’s infrastructure – water systems, electricity grid and schools and so on – were all but totally destroyed,” said Mr Fernandes.
Fortunately the international community stepped in and took steps to end the bloodshed and uphold the results of the referendum. In September an Australian-led peacekeeping force arrived and gradually began to restore order. The Indonesian parliament recognized the outcome of the referendum.
In October Falintil leader Xanana Gusmao was released from prison and the UN Transitional Administration in East Timor (UNTAET) was established. In December international donors at a Tokyo conference agreed to provide aid to help rebuild East Timor. Dr Ramos Horta returned after spending 24 years in exile. Renamed as Timor-Leste, the country finally gained full independence in 2002 under the presidency of Mr Gusmao.
“While in exile, Dr Horta was responsible for our external relations during the national resistance,” said Mr Fernandes. “He was for a short time Minister of Foreign Affairs following the proclamation of independence on November 28, 1975, before Indonesia invaded East Timor in December of that year.
“When Dr Horta returned he established the embryo for Timor-Leste’s foreign service in collaboration with UNTAET. I applied and along with 49 others was accepted into a diplomatic training course administered by the UN in Dili. I completed the course in August 2000 and I also took training courses in Kuala Lumpur, Madrid and New Zealand. When Timor-Leste became an independent nation in 2002, I became a full-fledged diplomat under the Timor-Leste Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA). Dr Horta was made Foreign Minister and was later elected president.
“In my service with the MFA I have visited many countries around the world. I have been to Africa many times, the first time to Benin. I went there for a conference on least developed countries. I have also been to Kenya, Ghana, Liberia and Guinea-Bissau. I have been to Portugal three times, and also to Spain for diplomatic training. I travelled to Germany and Austria as a part of a delegation accompanying our foreign minister. I have been to New York four times to attend the UN General Assembly.
“I have been to all ASEAN countries except Myanmar. Not counting Indonesia, my first trip abroad was to Malaysia in 2002, and the second was to Thailand in 2005. This was to attend a meeting of the United Nation Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (UNESCAP). I made seven more trips here, usually to attend UNESCAP meetings. The last visit before assuming my current post was in November 2012, when I led a delegation to the first bilateral technical consultation between our two countries.
“My first overseas posting as a diplomat was at our embassy in Manila, from April 2007- April 2010. This is my second posting abroad. I have been in Thailand since August 2013 and my term should expire in August this year.”
“The function of the Timor-Leste embassy here is to represent and promote our national interests and relationship with the Kingdom of Thailand in all areas that look worth exploring. While I don’t hold the title of ambassador, my job description is the same.
“It is my responsibility to be present at all ceremonies, receptions and meetings, to deal with the relevant Thai ministries, mainly the Ministry of Foreign Affairs [he is invited to MFA briefings with other foreign diplomats] and other organizations like various chambers of commerce. I also actively promote trade relations, which entails things like personal meetings with potential investors. I participate in activities to honor the Royal Family, in particular birthday ceremonies for His Majesty the King.”
Timor-Leste opened its embassy in Bangkok in 2008 on the 7th floor of Thanapoom Tower on New Petchburi Road. “The location of the embassy is very convenient. It is easy to go anywhere,” said Mr Fernandes. Compared to some foreign embassies in Bangkok it seems rather quiet. “We have one other Timor-Leste diplomat besides me and three local staff. There is also a delegation from the Timor-Leste Ministry of Education represented by an attaché and one Thai staff. In the future we are looking to bring over an economic attaché to look after commerce and trade and help in the mission to provide information to Thai investors.
“When I started my term here, I was also in charge of Cambodia and Laos, but since we have now opened embassies in those countries I am only in charge of Thailand.
“Formal diplomatic relations between Thailand and Timor-Leste began in 2002. They are very good and getting stronger. Thailand was very supportive of the UN process to establish independence for my country. In those difficult times the Kingdom helped so much to restore peace and order under the United Nations. Thailand contributed military personnel, police and also members of the civil society after the referendum in 1999 and during the transition to democratic government.
“Thailand has also assisted Timor-Leste with technical assistance through His Majesty the King’s Sufficiency Economy projects. Agricultural projects were initiated in 2003 in two rural areas very close to Dili. The projects are going well and helping farmers in these and surrounding areas to improve productivity. The Thailand International Cooperation Agency has sent experts to work with the Timor-Leste Ministry of Agriculture to develop agricultural training programs and projects.”
Mr Fernandes said bilateral trade is still in its early stages but he’s hopeful it will be energized in the near future. “Timor-Leste is a new market for Thailand. At present we import mostly dairy products and other agricultural products like jasmine rice, and also beer. Timor-Leste’s only export to Thailand is coffee, about seven to eight tons per year. This is premium coffee, and I believe it is bought by Starbucks to be brought to Thailand.
“Tourism is also on a small scale. Only about 500 people from Timor-Leste visited Thailand in 2015, and this was mostly officials who came to attend various meetings like UNESCAP or training sessions offered by the Royal Thai Government in agriculture and public and reproductive health. We also send junior diplomats here for training.
“About 2,000 Thai tourists visited Timor-Leste last year. I organized three trips for journalists from Cambodia, Myanmar, Vietnam and Thailand to visit Timor-Leste. The objective was to get favorable press for Timor-Leste in areas like development, government policy and infrastructure. We hope that many more of our Thai friends and also expats in Thailand will come and explore our country. The construction of new hotels is booming and we have a lot to offer to foreign tourists.” Indeed, the mountainous island nation has a long coastline with pristine beaches and spectacular diving.
“As far as I know, no Timor-Leste citizens reside in Thailand except students. There were about 100 scholars here but about 30 have already graduated and returned home. Our students are primarily at the Asian Institute of Technology, with some also at Assumption, Mahidol and Thai Chamber of Commerce universities. They are all supported by the Timor-Leste government.
“There are about 1,000 Thai nationals living in Timor-Leste. They have mainly opened or work in restaurants, while some are trying to establish tourist trails between Bangkok and Dili. I believe that in the future the number of Thais living in Timor-Leste will increase.”
Entrance to ASEAN
“We officially requested to join ASEAN in 2011, and there has been quite a lot of progress toward that goal. We are participating in all ASEAN meetings as a ‘special guest.’ In 2012, when Cambodia chaired ASEAN, a special commission was established to study our request for membership. The commission formed three working groups based on three pillars of the ASEAN Charter: political and defense-related; economic; and social and cultural.
"The first working group visited Timor-Leste and its assessment was quite favorable. They saw that we are making very good progress. The second working group on economics has also visited Timor-Leste several times to make its assessment. I think this will be no problem because the economy is on the right track. The third group on social and cultural affairs visited Timor-Leste last November. I hope that next year the ASEAN member-countries will come to a positive conclusion after reviewing the assessments of the three working groups,” said Mr Fernandes.
Mr Fernandes suggested that the reason Timor-Leste is being held to a higher standard is the ASEAN Charter. “When Brunei, Laos, Cambodia and other countries joined ASEAN it was before the promulgation of the charter in 2007. We requested membership in 2011. But obviously we feel that as a newly independent country in Southeast Asia we have every right to join the regional group.
“Actually, way back in 1975, when we first declared our independence, we announced our wish to be a part of ASEAN. Because of all the problems we’ve faced this wish has been thwarted. But the goal of joining ASEAN is written into our constitution and we believe this will come to pass soon. I can say without hesitation that Timor-Leste is prepared to join ASEAN at any time. The only question is: when will ASEAN be ready for us. We will leave it to our ASEAN friends to decide, hopefully at the next summit meeting.”
Enjoying the Thai experience
“I really like Thailand. The people are very smart, calm, soft and welcoming. Among all the countries I have visited, Thailand stands out with regard to convenience for non-natives and also safety. I am really impressed with the Thai culture and history. I come from the newest country in Asia, and I feel we have a lot to learn from the experiences of the rest of Southeast Asia and Thailand in particular.
“I travel fairly often outside Bangkok, both at the invitation of the Thai government and privately. For example, the Ministry of Culture organized a visit to Udon Thani and the MFA organized a diplomatic trip to Sakhon Nakhon. My family travelled to Chiang Mai for a private visit and we have gone to Pattaya at least seven times for leisure. Recently we visited Hua Hin.
“My most memorable experiences in Thailand are centered around the Songkran festival – the first time in Chiang Mai in 2014, and last year in Bangkok. Maybe getting drenched together makes the bonds between family and friends stronger. Everyone is engaged with their neighbours. I feel that Songkran promotes a peaceful society.”
Mr Fernandes’ wife and their son and youngest daughter live together with him in Bangkok. “Our oldest daughter who visited recently lives in Dili with her grandparents. We are Roman Catholic and speak in our two national languages, Tetung and Portuguese. I also speak English, a little Spanish and Bahasa/Melayu.
“I like to play football and when I have the time I like to go to Chonburi, Buriram and other places to watch Thailand Premier League matches. For relaxation I swim with my family. I take my kids to visit temples, museums and other interesting places.”
Mr Fernandes thinks that after this posting he will be made a full-fledged ambassador. “After completing my term in Thailand I will go back to Timor-Leste, stay there for some time helping the ministry. After two or three years I will get my third posting, wherever this might be. It depends on my superior at the MFA.”
• Bachelor Degree in Economic Management at the Catholic University of Widya Karya-Malang, East Java, Indonesia.
• July 31 to August 2000, Diplomatic Training Course of Timor-Leste conducted by UNTAET in Dili.
• September 29 to October 30, Senior Diplomatic Training at the IDF Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
• September 9 to October 4, 2002, Diplomatic Training Course Miscuela Diplomatico, Madrid, Spain.
• February 9 to April 2, 2004, ELTO Program at Nelson Marlborough Institute of Technology in New Zealand.
• April 5 to June 25, 2004, ELTO Program (Foreign Policy Focus) Victoria University of Wellington, Wellington, New Zealand.
• March 7 to 11, 2005, participated in WTO/ESCAP Trade Policy Course on WTO agreements and the Doha Development Agenda.
• April 30 to May 7, 2005, International Financial Cooperation and International Investment Course in UNITAR, Hiroshima, Japan.
• October 3 to 5, 2005, English Language Workshop on structure, drafting and adoption of United Nations resolutions, UNHQ, New York, USA.
• 2002, Joined Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Cooperation (MFAC).
• January 2003 to January 2004, Desk officer for International organization, Multilateral Affairs, MFAC.
• 2006, Acting Director of Multilateral Affairs, MFAC.
• 2005 to 2007, National Focal point for Least Developed Countries, MFAC
• April 1, 2007 to December 31, 2010, First Secretary at the Timor-Leste embassy in Manila.
• January 6, 2011 to August 25, 2013, Director of International Cooperation, MFAC.
• January 2011 to August 2013, member and leader of Timor-Leste delegations for Bilateral Consultation Policy for Timor-Leste and Development Partners.
• 2011 to 2013, member of delegations to international conferences in Vienna, New York, Haiti, Juba South Sudan, Monrovia and Liberia.
• August 28, 2013, Counselor and Charges de Affairs at the Timor-Leste embassy in Bangkok.
• Presented with the Lorico Asuwain Gold Medal by Dr Ramos-Horta for his contributions to the national resistance and struggle for independence.
“OUR population is growing. Before independence it was about 800,000, but now it’s 1.1 million. We expect the trend to continue,” said Mr Fernandes.
“Timor-Leste is predominantly Roman Catholic because we were a colony of Portugal for 450 years (1702-1975). We have some Buddhists from Macau and Thailand. There’s one Buddhist temple in Dili. Our government is secular.
“Portugal doesn’t have much influence in the affairs of Timor-Leste today, but there are still deep ties between our countries. Our Constitution says that Portuguese is the official language, Tetum is the national language and Bahasa and English are working languages. There are newspapers that publish in each of these languages. All official documents are in both Tetum and Portuguese, and students learn both languages in school. However, most people can speak some English and there is a lot of interest in studying the language.
“English proficiency is improving mostly because of the connection with Australia. We now send about 3,000 scholars to study around the world, mostly to Australia, New Zealand, the Philippines, the United States and European countries.
“There are many job opportunities in Dili but the majority of people still live in rural areas, so they are mainly involved in farming and raising livestock. Many people also now work in the service sector. Business opportunities for small-time entrepreneurs are growing. Many people are opening restaurants and shops. After fourteen years of independence the economy is now growing steadily.
“Timor-Leste has 32 diplomatic missions around the world. In Asia we have embassies in Tokyo, Seoul, Beijing, and in every ASEAN country. We have embassies in Canberra, New Zealand, Washington, New York, Cuba, Brazil, Portugal, Belgium and the Vatican. We plan to open more embassies but not more than 42. This is enough for a small country.
“About 90 percent of Timor-Leste is covered by the internet and about 400,000 people use it regularly. Mobile phones are everywhere.
“The airport at Dili is too small but we have plans to upgrade it by renovating the terminal and extending runways so the biggest planes can land. We are in the process of building a new international airport in Ouekusse district in the west part of the island. We also plan to launch our own airline.
“After the latest round of unrest in 2006, Timor-Leste is now a stable country. The UN peacekeeping force left in December 2012. The country is peaceful and we are looking after it on our own. There’s no longer any reason for tourists or business people to be apprehensive about coming to Timor-Leste.”