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East Timor President Extols Anti-Corruption

East Timor is the world’s youngest country, having achieved independence from Indonesia in 2002.

Soon after he became the president of East Timor in 2007, José Ramos-Horta was advised by his chief of staff to buy a new laptop with state money. He refused, claiming he didn’t want to use state-owned property. The chief of state insisted, until Horta finally said all he needed was a mobile phone.

Three months later, he received a new phone. It was exactly the same as the one he’d been using. What surprised him, though, was the price tag for the state-purchased phone was three times higher than what he paid for his original.

“I said, please I want this phone returned immediately,” Ramos-Horta told a group of Cambodian students, rights groups, officials and diplomats on Friday. “Otherwise I will hold a press conference and denounce all of you.”

The phone purchase was just one example the Nobel Prize laureate gave as he described his country’s battle against corruption, on a five-day visit to Cambodia that ended Sunday.

East Timor is the world’s youngest country, having achieved independence from Indonesia in 2002. Since then, it has worked to improve its economy and the livelihoods of its more than 1 million people.

Ramos-Horta said his prime minister spent at least two months traveling to rural areas across the country to seek advice from the people and develop the country’s development plan, which has helped the country climb out of poverty.

Now, 80 percent of the country’s economy depends on oil and gas, and East Timor is considered from of the most successful country’s handling that revenue.

At Friday’s talk, Ramos-Horta said that success came from an active parliament, strict regulations, cooperation with civil society and membership in the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative. It especially came from tight measures that fought corruption, he said.

As “more wealth appears, more opportunity also arrives for corruption,” he said. “We have to be constantly attentive, and we are always attentive in preventing corruption, because corruption means millions of dollars are not used for poverty alleviation.”

Ramos-Horta’s warnings are especially relevant to Cambodia, which has begun its own extractive industries processes, including the hopes of earning oil and gas revenue for offshore deposits by 2012. Rights groups and environmental watchdogs have warned that the money could flow into a corrupt system and do little to help the poor.

Phan Phall, deputy secretary-general for the Supreme National Economic Council, said Friday Cambodia faced a shortfall in technical capacity compare to East Timor.

“Our infrastructure is not that good yet, and people’s capacity in managing oil and gas resources is still limited,” he said. “We don’t have a petroleum law or a taxation law on petroleum, since both of those laws have just finished being drafted.”

Without specifically making recommendations for Cambodia, Ramos-Horta said a country must have proper measures in place to manage the revenues, combined with a willingness to fight corruption.

Rights officials and opposition lawmakers say Cambodia can still benefit from the expected oil and gas money, so long as it fights corruption.