By Alyssa Smith
Nobel Peace Prize winner and President of Timor-Leste, Jose Ramos-Horta, spoke to a Columbia University crowd at the World Leaders Forum on September 30. Ramos-Horta described the struggle his young country faced in achieving independence.
“Imagine 100 percent destruction… except for the road, only because they didn’t have time to blow it up,” he said, imploring his audience to imagine the country’s earlier plight.
After 400 years of Portuguese rule, Timor-Leste declared independence in 1974. Freedom was short-lived; Indonesia invaded the tiny half-island in December 1975. In 1999, a yes-vote for independence in a United Nations referendum resulted in bloodshed as pro-Indonesian militias razed Timor-Leste to the ground. President Ramos-Horta counted the challenges left by this legacy of violence: a traumatized and displaced population, a massive lack of infrastructure and hospitals, with ninety percent of schools destroyed.
Timor-Leste presented a massive challenge to its people and the international community. A UN transitional administration would oversee Timor-Leste from 1999-2002, and in that time build up all of the institutions needed for a functioning democratic state. President Ramos-Horta expressed his skepticism over such a large scale project conducted in such a short time frame.
He once asked a group of ambassadors if they really believed that two years was all it took to build a nation-state with democratic institutions.
“If any of them had any experience running a Chinese take-away restaurant in Manhattan….apparently, it takes two-to-three years to develop a viable sustainable Manhattan take-away business. If you can’t have a functioning take-away business in two-to-three years, can you [then]have a functioning nation state in two-to-three years?” challenged Ramos-Horta.
Timor-Leste faces many hurdles. Since the 1999 referendum, Timor-Leste has witnessed a cycle of violence, reoccurring roughly every two years. Ramos-Horta attributed the 2006 eruption to “a failure of leadership” when police and military forces fought with each other and martial arts gangs battled in the streets. In a post-conflict environment, Ramos-Horta noted, public speeches can inspire or inflame tensions. He also pointed out that Timor’s governing institutions are only eight years old and thus still fragile. The president vehemently rejected claims, however, that Timor-Leste ever constituted a failed state.
The current picture painted by Ramos-Horta of Timor-Leste reflects optimism and hope. Today, Timor-Leste has made progress on poverty, reduced cases of malaria and dengue, and made inroads against infant and child mortality. Ramos-Horta believes that with peace and stability—which at present Timor has achieved—the country can “fast track progress” on the millennium development goals. Timor’s President credited a twist of fate for the country’s solid progress: Timor possesses oil reserves and a well-structured petroleum fund to provide much needed revenue.
President Ramos-Horta recalled his brief time in New York during the early 1980s, attending Columbia classes and supported by funding from Riverside Church. With his now-prime minister, Xanana Gusmão, Ramos-Horta waged a two-front resistance struggle–a young Ramos-Horta advocating for Timor abroad, and Gusmão leading resistance from Timor’s mountain jungles. The president credited the support of the Timorese people as the driving force behind 25 years of struggle for freedom. Looking forward, President Ramos-Horta commented that the government must think about what it will hand over to a new generation of Timorese.
In a final, thought-provoking question, Columbia’s David L. Phillips, Director of the Program on Peacebuilding and Rights at the Institute for the Study of Human Rights, asked President Ramos-Horta if, given Timor’s history, he had any thoughts on the current state of affairs in Afghanistan.
Ramos-Horta responded that people can be labeled a terrorist on one day, including Xanana Gusmão, Nelson Mandela, and Yasser Arafat.
“But sooner or later, the same people you called terrorist in the past you invite back for dialogue, and then they become statesmen.” President Ramos-Horta added. “With leadership comes responsibility, and groups like Hamas and the Taliban need to act responsibly.”
“Hamas is leading the Palestinians to self-destruction,” he said. Drawing on his own experience with Timor’s martial arts gangs, Ramos-Horta stressed that it is key to understand what people are fighting for.
“And so you sit down, and you listen. And sometimes just because you listen, they calm down.”
Alyssa Smith is a second year Master of International Affairs student concentrating in International Security Policy.