We Have it in Our Reach to Make the World Better

By: Jan Mazotti Issue: Big Ideas, Smart People Section: Nobel Make The World Better

Many people could not tell you where East Timor is or who Jose Ramos-Horta is. East Timor, also known as Timor-Leste, is a small country in South East Asia located just northwest of Darwin, Australia, and Ramos-Horta is its president. It is a country with a complex and challenging history.

As an integral figure in the politics of East Timor, Ramos-Horta has helped to lead the country to its independence from Indonesia. His efforts began in the early 1970s when his political activism against the "Portuguese empire" caused him to flee the country for more than two decades. Three days after leaving, Indonesian forces invaded his tiny country and approximately 200,000 people, almost one-third of the country’s population, were killed, including his brothers and sisters. Ramos-Horta said, "The most frustrating thing was the hypocrisy and duplicity, of countries like the United States, that preached human rights and democracy, yet were supplying weapons and aircraft to Indonesia, which was bombing East Timor. One of my own sisters was killed by a U.S.-supplied aircraft."

Jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1996 with fellow East Timorese Bishop Carlos Belo, the men hoped the award would bring international attention to the widespread abuses in the country by acting President Suharto. And it did. It brought visibility to the problems in East Timor and caught the attention of President Clinton. In May 1998, the people of East Timor held an independence vote where more than 78 percent of people voted to break the ties with Indonesia. Then, in 1999 President Clinton played a pivotal role in helping put international pressures on Indonesia to formally free the country. Ramos-Horta returned after the vote, and the country was declared independent in 2002.

Having served as East Timor’s foreign minister and prime minister, in May 2007, Ramos-Horta assumed the role of president. In what has been described as an attempted coup, in February 2008, Ramos-Horta was shot by a renegade soldier. Living through the assassination attempt, Ramos-Horta began his journey to build up East Timor’s rich and untapped oil, gas, and mineral resources in a smart and beneficial way. He wanted for his people to make more than the average $2.00 day and wanted the malnutrition in his country to end. A positive force, Ramos-Horta has publicly acknowledged his strategy toward Indonesia by saying, "I don’t like to rub salt in the wounds of people who I know have lost. For me, the great principle is in victory—be magnanimous. Be magnanimous toward adversaries who feel that they have lost. Try to make them feel like they didn’t lose and that we all won." Because of his ability to be magnanimous, his country has made enormous progress over the last two years.

President Ramos-Horta graciously agreed to talk to us for this issue of ICOSA, reflecting on his own life and political ordeals. When asked about his greatest accomplishments and motivations, he directed the answer back to the people of his country and said, "The true heroes in my own situation, in my country, are the unknown people, the common people." He said that when he arrived back in East Timor in 1999, he was received like a national hero, which embarrassed him because the people of his country were really the ones who had endured 24 years of occupation without losing hope. "Thousands and thousands of people came to the streets to welcome me, and wherever I went in the following days and weeks, there were thousands more. The real heroes, the Timorese people, taught me a tremendous lesson in humility. In the face of their greatness—the greatness of giving me the status of being a national hero—they were the real heroes. It really humbled me – it was overwhelming," he said.

Reflecting on the global situation, relative to when Ramos-Horta began his work, he discussed globalization and the indifference that is often commonplace with development. He said that 50 years ago (or maybe less) the West—specifically the rich in the West—seemed to be immune and indifferent to the problems in the developing world But as a result of globalization, of global interconnectedness, and the fast movement of people and of goods, the rich no longer feel so immune from events that happen elsewhere in the globe. He said, "I’m not talking only about terrorism. I’m talking about diseases. We have had in recent times the threat of Avian Flu, of SARS, and HIV. Globalization has brought diseases that have been eliminated in the West, but are still prevalent in many developing countries. And, these diseases might come to the shores of the western countries, if the developed countries don’t do enough to eliminate them." According to Ramos-Horta it is the inevitability of globalization—both negative and positive that, "forces humanity to realize that our destinies are intertwined. We have to work together for the common good of humanity."

When discussing current events and his concerns, Ramos-Horta said much of the world’s issues are rooted in ignorance, lack of vision and lack of compassion. He commented, "If you have people who are uneducated, then they are more vulnerable to manipulation, brainwashing and instigation by demagogues, whether political or religious, irresponsible demagogues." To combat the problem, he says we must provide better education, more access to the Internet, more access to news, and more access to books that teach respect and tolerance for each other. "It is the only way you can defeat the evils of the demagogues, whoever they are."

He went on, "My greatest fear is that because of lack of vision, lack of compassion, and because of absence of leadership in the United States, in Europe and in other countries, we are moving further and further towards alienation, towards a real clash of cultures and people. I believe that we will see a clash of civilization where there will be rampant violence all over the world—in the streets of Europe, in the streets of the United States. That would be an enormous tragedy and unforgivable because we have it in our hands, in our reach, to change—to make the planet and the world a far better one that we are living in today."

Believing in the rights of people to self-determination, Ramos-Horta supports the Timorese in their quest for territorial independence, not just through language and culture, but for the protection of their lands from, "rapacious multinationals." Committed to a three-pronged plan to settle historical conflicts, Ramos-Horta is well on his way on behalf of his country to bring humanitarian awareness to East Timor through the release of prisoners and with the end of torture. He is further committed to genuine political autonomy and has publicly stated that East Timor will have no standing army and will create a Zone of Peace and Development.

When asked about his plans for the next decade, Ramos-Horta prefers to set modest goals, with a focus on one or two issues that are indeed achievable. "I know we can eliminate extreme poverty from the face of the Earth. We can and must bring clean water to villages, enhance education, and bring modern information with the international community led by countries like the United States and Europe, but working with other countries like India, Brazil, China, Japan—the powers that be—because they have the resources and the know-how."

Another of Ramos-Horta’s goals is to work with everyone concerned—with schoolteachers, with parents, with community leaders, with church spiritual leaders to eliminate prejudice and ignorance that is easily appropriated and manipulated by agitators who spread hatred. He says that we must address the issue that, "...causes phenomena like we have today with international terrorists where they make each and every one of us uncomfortable and feel insecure in our homes or when we travel."

He went on, "If people are extremely poor, if they feel they have been excluded, well, they are easily manipulated. If they are uneducated—if they have no access to education—we leave the demagogues— the religious demagogues, the political demagogues—to feed them with propaganda and false information about others. The two are inextricably linked. If we would set those two goals, I believe we could defeat the forces of hatred and prejudice."