Jose Ramos-Horta, president of Timor Leste spoke in the very hall where the first regional conference on Timor Leste's quest for freedom happened 15 years ago. As a speaker of the University of the Philippines Centennial Lecture Series, Ramos-Horta relived the darkest years of Timor Leste, when Indonesian forces reigned terror and the rest of the world led by the United States and the ASEAN watched in silence.

The Nuances of Nation-Building
In February this year, Ramos-Horta himself nearly died after he was shot by a guerilla. “We now face the extreme difficulty of nation-building, of healing the wounds of the people,” he shared.

Ramos-Horta likewise admitted the challenges posed by poverty, which to some extent has forced the tiny nation towards compromises. One of these include the use of heavy fuel in providing electricity throughout the country within the next two years. For the long-term though, Timor Leste plans to adopt the more earth-friendly but more expensive technologies such as solar, wind and hydro-electric power. “[This scheme is our way of allowing] the people to feel the immediate benefits of independence. The government really has to find some shortcuts to development,” he explained.

He added that he has been looking up to the Philippines as a model of democracy especially the vibrancy of its social movements. He clarified though the development he expected from the restoration of democracy in 1986 “took longer than we thought.” Philippine peace advocates and feminists seconded his view, affirming that the Philippines has indeed missed opportunities particularly in political reform. Teresita Deles, member of the International Center for Innovation, Transformation and Excellence in Governance (INCITEGOV) and a former cabinet member who had a falling out with the present administration said: “After the restoration of democracy and other conflicts, we tend to forget the requirements of democratic governance which are part of the quiet but boring housekeeping of governance.”

(Re)Building Nations through Peace
A Noble Peace Prize laureate, Ramos-Horta likewise placed emphasis on dialogue as a best tool in peace-building. Contrary to the advice of Australian troops and some foreign experts, Ramos-Horta has consistency opted to reach-out to insurgents in neutral spaces rather than use force. On some occasions, he also sought the assistance of priests and nuns who are usually respected in the villages. At one point he even jested, “We are thinking of hiring more Filipino priests and nuns who can provide education and social services unlike the World Bank consultants. I think some of the brightest people are in the World Bank. But because of so much brain power, they give us so many wrong advice.”

Ramos-Horta also appeared to be more keen on indigenous means of peace-building and conflict-prevention. Albeit open to the possibility of bringing Indonesia's human rights violations during its occupation of Timor Leste before the International Criminal Court (ICC), Timor Leste has opted to “close a chapter with Indonesia rather than foster impunity.” He also suggested that even during the Indonesian occupation, Timor Leste has been on a defensive mode. “We never manipulated religion nor demonised Islam. Not a single Indonesian civilian was killed. In fact, some Indonesians continue to live in Timor Leste.”

The president also minced no words on China's posture particularly on thorny issues such as Tibet. “If China really wants to look for an honourable solution on Tibet, then its dialogue partner should be the Dalai Lama,” he shared.

Similarly he pronounced that Palestine can never win the war with Israel. Recalling his dialogue with a Palestinian student, he said, “Through force, you will not win the war with Israel. But if the four million Palestinians sit down along the Gaza Strip and perform civil disobedience, you can paralyze Israel.”

Timor Leste gained its independence in 2002, with the downfall of the Suharto regime and the bankruptcy of the Indonesian economy following the Asian financial crisis. But since 2002, the country has been swamped with various challenges including the Asian tsunami in 2004 and the pockets of insurgency, among others.

This event was jointly organised by the Initiatives for International Dialogue (IID) and the UP College of Law.

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