www.nst.com.my, 26 January 2009
TIMOR Leste has, through its history, birth and infancy, been assailed with spasms of violence.
Many have been killed in clashes between government troops and mutinous soldiers, and tens of thousands of citizens still live in squalid conditions.
The nation of over a million continues to struggle following its independence from Indonesia through a referendum in 1999. It graduated from United Nations Control to become an independent nation in 2002.
In February last year, rebel soldiers shot President Dr Jose Ramos-Horta, nearly killing him, and ambushed the motorcade of Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao, who escaped unharmed.
However, even grievous injury and near death failed to drain Ramos-Horta's resolve to release his country from the stranglehold of poverty and violence it was in.
"The assassination attempt on me by a lunatic has not changed me personally, in the way I live or think -- but, of course, my personal security has been very much strengthened and movement a little more curtailed," the 1996 Nobel Laureate for Peace said in an interview with the New Straits Times during a visit to Malaysia last week.
"The security may be a little inconvenient and draw more attention than anything else, but I still travel extensively and mingle freely," he said. "I am totally comfortable and relaxed. It is just that I am more cautious now when I move about, whether within the country or out."
The president was in Kuala Lumpur on a speaking engagement at the invitation of the International Peace Foundation, which facilitated the "Bridges: Dialogues Towards a Culture of Peace" 2009 forum in Malaysia.
Ramos-Horta became Timor Leste prime minister in 2006 after a violent military mutiny caused more than 100,000 people to flee their homes and forced the resignation of his predecessor, Mari Alkatri.
He acknowledged that his determination to change things in the former Portuguese colony for the better was, to a certain extent, influenced by personal tragedy.
He lost four siblings to the violence that beset Timor Leste before independence and he did not want others to go through what he did.
Ramos-Horta added: "And, it was because I have always been motivated, even in my teenage years, by my instincts and feelings about justice.
"For me, extreme poverty seen in an elderly person or a starving, unclothed child is an unjust situation. It bothers me to witness any form of abuse by the strong against the weak; the police against civilian; and a powerful country abusing a small nation."
This same resolve has made Ramos-Horta speak up on a number of issues.
"I have contributed a little towards creating awareness on situations of violence and injustice around the world. I have spoken my mind about Myanmar and Darfur, among other things.
"The impact may be negligible but, at least, I am clear in my conscience that I have not hesitated to make a stand on controversial issues that many others are afraid to talk about."
On the home front, the president said some of his dreams had been realised but there remained much to be done.
"The only goals I set were freedom and peace for Timor Leste. We have gained freedom but some of the dreams have yet to be realised.
"For example, the eradica-tion of poverty and the provision of clean water, a roof, medical care and education to every man, woman and child."
He admits to being frustrated by the pace of progress.
"Sometimes it is slow, too slow, because of a lack of expertise and experience on the part of our civil administration and government leaders. Some are more dedicated than others, some smarter and more energetic. Others have very little to show even after one year in office.”
And, although the country had sufficient funds, “the civil service lacks competence and dedication.”
However, Ramos-Horta was confident that poverty could be eradicated within 20 years, saying it was “do-able in our lifetime”.
What the president was happy about, indeed, grateful for, was the “generous” assistance Timor Leste had received from Malaysia.
Most significantly, in 2006, Malaysia helped quell violence in Timor Leste.
“Malaysia responded promptly and in an expeditious and professional manner. We also received assistance in capacity building and advice. We have sent numerous leaders and civil servants to Malaysia to learn about economic planning and to gain experience. Malaysia has given us quite a lot.
“(Former prime minister) Tun Dr. Mahathir Mohamad was the first Asean leader to visit us after independence.”
Ramos-Horta hoped that the United Nations peacekeeping mission in Timor Leste, due to end next month would stay on until 2012. “It will give us time and space to complete the reform process in our defence and police forces.”
The country’s application for Asean membership was on track and he was confident it would be realized by 2012.
But, what he was most thankful for was the improved level of security in his country. He noted that there had not been one single act of political violence in Timor Leste since last February.
“Even the number of criminal cases has decreased. In some areas, it has diminished to zero level. In Dili, the capital, which has a population of 150,000 people, the crime rate is very low.
“If any, they are non-violent crimes, largely involving the theft of mobile phones. The more unfortunate cases would involve laptops, perhaps,” he said with a smile.
“We do not hear of organized crime in Timor Leste, or money laundering, or drug problems.”
Which is shy Ramos-Horta took particular exception to a statement made by the former Roman Catholic bishop of Dili, Carlos Filipe Xemenes Belo, with whom he shared the 1996 Nobel Peace Prize.
Belo has said: “Since the 18th century, we have been fighting each other. Fighting seems to be the only situation in which we are content. It is in our blood.”
Argued Ramos-Horta: “There are instances in the history of many countries. This does not mean the people are happy to kill each other or that they will continue to kill each other over the centuries.”
“It is a most unfortunate generalization of the history of his (Belo’s) own country.”