Forward Magazine, March, 2009

By Maizura Mohd Ederis

The world is in turmoil. At every nook of the world, there are fights amongst two sects that usually turn into bloodshed. It seems like the use of weaponary is the only solution to these fights, whether they are in Asia or in the Middle East, right through the lands of Africa and Americas. Countless peace dialogues seem to be pointless and full of rhetoric. Perhaps, such dialogues are now seen as places where corrupted leaders unwind while sipping their teas. Take a look at what happened in Palestine, Kashmir, Afghanistan, Tibet, Zimbabwe, Sudan, Myanmar and South of Philippines. One negotiation is scheduled after another but to no avail. Promises of peace are empty. Hopes are given but no real action is taken to remedy these problems. Through to the end, the prices of lives are at stake. When this happens, the only thing the entire world can do is look and weep as innocent blood spills.

Despite many uncertainties, one can be rest assured that there is still one hope towards a peaceful world, with a condition that one needs to avoid violence and use wiser methods. That is the stance taken by Timor-Leste President, Professor Jose Ramos-Horta. He believes that the use of violence will not be able to resolve problems. Ramos-Horta also believes that the act of peace could unravel any disputes. This is the same principle of Islam. Islam teaches its followers to fight evil with good. The act of opposing evil with evil contradicts the teaching of Islam. Islam believes by doing that, one would only cause further destruction. This stance is shared by other religions too.

Besides being a strict Catholic, Ramos-Horta is also a peace fighter. He is optimistic about achieving world peace, as long as people can accept one another regardless of background. In his keynote address during a visit to Kuala Lumpur last January conflict, to him, arises through struggles for natural resources like land, settlements, political and economic power.

His visit was in lieu of the International Peace Foundation, who organised the “Bridges — Dialogues Towards a Culture of Peace” programme in Malaysia and Thailand beginning last November. The programme, which will end in April, was organised after the success of similar dialogues in 2003 and 2007. The dialogue managed to bring together renowned world personalities and academics like Nobel Prize recipient Dr Shirin Ebadi of Iran, Professor Gerardus’ t Hooft from Denmark and American Professor Robert Fry Engle III, to name a few. Malaysia’s very own Raja Muda Perak, Raja Dr Nazrin Shah Sultan Azlan Shah, acted as Honorary Chairman for the programme, with former Deputy Prime Minister, Tun Musa Hitam as its chairperson.

In his keynote address entitled “Is long lasting peace an attainable dream?,” Ramos-Horta touches on several issues involving the Israel-Palestine conflict, as well as the troubles in his country and Timor-Leste’s relationship with Indonesia. He also answered queries from audiences regarding Kashmir, Myanmar, the jihadist ideology and Timor-Leste participation in ASEAN. Ramos-Horta has also entertained personal questions regarding last year’s attempted murder on him, as well as his nomination to fill in the United Nation’s Secretary-General post.

On the Israel-Palestine conflict in Gaza, Ramos-Horta is at an opinion that both sides should withdraw and start to reevaluate their history, strategy and actions. This is crucial to ensure a more effective struggle, in the future.

Ramos-Horta puts forward a suggestion for Palestinian leaders to emulate Indian Mahatma Gandhi’s strategy by launching a peace protest, which secured the success in their struggles against the occupation of British.

“Should the leadership in Palestine follow Mahatma Gandhi’s way, they would definitely receive support from million of people around the world, including the ones of Jews, too.”

Through his observation, Palestine does not have the same leadership quality equivalent to Mahatma Gandhi or South African leader, Nelson Mandela.

However, Ramos-Horta disagrees on labeling Hamas as a terror group as the people of Palestine had elected Hamas through a legitimate election. His view is in accordance to his beliefs that the late Yasser Arafat was a terrorist. Muslims may disagree with his stance, but he is firm with this view.

“I agree power can corrupt (a person) but power can also moderate you. Hamas was not given a chance but now I think the situation has changed and Hamas would be allowed to run Palestine. Yasser Arafat was initially a terrorist but he made an excellent leader and this is what power can do.” On suicidal bombers among the people of Palestine, Ramos-Horta looks at it as a desperate move.

“No amount of bombs would be able to subdue the will of the people in Palestine.” Ramos-Horta is looking forward to what the new American President Barack Obama could do to pacify the tension in the Middle East. He is confident with Obama’sLeL ability. Obamds ordinary-person-background would probably help him fully understand people’s problems and rake realistic action.

His suggestions, however, are not necessarily right for the Palestinians now. What is happening in Palestine is not similar to what had happened in India during the late Ghandi’s time, or in South Africa during Mandela’s rime. Even though Islam encourages believers to fight evil through good, Islam still gives some space for victims of oppression to counter the abuse on one condition: the retaliation should nor exceed the abuse done by the tyrant.

In the Palestinian case, Hamas’ action is seen as self-defense and retaliation towards Israel’s oppression. Such action is considered rightful from the Islamic perspective. Of Hamas’ conduct, a Palestinian activist Maszlee Malik gives the following analogy:

“A rapist rapes a virgin with a black belt in tae kwan do, who later kicks the rapist’s private parts. Should the girl be blamed for doing that, while the rapist seeks people’s sympathy for his bad luck?” Despite its flexibility, Islam believes that the most ideal action in countering oppression is to forgive the wrongdoer. Ramos-Horta’s stance in the matter of Palestine could be taken into consideration if this perspective is looked at.

To take conclusion from his keynote address, there are two practical methods suggested in order to stop violence in the Middle East — dialogues and prayers.

He concludes his keynote address with a question thrown to countries with nuclear power — Pakistan, India, China, Iran and North Korea. “What’s the use of having a nuclear power in our region?” The question brought a round of applause from the audience. Later, in a question and answer session, audiences asked of the success rates dialogues as history records that dialogues have been unsuccessful in solving problems. Kashmir was cited as an example of the series of dialogues failures.

In such cases, Ramos-Horta admits that dialogue has become some sort of a cliché. This is true when it involves a lot of quarters and super powers, causing delays in the dialogue process, thus translating into the lack of success.

Other concerns posed to him include the fact that the world should be concentrating on ideological, instead of military, war. For instance, error of judgment among certain Muslim groups, who loosely interpret ‘jihad’, gives license to further encourage terrorist acts.

Of the same opinion, Ramos-Horta is in view that assaults in the name of ‘jihad’ are not in accordance with Islam as a religion. To him, it is more like a political motivated doctrine.

A struggle through such ideology has failed to gain majority support. He bases his view on the failure faced by the leftwing extremists in Europe during the 60’s and 70s, when they engaged in acts of violence. As to the reason why he dropped out of the race for the United Nation’s Secretary General post to succeed Kofi Annan, Ramos-Horta says he had wanted to serve and give his full concentration as Timor-Leste’s Prime Minister at that time. He is also seen as being critical of the United Nations.

“The United Nations should be more functional, operating in a just and effective manner. Although there is much to be improved, there are still a lot of aspects that need to be tackled.” “But, its main challenge is political will’. This is the reality now,” he adds.

Timor-Leste is a small country in the Northwestern side of the Isle of Indonesia. It comprises of the eastern half of the Timor Island, the nearby islands of Atauro and Jaco and Oecussi-Ambeno. The small country spanning 15,1410 km is located about 640km northwest of Darwin, Australia. Timor-Leste is the ‘youngest’ country in the world, obtaining independence from Indonesia in 2002, after a long bloodied conflict with the latter. Indonesian occupation of the island country in 1975 caused more than 200,000 deaths amongst its people. Ramos-Horta was exiled in 1971 for two years and had only returned to his homeland in 1999. He played a leading role in negotiating the institutional foundations for independence with Indonesia. The peace process was a success, which lead to Timor-Timur’s independence in 2002. Upon independence, the name Timor-Timur was changed to Timor-Leste. In December 1996, due to his commitment in the peace process of his country, the Nobel Committee honored him with the Nobel Peace Prize, shared with his fellow countryman, Bishop Ximenes Belo, a religious leader in Timor-Leste.

He claims his success in demanding independence for his country was due to his peaceful struggle. “We did not fight the Indonesians. No Indonesian people were killed in the process. If we had retaliated with equal violence, killing public servants or any Indonesians that we came upon to, we would not able to gain this independence.” However, despite his peaceful messages, Ramos-Horta was almost killed in an assassination attempt, last year. He was shot at a close range by rebel soldiers. He lost 4-litres of blood and had to be transferred to the Royal Darwin Hospital in Australia from the Dili Australian military base, for further treatment.

A participant asked whether he forgives his assassin. Ramos-Horra confides that he rarely thinks about the matter. In fact, he is sympathetic of the man. However, when he visited the convicted military group in prison, he thought that he was able to recognise the man’s face.

He had also met the group leader and advised him not to use any kind of force on anybody. He had even offered the man a drink while discussion, and offered a mobile phone to the man’s wife.

To end the session, Ramos-Horta says that the relationship between Timor-Leste and Indonesia has been at its best, to date. Indonesia has changed a lot and has shown a high friendship spirit.

“We have to bury the past,” he adds, concluding the questions and answers session. Amongst those who participated in the dialogue are members of the public, country leaders, writers, journalists, bloggers, non-governmental organisation activists, businessmen, public servants as well as university students.

(Transalted by Hasnita Shaari)