Bangkok Post, Outlook - Tuesday, February 03, 2004

East Timor's Jose Ramos-Horta discusses the dynamics of separatist movements - what works, what doesn't and why
From Palestine to Sri Lanka to Thailand's own southern region, peace is threatened in many parts of the world by separatist struggles.

One independence movement leader who advocated peaceful methods to achieve his ends was HE Prof Jose Ramos-Horta, who was awarded the 1996 Nobel Peace Prize for his work towards a just and peaceful solution to the conflict in East Timor. After fleeing East Timor three days before the Indonesian invasion that caused the death of more than 200,000 East Timorese, he worked in exile to lobby for a free East Timor, finally achieved in 2002.

Now serving as East Timor's Minister of Foreign Affairs and Cooperation, he was recently in Thailand to speak at various venues as part of the ''Bridges-Dialogues Towards a Culture of Peace'' programme, hosted by the Vienna-based International Peace Foundation.

Here, he speaks to Outlook about his views on peace, separatist movements and the sometimes necessary use of force.

Q: How would you describe your approach to political struggle?

A: I'm not an absolute pacifist like Mahatma Gandhi or the Dalai Lama, to the extent of opposing all forms of armed resistance to tyranny. I share the view that ideally war should be banned forever from this earth. There should be a binding legal obligation not to wage war.

But [there's] the history of humanity against innocent civilians, such as the Jewish holocaust, the Armenian genocide by the Ottoman Empire, and the lesser known genocide of gypsies by the Nazis. Or more recently the Cambodian genocide under the Khmer Rouge and the Kurds under Saddam Hussein. How are we to confront these evils? Through praying? Through meditation? Through burning incense? The Nazi genocide was ended by force.

Q: So is it fair to say you support the use of force to end tyranny?

A: Yes and no. You have to look at it on a case by case basis. You have to look at the magnitude of the horror, how systematic it is. In the face of genocide, you have to cease intellectual moralising.

It is not without a lot of soul searching that I support the use of force. You look at humanity's experience of the cowardice of the world community, such as in Rwanda where the UN failed to intervene, and in Cambodia, where the Vietnamese were the only heroes who came to intervene. Or in Kosovo, where it was in the Europeans' own backyard, yet they did nothing until the US, through NATO, intervened. I would be an arrogant hypocrite if I were to say there should be no use of force.

Q: In the past, you have beseeched separatist movements to abandon the use of violence. How is force used by intervention troops any different from that used by

national liberation movements themselves?

A: I will not condemn national liberation movements that use armed tactics, when they are extremely careful to hit only military targets, not civilians, and when there is no other option, when the government refuses all forms of dialogue. But if it is a democracy, if you have the possibility of advancing your views through [political channels such as] elections, or the media, then I do not support armed tactics.

Q: As a former campaigner for independence yourself, do you believe all separatist movements are justified?

A: While I can understand the grievances of many movements, I do not always condone the methods; for instance, the Tamils or the Palestinians who use violence. The extremist violence does not represent the mainstream, but it does a great deal to discredit the entire movement.

When groups resort to violence, without any boundaries, they are no longer credible movements. If that's how they behave today [when they are fighting for autonomy] that's how they will govern. These kinds of individuals who use violence cannot build a peaceful and just society.

Q: Methods of freedom fighting aside, do you believe in principle that secession is the best option for separatist movements?

A: If every minority were to secede, instead of a hundred countries, you'd have thousands. But some socio-economic problems are not solved by achieving sovereignty alone. Look at the Khmer Rouge, who fought against the French. They promised a paradise, but delivered genocide.

Secession is not the only way. It is also possible to have autonomy [without independence], with social and cultural freedoms. This has worked well with the Basques in Catalonia. I am also impressed by the Indians and the way they have handled their many diverse peoples.

Q: Should the future economic feasibility of an aspiring separatist state be grounds to judge whether or not it should seek independence?

A: I do not believe economic feasibility should be a criterion. Look at the world's biggest countries; they should be the greatest economies but they are bankrupt. Whereas a small country can achieve great prosperity.

It's an artificial boundary. If a people's rights are being violated, are they really better off [remaining part of a larger country]?

Q: Turning to local events, what is your view of the violence in the south of Thailand?

A: It is outrageous what is happening in there. Monks are the most peace-loving people, and when a particular group targets them, they lose all legitimacy. I believe the Thai military is intelligent and highly educated, and realise that the problem in the south is not only a military one, so I won't presume to offer any advice. But if the government reacts with violence, like the Israelis, then they fall into the trap laid by the extremists.

Q: There are very few examples in recent history of a separatist movement leading to the successful establishment of independence. What would you say were the factors leading to East Timor's success?

A: Our struggle was always based on international law. We strictly avoided indiscriminate violence against civilians and never engaged in extremist activity. That is how we gained international sympathy. We were always prepared to engage in dialogue and were prepared to move one step at a time. We were patient, tolerant, smart and humble.

Story and picture by NISSARA HORAYANGURA