An Interview with Jose Ramos-Horta

The Irrawaddy - Sunday, February 22, 2004

“The military in Burma should be aware that it is not going to prevent forever the birth of democracy and freedom.”
José Ramos-Horta is a Nobel Peace Prize laureate and the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Cooperation of East Timor. He spoke with The Irrawaddy in Bangkok, Thailand, after giving a keynote address as part of the International Peace Foundation’s program, 'Bridges—Dialogues Towards a Culture of Peace.'

Question: You have said that you absolutely oppose dictators. What is your opinion of the generals who rule Burma?

Answer: I remain totally opposed to dictators who violate human rights, who commit systematic abuse of people’s physical well-being, their dignity, their right to life, their right to live without fear. This stems not only from my personal conviction, but I believe it is a sentiment that is shared by all humanity. A dictatorship in this day and age, in the twenty-first century, should by now have been completely phased out.

Q: Do the Burmese generals fall into this category?

A: Of course, Burma is a military dictatorship. I do not think that the military themselves deny this. They are a military dictatorship with no semblance whatsoever of any participatory democracy, rule of law or respect for individual liberty.

Having said this, it doesn’t mean necessarily that, for every dictatorship, I advocate one particular prescription.

In the case of Burma, there were hopes two years ago when Daw Aung San Suu Kyi was released, together with a number of other members of her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), and they established the opening of NLD offices etc..

Then, out of the blue, in May they ambushed Suu Kyi, pretending that it was rival gangs, when we all know it was orchestrated by the military.

It reversed a positive trend that was taking place.

The military in Burma should be aware that it is not going to prevent forever the birth of democracy and freedom.

The longer they delay the more they create conditions that totally bankrupt the country economically and socially, and it will take longer later on to rebuild the infrastructure and build a semblance of a democratic civil society.

If there is no investment there is no renovation of business, industry and agriculture. So they are setting Myanmar back economically by many, many years. But I would hope, if they are patriotic, if they are true Burmese, they will bear that in mind.

At the same time, I would hope that the other side, those who are led by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, should be able to walk halfway and reassure the military that, in the event of these inevitable changes, there will be no witch-hunting; that the Burmese military should not fear that they will be prosecuted and jailed.

Even if we claim justice for those who have committed murder and torture, sometimes we have to swallow these bitter pills and forgive, reconcile and rebuild the country.

Because when we talk about justice, I believe there is no greater justice than the gift of freedom. Hence, if Burma achieves peace and democracy then everybody should be able to forgive, because they will achieve the greater justice and that is their freedom

Q: How do you think the Burmese regime has been able to hold on to power for so long?

A: They searched for power and when one achieves power—even democratically elected individuals—they get addicted to power.

But, of course, when you are democratic, you know when your time is up, you accept the people’s vote and you quit. But those who achieve power by force usually want to stay in office.

They want to continue to exercise their power without any constraints, without checks and balances. As they commit all sorts of abuses and engage in all sorts of illicit activities, their greed becomes greater.

But fear also begins to play a part in their wanting to stay on, because staying in power means preserving their interest and protecting themselves from persecution.

Q: What is your opinion of the economic sanctions on Burma?

A: I am always ambivalent about economic sanctions. In certain circumstances, I believe that financial economic sanctions and diplomatic isolation are the moral equivalent of waging a war.

The difference is only that while a war kills people immediately.

Economic and financial sanctions often cause death, but it is invisible because it happens more slowly. The poorest are the ones that are effected most, through impoverishment and the lack of access to medicine and other basic benefits from the state.

When a regime is punished with sanctions it is not willing to take money out of its budget for the army to make up for the loss in social sectors. So there will be less money for education, for poverty alleviation and so on.

In the case of a country like Burma, I wonder whether these economic sanctions, particularly the ones imposed on exports, are really not hurting the very poor in Myanmar.

The international community faces a dilemma in the face of this kind of regime. Failing all efforts to induce them to change, if we also say no to sanctions then what is left?

On the other hand, I believe that while sanctions may have a limited impact in punishing a particular regime, it might punish the common people more and it might not induce the changes.

I would say that active engagement by the international community, allowing foreign investment and tourism might actually achieve more than sanctions, in the sense that it opens the country, if they want to modernize, to industrialize, to create jobs and wealth for its people.

The regime cannot at the same time maintain an authoritarian system.

If you want to modernize, you have to open the doors to the outside the world, to foreign investment, to international development assistance, to the participation in these efforts by the international communities.

This will result automatically in one reality: the people on the ground are no longer alone and at the mercy of the military. You will have dozens—if not hundreds—of international personnel as witnesses, as pressure.

So I would tend to think that the pro-democracy movement in Myanmar—and its friends around the world—out of moral concern for the poorest in Myanmar should rethink the sanctions strategy.

I would not say that the sanctions should be lifted now. But, if there is some movement towards the release of Suu Kyi, if she and her followers are released, then there should also be some proportional lifting of sanctions.

The international community, the UN, the EU and the US should establish a benchmark and for each step Burma takes towards democracy. There has to be an incentive, either in the form of lifting sanctions or in the form of development assistance.

Agencies like UNICEF, UNDP (UN Development Program) and the WHO (World Health Organization) should be allowed and encouraged to go to Myanmar.

But, we have to wait and see what other steps the military are going to take to restore the status quo after May 2003.

Q: Does East Timor have diplomatic relations with Burma?

A: Not yet. We have established political relations with all nine other countries in Asean. I have visited all of them.

The only remaining one to visit and start diplomatic relations with is Myanmar. I would like to go whenever the authorities in Myanmar feel it is the proper time.

I have received an invitation from the foreign minister. I readily agreed to visit but they have been reluctant to suggest a specific date.

If they were to tell me a date, I would make it a priority and cancel any other prior engagement in order to accommodate a visit.

Q: Would you accept an invitation to Burma even if you would not be allowed to visit Aung San Suu Kyi?

A: I would still go. Why not? By not going I would not be helping Suu Kyi become closer to freedom.

If I don’t see her again, it’s not the end of the world. She would understand because she knows from my many years of commitment that the whole leadership and people of East Timor are with her and the people of Burma.

Q: In the past you have been critical of Asean because the group was not supportive of East Timor’s struggle for independence. What position do you feel Asean should take in regards to Burma?

A: In the past, in regards to East Timor or human rights situations in the Asean region and beyond, Asean was silent because Asean leaders believe in the sacrosanct principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of each country.

Asean has changed; notably in the case of Myanmar. Since the crackdown on the democracy movement in May 2003, Asean leaders have been very outspoken and have taken initiatives to address the problems in Myanmar.

Asean countries should share their problems with others, discussing and seeking help within, and if necessary, beyond the region. Asean countries should not feel embarrassed and ashamed if there is a problem in a given country and they are not able to resolve it on their own.

Sometimes, people in a given country are not the best ones to resolve the problems. It can be useful to bring in a more neutral third party.

Q: Does the UN have a key role to play in this regard?

A: In the case of Burma, the UN should be working in tandem with Asean. It should be the international agency to guide the dialogue, to mediate or facilitate, and to help draft the constitution.

In the case of Myanmar, I think the authorities should put their trust in the UN because I believe the UN can do a very good job in guiding Myanmar to a peaceful transition towards democracy.

Q: Drawing on your experience in the struggle for East Timor’s independence, what advice would you be able to offer to Burmese activists working towards democracy for Burma?

A: Based on our own experience and my observation of the Burmese armed struggle, my advice is that those of us who fight for freedom or democracy often fight more among ourselves than we fight the adversary.

Factionalism is one of the most common failings of those in the struggle for democracy and human rights. First and foremost, the Burmese should show real maturity, responsibility and leadership by putting aside their personal egos or minor political differences.

Secondly, I would say seize opportunities as they come. Even if it is only a little window of opportunity they should seize it. That’s what we did in the past. We very patiently built up the blocks of our independence. We did not achieve it overnight. We moved one step at a time, seizing every opportunity that was offered to us.

Q: Are there any lessons the Burmese regime can learn from events in Indonesia over the past ten years?

A: The Burmese regime should learn from Indonesia. It should also learn from Thailand, South Korea and the Philippines. It should learn that it need not fear democracy.

Thailand was a dictatorship and is now a vibrant democracy with all its imperfections. Yet the military remain as respected as before, precisely because they have accepted the rule of democracy.

The Burmese should also look at Malaysia, an example where we don’t see the military day-to-day in the streets and you don’t see four-star generals in their uniforms on every TV show.

Yet they are powerful. The Burmese military should show their patriotism and intelligence by being the ones who orchestrate Burma’s transition to democracy. They would be forever remembered as the fathers of democracy of Burma if they were to change course.

Q: Are you hopeful that this change of course will come to Burma in the near future?

A: I’m hopeful because I do not see any alternative. If by 2006, Burma has not completed the long march to democracy, it should have done so by more than halfway so that the international community can see that it is irreversible.

If they don’t complete the long road to democracy by 2006, it will be a monumental public relations fiasco for Asean. When Burma takes over the leadership of Asean, the international community will wake up and Asean will find itself in a very delicate situation.

So I hope the Myanmar authorities show respect and sensitivity to their neighbors. I hope that China, as a powerful neighbor of Myanmar, and a country that has a lot of interest in the stability of this region, would play a significant role.

China has some shortcomings itself with regards to democracy but I believe the Chinese are very pragmatic and they have shown themselves to be friends of the region and Asean.

Therefore, I believe they would be prepared to help. Asean and China should work together to encourage the military in Myanmar to have a clear timeframe, a road map with a deadline, benchmarks, and a final goal. The goal is free and democratic elections under UN supervision within a period of two to three years.