March 4, 2009

Listening to the Enemy

José Ramos-Horta, president of Timor-Leste and Nobel Peace Prize laureate, tells a Tufts audience that the way out of violent conflicts must include compassionate understanding of one’s opponents

By Taylor McNeil

There’s nothing like real-world experience to understand a topic, and the members of the Ex College class, “The Role of Leadership in Conflict Resolution,” probably never had a better understanding after hearing a guest lecturer talk on February 23.

The speaker wasn’t an academic, though he is working on a Ph.D. dissertation. José Ramos-Horta, president of Timor-Leste and the 1996 co-recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, spoke to the class and a crowd of about 100, vividly describing his small country’s violent struggles and his own perspective that, above all else, compassion for one’s enemies is the best foundation for peace.

“It’s not normal that we talk to those we consider our enemies, but these are the ones we have to talk to,” said José Ramos-Horta, president of Timor-Leste and the 1996 co-recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize. Photo: Alonso Nichols

“We have to . . . heal the wounds, respect the pride and sensitivities of those we might consider to be our enemies,” Ramos-Horta said. “We normally talk to our friends—we do that all the time. It’s not normal that we talk to those we consider our enemies, but these are the ones we have to talk to.”

Timor-Leste—better known as East Timor—is a small island country, roughly the size of Connecticut, in Southeast Asia, just north of Australia. Colonized by the Portuguese, it declared its independence in 1975, but was promptly invaded and occupied by neighboring Indonesia. During the occupation, devastating fighting prevailed until Indonesia agreed to a referendum in 1999. The results were overwhelmingly for independence, but later that year, about 70 percent of the infrastructure of the country was destroyed by the Indonesian army and anti-independence militias. International peacekeepers were sent, and Timor-Leste became formally independent in 2002.

Ramos-Horta, who had been a longtime member of the independence movement, became foreign minister in 2002, but four years later, violence broke out again in the capital, Dili, when hundreds of members of the army were dismissed by the government. The defense minister resigned, and Ramos-Horta was appointed to fill the post, “the only Nobel laureate in the world who is defense minister,” he quipped in his talk at Sophia Gordon Hall, which was co-sponsored by the Tufts Institute for Global Leadership (IGL) and the Project on Justice in Times of Transition.

But he was a natural choice, because what was needed was not a strong arm, but a benevolent approach. “What I said most was that I will be the army chaplain. Because I felt at the time that what the country needed most was someone who understood the trauma, the feeling of despair, the wounded pride in the army and in the police,” Ramos-Horta said. “I set out to do for many months the most invisible work that in the end had contributed the most to the peace and stability in Timor-Leste, by restoring the sense of dignity and pride within the two institutions, [and by] restoring the trust … between them and the people.”

He urged that same approach on his fellow government ministers, arguing that the only way to keep moving the country in a positive direction was to learn from the past and not rest on their laurels. In the three years since the violence of 2006, Timor-Leste has progressed economically and held peaceful elections—Ramos-Horta was elected president in 2007, having, in the meantime, been prime minister.

Just before his trip to the United States, he met with members of the Timor-Leste parliament and “pleaded with the people, particularly those in power, not to be too overjoyed with the good news of today, and not to forget too quickly the very recent lessons of the past. Because sometimes when we are in a better situation, we don’t feel the pressure or the need to accommodate other sensitivities.”

The role a country’s leaders play is critical, he said. “Leaders cannot be only technocrats, cannot be only strong, cannot be only firm. For me the greatest quality in a leader is to be compassionate, to be humble,” Ramos-Horta said. “When leaders do not have the sensitivity to come down from their ivory tower and talk to the common people, listen to them—going even to the back alleys of the city to talk to the gangs, to the unemployed—you lose touch with the reality.

“In countries like mine—in countries in transition, post-conflict, where the wounds are profound—sometimes just a simple gesture of understanding, of listening by the leader, can make a huge difference,” he said. “I think that’s why it took only two years for us to make this dramatic recovery. But this recovery can be reversed if we quickly forget the lessons of the recent past.”

Timor-Leste is marked in red on the map. Illustration: Courtesy of Wikipedia

Ramos-Horta, who received the IGL’s Dr. Jean Mayer Global Citizenship Award just before his talk, told the audience that the most important point in conflict resolution is the human factor. “The leaders are the ones who can work for good or for bad,” he said. “In my country, conflict didn’t start out of nothing. The leaders were the ones who dragged the people into the various conflicts we have had. Leaders can be the ones to pull people out from poverty.”

Working with one’s enemies is always difficult, and for Ramos-Horta, that must be even more so: in February 2008, militia rebels tried to assassinate him and the prime minister. Ramos-Horta was shot twice, but recovered and resumed his duties as president in April that year.

The assassination attempt hasn’t changed his attitudes. Questioned by a student about why he hasn’t argued for an international tribunal on Indonesian atrocities in Timor-Leste, Ramos-Horta was blunt: “I just don’t believe that trying to open up the chapter of the 24 years of occupation will serve justice,” he said. Likewise, he said, he has been criticized in Timor-Leste for pardoning a former militia member, who had been sentenced to more than 30 years in prison. Ramos-Horta made no apologies: forgiveness, he said, is far more useful than carrying grudges.

Taylor McNeil can be reached at

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