Campus Face to Face
“You are trusted when you are assigned
to do something.”
Promiti Prova Chowdhury
Nobel Laureate José Ramos-Horta interacts with students of ULAB.
José Ramos-Horta, Nobel Peace Prize Laureate (1996), President of the Republic (2007-2012), Prime Minister (2006-2007), Senior Minister, Minister for Foreign Affairs (2001-2006) of Timor-Leste, graced the second convocation of the University of Liberal Arts Bangladesh (ULAB) held on November 18, 2012, as the convocation speaker. A day before the convocation, a few students of ULAB (present and former), who are working in different media houses, got an opportunity to interact with the icon to know his views on issues like, democracy, politics, the Rohingya issue, and his experience of running one of the youngest independent nations in Asia.
Ramos-Horta asked the students about their views on the state of media in Bangladesh and which genre of Journalism they are interested in. He suggested them to read internationally recognised newspapers and magazines to broaden their views. He said, “I began my adult life as a journalist. I always wanted to be a journalist but, by the accident of history, I became a politician. But I still frequently write on current international affairs for publications such as The New York Times, International Herald Tribune, Wall Street Journal, Huffington Post, The Daily Beast/Newsweek, etc.”
What are some of the qualities that you think a politician should have to be a good leader?
José Ramos-Horta: Let me answer your question by reminiscing some of my favourite leaders of the world. Mahatma Gandhi is the name that first comes to my mind. He is not only known as the main philosopher of non-violent approach, but for being a very humble, simple, and non-corrupt personality. These are the qualities for which he is revered around the world. Another living politician whom I know and admire is Bill Clinton. In my political career, I have met a number of political leaders including Nelson Mandela. But Mandela belongs to a whole different category. As president, he frequently gave priority to reconciliation. On the other hand, Bill Clinton is a modern leader who is smart and knows how to share information. And most importantly you have to be a very good communicator on whom the common people can rely upon. Bill Clinton is a brilliant communicator, so is Barack Obama. Compassion showcased by the likes of Mandela and Gandhi and brilliant communication skills shown by the likes of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, are the main qualities, I believe.
Do you think it is the obligation of one country to provide shelter to refugees who are being persecuted in a neighbouring country?
José Ramos-Horta: I can answer based on my personal conviction and practice as the Prime Minister and President. In 2003, a Sri Lankan boat arrived on our shores heading to New Zealand. They wanted to come on shore to refuel for proceeding to New Zealand. Our interior minister refused to let them on shore. I told the Prime Minister, on the phone, that if you don't agree with me to let these people on shore, I am sorry I have to go public expressing my disagreement with you. The people came on shore and they were not allowed to proceed to New Zealand. We gave them shelter in Timor-Leste. That particular group was an economic group of refugees not political. They were Singhalese, not Tamil. They paid $2000 to $3000 to the people for arranging their travel to New Zealand. Had we allowed them to proceed, they could have drowned. The boat could carry maximum 20 people whereas it was carrying more than 60. We would have been responsible for condoning the human smuggling. They were on our soil for a month. We successfully negotiated their free repatriation to Sri Lanka.
Whenever people land on our soil, fleeing extreme poverty or violence or tyranny, we give them shelter, we look after them, and only later, we ask what their nationality is. That's my philosophy and that is what I did when I was the president of East Timor.
On the question of Rohingyas, I understand the issue is very delicate for the Myanmar authorities, so delicate that even Suu Kyi, a moral figure has found it difficult to have a clear position on them. But neither Suu Kyi nor other leaders of Myanmar can escape their moral responsibility to deal with this issue with courage and compassion. I told Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon when he came to Timor-Leste in August that the situation of the Rohingyas in Myanmar reminds me of the persecution and exclusion of gypsies in Europe.
In 10 years, Timor Leste has made exemplary progress for itself barring some of the issues such as reducing poverty. Would you share your experience?
José Ramos-Horta: On May 19, 2012, at the stroke of midnight I handed over power to my successor, a former freedom fighter, very humble and from a very poor background. He fought 24 years in the mountains. I was clear in my conscience, happy with myself that I handed over a country, different from what I had received. When I was elected first Prime Minister in 2006, then president in 2007, the country was on the verge of a civil war. The situation was a nightmare. When I handed over power that evening, it was dramatically different in every sense. The economy is now growing in double digits but more important than those digits, people are happy. We have been able to handle the constitutional progress in the sense that we could move from one president to the next, from one government to another.
You became the Foreign Minister at the age of 25. How did you manage to carry such an intense responsibility at such a young age?
José Ramos-Horta: I was given the assignment to go to New York and complete our goals with the United Nations and that's what I did with the best of my abilities. We thought it would be a matter of few weeks and I will return to East Timor. It took 24 years instead. That was totally unplanned. Often, I am asked what kept me going. I would say of two things: firstly, I was always reminded of a great leader, in my culture -- a great man, Nicolai Lobato who trusted me and gave the assignment to me to be the voice of our people. I was assigned to educate the world about East Timor and be the voice of the voiceless. Secondly, for me it was a matter of loyalty. You are trusted when you are assigned to do something.