A Profile of East Timor’s Jose Ramos-Horta

Conan Elphicke

JOSE RAMOS-HORTA DENIES he is a bitter man, claiming that he feels only disdain for the invaders of his country.  But too much has been inflicted on East Timor, too many of his friends and relatives killed, the diplomatic war he has waged has carried on too long for him not to feel an abiding resentment.

Ramos-Horta is by nature a jovial and hospitable man, given to suavity and bow-ties, and his answers are characteristically measured and thoughtful.  But when it comes to the Indonesians he can be venomous.  And it is difficult to blame him.

On 7 December 1975, 10,000 Indonesian troops invaded East Timor.  Since then, nearly one third of the population-around 200,000 people-have died. Some have been shot while peacefully protesting, others tortured to death, still more allowed to starve.  The Indonesian regime in East Timor has engaged, and continues to engage, in systematic rape, torture, extrajudicial detention and execution as well as forcible relocation and sterilization.

East Timorese culture and language-which are wholly distinct from that of Java-dominated Indonesia-have been carefully repressed.  Tens of thousands of Indonesian settlers have been given the best land and jobs while the locals become increasingly impoverished and malnourished.

“They are cowards, these pigs,” intones Ramos-Horta with slow menace.  “I tell you, I am very tolerant, a pacifist, I hate violence and I cannot get myself to hate anybody, but let me tell you one thing in all frankness, I have never encountered such people, at every level, who are so despicable, so violent, such liars, such brutes, from the top of the political leadership down to the soldiers.”

I asked him why he thought that was.

“I think there is an issue of racism there .  .  .  Most of the soldiers are illiterate or semi-literate.  They grow up in the slums, in a violent culture.  Through the process of military indoctrination they believe that violence is the only way to deal with political differences, with dissent.  But also, particularly Javanese soldiers are profoundly racist.

“Anyone of darker skin, whether East Timorese, Acehnese, West Papuan are treated as second-class citizens by the military.  There has been much talk of ethnic cleansing by the Serbians in Bosnia.  Well, Indonesia started ethnic cleansing in East Timor far longer and in terms of proportion to the population, far more seriously than the Serbians in Bosnia .  .  .

“I don’t think it has been their intention to wipe out the entire population but at least to reduce it to a minority.  Through the killings, through forced sterilization of women, through transmigration, you achieve precisely that aim: you turn the local people into a minority in their own land. Then you resolve the problem.  Similar to the Chinese approach in Tibet.”

The “integration” into Indonesia of East Timor, however, has proven a complete failure, a reality Jakarta is finally willing to acknowledge and act on. According to Ramos-Horta, 20,000 troops are stationed in the territory to keep in check a hostile population and the still active resistance army, Falantil.

This costs an economically crippled Indonesia around $1 million a day and while there is the prospect of oil in Timor Gap, how lucrative that will be is a moot point.  The effect of International pressure and world-wide public opinion over recent years has also been a factor in President Habibie’s decision to expedite the removal of its `stone in our shoe,’ the date chosen being 1 January 2000.

Yet while this has caused jubilation among many East Timorese activists, the territory’s lack of a viable economy, proper infrastructure or political stability will cause immense problems.  Disaffected Timorese youths have been armed by the Indonesian military and turned on their own people.

“We have to do a lot of work to avoid violence,” says Ramos-Horta.  “People are becoming increasingly frustrated and angry with the lack of progress in the talks, with the continued violence.  Indonesia is arming [the civilian militias], as the South Africans did during the Apartheid regime, to sow violence, to justify their presence there.  So it is quite a challenge just to avoid open warfare .  .  .

“I have been sending messages to Timor saying `no violence, no violence.’ I don’t want to see one Indonesian or one collaborator harmed.  [Civil war] will take place only if Indonesia foments it, which they are likely to do. But if they don’t do it, I don’t see why there would be civil war. An overwhelming majority of the people will vote for independence.”

A Life for Justice

While East Timor’s troubles are by no means at an end, the fact that Indonesia is about to grant independence suggests that Ramos-Horta’s work is finally bearing fruit.  “As a voice in the wilderness he has been vindicated,” says Dr. Keith Suter, President of the New South Wales (Australia) UN Association and author of numerous books on East Timor.  “He is an inspiration.”

Ramos-Horta has given up his life and privacy and sometimes even his safety to do the work he does, but what makes him all the more interesting is that he openly admits he resents it. As deputy leader of the East Timorese resistance he works extremely hard, but after all this time he has had enough.

Horta appears distinct from someone like Xanana Gusmao, who seems to be much more the archetypal national hero-a Mandela figure.  Ramos-Horta has always been more low key, less of a personality; his job has not been to lead and inspire but to advocate, represent and campaign.  He is a much more “ordinary” man, but one who is characterized by dogged determination, a keen mind, stoicism and a seemingly limitless capacity for self-sacrifice.

Ramos-Horta grew up under the Portuguese, who had colonized East Timor four centuries previously.  He was born on 26 December 1949, the son of a local woman and a Portuguese naval gunner exiled to the colony in 1937 for his part in a failed attempt to seize two frigates with which to fight the fascists in Spain.

Jose received his basic education at a remote Catholic mission where he excelled and so became one of the few East Timorese to be sent to the high school in the capital Dili. Upon graduation, Ramos-Horta found work as a journalist, spending his spare time reading widely and brooding over the possibility of independence.

While the Portuguese were indolent colonizers, the secret police nonetheless kept an effective check on dissent and so when an indiscreet remark by Ramos-Horta found its way to the authorities he lost his job and was exiled to Mozambique (another Portuguese colony) for three years.

When he returned to Timor in early 1974 Ramos-Horta found sufficient like-minded individuals to co-found the Social Democratic Association of Timor (ASDT) which the following year became the popular pro-independence party Fretilin.

“My ideological influence at the time was Swedish social democracy, Willy Brandt and so on. But as the days and weeks evolved there was tremendous pressure from the Timorese university students in Portugal, who were all Maoist.

“By September 1974 we changed into Fretilin-Revolutionary Front for an Independent East Timor .  .  .  And idiots like myself were totally pushed aside by the hard-liners.  [If Indonesia hadn’t invaded] I would not have lasted long .  .  .  I was accused of being an agent of Australian imperialism (those were the actual words), an agent of the CIA .  .  .

“But I had retained a lot of support from within Fretilin, from the military side. People knew me, and they liked me; they knew my work. It was only that that saved me [from expulsion].”

Election, Civil War, Invasion

Following a coup that toppled its fascist dictatorship, Portugal decided to hastily abandon its costly empire and as part of a token gesture at decolonizing East Timor held elections there in March 1975.  The three parties involved were Fretilin, which favored complete independence; the UDT, which advocated continued ties with Portugal; and the Jakarta-backed Apodeti, which sought integration with Indonesia.

Fretilin embarked on a nationwide health and literacy campaign that endeared it to the people of the interior and brought it 55% of the vote on election day. The UDT won 35%, Apodeti only 15%.  In August, however, Fretilin’s claim to power was challenged by the outbreak of civil war, most likely initiated by Apodeti.  After three weeks of fighting in which an estimated 1500 people died, Fretilin again emerged the victor.

Ramos-Horta was studying at the Australian National University in Canberra at the time of the civil war, returning to be made Fretilin’s Minister for Communications and External Affairs.

As a result, he became the main contact point for foreign journalists including an Australian film crew, whom he drove to the town of Balibo to film Indonesian border incursions.  Ramos-Horta left the town just hours before the Balibo Five were captured and executed by the Indonesian military.

As the Portuguese withdrew, Indonesia was making no secret of its intention to invade its increasingly defenseless neighbor.  Jakarta had made this decision mainly because it was fearful of having a leftist state on its doorstep, but also because it saw an opportunity to set an example to separatist elements within the republic as well as to lay claim to the oil recently discovered within Timor’s territorial waters.

Fretilin was well aware of the danger and begged Portugal to remain but Lisbon was set on immediate decolonization and refused to listen.  In desperation, East Timor declared independence on 28 November 1975, in the hope that Indonesia would be less inclined to invade a sovereign state than merely a former colony.  Of course, it made no difference at all.

On 4 December, three days before the invasion, Ramos-Horta was selected by Fretilin’s central committee as one of the few who should leave Timor and bring the country’s plight to the attention of the world.

“God, I tell you frankly, [I was] heavy hearted.  Because all my family stayed behind-mother, brothers, sisters-stayed behind.  I felt that I was fleeing .  .  .  [However] my contribution, if I had stayed behind, would not have been within the armed resistance but would be to send information out of the country.

“That was my job; that was what I would do. Other than that I would be of no use whatsoever.  And as time shows I was far more useful leaving than staying behind.  If I had stayed behind we would have been essentially cut off completely.”

At the airport, one of his sisters rushed up and handed him a letter to their aunt in Lisbon.  Says Ramos-Horta in his book Funu (War), “Fear was in her eyes; she knew the Indonesians were coming any day. In the letter, she expressed her hope that `Jose will get the United Nations to help us. He is going to talk to big powers.  This is our only hope.'”

The day he arrived in New York, the invasion began.  The Indonesians showed extraordinary callousness, killing thousands of civilians on the first day alone.  Within hours, hundreds of Dili residents were lined up on the jetty and shot one at a time, their bodies dumped into the surf.

In his novel Redundancy of Courage, Timothy Mo points out, however: “I think in the light of [Ramos-Horta’s] later career as [Fretilin] torch-bearer and thorn in the [Indonesian] side where it mattered-abroad-they’d have traded each and every life they took on the water-front for his alone.”

Fighting Oblivion

Ramos-Horta based himself in a cheap, cockroach-infested apartment in the Bronx.  At 25 he was probably the youngest foreign minister in the world, and the most cash-strapped.  For the next ten years he would plod down to the UN in a persistent attempt to keep the issue of East Timor from vanishing into oblivion.

“It involved meeting with as many diplomatic missions as I could, from different regions of the world, particularly Africans and Latin Americans.  The primary task is to show yourself, to be visible.  By being visible you remind them of the existence of East Timor.  Secondly, to provide them with information.  and information was very, very hard to come by .  .  .

“People were more sympathetic to me than to the cause itself, in a sense.  Because by then they knew me and they liked me. They were prepared to put up with me, listen to me, but I don’t think they believed much in the cause itself, in the sense that for them it was a lost cause.  A lot of them would vote with the resolutions because of me, not because they believed in the issue.”

Ramos-Horta has been heavily involved in the passing of a dozen United Nations resolutions on East Timor.  Indonesia has not heeded one of them. In 1985, he commented, “It may not mean much to win enough votes for a resolution, but it would be an enormous setback if we didn’t.”

To get the resolutions passed Ramos-Horta had to face not only widespread indifference but forms of corruption that ranged from individual delegates selling their vote for a few hundred dollars to the systematic application of pressure by powerful nations on lesser ones. Many Western countries were very much in support of the invasion.  Indonesia was a significant trading partner and America, for instance, didn’t want East Timor to become “Communist” any more than Indonesia did. And where there’s fighting there’s a market for arms.

Ninety per cent of the weapons and equipment that the Indonesians use are American, including the low flying jets that blew apart Ramos-Horta’s sister before his mother’s eyes, and broke the back of Falantil in the late `70s.  The people of East Timor have always been wholly expendable.

“The UN is not the problem,” says Ramos-Horta.  “The problem is the countries that make the UN ineffective .  .  .  Australia was one of them. Australian diplomats at the UN were really so unkind, so pro-Indonesia, such apologists of Indonesia, I tell you Australians were the only diplomats who went out of their way, individually, to actively lobby against us.”

Australia is the only country in the world to have fully recognized Indonesian sovereignty over East Timor.  In 1989, the then foreign minister Gareth Evans signed the Timor Gap Treaty giving Australia the lion’s share of any oil extracted from the Timor Gap oil fields.

Resistance leader Xanana Gusmao has said of this: “It is inconceivable and unacceptable that a democratic country with a Western way of life, a country which claims to be the defender of human rights, should profit from the blood of other people .  .  .  it is an attitude of true betrayal.”

There is macabre irony in the fact that during the Second World War, 40,000 East Timorese died protecting a handful of Australian commandos from the Japanese.

The Nobel Peace Prize

In the mid-eighties Ramos-Horta began spending more time away from the UN, lobbying governments and NGOs directly and raising awareness in whatever way presented itself.  In the early nineties, he formulated a three-phase peace plan that became the template for further UN negotiations with Indonesia.

Over recent years worldwide public interest in East Timor has grown significantly.  Two events are probably responsible for this. The first was the release of footage of the 1991 Dili Massacre in which nearly 300 unarmed and peaceful protesters were killed by Indonesian soldiers.  The second was the 1996 Nobel Peace Prize awarded jointly to Ramos-Horta and the Catholic Bishop of Dili, Carlos Belo.

In its official announcement, the Nobel Committee expressed a desire to “honor their sustained and self-sacrificing contributions for a small but oppressed people.”

Ramos-Horta describes the Nobel Prize as “a blessing from God” and was quick to take advantage of the abundant diplomatic opportunities that came with it. The Prize of course opens important doors and since the award his capacity to raise awareness and apply pressure has dramatically improved.

Nowadays, Ramos-Horta bases himself in Lisbon and Sydney (despite being banned throughout the incumbency of the conservative Australian government of Malcolm Fraser).  He works extraordinary hours and, though he hates to do so, travels constantly.

“Yes, sometimes I feel like quitting, getting married, making lots of money, going to the Bahamas or Noosa Heads,” he chuckles.  “I want to be a private citizen…a writer.  I want to write novels, not too serious books that only a few people would buy.”

However, this year he will be busier than ever, as crucial pre-independence negotiations with the UN, Portugal and Indonesia will require delicate handling.  And upon independence will begin the work of reconstructing East Timor after five centuries of neglect and twenty-four years of carnage.  Says Horta, “I hope it will be free, democratic, tolerant.  Free of corruption .  .  .  It will not be easy because Indonesia does not only kill people there, it has introduced a culture of corruption, of violence, of cheating .  .  .  It’s a nightmare.  It’s going to be a monumental task to heal the wounds.”

Conan Elphicke is a free-lance writer in Australia.  This article © 1999 by the author.

ATC 80, May-June 1999