The Unfinished Saga of East Timor

Nobel Prize-winner Jose Ramos-Horta talks of long struggle to gain independence

Jose Ramos-Horta has been on the move constantly since he and Bishop Carlos Ximenes Belo were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize last November.

"I feel I must accept every invitation to speak," says Mr. Ramos-Horta, the East Timorese exile and itinerant diplomat.

For the past 22 years, Ramos-Horta has been engaged in a determined, relentless, mostly overlooked battle to alert the world to the repression in East Timor, the island nation that Indonesia invaded in 1975.

But the Nobel Committee transformed his cause from a "footnote" to the stuff of headlines. The international attention has generated a new demand for his presence and the momentum to resolve the conflict, which has claimed more than 200,000 East Timorese lives.

"I am certainly much more optimistic," says Ramos-Horta, whose clear, energetic eyes betrayed shadows of exhaustion at a brief stop in New York last month.

The visit came on the heels of United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan signaling an increased effort to resolve the situation with the appointment of a new personal representative for East Timor.

And while the peace prize's international impact has been enormous, Ramos-Horta says, it has also changed the dynamic inside East Timor. "It has given greater hope and courage to the people who now realize they're not fighting a losing battle." Human rights groups, however, say it has also prompted Indonesian authorities to clamp down harder on any signs of dissent.

"It's very tense at this moment," says Amnesty International's Kerry Brogan in London, who chides Indonesia for not allowing the media and human rights monitors better access to East Timor.

Ramos-Horta's friends contend he hasn't stopped moving since Indonesia's military invasion two decades ago. The son of a Portuguese exile and East Timorese mother, he was born with revolutionary fervor in his veins, although he didn't know it as a child.

It was only as an adult that Ramos-Horta learned his father and a group of friends in the Portuguese Navy had commandeered their ship to fight against the fascists in Spain. The rebels were intercepted by the Portuguese Navy, and Ramos-Horta's father was sent into exile in East Timor. "He was ... always hoping for the news of a coup overthrowing the Portuguese dictator [Antonio de Oliveira] Salazar who sent him into exile," Ramos-Horta writes in "Funu: The Unfinished Saga of East Timor" (Red Sea Press, 1987). When the coup finally came in the early 1970s, it set Ramos-Horta on his own path to exile, ironically, from East Timor.

The country occupies half of an island and borders on Indonesian West Timor. It was a poor, neglected outpost in Portugal's empire for more than 500 years. After the Portuguese coup in 1974, the country began to liberate its colonies. It abandoned East Timor when civil war broke out.

A nationalist movement gained the upper hand and declared East Timor an independent nation. It was a short-lived effort. In December of 1975, 10,000 Indonesian troops barreled onto the island with US-supplied amphibious tanks, fighter planes, and helicopter gunships.

Tens of thousands were slaughtered in the ensuing mayhem. Ramos-Horta was then foreign minister in the new government and had left East Timor just days before the invasion on a diplomatic mission.

"If Ramos-Horta hadn't gotten out, there would be far less knowledge about the situation," says Arnold Kohen, who is writing a book on Bishop Belo and Ramos-Horta.

Throughout his years in exile, Ramos-Horta has talked with anyone who would listen to East Timor's story of continuing repression and need for self-determination. His efforts earned the deep respect of many diplomats, politicians, and grass-roots activists. But he has also provoked the ire of the Indonesians.

"He's a liar, he is not a man to be trusted," says Nugroho Wisnumurti, Indonesian ambassador to the United States, who has tied Ramos-Horta to atrocities committed during the unrest.

Ambassador Wisnumurti contends that East Timor would have disintegrated into violent, civil chaos if Indonesia had not invaded. The Indonesians have since built roads and improved educational opportunities in East Timor. But the government has done so with a vise-like political grip that punishes any sign of dissent with beatings and disappearances, according to East Timorese activists.

"Precisely because we were, and still are, a footnote to the major media, we're also a footnote for governments," says Ramos-Horta. "That's why the slaughter can go on."

Wisnumurti agrees the situation could be improved and notes the Indonesian government has opened its own human rights office in the capital, Dili. (Many international human rights monitors are still denied access.) He also blames Ramos-Horta for fueling the continuing unrest by inspiring political resistance.

"He's so reviled by the Indonesians, particularly because he is so effective," says one international diplomat who asked not to be identified.

Ramos-Horta's political rivals, the Timorese Democratic Union (UDT), have also accused the Indonesians of engaging in a "grotesque slander" campaign. "There is not a single East Timorese who can claim that Mr. Ramos-Horta was engaged in violence directly, or indirectly," says UDT President Joao Carrascalao, who praises the diplomat for his "enormous tolerance and humanity."

Ramos-Horta dismisses Indonesia's attacks with a rare display of anger. "They cannot pick up a gun and shoot me ... as they have done with three of my brothers and a sister and countless friends. So instead, they try character assassination."

Although Ramos-Horta finds most of the international community's complacent acceptance of the invasion "morally despicable," he praises the few steps the US and others have taken to resolve the situation.

The Clinton administration has banned the sale of small weapons and riot-control equipment to Indonesia, voted in favor of a UN resolution supporting East Timor in 1993, and repeatedly raised human rights issues with Indonesia.

"These are very good things, although there is much more the US can do," he says. In fact, Ramos-Horta is confident the US now has the power to single-handedly end the years of repression and bring about a negotiated settlement.

"The key here is for President Clinton himself to feel personally motivated either out of moral conviction or political expediency," he says, noting that large contributions from Indonesians may have kept Clinton from meeting him and the bishop.

"It could take another three to five years, but I'm hopeful it will be resolved," Ramos-Horta says, hurrying off to another meeting.

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