East Timor had been a colony under the Portuguese until 1975. A small civil war followed the Portuguese releasing of their colony, in which the neighboring country of Indonesia helped to instigate the conflict. On December 7, 1975, Indonesia invaded East Timor, killing more than a hundred thousand people in just two years. They occupied East Timor for more than two decades despite international efforts to end the occupation and stop the killing and oppression. The United States was a key ally in terms of blocking and intervention, as they not only saw Indonesia as an important anti-communist ally in general, but were also supplying the country with weapons and training the officers who were massacring the people of East Timor.
In 1999, Indonesian President Suharto stepped down and this at last led to an opening for East Timor. The new Indonesian regime with the Portuguese coordinated a referendum which would determine the future of East Timor. Anti-independence forces harassed the populace supported by the Indonesian military and kidnappings and massacres took place. Despite the intimidation more than 75% of the population chose to become independent. Indonesian forces killed hundreds more civilians in retaliation, forcing hundreds of thousands to flee their homes. In September of 1999 the United Nations sent in forces and governed the island under transitional authority until it became fully independent in 2002.
At this year's Regional Seminar Timor Leste was brought up several times, especially the words of one of its political pioneers Jose Ramos-Horta, who shared the 1996 Nobel Peace Prize with a Bishop from East Timor because of their activism there. Ramos-Horta had been exiled from East Timor when it had been a colony under Portugal because of his efforts at awakening the decolonial consciousness of the people. He returned to East Timor after the Portuguese relinquished control joining the discussion over the future. He left for New York to travel to the UN, just three days prior to the Indonesian invasion. He became a voice for the people of East Timor for the next two decades around the world.
I've been spending tonight looking for some of his statements made at the United Nations over the years, as several people referred to them in our conversations. I came across this interview from 1999 from the show Common Ground that I thought I'd share:
Air Date: April 27, 1999
Freedom for East Timor
Guest: Jose Ramos-Horta, winner of the 1996 Novel Peace Prize
JOSé RAMOS-HORTA: The conflict is essentially a political one between the people of East Timor and a brutal, thuggish army—the Indonesia Army—that is a law unto itself for the past 32 years in Indonesia under the Suharto dictatorship and is a law unto themselves in East Timor in the last 23 years.
KRISTIN MC HUGH: This week on Common Ground, Nobel Peace laureate José Ramos-Horta.
RAMOS-HORTA: I envy the Kosovars. I envy the Palestinians. I envy the Tibetans. For the visibility they have—the space, the attention—they have in the American media.
KEITH PORTER: Common Ground is a program on world affairs and the people who shape events. It is produced by the Stanley Foundation. I’m Keith Porter.
MC HUGH: And I’m Kristin McHugh. José Ramos-Horta has been advocating a peaceful solution to the conflict in ET since fleeing his homeland in the mid-`70s. He says the violent battle for independence in the former Portuguese colony spans nearly 25 years.
RAMOS-HORTA: ET was a Portuguese colony, predominantly Catholic, of a population of 800,000, colonized by Portugal for almost 500 years. Then in 1974 the Portuguese Empire simply collapsed. The new government in Lisbon that took over from the 50-year-old dictatorship of Salazar changed policies and recognized that right of all the peoples in its colonies to independence, East Timor included. It was then that Indonesia came in. There was a brief civil war in ET, but provoked, instigated by the Indonesian side. That civil war paved the ground for the invasion on December 7, 1975. So that is more than 23 years ago. Two hundred thousand people died within the first 2-3 years of the invasion. Massacre of entire communities, even ethnic Chinese who had been living peacefully in ET for at least 200 years—generations and generations of traders—who lived peacefully, harmoniously, with the East Timorese, was slaughtered.
And what has been the role the of the Western countries? United States: the primary supplier of weapons to the Indonesian dictatorship. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, President Gerald Ford, were in Jakarta hours before the invasion. And basically gave the green light for the invasion. But the United States is not the only culprit. Great Britain, France, Germany, Australia, Japan—all the major powers—are accomplices in one of the greatest genocides of a small nation in post-World War II.
MC HUGH: But this is not a religious struggle?
RAMOS-HORTA: No, it is not a religious struggle because fortunately we the East Timorese, though predominantly Catholic—devout Catholics—we are also extremely tolerant. Because, as I mentioned earlier we had a Chinese community that lived there for generations. Never once there was an ethnic dispute, ethnic conflict. There was never once one single Chinese living in Timor was murdered by the East Timorese. We also had a very small Islamic community of no more than 1,000 people, descendants of Yemeni, Yemen traders who came to Timor 200 years ago. Never once, one single member of that Arabic Islamic community was ever attacked by the Catholic majority. The conflict is essentially a political one between the people of East Timor and a brutal, thuggish army—the Indonesia Army—that is a law unto itself for the past 32 years in Indonesia under the Suharto dictatorship and is a law unto themselves in East Timor in the last 23 years.
MC HUGH: You have often talked about and have campaigned for, the right to self-determination. Over the years you have indicated that you have certain types of peace plans in your head that would be good for ET. What is your latest plan?
RAMOS-HORTA: Well, I have been, I would say, modestly consistent in my approach to the ET conflict. Contrary to what you might read coming out of the Indonesian Embassy in Washington or their mission in New York, going back to 1974 I traveled to Indonesia. I was only 24, 25 years old. No experience whatsoever in international diplomacy. Paying my own way, traveled to Jakarta, and met with the Indonesian Foreign Minister, the late Adam Malik, and offered a hand of friendship; while the same time I argue for our right to self-determination I offered a hand of friendship to the Indonesian side. That an independent ET would be a close friend of Indonesia.
But of course I was utterly naïve, innocent. I was dealing essentially with corrupt crooks in Indonesian politics and Indonesian Army. In ’92 I presented a modest peace plan in a speech at the European Parliament in Brussels and at the Council of Foreign Relations in New York. I put forward a modest, two page or so document which we can all it in grandiose terms a peace plan. But it was essentially a set of ideas whereby I suggested that we move slowly, step-by-step, starting with demilitarization of the territory, bring in the UN—not peacekeeping, just UNDP, United Nations development agencies, UNICEF, international observers—in a non-threatening atmosphere in the territory. Indonesia grants genuine autonomy to the territory, similar to other experiences—maybe Puerto Rico is a model. The Basque country in Spain another.
This autonomy would last for five years, extended for another five. This would be, would create a positive atmosphere in the territory. The Indonesian Army would have changed behavior. We would not call for the total withdrawal of the Indonesian Army from the territory. They would just reduce their numbers, keeping only maybe a thousand in entire territory. And only at the end of ten years or so we would have a referendum whereby the people of ET would decide whether they want this autonomy arrangement permanently with Indonesia, or want independence.
I tell you frankly what I proposed in `92 is, have far better advantages for Indonesia than the current proposal they are putting now on the table. Because the current proposal they are putting on the table is in such a politically and violently charged atmosphere that the people of ET will reject outright their autonomy plan, while my plan, if you have it over a period of ten years, where Indonesia has withdrawn their troops, where Indonesia would have become as well democratic—because I said, I said in `92, "Who knows what is going to happen in five years from now. Indonesia could have changed beyond recognition; more democratic more open"—and in fact it is changing. `92 to `97 Indonesia began to change. In these circumstances of genuine autonomy over a period of time, you stabilize the territory, the Indonesian behavior has changed—well then you go and ask the people, "What do you want? Independence or autonomy?" Chances are the people said, "Well let’s stay with autonomy" it’s greater.
So, ironically what I proposed in `92, has had more advantages and more chances of success for Indonesia than the current autonomy plan of their own initiative.
MC HUGH: And you talk about this autonomy plan, in January President Habibie in Indonesia, major reversal of policy, indicated that he would allow independence for ET. Setting the stage for a possible July vote on autonomy vs. independence. Are you hopeful that that vote will decide the issue? Finally?
RAMOS-HORTA: You know, unfortunately, tragically, time and again my own predictions and forecasts and assessments of Indonesian situation, their intentions, their policies, turn out to be always tragically true. In some aspects my forecast are accurate and fortunately so. Like for instance in an interview with CNN in May `96 I predicted that within 2-3 years Suharto’s regime would fold. I said Suharto would collapse within 2-3 years under the weight of corruption, nepotism, cronyism. And that in the post-Suharto era negotiations would be easier.
Well, May `98, two years later he did collapse, exactly in the scenario that I described. So in that regard, fortunately I was deadly accurate. What it has not been so fortunate, but again I was accurate, is what when I said, when Habibie announced the new policies in January this year. I said, "I do not trust them. I remain extremely skeptical. I judge them by their actions on the ground and not by their promises in Jakarta or made in New York that time and again have been broken." I wish, Madam, that I would be thoroughly disproved, proved wrong in my cynicism, skepticism, about Indonesian side.
So I really don’t know. Maybe President Habibie is a pragmatist. I believe him to be so. He has good people around him. Dowi Fortuna Anwar??, his foreign policy advisor, a very influential lady, and a few other people around him. He has, they know the costs of the problem of ET for Indonesia. They know that Indonesia, to recover economically must proceed with the political reforms. They know that for Indonesia to regain credibility it cannot in one hand say "We have democracy in Indonesia" but then have a military occupation in ET where people are slaughtered. Like in Iraq among the Kurdish or in Kosovo by Milosovec or like in Burma by the SLORC (State Law and Order Restitution Council), slaughtering the Burmese people. They know that. So these people they want to resolve the problem of ET.
But old habits die hard. The hard-liners in the Indonesian military, they do not consider any compromise. They don’t conceive of the notion of having to lose ET. So they try, once more, to roll back this process that has been unfolded by President Habibie.
MC HUGH: Is a peaceful solution possible? Especially after 23 years of struggle on both sides?
RAMOS-HORTA: Yes, it is possible. The case of ET does not have the complexity of Kosovo. It does not have the complexity of the Middle East conflict that pits Israel against Palestinians and vice-versa. We do not have an overlapping territorial, historical, religious, ethnic dispute. You look at the Balkans and that is an extraordinarily complex mixture of religion, ethnicity, history, myths and so on. The same happening in the Middle East. Overlapping of interests that pull in different directions.
In ET it is us, the East Timorese, 95% Catholics, and Indonesia, our neighbor, the largest power in the region and the largest Islamic country in the world. The issue could be resolved very easily if the Indonesian side, particularly the military, can be persuaded that they don’t have to lose face by conceding that ET should be independent.
I have said on numerous occasions, this whole notion of losing face is a totally wrong debate. Would I say that Nixon and that Kissinger lost face by orchestrating US pulling out of Vietnam? Or it was a show of statesmanship? Did Charles de Gaulle lose face by pulling France out of the Algerian war? Or it was, he was a man of courage? When Yitzhak Rabin and Yassar Arafat shook hands, forgetting what they had said about each other a few months earlier, was that weakness or courage? So someone has to tell the Indonesian side that whoever in Indonesia have the courage to say "Let’s break with the past, let’s acknowledge the East Timorese people’s right to independence," that they must be commended, even proposed for a Nobel Peace Prize. Then yes, maybe, if someone call tell them, talk face-to-face with them, to see the advantages, for Indonesia, for themselves—then yes, we could resolve the problem. And it is as simple as that.
I do not buy the notion that there is people in Timor who want integration with Indonesia. Of course, like in Canada you have many Canadians who want Quebec to secede, but they lose their effort and they accept "we are part of Canada" and continue on. In Portugal itself you have some people in the Azores Islands who want, once dreamed of having Azores independent. Majority don’t want and they happily continue as Portuguese citizens. In Spain you still have many people who want to secede from Spain. Tragically, unfortunately, you know, some people in the Basque country use violence. But majority in the Basque country, they are happy with the current autonomous status within Spain.
In the case of ET we have no historical, cultural links with Indonesia. There is a very small minority that has benefited from the invasion and occupation. All I can say is that these people will have a place in an independent ET. They need no fear an independent ET. There will be no revenge, no reprisals, from our side.
PORTER: Printed transcripts and audio cassettes of this program are available. Listen at the end of the broadcast for details. Common Ground is a service of the Stanley Foundation, a non-profit, non-partisan organization that conducts a wide a range of programs meant to provoke thought and encourage dialogue on world affairs.
MC HUGH: Do you think the West has turned its back on ET?
RAMOS-HORTA: Well, it was not only turn its back. If it was only turning back—it’s back, if it was only indifference, neglect, it was already good enough. The problem is they have been active accomplices in the invasion and occupation. Through military sales, military training, through cover-ups, even outright lies about the tragedy in ET. When I look at the Western intervention in Kosovo, very similar situation. Yes, of course I’m happy for the Kosovars, that a small ethnic, religious minority has been helped by the major powers of this world within, that are part of the NATO security agreement. And I cannot but be sad, you know, how selective Western policies have always been.
But we are not even asking, not for one-tenth of the Western military intervention in ET. We can ask for sort of a military intervention—and I mark my words, "sort of military intervention"—but in the positive sense. They need only to scale down the military supplies, weapons they sell to Indonesia. They need only to tell the Indonesians, "Well, pull out your troops from ET." Because Indonesia is entirely dependent on the West for weapons, provisions, military training. Indonesia now is thoroughly vulnerable because it’s thoroughly bankrupt. The US can only say, in very firm words—and it can be discrete, it cannot, it does not have to make a big noise about, it can just tell the Indonesian side—"You don’t pull out of ET, you don’t disarm the paramilitary, we are going to withhold IMF/World Bank funds for your economy." This would work.
MC HUGH: You have said that the US is really the only power that has the ability to end this struggle.
RAMOS-HORTA: It has the decisive power, ability to do it. Of course, there are other countries that can help, such as Australia, Canada, the Europeans; but it is United States that holds the key. I’m of course very grateful by the concerns that President Clinton, Secretary Madeline Albright, Thomas Pickering, and other people in the State Department; such as Stan Roth the Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia/Pacific Affairs. I have to acknowledge, to say, that you know, in the last few months there has been a remarkable shift in US official stance on the issue of ET. The fact that Secretary of State Madeline Albright met with the Timorese resistance leader, who is in prison, when she visited Indonesia a few weeks ago, that is a symbolic historical shift. But much more has to be done quick enough, firm enough, before the violence escalates and the more hundreds of people join the death toll of the past 23 years.
MC HUGH: As the Western world has shifted its policy towards ET you have always advocated a peaceful solution. And yet the pro-independence movement, just within the last few days in ET, is now advocating a return to violence. Does that, first of all, surprise you? And do you think that that’s going to derail plans for peace?
RAMOS-HORTA: I hope not. I know that of course the Indonesian side would seize on this excuse to do what they always wanted and that is no vote in July for the people to decide what they want about the future, because this whole violence in the territory in the last few months has been orchestrated by the Indonesian military, by the hard-liners. They are the ones who have been arming the paramilitary. They are the ones who have been killing civilians. And of course Xanana Gusmao, the resistance leader, was left with no option but call for self-defense.
You know, sometimes I find it really extraordinary that for instance the West that provides the weapons to Indonesia, which enables Indonesia to commit a genocide in ET, criticize the East Timorese when they take up arms, the small arms they capture or even they buy in the black market from the Indonesian Army itself, they criticize them when they defend themselves.
The Kosovo Liberation Army is like, you know, a gallant army for the West. They are now the symbol of the struggle against Serbia. And I tell you the Kosovo Liberation Army doesn’t use the gentle methods that the Timorese resistance uses. They go also after Serbian civilian population. The East Timorese resistance never once in its 23 years of history, never once kidnap, abduct, kill Indonesian civilians. It is not a bunch of angels but they operate under a strict code of conduct of no kidnappings, no attacking Indonesian civilians. The Indonesians cannot display one single Indonesian civilian that has been deliberately killed by the ET resistance.
So I tell you I fully sympathize, understand, and support Xanana’s call for self-defense. And I underline my words, self-defense. He did not call for all-out war. His statement was overly exaggerated by certain media because of lack of communication or understanding. He called for self-defense.
And I continue to say, there is no way out of this conflict but through dialogue. The Secretary General of the UN is doing an outstanding job. Kofi Anan is the best Secretary General we have had in 30 year or more of UN history. We are grateful to him and his dedicated staff of what they are trying to do. He can succeed, he can prevail, if the US more firmly back him up in his efforts to defuse the tension in the territory, in his dialogue with Indonesian side, to disarm the paramilitary. I still believe that yes, we can reach a peaceful settlement, achieve freedom for ET, without having to resort to violence.
MC HUGH: You mentioned the media. You are a trained journalist. How has the….
RAMOS-HORTA: Poorly, poorly trained.
MC HUGH: [laughing] How has the international media coverage of ET’s struggle been? Has it been good? Have they paid attention?
RAMOS-HORTA: Not much really, for the exception of some newspapers around the world, in the US. I wouldn’t want to be too critical of the major media. Because you know, The New York Times and Washington Post, time to time, they have had decent principled editorials on the issue of ET. But I tell you, you know, I envy the Kosovars. I envy the Palestinians. I envy the Tibetans. For the visibility they have—the space, the attention—they have in the American media.
I do not complain, there is no resentment. When you are a small nation, when you are a small country, well, you know, what can you do? So, instead of being resentful I just very grateful for the little space, the little time they give us.
MC HUGH: Do you think your shared 1996 Nobel Peace Prize turned the tide for international recognition of ET?
RAMOS-HORTA: Yes, absolutely. We are eternally grateful to the Nobel Committee in Oslo for having chosen us, the East Timorese, for the Nobel Peace Prize `96. Yes, it has brought enormous visibility to issue of ET. It broke the silence, indifference by many governments. It was a historical turning point.
MC HUGH: One final question. You have been living in exile for 23 years. Do you think you will return to your homeland?
RAMOS-HORTA: Oh yes, soon. I intend to return in the next few months. I am very optimistic. Some time next year I believe that in spite of the current turmoil and even the possibility of even more violence in the next few months, I believe that in the end the voices of reason, of moderation, will prevail. Both in Indonesia and in ET. Fortunately, on the Timorese side we do not have extremists in the leadership, both church and political bodies. Xanana Gusmao, the resistance leader, is a unique individual, outstanding. Moderate, sensitive, brilliant at strategies. We have, we are also fortunate in having a Catholic church that is powerful, is popular, and is also for peace.
So in, on the Indonesian side, there are also voices of reason and moderation. With the help of the US and the UN and the Europeans, the Australians, on these two sides, the moderates in Indonesia and ET, I believe we can reach a solution. And I definitely look for, to go back.
MC HUGH: That is José Ramos-Horta, winner of the 1996 Nobel Peace Prize. For Common Ground, I’m Kristin McHugh.
PORTER: And I’m Keith Porter. Cassettes and transcripts of this program are available. The transcripts are free. Cassettes cost $5.00. To place an order or to share your thoughts about the program, write to us at: The Stanley Foundation, 209 Iowa Avenue, Muscatine, Iowa 52761. Be sure to refer to program No. 9917. To order by credit card you can call us at 319.264.1500. Transcripts are also available on our web site. It’s commongroundradio.org. Our e-mail address is email@example.com.
MC HUGH: B.J. Leiderman created our theme music. Common Ground is produced and funded by the Stanley Foundation.