East Timor's global crusader sees the finish line before his eyes
'We have to do a lot of work to avoid violence,' says José Ramos-Horta. 'People are becoming increasingly frustrated. Indonesia is arming [the civilian militias], as the South Africans did during the apartheid regime, to sow violence, to justify their presence there. I have been sending messages to Timor saying 'no violence, no violence'. I don't want to see one Indonesian or one collaborator harmed. An overwhelming majority of the people will vote for independence.' Ramos-Horta grew up under the comparatively benign rule of the Portuguese who had colonised East Timor four centuries previously. He was born on 26th 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. José received his basic education at a remote Soibada Catholic mission where he excelled and so became one of the few East Timorese to be sent to the high school in Dili.
Upon graduation, Ramos-Horta became a journalist, spending his spare time reading widely and brooding over the possibility of an end to colonial rule. It wasn't long, however, before the secret police got wind of his dissenting views and exiled him to Portugese Mozambique for two 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) in early 1974. The following year it 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 in the party. I was of 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].'
Following the 1974 coup that toppled its fascist dictatorship, Portugal decided to hastily abandon its costly empire. As part of a token gesture at decolonising East Timor, it held elections there in March 1975. The three parties involved were Fretilin, which favoured 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 per cent of the vote on election day. Most of the remaining votes went to the UDT. However, in August Fretilin's claim to power was challenged by the outbreak of civil war, most likely initiated by UDT. After three weeks of fighting in which an estimated 1500 people died, Fretilin emerged victorious.
Ramos-Horta was studying at the ANU 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 defenceless neighbour. In desperation, East Timor declared independence on 28th November 1975 in the hope that Indonesia would be less inclined to invade a sovereign state. Of course, it made no difference at all. On 4th December, with the invasion imminent, Ramos-Horta was among three people selected by Fretilin's central committee to immediately leave Timor and bring the country's plight to the attention of the world.
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 "José will get the United Nations to help us. He is going to talk to big powers. This is our only hope".'
When he arrived in New York three days later, the invasion began. The Indonesians showed extraordinary callousness, killing thousands of civilians on the first day alone. Within hours of the invasion, hundreds of Dili residents were lined up on the jetty and shot one at a time, their bodies dumped into the surf. However, in his novel Redundancy of courage, Timothy Mo points out: '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.'
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 every day 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 [which] 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 was heavily involved in the passing of a dozen UN resolutions on East Timor. Indonesia has not heeded one of them. In 1985, Ramos-Horta 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. Indeed many western countries strongly supported the invasion. Apart from wanting to appease a significant trading partner, the West shared Indonesia's concerns about Fretilin's left-wing leanings. The ongoing conflict also provided 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 the resistance army Falintil in the late 70s.
'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 I never saw diplomats that actively lobbied against us. Australians were the only ones who went out of their way, individually, to [do so].' Why? 'To appease the Indonesians. It's a bit like a school kid; you do things to curry favour with the older one, the bully. No real sense of independence; of dignity.' Australia is the only country in the world to have fully recognised Indonesian sovereignty over East Timor. 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.
In 1996 he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize jointly with the Catholic Bishop of Dili, Carlos Belo. 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. Nowadays, Ramos-Horta bases himself in Lisbon and Sydney (despite being banned from Australia throughout the incumbency of the Fraser Government). 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. Maybe I'll write a novel, the title of which would be Bill and Monica,' he says, laughing. 'I don't want to write too serious books that only a few people would buy. I want to be able to write and sell like Stephen King.'
However, this year, with the possibility of Timorese independence growing more distinct, he is busier than ever. 'I hope it will be free, democratic, tolerant. Free of corruption. The international community will be very generous towards East Timor as long as we are a model of non-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 Sydney-based freelance journalist.