The ark of resistance

Jose Ramos Horta

José Ramos Horta has won the Nobel Peace Prize. But he tells David Ransom that he will never be at peace until his country, East Timor, is free.

Two decades spent constantly on the move, sleeping on floors and knocking on diplomatic doors in every corner of the earth, have taken their toll on José Ramos Horta. It must be hard for him, on any one day, to figure out exactly where he is. Yet, in person, he is extraordinarily calm, as if sustained by the force of his convictions. You can tell he'd have made a good lawyer - the profession for which he trained. Tortoise-shell frames on round spectacles, observant, restless eyes and thick, greying hair give him an intellectual, distinguished and slightly distracted air.

There is nothing abstract about his cause. Of his eleven brothers, four were killed after the invasion of his country, East Timor, by the Indonesian Army in 1975. Ramos Horta has spent the intervening years in exile as the Special Representative of the National Council of Maubere Resistance, the umbrella organization of pro-independence movements inside and outside East Timor.

Then, in December 1996 - jointly with the Catholic Bishop Carlos Filipe Ximenes Belo, who remains inside the country - he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for 'sustained efforts to hinder the oppression of a small people'. 'The Peace Prize has made an enormous difference in awareness-raising around the world,' he says. 'This has resulted in pressure, embarrassment for governments that are now taking the issue much more seriously.'

False optimism would not, however, have sustained him through the long years of exile. He has no illusions now. 'The level of repression has increased dramatically,' he continues. 'The number of troops in East Timor is at the same level as in the mid-1970s, when Indonesia first invaded. There are now something like 30,000 troops in the territory. Bishop Belo says he has never seen so many troops. That is not only an arrogant defiance of the world, but also an act of desperation, hoping that they can crush once and for all the people of East Timor...

'If you can label a country a terrorist state based on its behaviour towards its own people, Indonesia is a terrorist state. A terrorist is not only someone who picks up a gun and kills individuals. Terrorists are also those who drop bombs from the skies on a civilian population, or use troops to massacre civilians. Indonesia belongs in the category of terrorist state.'

José Ramos Horta 's persistence is based on his knowledge of the East Timorese people and their determination never to be digested by their huge Indonesian neighbour. There is the obvious difference between the Catholic majority in East Timor and the Muslim majority in Indonesia. Perhaps more significant, and certainly less well known, is that the East Timorese are predominantly Melanesian, linking them to the people of the South Pacific: the Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, Papua New Guinea - and West Papua, which is also under Indonesian control and where the people face, if anything, a situation even worse than the East Timorese.

'West Papua is a shameful case of international abandonment and betrayal,' says Ramos Horta . 'What is being done to the people of West Papua is what was being done in the Americas, in Argentina, Chile or in Australia, on the arrival of the Europeans - simply disposing of, killing off, the local inhabitants. This is happening right now, at the end of the twentieth century, and the world is guilty for what's happening. Not only Indonesia; Australia, New Zealand, the United States - all are guilty, humanity is guilty for what is happening to the West Papuans.'

Which is one reason why he is so critical of the Australian Government, East Timor's immediate neighbour to the south. 'Australia has very little leverage or credibility as far as Indonesia is concerned,' he maintains. 'It could play a role, a significant role, if it were to be involved in a concerted effort with the US, the Europeans, Canada. But Australia has wasted its potential: its domestic policies have destroyed any relevance it had in
the past.'

Ramos Horta calls for specific sanctions on Indonesia. 'There has to be at least an arms embargo. There have to be other forms of sanctions: a consumer boycott of goods like Nike shoes [many of which are made in Indonesia]. People should boycott tourism in Bali - most of the hotels are owned by Indonesian generals, by the Suharto family... That is a monumental task, because you need to educate the people, mobilize them constantly. But it would be an effective way of bringing about change.'

With a total population of less than a million, with perhaps 200,000 East Timorese already killed by the Indonesian Army, and with officially sponsored immigration from Indonesia, one is sometimes forced to wonder whether there really is a future in independence for the East Timorese people.

Ramos Horta has no such doubts: 'Well, of course they have a future, as they have survived in the past for thousands of years. The only thing that would destroy the resistance would be global warming - if the ocean rises and sinks some of the island! Well, if the worst comes to the worst we'd all go up into the mountains and just build an ark similar to Noah's. We'll always survive.'

David Ransom is an NI co-editor.



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New Internationalist issue 298 magazine cover This article is from the January 1998 issue of New Internationalist.
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