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Interviews : Jose Ramos-Horta

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Interviewed August 2010

José Manuel Ramos-Horta was the president of East Timor (Timor-Leste) from 2007 to 2012. In 1996, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his advocacy of human rights and self-determination for the Timorese people.

Born in Dili in 1949 to a Portuguese father and a Timorese mother, Ramos-Horta was educated in Catholic schools and became a journalist. His articles advocating independence for the territory led to his deportation at the age of 18. He returned to Timor in 1971 and, after the 1974 revolution in Portugal, joined with other young Timorese pro-independence activists to found the Social Democratic Association of Timor, later known as the Revolutionary Front of Independent Timor-Leste (FRETILIN). When FRETILIN declared the independence of East Timor in 1975, Ramos-Horta was appointed the minister of external affairs and was instructed to go abroad to seek international recognition and support. He was just 25 years old.

Ramos-Horta left East Timor three days before the invasion by Indonesian troops that led to a 24-year occupation. A few days later, he became the youngest diplomat ever to address the United Nations Security Council, successfully urging the Council to adopt a resolution that recognized the right of the people of Timor-Leste to self-determination and independence.

After the 1999 referendum in which the people of East Timor voted overwhelmingly for independence from Indonesia, Ramos-Horta returned to his homeland for the first time in 24 years. He served as foreign minister under the provisional United Nations administration (2000–2002) and during the first four years of independence (2002-06), and was selected as prime minister after the political and social crisis that led to the resignation of the first government in 2006. In 2007 he was elected president of the Republic, receiving over 70 percent of the votes cast.

On February 11, 2008, Ramos-Horta was shot twice and severely wounded. Evacuated to Australia, he remained for 10 days in an induced coma and spent several months recovering from his injuries. Upon his return to Dili, he was received in triumph by an estimated 100,000 people of all ages, walks of life, and political perspectives.

After initially stating he would not seek reelection, Ramos-Horta decided to run as an independent candidate. He placed third in the balloting. In 2013, he was named the United Nations Special Representative to Guinea-Bissau. 

In November '91-- the Indonesian Army-- perpetrated-- one of the one worst massacres in Timor-Leste. It was not the only one. It was one of many, many massacres. Some of the massacres that occurred here, from day one, December 7, 1975, many more people were killed then. Many people were killed throughout the country with-- bombs, like in Matibia Mountain (PH)-- they used napalm-- or in Craras (PH) when an entire village was wiped out.

The difference is the Santa Cruz massacre in November seventy-- November '91 at Santa Cruz cemetery, there was a courageous cameraman there who film everything. He buried the film to avoid Indonesian confiscating it. At night, he went back to cemetery and recover it. And it became headline all over the world.

That was a turning point. But as it happened with many other situations, the world would continue on business as usual. Because how long can people retain images or emotions in their mind? It can be a few days, can be a few weeks maximum. Someone die, everybody-- honor, everybody go to funeral, visuals all over. But it always happen. A few days later, a few weeks later, who remember?

So, our task at the time-- and I said in Portugal during an interview press conference that, "We are not going to allow this to be forgotten." So we increase our work and the images of the massacre, of course, helped. But the most important turning point-- was the Nobel Peace Prize in-- '96.

That was the single most important event that put Timor-Leste on the map around the world. But even that maybe would not have been enough. Soon after the '96 Nobel Peace Prize came the economic financial crisis in-- '97, '98, came the change of regime. The Santa Cruz massacre, the Nobel Peace Prize, the financial economic crisis in '96, '97, '97, '98-- this is what-- the combination of this brought about-- paved the way for the change of-- government policies around the world.

But particularly, it showed the Indonesian side that Timor-Leste was too costly, is not worth. But equally for a country as proud of Indonesia, because let's have no illusions either. The Indonesian side change also because of w-- the way Indonesia. It's a very proud country. Even during the Suharto time, Suharto was not an isolationist. He opened the doors of Indonesia to the rest of the world. He wanted to develop the country.

He allow in-- foreign visitors. They had very busy diplomatic agenda. Indonesia was a member of the non-allied movement, of the Islamic Conference. They always tried to-- get elected into U.N.-- bodies. There was a lot of-- foreign embassies there, international business. If Indonesia were like-- Burma, under Ne Win and the military, who closed up the moment they took over in the '60s, if Indonesia were like North Korea, well, I guarantee you that a Nobel Peace Prize would not make a difference to them. The Santa Cruz massacre would not make a difference to them.

Look at the-- the Burma situation. Aung San Suu Kyi got the Nobel Peace Prize. There had been massacres in the street in Rangoon. And what? The regime is still there. Can anyone go and invade and liberate the Burmese people? Well, so, when we analyze our situation and each-- specific situation, we have-- to-- be very realistic, pragmatic and-- adjust our struggle to our-- environment, to our specific situation. 

East Timor, also known as Timor-Leste, is a country of 1.1 million people in the East Indies. It was colonized by Portugal in the 16th century and was an exporter of sandalwood and coffee. As the Portuguese economy struggled in the first part of the 20th century, the nation attempted to extract more resources from its colonies, including East Timor. This increase in Portuguese business control and demands was met with resistance by inhabitants. After Portugal announced in 1975 that the colony would soon become independent and began the process of decolonization, fighting broke out between rival Timorese factions. The Indonesian Army invaded and occupied East Timor in December of that year, and a few months later the country was formally annexed by Indonesia.

The Indonesian occupation was marked by repression and brutality. Under the dictatorship of Suharto, who ruled Indonesia from 1967 to 1998, freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly were denied throughout Indonesia, including in occupied East Timor. Timorese who were suspected of harboring separatist sympathies—particularly those suspected of association with the small but resilient guerrilla resistance movement—were routinely arrested, imprisoned and tortured. Extrajudicial killings were common. The 1991 Santa Cruz massacre, in which Indonesian troops killed an estimated 200 men, women, and children who had participated in a funeral procession for a pro-independence activist, focused world attention on the continuing denial of democracy and self-determination in East Timor. The massacre and associated events also highlighted the importance of the Catholic Church, both as a focus of Timorese identity and as the only institution that could sometimes afford a measure of protection from government-sponsored violence.

In 1998, shortly after the fall of the Indonesian dictator Suharto, the new President B.J. Habibie announced a “consultation” by which the people of East Timor would be permitted to choose either autonomy within Indonesia or outright independence. The consultation took place in the form of a U.N.-supervised referendum in August 1999 in which 79 percent of the voters chose independence. In the weeks after the announcement of the vote, the departing Indonesian army and its associated Timorese militias destroyed most of the country’s infrastructure and killed over a thousand people. That December, a United Nations peacekeeping force was established, and a U.N. mission administered the country until the restoration of independence in 2002. East Timor and Indonesia are now both multiparty parliamentary democracies.

Violence has continued since East Timor gained independence. Violent clashes in 2006 between rioters and police forces led to the resignation of then Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri. Police and rioters clashed once again leading up to the 2007 elections. The election required three separate ballots due to irregularities and accusations of fraud. Additionally, assassination attempts on both candidates and elected leaders occurred. In 2012, East Timor held both presidential and primary elections considered successful, free, and fair. At the end of that year, the UN ended its peacekeeping mission in the nation.
East Timor’s economy remains heavily dependent on commodities such as oil, coffee, and sandalwood.

Freedom House’s 2015 Freedom in the World Report lists East Timor as “partly free.” The country earned a freedom rating of 3 with 7 being the least free. East Timor also received civil liberties rating and political rights ratings of 3. The country still struggles with corruption and nepotism as well as a weak rule of law. Additionally, there is a lack of transparency surrounding the government and law regulates demonstrations that “question constitutional order” or could damage the reputation of the nation’s leaders. Freedom House’s Freedom of the Press 2014 report assigned a “Partly Free” rating to East Timor. 

More from Jose Ramos-Horta

Jose Ramos-Horta: Turning Point The Santa Cruz massacre and the international reaction to it. Jose Ramos-Horta: International Presence The international presence in East Timor during the Indonesian occupation. Jose Ramos-Horta: Technology “One of the first satellite phones in the world, we bought it. That phone cost $30,000, the size of a briefcase.” More + Jose Ramos-Horta: Road to Self-Determination Sources of support for the Timorese self-determination movement. Jose Ramos-Horta: U.S. Military Aid The importance of the United States Congress’s limitations on military aid to Indonesia after the Santa Cruz massacre. Jose Ramos-Horta: International Reaction The United Nations reaction to the invasion of East Timor in 1975 Jose Ramos-Horta: Personal Motivation "My motivation was always my sense of what is fair, what is not fair, what is just, what is unjust.” Jose Ramos-Horta: Opposition to Terrorism "We were completely against any act of terrorism. . . . Had we done that, I do not believe we would be free today.” Jose Ramos-Horta: Network of U.S. Support Early support for human rights and self-determination in East Timor from the United States Congress and the Catholic Bishops’ conference. Jose Ramos-Horta: Collapse from Corruption The strengths and weaknesses of the Suharto dictatorship. Jose Ramos-Horta: Importance of Unity The strengths and weaknesses of the Timorese self-determination movement. Jose Ramos Horta: Resist Hatred “Never ever surrender to hatred.”