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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. 

If I were to-- send a message to people in—Burma or to the Palestinians or anyone who's struggling for freedom, for dignity, I say do not lose hope, persevere-- focus on the struggle. But never surrender to hatred, to violence because at the moment you surrender to hatred, to violence, you are losing.

And-- this is not rhetorical because-- if you are not able to-- maintain-- your-- integrity as a man, as a woman or non-violence, of-- as a human being, if you start-- feeling hatred, and temptation to use violence against the adversary, particular the adversary that is not armed, I guarantee you, you are starting to lose because you have already lost or you are losing your moral-- superiority, your moral integrity.

So my advice is-- never ever surrender to hatred. Never allow yourself to be hostage of violence, of-- hatred. Do not-- answer an eye for an eye. You manage to beat your adversary with your resilience, your-- your faith, with your commitment to-- non-violence. My advice also is-- be open-minded, be flexible.

Do not be dogmatic. Look at tactics, how you can advance your cause one little step at a time. Maybe step sideways in order to move forward. Don't-- go against a rock, against a wall. Try to-- move around. So-- be very flexible always-- tactically. Focus on your goal. The goal is freedom, the goal is independence. But everything else is negotiable. Everything else is tactical. You-- must be-- f-- flexible. 

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 on this theme from Jose Ramos-Horta

Jose Ramos Horta: Resist Hatred “Never ever surrender to hatred.”