A bad day at the office for East Timor's superman

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 27 May, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 27 May, 2006, 12:00am

Less than three years after independence, the violence that drove East Timorese towards nationhood has returned. And now, as then, the steady hand of Jose Ramos Horta is on the tiller, trying to steer the tiny nation through unchartered waters.

There is no better person to be taking the lead in bringing peace to a country that is barely able to feed its own people, let alone restore order. Mr Ramos Horta has, after all, spent a lifetime fighting for East Timor.

Yet he is neither the president nor the prime minister - rather, he is the foreign minister, a role he has held in one form or another since 1975, when he was just 25. The difference is that back then, the world did not care about East Timor - whereas now, as events of recent weeks have shown, international action is swift when needed.

As it became clear on Wednesday that the 800-strong military was struggling to deal with unrest sparked by 600 former colleagues angry at being sacked in March for deserting, East Timor issued a plea to Australia, Malaysia, New Zealand and Portugal for help. All immediately promised troops or police, with the first foreign forces arriving on Thursday.

When Indonesia invaded East Timor on December 7, 1975, in the wake of Portugal's decision to end 450 years of colonial rule, the world did not blink. Even as it became apparent that Indonesian troops were killing thousands of people, there was inaction.

From the UN and then through a relentless global lobbying programme, Mr Ramos Horta did his utmost to change minds. While former resistance leader President Xanana Gusmao was the Nelson Mandela-like figurehead of the movement, Mr Ramos Horta - a jovial, comparatively sophisticated diplomat - became its spokesman and torch-bearer.

Nonetheless, while he may opt for bow-ties on occasion and have a flawless command of English that gets him quoted in the international media many times more than the less linguistically gifted Mr Gusmao, he is also a more ordinary man.

While Mr Gusmao exudes charisma, Mr Ramos Horta is not so much a personality - a characteristic that better helps with his job of campaigning, advocating and representing.

But he is also a crusader, a characteristic that is perhaps genetic - his father and grandfather were both political exiles, just as he became for three years from 1970 for advocating political awareness among Timorese. Portuguese secret police, keeping a watchful eye on dissent, overheard an indiscrete remark and he was sent to another colony, Mozambique.

Born in Dili on December 26, 1949, his mother was Timorese and his father a Portuguese naval gunner, who had been exiled to what was then Portuguese Timor by dictator Antonio de Oliveira Salazar in 1937 for being part of an attempt to overthrow the fascist government. Mr Ramos Horta was educated at a remote Catholic mission, and did so well at his studies that he was one of a few students chosen to attend a Dili high school.

On graduation, he became a journalist and through his wide reading, increasingly interested in the idea of an independent East Timor. That was when the secret police moved in to stamp on what were deemed to be subversive views.

On his return to Dili in 1973, Mr Ramos Horta picked up where he left off, seeking out like-minded people and co-founding the Social Democratic Association of Timor, which the following year evolved into the popular pro-independence political party Fretilin, or the Revolutionary Front for an Independent Timor.

Five months earlier, in April 1974, Portugal's dictatorship had been overthrown in a military takeover and democracy was restored. The cash-strapped government decided to withdraw from most of its colonies and Timor was handed self-rule.

In elections in March 1975, Fretilin won 55 per cent of the vote and Mr Ramos Horta, who had been studying in Australia, was recalled to be the communications and external affairs minister.

But the danger of Indonesia became apparent with the pullout of Portuguese troops. In an effort to head off an invasion, independence was declared in November 1975 in the hope that the giant neighbour would be less inclined to take over a sovereign state.

In December 1975, Mr Ramos Horta left for New York to lobby the UN for protection.

Three days later, Indonesia invaded on the pretext that it was preventing East Timor from turning communist, a move that had the backing of the US, Britain and other powers.

Thousands of Timorese were killed within days, and the toll by the time Indonesian militias were subdued by UN peacekeepers following an overwhelming vote for independence in 1999 was estimated at 200,000 - a quarter of the Timorese population. Among those who died were four of the diplomat's 11 brothers and sisters.

For a decade, living in New York, he lobbied at the UN to keep East Timor alive as an issue, and over time was involved in the passing of a dozen security council resolutions. Later, basing himself in Australia, he continued his efforts, meeting as many politicians, delegations and pressure groups around the world as possible.

In 1996, Mr Ramos Horta and Bishop Carlos Belo were jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for 'their sustained efforts to hinder the oppression of a small people'. That has continued unabated, through the Indonesian-backed militia violence after the 1999 independence vote and the heady days to nationhood in May 2002.

But the nation, Asia's poorest and least developed, still has a long way to go for self-sufficiency from the oil reserves in the Timor Sea for which it has worked so hard to control. Unemployment remains high, there is no industry and foreign investment is miniscule. The unrest of recent weeks reveals the country's fragility.

Fortunately for Timorese, Mr Ramos Horta has not lost his determination to lobby world leaders to come to the nation's rescue.