SINGAPORE: “I thought I was going to die. I lost four litres of blood, but my concern was whether the country would slide into a civil war,” says Jose Ramos-Horta as we talk about the attempt to assassinate him in 2008.
In Singapore for UNLEASH, a global innovation conference aimed at coming up with solutions to achieve United Nations (UN) Sustainable Development Goals, he made some time to recount the most powerful moments of his fight for the freedom of Timor-Leste and tell me how he feels about his country’s future.
The 69-year-old Nobel Peace Prize laureate who served as foreign minister (2002-2006), prime minister (2006-2007) and president (2007-2012) tells of the decades he spent fighting for his country’s freedom from Indonesian occupation in a largely calm and collected manner with moments of subtle emotion as he speaks about the most painful and agonising events in his journey.
Mr Ramos-Horta currently serves as an Adviser to the President of the UN General Assembly.
But memories of his past remain vivid in his mind.
His country, Timor-Leste, previously known as East Timor had attained freedom from Indonesian occupation in 1999, but as a young democracy, it had its share of factional strife.
To listen to the full interview, click here.
The 2008 assassination attempt on Mr Ramos-Horta was perpetrated by a rebel soldier.
“A renegade army officer, very unstable, with a huge ego went to the mountains, deserted from the army with about 20 followers. I wouldn’t use force against them. I was engaging them mainly through dialogue. Strangely enough, on that morning, he and his men came to my house while I was out doing my early morning exercises. There was an exchange of fire and he was shot dead by one of my security guards. I came back to the house and was shot.
“The remaining renegade soldiers surrendered to me when I arrived back home after my recovery in hospital. They all surrendered with their weapons, but they were put on trial. After their trial, they were sent to prison, but I pardoned them.”
He was criticised for doing so. I ask him why he felt compelled to do it.
“Because these were soldiers, simple people. The turmoil had to do with the failure of their leader, not them. I wasn’t going to blame the small people.”
He had, after all, spent most of his life fighting for the rights of his people, who he describes as the “little people” having to go up against much more powerful entities.
His face might be weathered by years of diplomatic battle, but his eyes still bear the spark of the fiery freedom fighter who, for 24 years, lobbied the international community to restore justice and dignity to the people of Timor-Leste.
POVERTY AND NEGLECT
A former Portuguese colony, East Timor was invaded by Indonesia in December 1975 after the Portuguese left. Mr Ramos-Horta left his country just a few days before the invasion. As foreign minister in the Timorese nationalist leadership made up of pro-independence parties, he had been given a mission to plead the Timorese case before the UN.
For the next 24 years of Indonesian occupation, he was the East Timorese resistance’s exiled spokesman.
But he was no stranger to occupation, having grown up under the Portuguese, who had colonised East Timor four centuries previously.
His father was a Portuguese naval gunner who was himself exiled to the East Timor for a failed attempt to fight the dictatorship in Portugal.
Mr Ramos-Horta was educated in a remote Catholic mission. He did well enough to become one of the few East Timorese to be sent to high school in the capital Dili.
East Timor was largely a neglected trading post or the Portuguese. They hardly invested in infrastructure, health, and education.
“During my time as a child, what affected me most was seeing the poverty, neglect, lack of education. There were very few schools and no university. This is what impacted me most. I wanted the Timorese to access education and to get more opportunities in life."
Where Portuguese rule was actively asserted, it was “brutal and exploitative”, he says.
Mr Ramos-Horta with other like-minded East Timorese yearned for freedom and when he made an indiscreet remark on the issue, he was exiled to Mozambique for three years.
He returned to East Timor in 1974 Ramos-Horta and founded the Social Democratic Association of Timor which then became the popular pro-independence party, the Revolutionary Front for an Independent East Timor (Fretilin).
Following a coup in 1974, the new government of Portugal began a gradual decolonisation process. As part of a token gesture it held an election in East Timor in 1975.
Fretilin garnered 55 per cent of the vote on election day but its power was challenged by a civil war believed to be initiated by a Jakarta-backed East Timorese political party, Apodeti.
Amid all this and as the Portuguese withdrew, rumblings of an invasion began in Indonesia. It was believed that Indonesia was fearful of having a leftist state at its doorstep and also wanted to lay claim to the oil reserves which had been newly discovered in East Timor’s territorial waters.
Even though East Timor declared independence in November 1975, it didn’t stop the Indonesian invasion just a month later.
POWERLESS, HEARTBROKEN, ANGRY AND GUILTY
Having been given the mission to lobby the international community to assist the Timorese in achieving full independence, Mr Ramos-Horta began an uphill task in the US.
“Leaving my country was hard. I had to leave everyone behind.”
This included his 11 siblings, three of whom were killed by the Indonesian military.
“My sister was 21 years old at the time. She was killed during an air bombing on the village where she was. In 2003, after independence from Indonesia, we went to the place where she was killed. The local people saw and luckily, they buried her, so we were able to recover her body and buried it in the common cemetery in the capital, Dili.”
Two of his brothers have still not been found. He believes they were killed and “like many thousands of Timorese” have been either buried in “unknown graves” or “just dumped in the bush”.
The Commission for Reception, Truth and Reconciliation in East Timor estimated the number of deaths from famine and violence during the occupation to be about 200,000 out of a population of approximately 800,000 in 1999.
Not being in East Timor during the decades of atrocities, made him feel “powerless”.
“I was absolutely heartbroken, angry and guilty that I wasn’t there, but that gave me a greater sense of obligation. Every time, any thought came into my mind about giving up, I thought of the common people whom I knew were suffering. I grew up in the mountains, in the villages and I received an order, a mission from the leader to go to the UN and defend our cause. I would be absolutely an abominable person if I betrayed all of that, so I kept on.”
His mother was part of clandestine network that smuggled footage and photographic evidence of the atrocities, so he was well aware of the horror his people were going through.
“I called members of the US Congress, called the UN Secretary-General, members of the UN, the media to make them aware of what was going on and so that I was relentless in that regard.”
Financed in part by his the movement to free East Timor and non-governmental organisations, Mr Ramos-Horta lobbied the UN and prominent American leaders and non-governmental organisations.
He also did some translation work to earn money.
“But I had to live in cockroach-infested apartments. Sometimes, there wasn’t enough money for food. Today, whenever I go back to New York and I walk down the corridors, I always remember those traumatic experiences - the poverty, the difficulty, the loneliness, the indifference of governments.”
Indeed, the indifference of the international community was a major hurdle.
“If I were someone with a lack of faith, determination and a weak spirit, I would have given up because it was a general ignorance, lack of understanding, knowledge, basic information about my country.”
STICKERS IN TOILETS
The absence of digital media made the task of increasing awareness even harder.
“It was next to impossible to educate people. All we had was conventional mainstream media and Timor-Leste is very remote from the rest of the world.”
He had to exercise extreme ingenuity to get the word out.
“In 1993, I went to the Second World Congress in Vienna, a human rights conference. There were thousands of people there. Non-governmental organisations and everybody had sophisticated posters of all sorts. I was all alone. An Australian, a former Jesuit priest and a friend arrived in Vienna with some stickers. They were small stickers which said, 'Boycott Bali, Free Xanana'. Xanana Gusmao, our independence hero, was in prison then. But such a small sticker, if you’d put it in the midst of all other posters will, it will be lost.
“So I went to the toilets of the diplomats. I put the sticker right at the eye-level. So when the gentleman sits in there, inevitably he has to look at it and he’s alone there, so there would be no distraction from other posters,” he says with an almost gleeful laugh.
I ask him if his efforts paid off.
It was two days later that a reporter from the Wall Street Journal approached him to ask if he was the one responsible for the stickers. The Indonesian delegation had seen them and had protested to the organisers of the event.
“At first I was like a kid caught doing something bad. I tried to deny it. But eventually, I admitted it because he wanted to do an innocent story about what I did and I got a chance to talk about the cause. So I was front-page news in the Wall Street Journal.”
Ultimately, it was the Asian financial crisis and the downfall of President Suharto in Indonesia that catalysed international support for East Timorese independence.
THE HYPOCRISY OF INTERNATIONAL POLITICS
In 1999, following a UN-sponsored act of self-determination, Indonesia relinquished control and East Timor became the first new sovereign state of the 21st century in 2002. It was renamed Timor-Leste, influenced by its Portuguese heritage.
“But for that to benefit us, it didn’t happen just overnight. It took me 24 years of building networks of support particularly in Washington, in the US Congress. Even Portugal and the European Union played a critical role."
He managed to convince members of the US Congress to terminate military defence cooperation with Indonesia.
"The punitive measures worked," he says with satisfaction.
As he points out that during the occupation, many of his people were killed by American weapons, I ask him why he thinks it took so long for the international community to come on board.
Immediately after the invasion, the United Nations General Assembly and Security Council passed resolutions condemning it and calling for Indonesia’s immediate withdrawal, but the US continued its cooperation with Indonesia.
"I still remember I arrived in New York in the winter of 1975. I had never seen snow in my life. I spoke at the UN Security Council and it passed a unanimous resolution demanding Indonesia to withdraw from Timor-Leste. That was my first lesson in international hypocrisy because the Americans, the French the British, they all voted on that resolution demanding Indonesian withdrawal, but Indonesia challenged it and continued to occupy East Timor. Not only that, the US kept selling weapons to Indonesia," he says with palpable frustration.
He admits geo-politics played a huge role, but he eventually managed to find many members of the US Congress who “upheld principles of democracy and integrity” who were willing to “stand up” for his country.
I remark that it’s unfortunate that it took 24 years for this to happen and only when Indonesia saw a leadership change.
But he says he understands that sometimes the tide needs to change in larger ways for the administration to truly take notice.
Today, he has many friends in the US Congress who continue to fight for the rights of the downtrodden including, in today’s context, of immigrants in the US who are being made to feel unwelcome by the current American administration.
IS THE UN INEFFECTUAL?
Considering his ties to the UN, I wonder how he would assess the body’s effectiveness, noting that even the resolution passed on his country was not enforced.
He admits that the UN has been sidelined on many issues and has failed to take effective action in global conflicts.
“But the UN is made up of member states. It’s up to them how effective the body is. At this time, we are seeing a US administration that seems to be against multilateralism and others may be emasculating it because of rivalries, but eventually I believe we will all come back to the UN because there are no other solutions to the enormous challenges in every field that we face. Extraordinary complex situations require political will and the mobilisation of resources and because these problems are global, they can be tackled only through the collective political will of people and the collective mobilisation of resources and the UN is the only multilateral institution of this kind in existence.”
Yet he was once quoted as saying that he supported the US’ unilateral action in Iraq.
“I was totally misrepresented at the time. In fact, at that time I said that the West needs to give the UN time to try to find a way to resolve the standoff between the US and Saddam Hussein, but I did say that not every intervention is illegal or unacceptable, for instance in the case of the Rwandan genocide, I think the UN should have intervened in a timely manner and if they didn’t someone else should have. I had said that it depends on the situation. If someone were to intervene unilaterally to stop the genocide, would that be wrong?”
GAINING REGIONAL STANDING
Today, while Timor-Leste is a member of the UN, it isn’t yet a member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).
“ASEAN countries have had reservations about our membership and those reservations are based on our preparation or capacity to observe the responsibilities as a member of ASEAN in adjusting, adopting laws, regulations such as immigration laws to conform with ASEAN standards. Security, trade, customs are all very, very important. For several years now, there has been a working group assisting Timor-Leste in its preparation to join ASEAN and this taskforce has been headed by Singapore, so we hope it will happen soon.”
He has also taken a keen interest in ASEAN countries such as Myanmar and its Rohingya crisis. I ask him how he feels about ASEAN’s policy of non-interference considering our conversation about unilateralism and multilateralism earlier.
"I would say that ASEAN leaders are doing their best to help in any way they can and while they can’t help politically, there are other ways to help. I would encourage Aung San Suu Kyi to do more reach out to ASEAN countries to get advice on dealing with insurgencies, conflict prevention and mediation.”
He believes that the international community has "unrealistic" expectations of her.
"Myanmar is transitioning from dictatorship and there is overwhelming distrust within the population. Aung San Suu Kyi is trying to handle an extremely delicate situation that she inherited and people expect her to pull out a magic wand and resolve all the problems. But educating the population and dialogue takes time.”
We turn to discussing current issues in his country which, just last month, had its second parliamentary election in less than a year with a coalition of parties led by Xanana Gusmao emerging victorious.
While some reports have put a negative spin on the political state of the country, Mr Ramos-Horta feels otherwise.
“The previous government was not able to function without an absolute majority, so we had another election. We let the people decide again and do so peacefully. It is a great testament to the consolidation of democracy. I’m happy that both elections went without any violence.”
But according to some reports, the campaign was marred by violence.
“Some journalists, because they get bored when nothing happens, even if an accident occurs, they’ll say it’s campaign-related violence. But there was zero violence of a political nature. I was in the country. There were strong emotional debates and accusations but that’s supposed to happen in a democracy. There was no violence and the results were certified by the election commission, consolidated by the Supreme Court and everybody accepted it.
“We have had for 16 years now, peaceful constitutional change of government, no military coups, no takeover by anyone except through free democratic elections.”
However, he apparently takes issue with the way the country has been run since he left office.
In a previous interview, he had said that if he had been prime minister for 10 years, he would have focused all those 10 years on quality education, rural development and water sanitation for the people, something that the Timor-Leste governments so far have not done.
“Yes, on the development side and economic side they have done less well. They have done massive investment in infrastructure, but while that’s needed, you can’t neglect other aspects. Failure in addressing the systemic problems of poverty and basic issues like clean water for communities is worrying.
“This is a problem in many countries - fast growth, fast development that’s fueled by public expenditure, but that does not filter down to communities. But I believe the new government will also learn from past mistakes and change their approach.”
Timor-Leste’s rich oil and gas reserves are also reportedly dwindling and some experts have warned that its economy will be severely affected.
“We are familiar with these dramatic warnings from so-called experts that by 2022 current oil fields will be depleted, but we have invested our revenue over the years in a sovereign fund and we have liquidity. We have at least US$16 billion.”
He also raises Timor-Leste’s recent treaty with Australia on their disputed maritime border and on a "pathway" to develop the giant Greater Sunrise offshore gas fields.
The agreement places much of the Greater Sunrise fields under Timor-Leste’s control and that will “bring billions of dollars to the economy”.
“But we still need to control public expenditure because the billions could run out fast,” he cautions.
While the agreement with Australia has been welcomed, some non-governmental organisations have taken issue with the fact that it stipulates Australia will not compensate Timor-Leste for past exploitation of its oil fields.
“Let’s put the past behind us. Australia also showed wisdom and statesmanship in backing down from past positions that they wouldn't negotiate with Timor Leste on a permanent maritime boundary. They have backed down, and they have contributed to our development in the last few years too, so we should back down too.”
CEDING THE STAGE TO OTHERS
Since leaving office in 2012, I wonder if he has ever thought of returning to politics in his country.
“It’s time to cede the stage to others.”
He says his assignments with the UN have kept him busy enough.
Among his notable assignments were Chair of the High Level Independent Panel on UN Peace Operations tasked to reform the UN peacekeeping architecture and in 2013 and 2014 he served as UN Under-Secretary-General and Special Representative in Guinea-Bissau which was under a military regime. He brought the country through democratic elections.
But his heart clearly lies in Timor-Leste.
“I didn’t do everything well. Sometimes I made mistakes. Sometimes, in my fight for my country, I was rude to people, to some diplomats but they were more diplomatic than I am, so they were patient with me but I don’t recall having wasted or missed an opportunity that was available to me. I knocked on every door possible to bring my country to the attention of the world.”
Today, he is also grateful that he didn’t die that fateful day in 2008.
“I wanted to live to see my country independent and it is now a functioning sovereign democracy.”