Water Week

EWN Publishing

Long road to legitimacy: Ramos-Horta once labelled a terrorist by Aus and refused visa

Posted by waterweek on 5 October 2007

Jose Ramos-Horta has been one of the world’s enduring political figures, noted The Sydney Morning Herald (22/9/2007, p.25).

History of exile: Like the Queen, Fidel Castro, Nelson Mandela and, until recently, Yasser Arafat, he was one of those people who have seemingly always just been there. And yet he’s only 57. And, if he had his way, he would tread this stage for years to come, possibly as the secretary-general of the United Nations. He was born one of 11 children, to a Portuguese father and a Timorese mother. His father had been exiled for his involvement in a failed mutiny – he and other crew attempted to take a Portuguese vessel to fight against Franco in Spain – and he lived out his days as an administrator in the back-blocks of Portuguese East Timor. During World War II he fought with Australian commandos in a guerilla campaign against the Japanese. The family was poor, but having European blood meant José got a mission education.

Enemy of the state: After leaving school José, who worked as a journalist, was exiled to Mozambique for a year after getting drunk with some “Australian hippies” and mouthing off at the Portuguese. The secret police hauled him in for saying: “Perhaps if Portugal is too poor to develop East Timor, better give it to the Americans.” In Mozambique he was caught up in the fervour that was sweeping Africa to end colonial rule, and when he returned to East Timor he and others, including Mari Alkatiri, formed the party that was to become Fretilin, the Revolu­tionary Front for the Independence of East Timor. With the 1974 collapse of the dictatorship in Portugal, the colonial masters withdrew and Fretilin defeated the conservative UDT party in a brief civil war.

Indonesian invasion: In late 1975, Fretilin declared East Timor an independent state and appointed José Ramos-Horta its foreign minister. He was 25. He was immediately dispatched to plead his country’s case at the United Nations, but before his aircraft had landed in New York, the Indonesians invaded. Lobbying the UN by day and working as a cleaner at night, he set up an apartment and bought one cup, one plate and cutlery only for himself, believing he would be home soon. He would not return for another 24 years, during which time tens of thousands – some claim 200,000 – including a sister and two broth­ers, would die during the Indonesian occupation.

Labelled a terrorist: Along the way he was labelled a terrorist, a murderer and was banned for almost a decade from travelling to Australia, which refused to issue him a visa. He slept on couches around the world as politicians and diplomats slammed doors in his face. But he never gave up. In 1991 the brutality of the Indonesian occupa­tion was revealed when film was shown on televi­sion screens across the world of soldiers shooting and killing some 200 protesters at Dili’s Santa Cruz cemetery. Diplomats began to listen to Ramos-Horta’s campaign; then, in 1996, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

Final legitimacy: He and his cause gained legitimacy just as the Suharto dictatorship was staggering to its end in Indonesia. Three years after winning the peace prize he flew triumphantly back into Dili, to his newly independent but devastated country. He became foreign minister, again, then PM and now President.

The Sydney Morning Herald, 22/9/2007, p. 25


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