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Los Angeles Times Interview

Jose Ramos-Horta

Fighting in Exile for Self-Determination in East Timor

May 25, 1997|Nancy Yoshihara | Nancy Yoshihara is an editorial writer for The Times

In 1975, Jose Ramos-Horta fled his beloved homeland, East Timor, when Indonesia invaded and annexed the small island between Java and Australia. Since then, he has worked tirelessly so the world will not forget East Timor under the closed and brutal rule of Indonesia.

The island's plight finally received world attention when the 1996 Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to Ramos-Horta and another little-known activist, Roman Catholic Bishop Carlos Filipe Ximenes Belo, for their work to bring peace to East Timor. More than 200,000 East Timorese have died--one-third of the population--as a result of war, terror, starvation and epidemics. Both men advocate self-determination for the island.

Belo, 49, remains on East Timor, a prominent figure among its largely Roman Catholic population and a calming influence amid the tensions between Indonesian forces and the local population. Ramos-Horta, in exile in Sydney, Australia, continues to press for a U.N.-sponsored referendum for East Timor. The United Nations does not acknowledge Indonesia's annexation of the former Portuguese colony, and classifies it under Portuguese sovereignty as a non-self-governing territory with the right to self-determination.

Ramos-Horta knows the United Nations well. He worked at its New York headquarters for 13 years for the government of Mozambique, which granted him a diplomatic passport after he fled East Timor. He moved to Australia in 1989. "I had had enough of the United States. I was burned out, broke, almost had a nervous breakdown."

Today, it's hard to imagine the 51-year-old Ramos-Horta as the former leftist guerrilla who was named East Timor's foreign minister 22 years ago. Low key and professorial in demeanor and dress (bow tie and wire-rimmed glasses), he fits right into the University of New South Wales, where he has developed a diplomacy-training program. His 18-year-old son lives in Mozambique with his ex-wife, Anna Pessoa, a judge in that country.

Ramos-Horta fears that East Timor is being held hostage to U.S. economic interests in Indonesia. But, "I must also say we are grateful to the Clinton administration, which even before the Nobel Peace Prize announcement, made East Timor an international issue and raised awareness in this country," he said during a recent conversation in Los Angeles. Clinton has called the East Timor situation "unconscionable" and, in March 1993, the United States backed, for the first time, a U.N. resolution critical of Indonesian human-rights abuses in East Timor. Nevertheless, the United States accepts Indonesia's incorporation of East Timor even as it acknowledges that no valid act of self-determination has taken place.

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Question: Why is a conflict on a small Asian island so important to the entire international community?

Answer: Each of us, be it an American in Los Angeles or an American in Alaska or the British in Sheffield, England, should have some moral responsibilities, concerns about other fellow human beings . . . It's a question of conscience, particularly when you are secure, when you are safe in your home in your country. The least someone in the United States can do is to care about those who are suffering, particularly suffering as a result, directly or indirectly, of some U.S. role.

Q. How would you characterize the Clinton administration's policy toward East Timor? You once described U.S. policy as "a complex contradiction." What did you mean?

A. I understand the constraints imposed on the U.S. by the necessities of realpolitik. Indonesia is a country of 200 million with enormous wealth. We should not have any illusions that countries, the U.S. included, would make moral considerations a primary source of foreign policy. But, at the same time, a country like the United States, which is founded on certain ideals and being the only surviving superpower in the world, cannot simply relinquish these moral responsibilities and surrender to mere economic interests or make these principles totally hostage to realpolitik. In the case of the United States, it has expressed concern to the Indonesia side about human rights and East Timor; but, at the same time, it has provided Indonesia the same tools that cause the human-rights violations over which the U.S. is worried. The U.S., along with the United Kingdom, are the two largest arms suppliers to Indonesia.

Fortunately, I must also say we are grateful to the Clinton administration, which, even before the Nobel Peace Prize, raised awareness in this country. It took some modest steps in putting pressure on Indonesia, cutting some limited amounts of weapons . . . .

But this is very little in proportion to U.S. influence and its huge economic ties with Indonesia. These economic ties give the United States strong leverage . . . . That's why I believe the U.S. could be more active, without upsetting the strategic interest it has in the region.

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