East Timor: a country about which we rarely think or of which there are not usually groundbreaking headlines on the newspapers and TV channels. It's a small nation located in the Southeast Asia adjacent to the Indonesian Archipelago, with a population of about 1,172,000. It's economy is emerging and its trade ties with the rest of the world are getting developed.
However, East Timor, also known in Portuguese as Timor-Leste, has had a tumultuous and turbulent history which was that of a continued plight and predicament. As a result of its geostrategic importance, it has been invaded over the past centuries by different colonial powers: the Portuguese, the Dutch, the Australians, the Japanese and finally it was involved in clashes with the Indonesians.
The occupation of East Timor by Indonesia from 1975 to 1999 marked the most painful, complicated and also deadly period in the country's contemporary history. The Commission for Reception, Truth and Reconciliation in East Timor has reported that in the period between 1974 and 1999, some 102,000 people were killed in the conflicts resulting from the Indonesian occupation of Timor-Leste. At that time, the United States, Australia and the United Kingdom backed Indonesia's occupation of the peninsula.
For the people of East Timor, the name of Dr. Jose Ramos-Horta resonates with such values as bravery, audacity, selflessness and perseverance. Jose Ramos-Horta, born in 1949, was the second President of East Timor who held office from 2007 until 2012, having previously served as his country's Prime Minister from 2006 until his inauguration as the president.
For his contributions to the cause of the East Timorese people and his efforts in the independence of his nation, Dr. Jose Ramos-Horta was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1996 along with the fellow countryman Bishop Ximenes Belo. The Nobel Committee called Ramos-Horta “the leading international spokesman for East Timor's cause since 1975."
He is currently the United Nations' special Representative and Head of the United Nations Integrated Peacebuilding Office in Guinea-Bissau (UNIOGBIS). He is considered an icon of peacemaking activities in the Southeast Asia.
In an exclusive interview with Tehran Times, Dr. Jose Ramos-Horta said that the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant is an extremist cult whose activities and operations run counter to the peaceful teachings of Islam and the will of Muslims around the world.
"ISIL fanatics are a mortal enemy of all Muslims around the world and the U.S. should work with Iran to disrupt and eliminate this menace from the region," he said.
Tehran Times had the opportunity to conduct an in-depth interview with President Jose Ramos-Horta about the history of East Timor, its occupation by the colonial powers in the different junctures of history, the plight of the East Timorese people in the recent decade, its current economic and social growth and also some regional and international issues. The following is the text of the interview.
Q: Mr. President; when reading the history of East Timor, what struck me was that after Portugal, Indonesia occupied your country for some 24 years, from 1975 to 1999. Indonesia was not a colonial power and has usually lived with its neighbors in peace and friendship. Why did it embark on a deadly project of invading the East Timor and killing thousands of its innocent people? It's said that the invasion of East Timor by Indonesia was driven by ideological motives, such as Indonesia's fears for the possible coming to power of left-leaning parties in the 1976 elections, since the government of Suharto garnered anti-Soviet ambitions. Is that true?
A: During the "Cold War" period, regimes of the left and of the right acted on perceived threats from within and without; left-wing and Marxist insurgencies were supported by the Soviet Union and, or China; the U.S. supported every right wing, conservative or fascist regime in Asia, Africa and Latin America. In the process many innocent people were imprisoned, tortured and killed by either side of this stupid ideological battle. Timor-Leste was one more victim of the "Cold War" period as the generals ruling the vast Indonesian archipelago, rightly or wrongly, feared that an independent Timor-Leste would become another communist bastion, a communist enclave in the chain of the Indonesian islands.
Q: Did East Timor have a certain strategic importance that triggered off Portugal, Australia, the Dutch and Japan to occupy it at different junctures of history? The Portuguese were doing trade in Timor until they officially declared it a colony in 1702. Australians and the Dutch attacked East Timor in 1941, and the Imperial Japan also occupied it during the World War II in 1942. Indonesia was the last country to invade East Timor. Why has your country been always coveted by the foreign powers? Are there historical or economic factors at work?
A: It seems like many major trading powers were interested in Timor-Leste, going back hundreds of years; first Arabs and Chinese traders looking for spices and sandalwood; then came the Portuguese in the 16th Century, and much later in 1942 came the Japanese Imperial Army. Timor-Leste sits on a strategic waterway, linking the Pacific and Indian Oceans. However, while we do have some oil and gas, offshore and on-shore, Timor-Leste is not particularly rich, we are not a Kuwait by any stretch of imagination.
Q: Of course it was not easy to end an occupation which had lasted for around a quarter century by a colonizer that was supported by the world's major powers. Would you please tell us more about your role in the realization of the independence of East Timor? I'm sure you are willing to pay tribute to your colleagues and co-warriors including Bishop Xemens Belo and President Xanana Gusmao, too, who made strenuous efforts on this path. Please also tell us about their contributions to cause of East Timor and their influence on the independence of your nation.
A: Being outside the country, my part of the contribution was much smaller than those who endured the occupation and were engaged in the resistance inside the country. The real heroes of our struggle are those who spent 24 years in the mountains, valleys and caves of our country, those youth and cadres who operated in the cities, fighting for independence. Xanana Gusmao who is the current Prime Minister, Mr. Taur Matan Ruak, current President, are among the bravest and smartest of our freedom fighters, leading the resistance of such a small country, less than one million, against Indonesian occupation, a country of over 200 million, in a patient, determined fashion until finally we achieved victory. Although we are a majority Catholic population (97% Catholics) and Indonesia is a majority Muslim country (95% Muslim) the conflict was never a religious one - and during the entire two decades of suffering we never demonized Indonesia as a people and never demonized Muslims. And we never ever kidnapped or killed a single Indonesian civilian, and never killed a captured Indonesian soldier. Today, Timor-Leste and Indonesia, one Catholic, the other Muslim, once "enemies", are best neighbors and friends.
Q: The Santa Cruz massacre of 12 November 1991 was a turning point in the course of East Timor's contemporary developments and its path to independence and freedom. Around 250 pro-independence East Timorese protesters were brutally murdered by the Indonesian soldiers while attending the funeral procession of Sebastiao Gomes. What's your viewpoint on the impact of that tragic event on the independence of East Timor 8 years later, the international reactions to the carnage and the worldwide condemnation of it by the different governments and countries?
A: 12th November massacre, captured in video by a courageous journalist, Max Sthall, was indeed the turning point in our long struggle. However, if Max Sthall had not captured it in film, had we not known how to seize on it and mobilize world opinion, the Santa Cruz massacre would have been forgotten. There were many more massacres in the course of 24 years, there were countless cases of horrible torture, of prisoners thrown off boats, helicopters, airplanes, that went unreported.
Q: You were involved in the cause of liberating East Timor since a very young age, and were only 25 years old when you were announced to be the Foreign Minister of the "Democratic Republic of East Timor" government proclaimed by the pro-independence parties in November 1975. Had you ever envisaged a day when you would become your independent country's president or get a Nobel Peace Prize for your efforts to prevent the killing of the East Timorese people?
A: I always believed that sooner or later East Timor would be free. I just didn't realize it would take so long! But never thought about winning a prize, whatever it may be; it didn't occur in my mind, not once, that I should one day receive the Nobel Peace Prize. Since then I'm just amazed how some people actually lobby me and others to nominate them for the Nobel Peace Prize. It is even embarrassing! When we are working for peace, for a good cause, we should just focus on it, and should not be thinking about being recognized. When we help a poor person, when we give some food or money to a poor family in our neighborhood, do we want it to become an evening TV news item? So when we fight for freedom, democracy and human rights we do not think about being rewarded by some national or international institution.
Q: East Timor is a young democracy, and it's striding on the path of development; however, the economic indicators show that much has to be done to propel the nation toward welfare and prosperity. For instance, 20% of the population is unemployed, 52.9% lives below the poverty threshold and above half of the population is illiterate. What plans and initiatives does the government have to solve these problems? As the president, could you address these concerns?
A: Sorry brother, your figure's a bit out of date. I don't know where you got the figures but here are current figures, from the most recent UNDP Human Development Report (2014).
The report, described by the UNDP as its “flagship product”, also includes the Human Development Index which presents 2013 data for 187 countries and territories measuring average achievement in three basic dimensions of human development; a long and healthy life, knowledge and a decent standard of living.
In 2013 Timor-Leste is ranked at 128. This takes Timor-Leste from a Low Human development country to a Medium Human Development Country along with South Africa, India and Indonesia. The progress has been steady. In 2011 the ranking was 147, in 2012 Timor-Leste was ranked 134 and the ranking is now 128 amongst 187 countries and territories.
The ‘Human Development Index Trends’ fastest growth period for Timor-Leste was between 2008 - 2013. Of all the 144 countries in the Very High, High and Medium Human Development Categories, Timor-Leste has the highest annual average of Human development growth.
Amongst all 187 countries and territories measured, the only six countries that have a higher rating of human development growth continue to remain in the Low Human Development Category.
Q: I noted that during the period of colonization, East Timor was a major source of sandalwood trees, and that the Portuguese had granted the permission and concessions to the Oceanic Exploration Corporation to develop the sandalwood deposits. The operations had ceased during the Indonesian occupation of the country. Is East Timor currently able to export sandalwood as one of the important trade commodities it possesses?
A: Sorry Brother. There's some mix-up here in your question. It is a fact that the Island of Timor was covered with sandalwood forest when Portuguese adventurers first reached these shores in the early 14th Century. However, over centuries this rich forest was decimated by unscrupulous traders. Sandalwood is very rare now. Oceanic Exploration was and is an obscure tiny U.S. oil company that got exploration license from Portugal in the 70's. It never undertook any drilling and commercial activity in its block. This is a whole different issue from sandalwood.
Q: In an interview with Sir David Frost of Al Jazeera, you said that the failed assassination attempt against you in 2008 was a point in time when you bought peace for your country through donating and sacrificing your life. Bloodshed and infighting was stopped after that botched assassination attempt and the people who were standing against each other got united and the rebels surrendered. What's your perspective on the effects that event had on the future of East Timor and the nation's path toward fulfilling self-determination and liberty?
A: I don't know what effects my near-death in 2008 will have on the future of the country. I hope that the death of my own brothers and a sister and that of many thousands of others will not be betrayed and wasted by current and future politicians. Corruption is on the rise, waste, greed, incompetence and abuse of power are pervasive. I hope the President and the Prime Minister as well as the Courts will their duty and combat these evils in our country.
Q: As a leader and Nobel Peace Prize laureate who has dedicated his entire life to the liberation and independence of a subjugated and oppressed nation, what do you expect of the international community, the United Nations and the world countries to do for your country, its emerging democracy and its ailing economy? How can the world help East Timor grow stronger, richer and happier?
A: For the past 7 years, our economic growth has been double digit; poverty, unemployment, child and infant mortality are down. We now have one doctor per 1,000 people. Malaria is significantly down. Our Human Development Index has advanced, doing better than almost every country in Africa, better than Myanmar, Lao, Cambodia, Nepal, etc.
Q: How much are the UN, World Bank and individual world countries donating to the reconstruction efforts in Timor-Leste? Is the donation still being made by the United States and other world powers? In 2002, the newly-established Timorese government had a budget of about $68 million, which was really insignificant and inconsequential for a war-torn country that has just started rising from the ashes of occupation. How much is the state budget now? Has it improved since the declaration of independence?
A: Our annual State Budget is now well over $1 billion - far more than the 2002 budget which was a miserable $68 million! And for several years now, the State Budget is 100% financed domestically, from our Petroleum Fund and other domestic revenues. Our development partners, Australia, the European Union, Japan, China, USA, etc. still provide close to $200 million in development assistance.
Q: As a prominent peace advocate and activist, what do you think about the future of Iran-U.S. relations and the reconciliation efforts being made by the Obama and Rouhani administrations? Are there chances for the improvement of the bilateral ties, marred with some 35 years of distrust and hostility? Are the two rivals able to put aside the differences and move toward reconciliation?
A: The U.S. and Iran must move forward and close this 35 year old chapter in their acrimonious relationship. Iran is a major regional power; an old civilization; and when religion and politics are mixed or when religious leaders govern a country, religious dogmas may undermine practical and pragmatic strategies. The U.S. is often influenced by religious zealots, whether Orthodox Jewish or Christian Conservatism or a combination of both. In some ways, they are similar, influenced by religious zealots. This certainly undermines a cold-headed, serene and pragmatic approach towards each other.
Q: You surely know that the terrorist cult known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant is conducting heinous operations in parts of Iraq and Syria and is following an imperial agenda to dominate the two mostly-Shia countries and establish an imaginary caliphate in the region. What's your viewpoint regarding the rise of this extremist cult in the Middle East and the financial and military support it's currently receiving from certain powers?
A: ISIL is an extremist concept and group that will be cast aside by the peoples of the region. Their ideology of the Middle Ages, their savagery, will defeat them; they are rejected by all modern Arabs and Muslims around the world. As Christians evolved from the backward Middle Ages when Christians perpetrated barbarities, Muslims too evolved and no longer accept certain interpretations and practices that are an actual betrayal of the Islamic teachings of tolerance, compassion and forgiveness. ISIL fanatics are a mortal enemy of all Muslims around the world and the U.S. should work with Iran to disrupt and eliminate this menace from the region.
Q: There are several wars and armed confrontations taking place in different parts of the world. Many of these wars are driven by the material and mundane greediness of the leaders who don't attach any importance to the lives of human beings. How is it possible to prevent and preclude these wars and save more precious lives?
A: There are no simple recipes, no short-cuts in the tortuous road to peace. Unfortunately and tragically, the wars in Syria, Libya, Iraq, Afghanistan, etc. will go on, people will continue to die. More refugees are being generated by these wars. For every family uprooted, for every person wounded, killed, humiliated, an "extremist" is being created. How can we not expect that these children and these youth from Syria who have witnessed so much barbarities, who have endured such ordeal, will not grow in anger and hatred? I'm afraid, very afraid, that we are going to witness in the years to come an escalation of violence in many parts of the world. I am sorry but I do not have an intelligent answer to your question.