Wednesday, December 03, 1997

"People Will Always Remember"

Interview with Jose Ramos-Horta

VANCOUVER, 3 Dec. 1997

In 1975, Jose Ramos-Horta arrived in New York as the representative of an East Timorese political party to address the UN Security Council on Indonesia's illegal invasion of his homeland. Then he received scant attention; the Cold War was at its height. Ramos-Horta continued to denounce the annexation despite frequent allegations from every corner of the world that he did not truly represent the East Timorese. The Indonesian government repeatedly refused to talk with him. He kept on speaking out.

More than 20 years later, in December 1996, to the shock of the Indonesian government, Ramos-Horta won the prestigious Nobel Peace Prize with his fellow countryman, Bishop Carlos Ximenes Belo. Was it a turning point for East Timor's spokesman?

He recently spoke with Indonesian journalist Andreas Harsono on the sidelines of the People's Summit, an alternative gathering of NGOs, academics, and unions within the framework of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation in Vancouver. The following are excerpts from the interview.

How does it feel to be a Nobel laureate? Travelling and speaking a lot, but you cannot go to your own homeland.

It's not easy emotionally, psychologically and physically. Some people do not realise how tiring, stressful and frustrating it is. But for 22 years I have been travelling back and forth, talking to people who want to listen to me, governments who want to meet with me and journalists who bothered listening.

But the status quo is still maintained?

Yes, which is what actually counts because it gives me one measure as to whether the negotiation at the UN auspices have made any real impact. We look at the situation on the ground and that has obviously changed. There's more pressure on Indonesia. There's more international sympathy and solidarity. So those who are on the battle front, inside Indonesian prisons, at least they have this consolation that they are not alone in this world. I think if you are a prisoner of a dictatorship, and you know that people care, it gives you more hope and will to survive.

I talked to an Indonesian general about three years ago. He said that diplomatically Indonesia had lost on East Timor, but not militarily. I asked him why he keeps staying, and he said if East Timor is gone, the other provinces will go.

I don't agree with the doomsday scenario that if East Timor is to go, West Papua and Sumatra would follow. I don't think it will happen. If that was the case, Indonesia would have been disintegrated a long time ago when Papua New Guinea became independent. West Papua has much more in common with Papua New Guinea than it has with other parts of Indonesia. But nothing has changed in West Papua. Sumatra also has much more in common with Malaysia, historically, linguistically, religiously and ethnically.

I don't understand the logic for that doomsday scenario. It requires local grassroots movements that do not exist, in terms of secession, in those places. There is discontentment, anger, resentment about the lack of political liberty, social injustice, environmental degradation. But so far I don't see that their movements are of a separatist and centrifugal nature.

The general said Indonesia has to wait for one more generation to make sure that East Timor belongs to Indonesia. He said the current, troublesome young generation has to go first.

This is possible if East Timor does not achieve independence by 10 or 20 years from now. The new generation in East Timor will no longer feel that they're different from Indonesia. Maybe they'll grow up feeling like Indonesians. But I have my doubts. East Timor's culture is centuries old. It goes through the oral tradition. People will always remember for generations about the heroic struggle for independence. And as long as there is repression, killing and torture, how can the East Timorese feel Indonesian? On the other hand, if today Indonesia is to stop killing, torturing and withdraws their troops, releases all political prisoners and gives a genuine local autonomy to East Timor, then five or 10 years from now, it could be the case.

What about the democratic movement in Indonesia? Is it significant to the East Timor question?

I believe that the destiny of East Timor and other parts of Indonesia are very much linked. It would be easier to find a solution with a democratic Indonesia. People like me, who want to campaign for independence, they could do it in Jakarta. No one would be bothered, like in many democratic countries. I could talk with the parliament. But at the same time, I believe that Suharto still has a chance to resolve the East Timor problem without waiting for a democratic Indonesia. Suharto has the power, the possibility, the opportunity to cut the losses.

What is your reason? There are a lot of players in East Timor.

I don't think any of the political or military factions in Indonesia alone can challenge Suharto. If Suharto was to make a dramatic move on East Timor, yes, some people would be angry. But what would they do? Suharto would gain a lot of international respect and support. Any faction against his policy would be much-criticised internationally.

The likely scenario would even be a big international economic package to reward the Suharto regime, which in turn could placate those who are upset with the loss of East Timor. One should not say that because we have lost so many troops, we should stay on. More are going to be killed. How many more soldiers will have to be killed?

But even democratic figures in Indonesia like Ali Sadikin and Megawati Sukarnoputri claim East Timor as a part of Indonesia.

I don't think Ali Sadikin knows much about East Timor. I think he knows the Indonesia of the 1960s and 1970s. He does not move much beyond that. If he was to visit East Timor first and travel around the world like Megawati, he would see that any regime coming after Suharto that does not address the East Timor problem will have even more difficulties with East Timor, internationally and locally, because any regime coming after Suharto will not have the power and the strength that Suharto has had over the past 20 years. Any new regime coming after a prolonged dictatorship is always unstable. It takes years to consolidate. They would not have the military means to continue to occupy East Timor. They need more international support to consolidate their power.

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