THE 1996 NOBEL PEACE PRIZE FOR CARLOS FILIPE XIMINES BELO
AND JOSÉ RAMOS-HORTA
- By Irwin Abrams
Published in THE NOBEL PRIZE ANNUAL for 1996 (1997: IMG, 22 East 71st St., New York, NY 10021).
The 1996 prize was one of the most highly political of all the peace prizes. Through this award the Norwegian Nobel Committee wanted to bring the attention of the world to a "forgotten conflict." In announcing the choice of Bishop Carlos Filipe Ximenes Belo and José Ramos-Horta of East Timor, Committee Chairman Francis Sejersted declared, "By awarding this prize, we hope to contribute to a diplomatic solution to the conflict in East Timor."
Bishop Belo was characterized as "the foremost representative of the people of East Timor," Ramos-Horta as the leading international spokesman for their cause.
Few had even heard of East Timor, the eastern half of a remote island at the very tip of the long strung-out Indonesian archipelago, much closer to Australia than to Indonesia's capital of Jakarta. Nor did the world take much note when in 1975 this former Portuguese colony, populated mostly by Catholics, was invaded and then annexed by its giant Moslem neighbor. The media was far more occupied in those days with news from Vietnam, where just a few months earlier Saigon had fallen to the Vietkong, But, as Chairman Sejersted pointed out in his speech at the award ceremony, "Of a population of between six and seven hundred thousand, nearly two hundred thousand have died as the direct or indirect result of the Indonesian occupation. And the violations [of human rights] are still taking place." Sejersted called this "an exceptionally brutal form of neocolonialism" and said that "considerations of Realpolitik" enabled it to take place.
Such considerations dominated the policy of the United States toward Indonesia. In December 1975 President Gerald Ford and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger visited Jakarta at the end of their Asian tour, undertaken to reassure friendly states that the Vietnam defeat would not alter United States Cold War policy to maintain a strong presence in the area. President Suharto of Indonesia persuaded his American guests that newly independent East Timor must be prevented from becoming a communist "Cuba." The very day after they left, Indonesian armed forces moved against East Timor, slaughtering defenseless civilians, using weapons which had been supplied by the United States on condition that they were only for self-defense.
To objections from State Department colleagues about Indonesia's violation of its arms agreement, Kissinger replied that to prevent a communist government from arising in the middle of Indonesia was to be construed as self-defense. "No one has complained that it was aggression," he said. Actually, both the United Nations Security Council and General Assembly passed resolutions condemning the invasion. Kissinger's policy to suspend arms sales to Indonesia "for a few weeks and then open up again," also violated Congressional mandate.
This United States policy came as a great disillusionment to a young Timorese who as a teenager opposing Portuguese colonial rule had been a strong admirer of the United States. In 1975, José Ramos-Horta, now 26, was a member of the short-lived independent government of East Timor. He came from liberty-loving forebears. His grandfather and father had both been deported by Portugal's dictatorship because of their political activities, and José hmself at age eighteen had been deported from East Timor to Mozambique by the Portuguese colonial administration for ridiculing Portugal's "civilizing mission."
Back in East Timor, he and other moderate Social Democrats had founded the organization which became the Frente Revolucionaria de Timor Leste Independente (Revolutionary Front of an Independent East Timor, known as FRETILIN). With a more democratic Portugal in process of withdrawal from East Timor, FRETILIN had won a civil war of three weeks with the more conservative Union for Democratic Timor, supported by Indonesia, and on November 28, 1975, had proclaimed a declaration of independence and established the Democratic Republic of East Timor.
The new government appointed Ramos-Horta Minister of External Affairs and, in hopes that it might prevent the threatened Indonesian aggression, instructed him to go abroad to seek international recognition and support.
He was actually in the plane on his way to Europe when the Indonesian invasion began on December 7, and he has never been able to return.
At the United Nations, as the youngest diplomat ever to address the Security Council, Ramos-Horta's presentations helped with the passage of the resolution on December 22, which recognized the "inalienable right of the people of East Timor to self-determination and independence," deplored the intervention of the armed forces of Indonesia, called for their withdrawal, and recognized the Government of Portugal as the administering power, considering its decolonization of East Timor as only having been disrupted.
While the United States voted at the U.N. for such resolutions, the Department of State saw to it that little was done to implement them. Not only was Indonesia an important anti-Communist ally and trading partner, but there were vital routes off the East Timor coast which U.S. nuclear submarines could follow without being detected. Patrick Moynihan, then the U.S. representative to the United Nations, has explained how he helped block action for East Timor, "The Department of State desired that the U.N. prove utterly ineffective in whatever measures it undertook. The task was given to me, and I carried it forward with no inconsiderable success."
After the invasion, the United States continued to be Indonesia's major foreign backer, dramatically increasing the sale of the weapons which were decisive in helping the army finally suppress most of the FRETILIN armed resistance in the late 1970s. Aircraft supplied by the U.S. sprayed napalm on the last major FRETILIN mountain stronghold, killing hundreds of civilians.
Considerations of Realpolitik motivated other countries as well not to antagonize Indonesia by supporting East Timor. Western powers, such as France, Canada and Britain, have found it profitable to sell arms to Indonesia, and Indonesia's partners in the Association of South East Asian Nations have given important diplomatic support. Australia has been the only state formally to recognize the annexation, following this by a treaty with Indonesia to share the proceeds of oil discoveries in the ocean area between East Timor and Australia.
Ramos-Horta, after a decade of fruitless efforts to further the East Timor cause, had to conclude that "East Timor is a classic study of power versus principle, of morality versus expediency, in international relations." Nevertheless, he never gave up. As the Special Representative of the National Council of Maubere Resistance (CNRM), the coalition of Timorese pro-independence organizations, he has continued to plead the case in and out of the United Nations and in any capital anywhere in the world where he could find a hearing. A retired ambassador, who has observed Ramos-Horta at work at the UN and elsewhere, has written of "the way in which he carried out the task of imparting information, how he gradually managed to gain access to the political power structure, and how everything was done with such professionalism that it could well serve as an example to career diplomats."
The young man who first saw a great city when he arrived in New York in 1975 and there saw snow for the first time, has become a world traveler. He has seemed always to be in transit, except when teaching in the Faculty of Law of the University of South Wales in Sydney, Australia., where he directs the program for training of diplomats. His other base has been Portugal, still considered by the United Nations as legally the administering power in East Timor, In 1982 the U.N. General Assembly voted for discussions to be held between Portugal and Indonesia for the resolution of the East Timor conflict under the aegis of the secretary-general, but eight meetings have so far produced no results.
On October 11, 1996, Ramos-Horta was in Sydney, playing on the floor with his two-year old niece, when he was called to the phone to hear from a journalist that he had been named co-winner of the Nobel Peace Prize. Ramos-Horta told me in an interview that he had refused to believe the journalist, assuming it was a joke. He had expected the naming of Bishop Belo, for whose candidacy he had been working several years "behind the scenes," and thought the co-
winner should have been Xanana Gusmao, the leader of the resistance who had been captured by Indonesian forces in 1992 and was now serving a twenty-year prison sentence in Jakarta. He suspected, however, that the Nobel Committee had decided to give it to someone who had not been imprisoned and could keep speaking out about East Timor. The prize was not really for himself, he told the press, but for all those who had fought against Indonesian oppression in East Timor.
Also on October 11 Bishop Belo was celebrating mass in a school in Dili, the capital of East Timor, when word came about the prize. He was humbled --- next to Nelson Mandela, Mother Teresa, Desmond Tutu, "who am I?" He saw the prize "as a victory for East Timorese," diplomatically adding, "and all Indonesians." He said there was still hard work to do in the peace and reconciliation process, asserting that "peace can be achieved through nonviolent means."
The families of the two laureates experienced the brutal Japanese occupation of East Timor during World War II, but both of them were born afterward, Belo in 1948 and Ramos-Horta in 1949. Belo was born in a village, the fifth child in the family of a school teacher. Ramos-Horta was one of ten children of a Timorese mother and a Portuguese father. As the son of a European, Ramos-Horta tells us, even of one who had been deported, he enjoyed more advantages than other children, "without realizing how unjust it was." Ramos-Horta reports widespread traveling around the island, while Belo in his childhood was shepherding water buffaloes in his ancestral village.
Both had their basic education in missionary schools, Belo in Baucau and Ossu, and Ramos-Horta being sent at age seven to the oldest Catholic mission school in the remote village of Soibada. There he suffered a rigid authoritarian regime. The children were allowed to speak only Portuguese and were beaten if they spoke their native Tétun and for other misdeeds. They arose at five every morning, so that they could get to early mass at six. The food was mostly made of corn and not very edible. In the evening little José had to confess his sins of the day to Father Carlos, and even when he had been good, he would make up vague sins so as to leave his confessor satisfied. The little boy sorely missed his family, but they lived then in a mountain village too far away for a visit. No wonder that José ran away a few times, but he was always picked up and returned to school.
Both boys, however, were bright and diligent pupils. Belo went on with his studies, graduated from the seminary outside Dili when he was twenty-five, and left for Lisbon to become a novitiate and then a member of the Salesian Order. Ramos-Horta finished his basic education at Soibada with distinction and was one of the few of his peers to go on to higher learning. He easily passed the admissions examination and was admitted to an exclusive lycée in Dili. There he completed the high school level, excelling in history, philosophy and French, English and Spanish languages.
During his years of exile, Ramos-Horta received his Master of Arts from Antioch University, was a Fellow in International Relations at St. Anthony's College, Oxford, and attended The Hague Academy of International Law and the International Institute of Human Rights at Strasbourg.
Belo went back briefly to East Timor to teach for a short time at the Salesian College at Fatumaca, near Baucau, and then returned to Portugal to study philosophy at the Portuguese Catholic University. He was then sent to Rome for ecclesiastical studies at the Pontifical Salesian University. On returning to Portugal, he was ordained a priest in 1980. He has a flair for languages and is fluent in English, Italian, and Bahasa Indonesian, with a working knowledge of several other languages.
In March 1981 Father Belo returned to East Timor to become the Director of Fatumaca College, where he developed the program of modern technological education. He has always been happy working with young people, but his stay lasted only two years. The first Apostolic Administrator of the Dili Diocese, Mgr da Costa, came into conflict with the military authorities because of their violations of human rights. They pressured the Vatican to replace him with the young Timorese, Father Belo, who they thought would be more pliable.
Consequently, in 1983 Belo was appointed Apostolic Administrator, the highest Catholic post in the country, directly responsible to the Papal See. In 1988, when he was forty, he was consecrated as bishop, taking the title of Bishop of Lorium, a small town in Italy. Since the Catholic Church in East Timor is the only organization independent of Indonesian control, Belo as its head became the chief representative of Timorese nationalist aspirations.
To the dismay of Indonesia, Belo has actively defended the human rights of his people, not only protecting individuals, but in pastoral letters and public statements.. In 1984 he published a letter stating that the only peaceful solution for East Timor would be "respect for the right of a people for self-determination." In 1989 he wrote a letter to the secretary-general of the U.N., declaring that, contrary to the position of the Jakarta government, the people of East Timor have never chosen integration with Indonesia, "and we continue to die as a people and as a nation." He is very concerned about the effort to Indonesianize his people's culture and with the transplanting to East Timor of more than 100,000 Javanese migrants.
He has spoken freely of the abuses of human rights. People come and tell him, he says, that those "detained" by the security forces "are subjected to a lot of physical violence: they are burned with cigarettes, given electric shocks, subjected to torture in drums of water, given food just once a day." The Nobel Committee noted that "at the risk of his own life, he has tried to protect his people from infringements by those in power." Twice he has survived plans to assassinate him.
Only rarely would stories of murders, rapes and tortures committed in East Timor by the Indonesian military surface in the world's media, but in 1991 news photos and a film were smuggled out of an appalling massacre by the security forces of some 200 men, women and children in a funeral procession.. Bishop Belo gave sanctuary to many fleeing from the cemetery and then escorted them home to what he thought would be safety. But the security forces followed them, and a number were never seen again. For most of the world, however, East Timor receded once more into obscurity.
This all changed in October 1996, when the Norwegian Nobel Committee announced its prize. Most of the editorials in the world's press praised the Norwegian Nobel Committee and supported East Timor. The announcement immediately opened doors for Ramos-Horta in his next round of diplomatic visits, at the U.N. and in Portugal, Brazil, Germany and other countries, where he saw heads of state and other officials. In the United States his appearances were well televised, and he told me of his hopes that in 1997 he or Bishop Belo would be received in the White House.
For Indonesia the prize was a great embarrassment. It was rumored that high officials had urged President Suharto to permit a degree of autonomy for East Timor, but that he had refused to make any change in what he firmly considered to be Indonesia's twenty-seventh province. In public statements the government tried to put distance between the two laureates, grudgingly recognizing the prize for Bishop Belo, over whom it thought it could exercise some control, but accusing Ramos-Horta of responsibility for atrocities during the civil strife in East Timor and declaring that he was a political opportunist.
At the award ceremony Chairman Sejersted answered these charges, pointing out that during the civil conflict Ramos-Horta was not even in the country and on his return he tried to reconcile the two parties. Sejersted emphasized that since the invasion Ramos-Horta had continued his efforts to unite the different East Timorese groups in a single national front. "while constantly seeking opportunities for a peaceful solution to the conflict with Indonesia," always attempting to mediate and conciliate.
Bishop Belo on his home ground, Sejersted declared, has played the even more difficult role of intervening in a violent conflict between the antagonists. While standing up for his people before the occupation forces, he has at the same time discouraged the youth from holding demonstrations.
With an eye on Jakarta, Belo did insist on a separate press conference in Oslo. Although Indonesia wanted him to travel straight home from Oslo, on the way he called on Chancellor Helmut Kohl in Germany and visited with Pope John Paul II in Rome. However, he had to skip Portugal, where he had so many ties and where the government wanted to give him its highest honor. In his public comments in Oslo he was careful to leave political matters to Ramos-Horta, but in his Nobel lecture he left no question about the Church's position on human rights. In a ringing statement, he declared, "I firmly believe that I am here essentially as the voice of the voiceless people of East Timor.... And what the people want is peace, an end to violence and the respect for their human rights." He did not refer to their right to a referendum, which he has often advocated elsewhere, but he did urge the release of East Timor political prisoners.
The Nobel lecture of Ramos-Horta was political from his first words, which were in Portuguese, the language which Indonesia was attempting to eradicate in East Timor. He described the gradualist peace plan he has presented internationally, which does not ask for outright independence, but would begin with a humanitarian phase of five years, releasing prisoners, ending torture and drastically reducing the number of Indonesian troops in East Timor, continuing with a five-year period of autonomy, providing for a freely elected provincial assembly, and only then holding a U.N. supervised referendum to determine the final status of East Timor.
There was no distance between the two laureates as they stood together at the rostrum in Oslo's town hall, holding their Nobel scrolls and medals, Belo in his clerical attire, Ramos-Horta with his inevitable bow tie, both men small only in physical stature. They were together in a CNN world-wide telecast that afternoon and sat side by side in the concert the next day, visibly enjoying one another's company.
Indonesia's soldiers and other security forces in East Timor are estimated to number 30,000, and the active resisters in the mountains are only a handful, but the once "forgotten conflict" has been in the headlines and is now before the world's diplomats, demanding a solution. Indonesia maintains that the annexation of East Timor is a historic fact and that the clock of history cannot be turned back, but as Sejersted, a distinguished historian himself, has reminded us, "History has never established anything as a fact forever. History always moves on. If we have learned anything in the past decade, it must be that the most repressive regimes are the most fragile. There are forces in history more powerful than the strongest military force."
It is from history, then, that the people of East Timor may draw hope. And as the Norwegian Nobel Committee has honored the two who stood together in Oslo, each working for peace in a different way, the religious leader and the political spokesman and diplomat, we may honor the Committee itself for its own contribution to the quest for a peaceful resolution to this conflict.