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July 1998

I’m sure you shared my great personal joy, and that of the people of East Timor, when President Suharto was forced to resign last May. His resignation offers an important window of opportunity to achieve a peaceful settlement for East Timor. I hope that you will work with me to encourage the United States to seize that opportunity to rectify the enormous wrongs they have contributed and done to my country.

As you know, Suharto was the architect of the invasion of East Timor in the tenth year of his 32-year reign. His now sidelined ruthless son-in-law, Gen. Prabowo Subianto, headed the notorious special forces that abducted and murdered East Timorese, while Suharto’s children exploited our natural wealth.

It saddens me when I recall that the United States has armed and trained those Indonesian soldiers throughout the 22-year occupation. As a teenager in Portuguese Timor, I was called "O Americano" because of my admiration for the United States. But your country has played a leading role in the destruction of my people – three of my brothers and one sister were killed by American weapons.

Fortunately, there are many Americans like yourself and the other activists with the East Timor Action Network who are working to right this wrong. Through ETAN’s work, more and more Americans are learning the ugly truth of East Timor’s ruthless colonization. With the increasing freedom of discussion in the new Indonesia, Indonesians too are learning with horror and disbelief what their country has done to its neighbor.

The time has come for the United States throw its weight behind a UN-sponsored referendum for self-determination, which is our legal and moral right.

Five years ago, I proposed a peace plan, on behalf of our leader Xanana Gusmão and the East Timorese resistance movement. We offered Indonesia a way out of their dilemma. They should release all political prisoners, substantially reduce their military presence, and end arbitrary arrests and torture. A local East Timorese legislature could then be democratically elected as a transitional arrangement lasting a few years, followed by a UN-supervised referendum in which the people of East Timor would make the final decision for the future.

Last month, President Habibie and other Indonesian leaders proposed half of that plan – but they are not serious about the bottom line. Habibie has asked the international community to accept Indonesia’s illegal annexation of East Timor in return for some prisoner release and troop withdrawals, and a wishy-washy "special status." They are rehashing an old proposal, and we unequivocally reject it.

Since then, the brief relaxation of repression against the East Timorese people has come to an end. Several East Timorese people have been killed by Indonesian soldiers in the last few weeks. The Indonesian military has bussed and coerced hundreds of people to participate in staged "counter-demonstrations" to rebut the tens of thousands of East Timorese who have been peacefully demonstrating for self-determination. Indonesia’s economic crisis, compounded by drought, is causing famine in several parts of East Timor. But the momentum is on our side – and we hope that people around the world will stand by us in these difficult times.

The Indonesian regime is not only financially bankrupt, but it is are losing political support as well.

Even in the United States — long unwilling to challenge the Indonesian army’s rule over East Timor — there are signs of change. Recently, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright called on Indonesia to reduce its military presence and engage in "a genuine dialogue" with the East Timorese. Dozens of Senators and Representatives from both parties are supporting resolutions in both Houses of Congress to affirm East Timor’s right to self-determination. High U.S. officials have visited Xanana in prison several times, and Richard Holbrooke, who has a long history with East Timor and has been supportive in recent years, will be the new U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations.

The progress in American policy is a direct result of the grassroots work of the East Timor Action Network. By keeping the issue in the media and keeping policymakers aware that voters are watching, ETAN has helped to shift Washington’s perspective. ETAN’s work with Congress, in particular, has developed a constituency which does not let Pentagon officials and State Department desk officers proceed with business as usual. The progressively tighter restrictions on U.S. arms sales and military training over the past six years have put both Washington and Jakarta on notice that there is a price to pay for continued repression of my people.

Now is a crucial time. I urge you to support ETAN both financially and by taking action. The United States can and should provide moral leadership to right the wrong in East Timor. But true leadership in your democratic country comes from the grassroots – people like yourself – who must actively ensure that your elected government acts so that my people, too, can have an elected government.

East Timor stands as a moral test for the new Indonesia if it wishes to regain international respectability. It is a test for the United States as well.

Thank you for your past — and future — support. I am confident that with your help, East Timor will find peace and freedom in a few short years.

Sincerely,
José Ramos-Horta

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