Subject: The Age: Ramos Horta: The Inside Story

The Age [Melbourne] 28 August 2000


Ramos Horta: The inside story


Photo: Bill Clinton and Jose Ramos Horta catch up in Auckland. Picture: AFP

This time last year, Jose Ramos Horta watched from afar as his homeland burnt. "They were the darkest days of my life," recalls East Timor's roving ambassador.

As he shuttled between New York and Washington, he saw the TV images of the anarchy and brutality engulfing the province for almost a fortnight after the independence vote.

The Nobel laureate took distress calls by the hundreds from Dili, each piece of news worse than the last. Three phone conversations, in particular, stand out in his memory.

The first was from fellow Nobel peace prize winner Bishop Carlos Belo, whose house was soon to be razed by the pro-integration militias: "He was telling me about the thousands of people that were around him, that the residence was going to be attacked, and that it was up to me to denounce this to the international community."

Ominously, the phone line dropped out.

The second call was from one of his sisters, Aida. "She was crying on the phone, screaming at me, `The militias are coming'." Again, mid-conversation, the phone went dead.

Aida was rescued by a United Nations security guard. But another sister, Beatrix, had been abducted and taken by ship to Surabaya.

At these moments, Ramos Horta felt an overwhelming sense of powerlessness and failure. "I kept promising the people back home, `There will be a peacekeeping force'," Ramos Horta says. "I agonised over it. I thought, `God, if I cannot deliver the peacekeeping force, I don't know what I will do'."

Finally came the phone call Ramos Horta had been desperately awaiting. After intense lobbying of his contacts in Washington and UN headquarters in New York, the White House was on the line.

"A staffer called to say the President of the United States wanted to see me," Ramos Horta recalls. "He was so polite. `We know you are very busy,' he said, `but if you could squeeze in a meeting with the President, we would appreciate it'. I almost felt like joking, and saying, `Well, I had better check my schedule'. By then, though, I knew the tide had turned.

"The United States was supportive of armed intervention. I phoned Xanana Gusmao, and said to him, `I am seeing Clinton and there's going to be a peacekeeping force'.

"I told Xanana, `Now it is the authority of the President of the US on the line. The US cannot afford to back down. It's no longer only a question of East Timor, but the credibility of the US presidency itself. Indonesia will back down'."

As it happened, Ramos Horta did not see Clinton face-to-face until the Auckland meeting of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation group on September 12. By then, there was firm international resolve that a UN peacekeeping force would go to East Timor to stop the rampage. All it needed was an agreement (a surrender, of sorts) from Indonesian president B.J.Habibie.

In the end, the UN force would be led not by the US, but Australia. The Howard Government would commit more than 4000 troops, Australia's biggest military operation on foreign soil since the Vietnam War.

It was a dramatic policy reversal, overturning more than two decades of tacit acceptance of Indonesia's 1975 invasion and annexation of the former Portuguese colony. Although a latter-day convert, Australia, ironically, was soon to become not only a vocal supporter, but also the chief enforcer of East Timor's aspirations for independence.

This policy shift was to have far-reaching ramifications for Australia's profile in the region, forcing a wide-ranging review of its defence priorities, raising question marks over its capacity to bridge the cultural gulf with its neighbors in South-East Asia and poisoning relations with a wounded, humiliated and resentful political establishment in Jakarta.

A year on, the two nations are still grappling uneasily with the fall-out. Likewise, the UN transitional authority in East Timor wrestles with the challenge of how to build a nation from scratch. With militias still rampant on the West Timor border, despite Jakarta's pledges to curtail their activities, many doubts remain over the longer-term viability of one of the world's newest, poorest and most vulnerable micro-states.

Armed intervention in East Timor has become a defining event in Australia's foreign policy: but is it true to say, as Paul Keating once claimed, that it represents our biggest blunder?

Nobody was closer to the momentous diplomacy of those days than Ramos Horta. In an interview to mark the anniversary of the East Timor vote, he offers a fascinating insider's account of the dynamics of those final days of the stand-off between Jakarta and the Western powers, including Australia.

And as East Timor prepares to assume full sovereignty towards the end of next year, Ramos Horta also provides his perspective on the prospects for his tiny nation.

Ramos Horta believes the role of the Howard Government in precipitating the East Timor crisis has been much overstated.

Controversy continues to swirl around John Howard's letter to Habibie in December, 1998, urging Indonesia to consider granting East Timor autonomous status. It was followed by the spectacle, barely a month later, of the unpredictable Habibie announcing that his government would leapfrog expectations and allow a free vote on independence.

And so the die was cast. Before the ballot took place, there was widespread apprehension that the province could explode in violence. No sooner was the result was announced on September 4 (a 78per cent vote in favor of secession) than East Timor was reduced to rubble by marauding gangs.

Subsequently, Howard's predecessor, Paul Keating, would accuse the Prime Minister of making a grievous policy miscalculation that had delivered the people of East Timor only "blood and tears", cruelled the "special relationship" with Indonesia and, as a consequence, undermined the painstaking strategy to forge closer links through the Asian region.

But Ramos Horta insists this argument does not stand up to scrutiny. "I think the media and the Indonesians made too much out of John Howard's letter," he says. "The letter was actually quite cautious, and there were many other factors contributing to Habibie's shift, mainly the mounting internal problems in Indonesia. And the Indonesians still had the illusion, of course, that the people of East Timor would vote to stay in."

He says it is a misreading of the power politics at play in September last year to portray Australia as the leading protagonist. Although acknowledging the Howard Government has since been vilified by sections of Indonesian society, he argues this is merely because Australia serves as a convenient and visible scapegoat.

In reality, according to Ramos Horta, two over-arching factors combined to force Jakarta's humiliation. First, the impact on world public opinion of media coverage of East Timor being ransacked and its people terrorised. Second, and partly as a consequence of the images being flashed around the world, the exercise of superpower muscle, with Clinton issuing a blunt ultimatum in the second week of September demanding that Indonesia allow UN troops into the province.

"This illustrates the power of the media, the power of images, the power of the Internet," says Ramos Horta.

He still regards Keating's intervention as unhelpful: "When you have your soldiers, your people, in a dangerous situation, what you do not need is to make such a situation even more difficult. I found it to be really dishonest on Paul Keating's part. So far not one single Australian soldier has been killed in combat (although two peacekeepers, one Kiwi and one Nepalese, have been murdered by militias). It's the most successful UN peacekeeping operation ever, anywhere in the world. Yet here you have this failed prime minister criticising the government's policies."

Self-evidently, Ramos Horta sees as unedifying the approach of Australian governments to the East Timor question in the years after 1975: "I tell you, those who, over the years, were on the other side, they will never hear from me any words to rub in the wounds. The fact they lost their bet is punishment enough."

Ramos Horta first detected signals of an impending shift in Canberra's stance in August, 1998, when he learnt that a review was under way in the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

This came in the aftermath of the Asian financial meltdown and the fall of Suharto. Indonesia was in turmoil, but there was increasing evidence of a society making a transition to a less authoritarian style of government. This raised the possibility that the Javanese ruling elite might also adopt a more flexible attitude to East Timor's claims for a greater measure of autonomy.

Ramos Horta credits Foreign Affairs Minister Alexander Downer with driving the shift in policy. "But, more than anything else," he says, "there was public opinion in Australia, media coverage, and the crisis in Indonesia itself. This gave Howard and Downer this unique opportunity to try to resolve once and for all the problem."

Thus, in September last year, against all odds and expectations, the egg was unscrambled. East Timor was free.

Today, Ramos Horta says he is confident that - for all its depleted infrastructure, and its lack of a skilled workforce - East Timor will be able to survive as a nation in its own right.

The island community's feuding political factions have held their first joint congress over the past two weeks. Meanwhile, the UN has set up an all-East Timorese consultative council to bring the community into the decision-making loop.

"Things are moving faster now," says Ramos Horta. "We have seen remarkable and dramatic changes in the past two months. Even economically. We have already have seen 15per cent growth ... Unemployment is diminishing. By the end of the year, it will be reduced because now many thousands of people are going back to work in the fields. "In the long term, we will develop tourism. If we manage to keep the internal peace and stability, we will see significant economic growth in the next 12 months."

Predictably, the main obsession is security, internally and in protecting East Timor's western border from raids by the pro-Indonesia militia.

Ramos Horta is heartened that the UN Security Council has agreed on the need to establish a national defence force for East Timor. King's College in Britain has undertaken a study of the strategic demands. "We will have a more or less credible deterrence force to protect our borders, our sovereignty," says Ramos Horta. "For us, there is no debate about costs. The people are prepared to pay the costs so no one dares to invade us again.

"Our forces will be trained by the Americans, the British, Australians. Whoever tried to invade us would think twice."

But Ramos Horta also recognises that East Timor's best defence will be active diplomacy. "We are beginning to develop a web of interests with countries like the US, the European Union, Asian countries, Australia and New Zealand," he says.

He cites recent top-level visits from Malaysia, Thailand, the Philippines and Japan. He also sees much in common with Singapore and Brunei. "We will seek trade and investment relationships with all these countries so that everyone has a stake in peace and stability in East Timor," he says.

"But any potential aggressors will always know that Australia will have a special obligation. The Australian people will never allow any country to invade us again with impunity.

"Any potential adversary will know also we have a close relationship with the US. We have told the Americans to think of East Timor as a very friendly port of call."

Ultimately, of course, East Timor's long-term security will hinge on its relations with Indonesia.

"We pray to God almighty that democracy is consolidated ... that the country is stabilised and the economy recovers, because as long as Indonesia is unstable, and the economy is a shambles, it will affect us directly," he says.

Ramos Horta says Abdurrahman President Wahid remains the best hope: "If he survives, then we can still hope for peace over the border. If ... the hardliners come back, it will be catastrophic for Indonesia as a whole. It will also make our lives in East Timor extremely difficult."

Ramos Horta on:

JOHN HOWARD: "The decision to send Australian troops there was not easy. Before they sent troops they didn't know the costs, the consequences, the potential casualties. It could have been disastrous. So the agony over such a decision is obviously difficult and that's what leadership is all about."

B.J. HABIBIE: "If anything, he was the most pragmatic and liberal ... he saw East Timor as a waste for Indonesia, and never part of Indonesia."

ALEXANDER DOWNER: "He was always sympathetic to East Timor, always very decent, even when in opposition."

ALI ALATAS: "He was one of the hardliners, actually, a conservative demagogue. He was not the liberal he portrayed himself to be or the media mistook him to be."

ABDURRAHMAN WAHID: "We are fortunate to have someone like Gus Dur as president of Indonesia. I have know him for years, and he is an exceptional human being."

BILL CLINTON: "America will have in East Timor one of their closest friends. They can count on us to vote with them in international forums on issues that are important to them, and where we have a common agenda."

JOSE XANANA GUSMAO: "He deserves a break. He deserves to retire and dedicate himself to painting and poetry. But he has no choice. Too bad for him. He is an exceptional leader, the only one I know who can hold the country together."

RICHARD WOOLCOTT: "He ended up being the chief architect - the most visible, because he wants to be visible, he cannot help himself - of the failed Australian policies towards Indonesia. At least he is a most charming and educated individual. He has offered - and I would be very happy to engage him - to help us."

GARETH EVANS: "I would never want to be on the wrong side of history as Gareth Evans found himself. After all, he is quite a decent human being - and so humble."

PAUL KEATING: "I had to have a go at him because, I mean, God, here you have a man so insensitive. He could lie low if he was humble enough or smart enough ... if I were him, I would be so discreet. I would be talking about the weather, or whatever. Anything but Timor."

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