Subject: JRH in Massachusetts - A Tale of a New Nation




DARTMOUTH — Four months after becoming the first nation of the 21st century, East Timor strives to consolidate a true democracy, eliminate violence, bring about prosperity and seek justice against those responsible for atrocities inflicted on its countrymen over two decades.

These are some of the "great challenges" as the country takes its first steps, according to its Foreign Minister Jose Ramos Horta, who visited the Southcoast.

Ramos Horta spent 24 years in exile working to free East Timor. In 1996, he won the Nobel Prize for Peace in recognition of his humanitarian efforts. His visit to the region comes on the eve of President Xanana Gusmao's visit to New York and Washington, D.C. On Sept. 27, East Timor will become the 191st member of the United Nations and Gusmao will address its General Assembly.

The next day he will travel to the capital, where he will meet with President Bush on Oct. 2 at the White House. He is also expected to meet with National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice.

East Timor, a former Portuguese colony, declared its independence on Nov. 28, 1978, only to be seized by Indonesia nine days later. Over two decades, its people endured systematic terror and intimidation; thousands were killed, tortured and raped. Finally in the late 90s, the island nation gained its independence.

Various Indonesian officials are now being tried in Jakarta for the atrocities committed during the brutal annexation of the territory, but many are criticizing the light sentences given to those already convicted.

"The process has been extremely negative and criticized for its lack of credibility," said Horta. "Justice must be served, either by Indonesia with credibility or through an international mechanism put forward by the international community."

So far, only five Indonesians officials have stood trial.

There are 15 more to be tried, which will be followed by a process of appeals. There are no perspectives to think of an alternative.

More recently, East Timor was said to be susceptible to an Al-Qaeda attack. In fact, six months ago, an Osama bin Laden tape mentioned East Timor, saying that it was an example of the atrocities committed by the Western world in the East.

Last Sept. 11, the Australian Embassy closed its doors until further notice and placed its U.N. peacekeepers in East Timor on maximum alert in the face of a terrorist threat. The embassy has since returned to regular operations.

"As the Foreign Minister of East Timor, I was never contacted or briefed by any United Nations or Australian officials about an Al Qaeda threat in East Timor," he said. "I think it was a theatrical and exaggerated reaction by the part of the U.N. and Australia. I hope they will provide us with convincing proof that the threat was real. Because we do not accept that the United Nations or the Australian Government, which are in our country at our invitation, taking initiatives of this nature without even consulting us. If there is a terrorist threat, then the East Timorese people should be the first to know."

If that were the case, Ramos Horta said East Timor is capable of dealing with the consequences of a terrorist attack.

"East Timor resisted 25 years of brutal occupation and an Indonesian force that many times was greater than the peace force today established there. How would East Timor not be able to face a terrorist threat today?"

Ramos Horta attributes the liberation of East Timor to the determination of its people and to the international outpour of generosity. In his view, the country's natural resources, such as oil and natural gas, had no direct or indirect influence in the quest for its auto-determination.

"East Timor would not be free today if it was not for the faith and courage of its people, the international solidarity movement and the leadership of the Portuguese diplomacy. Portugal deserves full credit for the liberation of East Timor and today it remains one of the most generous and exemplary countries supporting East Timor."

This was Ramos Horta's third visit to UMass Dartmouth.

"This time I am not coming to complain or to denounce again the abuses, but to thank you for your extraordinary contributions that made possible the freedom and independence of East Timor," he said.

More than 200,000 East Timorese died during the island's struggle to regain its independence, including Ramos Horta's loved ones.

During a question and answer session at the Norton Avenue Middle School in Taunton, where he was the guest of State Senator Marc Pacheco, he was asked about his family and talked about life in East Timor.

He told the crowd of almost 70 people, including Mayor Ted Strojny, that his sister Mariazinha was killed on Dec. 18, 1977 and that three of his brothers were also killed during the Indonesian occupation. His sister was recently exhumed and reburied, but his brothers were buried in mass graves in unknown locations.

"There are many thousands of families who do not know where their loved ones are buried," he explained.

He added that keeping peace after occupation means preaching national reconciliation. He said East Timor has been pirated in the past by many nations, including Japan, which during Word War II killed most of his mother's side of the family. He said Indonesia also must be forgiven.

"We must put the past behind us no matter how painful it is," he said. "You don't have to be too brave to fight a war, but you have to show alot of courage to forgive those who have harmed you."

He said the message his government has been preaching has been working so far. "Not a single East Timorese who collaborated with the Indonesians has been harmed. If we are not careful we will have another 25 years of violence again," he said adding that some villages occasionally erupt into violence against other villages over territory.

He said the challenge is that poverty is still rampant in East Timor and it remains one of the 10 poorest countries in the World.

"But you will hardly see any begging in the street," he said. "People prefer to pick from garbage than to beg."

At UMass Dartmouth's conference, Ramos Horta said that some of the best friends of East Timor live here in the Southcoast.

"You gave us hope and encouragement with your extraordinary example of generosity," he said. "Do not ever underestimate your contributions to our struggle or the power you give to others, because if we didn't have your support and we didn't have your patience to listen to us, our struggle would have been even lonelier and many of us would have given up."

However, in order to "consolidate the democratic institution challenges are great."

East Timor, he said, needs to provide education and jobs for its people, attract foreign investors, develop legislation, and recruit technical expertise in all fields. The country also has an abundant need for lawyers, judges and prosecutors, in addition to having to deal with malnutrition, shortage of teaching materials, adequate classrooms and malaria and tuberculosis outbreaks.

"So many people died for our freedom," he said. "The elected government is not enough, because we still need to be able to provide basic rights to all the people. Despite we're still inspired with enthusiasm, idealism an faith because we are making a difference to thousands of people.

In turn, East Timor may serve as an example for all democratic countries. More than 90 percent turned out to vote in the country's first election for a constituent assembly in August of 1999 and 85 percent cast their vote for president in April of this year.

"It was touching how I saw my compatriots, illiterate people traveling miles toward the polling stations," he said. "I saw an old woman shivering with malaria; she had walked for four hours to reach the nearest poll station. I often wondered how those people in those remote areas would go to vote. But they organized themselves — the older would carry the younger ones and babies, and they would get horses to carry the sick ones."

Today, 30 percent of the East Timorese Parliament is made up of women. "That is the highest number of women in parliament in the world, with the exception of the Nordic countries," he said. "The average for the European Union is only 18 percent. I was pleased and surprised. It is tremendously positive."

The nation also allocates 30 percent of its budget to education, the highest amount attributed in the world.

"So far we are debt free; we obtain grants rather than loans," he said.

"There have been pledges with timely delivery. There is no country in default. We cannot complain that we don't have enough money to rebuild the country or for our budget."

In a few years, the country hopes to start generating money from its oil.

"We have an oil agreement with Australia and 90 percent of the revenue from one particular area," he said. "That means a few hundred million dollars in revenue for East Timor in two to three years."

At the end of the press conference, Ramos Horta asked those gathered at UMass Dartmouth to continue supporting the East Timorese cause.

"You have contributed so much for our independence, our freedom," he said.

"I ask you all to continue your work to help us and if you have the time to take a few months off and come volunteer in East Timor may God bless you. Our country is yours also."

Ric Oliveira contributed to this report

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