AT a speech on human rights in Toronto in 1995, the then East Timorese Foreign Minister in exile (and Nobel Peace Prize Winner in 1996, Dr. Jose Ramos Horta stated that, “in terms of what it has achieved and its range of influence, no country has done more for East Timor than Ireland.”
Many Irish people feel a strong affinity for the tiny half island, 300 miles north of Australia, seeing in it a parallel with their own history: that of a small country invaded by a giant neighbour, whose people struggled against enormous odds and suffering to win their freedom.
But up until the 1990s few Irish people had ever heard of the former Portuguese colony which Indonesia had invaded in 1975, killing 200,000 people—one third of the population. The fact that Horta made the above statement is largely due to one man: a short, chatty Dubliner, Tom Hyland.
In February 1992 Tom and some friends were playing dominoes in his Ballyfermot home. A next door neighbour came in and asked Tom, an unemployed bus driver, if could watch a programme on British television called Cold Blood about a place none of them had ever heard about-East Timor. Tom agreed. But on condition that the sound was kept down in case it disturbed the game.
The scenes that followed shocked them They watched in disbelief, scenes of hundreds of young, peaceful protestors being gunned down by Indonesian soldiers at the Santa Cruz cemetry in East Timor’s capital, Dili.
“The whole thing was terrible,” he recalls. “To think that people were suffering like that left me feeling numb. I couldn’t sleep that night. Those terrible images kept reappearing in my mind.”
So upset were Tom and his neighbours that they had resolved to help. In April 1992, they founded the East Timor Ireland Support Campaign (ETISC) to raise awareness and lobby for this tiny almost unknown island on the other side of the world.
“At first I have to admit, I kept saying to myself what could I possibly do. I had no formal education; I had left school at fourteen. I was no good at school, but I did like history. It stood me in good stead, as I had to educate myself about East Timor, and read everything I could get my hands on.”
In subsequent years, Tom and ETISC gave
talks all over Ireland in schools, colleges, community associations, churches-
anywhere people would listen. They lobbied journalists, and politicians
at both local and national level
An important part of his approach was how the campaign put across its message: “I don’t believe in over complicating issues or being aggressive or confrontational. That just puts people off and defeats the purpose of campaigning in the fist place. ”
For most of its existence, the campaign worked from Tom’s Ballyfermot home. There upstairs in a spare room cluttered with old computers, filing cabinets (all of which had been begged or borrowed) and piles and piles of documents and newspapers, Tom and the volunteers wrote letters, reports, and kept in touch with other Timor support groups from Canada to Australia. Funded largely by donations from individuals and from public talks, the campaign survived on a shoestring.
What was unique was the ETISC was that it came from Ballyfermot, a large sprawling working class suburb of 55,000 people on Dublin’s city’s south-western periphery, Ballyfermot is often associated with crime, drugs and high unemployment.
That a group of people from a such marginalised area of Dublin should be campaigning and making common cause with people 10,000 miles away, really caught the public imagination. For Tom, such affinity for the East Timorese is natural.
“Ireland is rich country that is true,” he explains. “But the people of Ballyfermot are marnginalised, and excluded from many of the benefits of living here. The Timorese were also marginalised. I have always believed that marginalised people should stick together and support each other.”
In 1997, he visited East Timor using the Gaelic version of his name in his passport, as he was on a blacklist. The visit left him both shocked and moved him. “It was frightening to see how much control and fear there was. I was followed everywhere; all movements were watched. But despite the fear and suffering, the Timorese continued, never wavering. I knew then for sure I had to do the same.”
Over the years, the campaigning and tenacity of Tom and the ETISC volunteers caused a sea change in the Irish attitudes to East Timor. Thousands of people wrote to the Irish Government which became very active lobbying on the issue in both the EU and the UN.
In 1999, when the East Timorese voted overwhelmingly for independence, the Indonesian army and their militia gangs immediately began destroying and looting. Over 250,000 people were deported. As soon as this began, Irish diplomats in Washington began lobbying for action to be taken. As a result pressure from within the Irish-American political establishment for action to be taken. Eventually, this helped force a reluctant Clinton administration to support the Australian led intervention in East Timor in September 1999.
Since East Timor won its freedom, Tom has
visited several times. Indeed, he counts Timorese leaders such as Xanana
Gusmao, Bishop Carlos Belo and Foreign Minister Jose Ramos Horta among
While he acknowledges that the new, free East Timor has its fair share of problems, he still enjoys the sense of freedom. “Every time I go there, I can how different things are from before, that the people are glad to have the Indonesian military off their back. That they are free.”
That freedom should act as an inspiration to others he adds.
“I only wish the world would wake up and be inspired by what the Timorese did. I know other struggles in Burma and Tibet are inspired by it. If this small country breaks free through sheer stubbornness in their struggle for justice and freedom, then there’s hope for other places.”
For the next few months, he plans to work in East Timor, helping to build community centres for a local charity. “I will never enter politics and I will never enter big organisations,” he adds “I respect many people in politics and in agencies, the UN or in other organisations, but for me personally, I am a grassroots person.”
In East Timor, he is known as Mr. Tom. In Ireland he has often been called Mr. East Timor. For many people, Tom and that tiny island nation are synonymous. In November he won the prestigious People of the Year award for his work which has also been the subject of several documentaries.
Recently in an article penned for the Irish Times, a former Foreign Minister, David Andrew paid tribute to Tom’s work
“That a small nation like ours, through diplomatic efforts, can assist other small nations such as East Timor on the road to self- determination is a deep source of pride for us all,” he wrote.
“Our involvement in the affairs of East Timor did not begin around the Cabinet table, or in Government Buildings, it all began in a Ballyfermot living room, with a wonderful individual, a bus driver named Tom Hyland
East Timor Ireland Solidarity
Campaign (ETISC) Added June 14
. The East Timor Ireland Solidarity Campaign (ETISC) was founded in April 1992 by Tom Hyland, a former bus driver. One evening about a month prior to that Tom and a group of friends had been playing cards in his house when a neighbour arrived and asked to watch a programme called First Tuesday on ITV. The programme was about a country they never heard of called East Timor. They sat mesmerised as they watched Indonesian soldiers gunning down 270 peaceful unarmed East Timorese. This massacre had taken place on November 12th 1991 in the Santa Cruz cemetry in Dili.
. Tom and the others were so shocked by what they saw that they resolved to so something. So a converted room in Tom’s house in Ballyfermot, they set up ETISC to campaign to raise awareness in Ireland of the plight of East Timor. At first the group had very little but by borrowing typewriters and a computer from friends they started writing to politicians and the media. They also started giving talks in schools, colleges, clubs, trade unions,a nd to anyone who would listen.
. Every November 12th, ETISC held demonstrations at the British or Australian embassies because of the support these countries had given to Indonesia in terms of arms and diplomatic support. The biggest break for the campaign with then Australian Prime Minister Paul Keating’s visit to Ireland in September 1993. After Keating arrived, hundred of people demonstrated outside Dublin castle where he was meeting leaders from all political parties. The incident received huge coverage and was debated and discussed on radio, TV and all the newspapers. This helped bring the plight of East Timor to the people of Ireland.
. Since then the leading role of Ireland—which has campaigned actively on the issue of East Timor—in the EU and the UN—has been acknowledged including by the joint winners of the 1996 Nobel Peace Prize, Bishop Carlos Belo and Jose Ramos-Horta, East Timor’s foreign minister in exile. In a speech in Toronto in 1995, Dr. Horta declared: “In terms of its influence and in what it has achieved, no country has done more for East Timor than Ireland.”
. The group is based in Dublin and most of the people who work there are volunteers.
Contact: Room 16, (3rd floor), Dame House, 24-26 Dame Street, Dublin 2. Tel/Fax: 353-1-671 9207
11 Visit to see Tom Hyland, East Timor Ireland Support Campaign
Email added Jun 12
"All this goes to show what one person, or one small group of people, can do and what a powerful influence they can be in inspiring others. In fact, instead of leaving Dublin early next morning as planned, Gareth [Smith] and I stayed an extra hour or two so that we could pen a letter of support to the Eire Government for the active part they were taking in Europe and America to help the people of East Timor. Then we delivered it personally to the Minister who had responsibility to the European Parliament. The world can be a small place, can't it?" Maxine