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Manila Bulletin

December 7, 2000


East Timor takes a seat at the United Nations

Beth Day Romulo

ON November 6th, the East Timorese independence leader and now that new country's first foreign minister, Jose Ramos-Horta, spoke before the Women's International Forum at the United Nations.

When Portugal gave up its colonial claim to E. Timor (part of the Spice Islands) a quarter of a century ago, the East Timorese assumed they would achieve their independence, only to be invaded, the following year, by Indonesia, which considered Timor as part of its territory. (West Timor, the poorer part of the island, remains part of Indonesia.)

Champion of independence, Ramos-Horta fled into exile, to keep the fires of independence alive from a base abroad. Twenty-five years ago he was the youngest person to address the UN General Assembly. But at that time, lacking cameras and media on the ground, few were interested in East Timor's fight for independence. "There was no CNN. No cameras. Thousands died'' and no one
knew about it.

Last year, under UN auspices, a plan that was agreed to by the post-Suharto government under President Habibie, a plebiscite was held and the East Timorese voted overwhelmingly for independence. However, militias (apparently backed by the Indonesian military which did not want the East Timorese separated from Indonesia) attacked the local citizenry. Again thousands died.

And thousands more fled across the border to West Timor where refugee camps were set up. But this time, the whole world was watching. The cameras and the media were there and under mounting global pressure, the Indonesian government asked for outside help to control its internal problems and the UN Security Council, goaded by Secretary General Kofi Annan, (the UN had been accused of failing to anticipate the violence when it authorized the plebiscite) moved swiftly. A coalition army was formed of Australians, and fellow Asians who arrived to keep the peace. When militia groups who had infiltrated the refugee camps in West Timor killed three UN refugee workers, UN aid workers were pulled out, although the armed peacekeepers remained.

Now, Ramos-Horta says, the refugees are returning to rebuild their lives and the country expects to get its formal independence by the end of next year. Meanwhile, it is operating under a provisional government and may need the presence of UN peacekeeping forces for another two or three years until violence subsides and the economy gets into high gear.

Somewhat to the surprise of his audience, Ramos-Horta defended Indonesia President Wahid, who has the prickly problem of prosecuting the Suharto family (to whom elements of the military remain loyal) while trying to put down the violence in Timor and Aceh. Former President Suharto was excused from trial for corruption because of health reasons. His son Tommy, who was to stand trial, has disappeared as of this reading.

Ramos-Horta, whose 24 year campaign for independence for East Timor won him the 1996 Nobel Prize for Peace, is an articulate and persuasive speaker. Tracing his country's troubled history - from the long years of Portuguese colonial occupation, through wartime Japanese occupation and then invasion by Indonesia, he outlines some of his plans for the future of his country, including Portuguese as the official language (to separate it from Indonesian Bahasa) and English as a secondary language. He seeks good working relations with the European Union (through the good offices of Portugal), with the US, and hopes to eventually become a member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

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