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Exclusive: President Jose Ramos-Horta On East Timor, Genocide, & Why President Clinton Is "One Of My Favorite Politicians In The World"

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East Timor's President Jose Ramos-Horta discusses life after an assassination attempt, hypocrisy and what it means to forgive in the face of an American-supported genocide that brutally took the lives of four of his siblings and one third of his country.

Sabine Heller: You've spent your life campaigning for the freedom of East Timor.

President Horta: Yes, I first landed in New York in '75, in the midst of one of the worst New York winters, to begin my advocacy of East Timor at the United Nations.

Sabine Heller: Why did the major powers support Indonesia and turn their backs on the horrors taking place every day in East Timor?

President Horta
: East Timor was vulnerable because Indonesia was able to play with everyone. The Western powers allied themselves with Indonesia because of the cold war and for many reasons, including Indonesia's vital strategic location and control of the Malacca Strait through which 70% of the oil going from the Middle East to Japan is passed. Also, as the largest Muslim country in the world, Indonesia had solidarity with Muslim countries. Even China and Russia did not want to upset Indonesia. So who was left to be sympathetic to East Timor? Only the African countries because they were sensitive to invading and changing colonial boundaries. They were aware of that fact that if it could happen to East Timor, it could happen to them. And Brazil, because of its Portuguese heritage.

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Photo: Richard Kern

Sabine Heller: What was the most frustrating part of your campaign?

President Horta: Well, the most frustrating, the most exasperating, was the then hypocrisy and duplicity of countries like the United States that preached human rights and democracy wherever they didn't have any interests. They even went to war in Angola to stop the spread of communism there and bombed the hell out of Nicaragua, El Salvador... and yet they were supplying weapons, aircrafts to Indonesia, which was bombing East Timor. One of my own sisters was killed by a US-supplied aircraft.

Sabine Heller: And the UK's role?

President Horta: The UK and the US were the biggest suppliers of all weapons.

Sabine Heller: Didn't the bombing in East Timor start right after Kissinger left from a visit to Indonesia?

President Horta: Yes, conveniently the invasion took place 12 hours after Gerald Ford and Kissinger left Indonesia, on December 6th, '75

Sabine Heller
: How did you find the faith to work within a system that had revealed itself to be so morally bankrupt?

President Horta: There were people who trusted me. I was given a mission, a mandate, in leaving my country to be an advocate. There was always a voice, an inner voice, telling me not to give up. I always remember my own blood--brothers and sisters--some of whom had been killed by then.

Sabine Heller: -Was it three brothers, one sister who were killed?

President Horta
: Yes, so I couldn't betray them. And I went on and on in the long corridors of the UN building talking to people. Some people wouldn't want to talk to me and pretend to be too busy. I would travel by bus and train to Washington to lobby members of Congress. Some became very, very good friends, like the late Senator Ted Kennedy or Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa and Congresswoman, Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi.

Sabine Heller: How did you know who to trust? Kissinger,for example, is known as a great statesman and yet he aided in one of the most horrific crimes against humanity.

President Horta
: When it comes to those who have power, whether it be in a position of privilege like members of Congress or the Administration, it's not up to me to judge whether they are to be trusted or not. I have to talk to them, try to touch their heart, and, failing that, to see whether it should be in their own interest, in the interest of the United States, for instance, not to side completely with a regime like that one in Indonesia.

Sabine Heller: Is it correct to say that 200,000 people were part of the genocide in East Timor, but looking at the numbers per capita, it was more like the Holocaust?

President Horta: Yes, in 1975 the population of Timor was no more than 700,000. By around 1981, 6 years after Indonesia's invasion, at least 200,000 had died--from mass killings, summary executions, massacres, but also from mass starvation caused by the war. So in per capita terms, it was like 1/3 the population died within a few years.

Sabine Heller
: And they died in brutal ways.

President Horta
: Yes, it was unimaginable and horrendous what was done to the people of East Timor. But that was not different from what the Indonesian military did to their own people when the Suharto regime took over in '65 and half a million people were killed in a period of 6 months. So, a military institution that was able to decimate a minimum of half a million of its own people--alleged communists and communist sympathizers, students, workers, peasants--well, what would you expect them to do when they invade another country with which they have no association whatsoever.

Sabine Heller
: When did the world take notice of the horrible things that were happening to your people? Was there a definitive turning point?

President Horta: It began in '91. But the real turning point was in '96 when I received the Nobel Peace Prize. The Nobel Peace Prize increased the visibility of the Timor problem; it increased the diplomatic cost to Indonesia and led them to accepting a referendum in '99. Indonesia is a proud country that cares about its international image.

Sabine Heller: President Clinton helped a lot as well.

President Horta: Yes, William Jefferson Clinton was instrumental in setting Timor free in '99. If it were not Bill Clinton there, standing on the White House lawn, basically setting an ultimatum to the Indonesian military to allow in an international force, probably we would not be free. So we thank President Clinton a lot. He's one of my favorite politicians in the world.

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Sabine Heller: How did you feel when you returned from exile to a liberated East Timor?

President Horta: As I went up to the town, climbing the hills out of Dili, looking down to the city in its magnificent beauty, I said to myself, "This must have been an act of God that Timor today is free." When you look at the overwhelming odds against us, it must have been an act of God.

Sabine Heller: Or an act of you! Ultimately you went from being an activist to governing. Where did you learn to govern?

President Horta
: Well I never actually learned to govern. At first I was a journalist and then became an activist, organizing street demonstrations, writing, making speeches--so I never knew anything about governing any country. In terms of knowledge and skill of running a country, I am ignorant.

Photo: Richard Kern

Sabine Heller: Did you ever underestimate or overestimate the psychological effects of terror on a population? During the uprisings of 2006, the world questioned whether East Timor could maintain an independent democracy. Do you feel your government overestimated your country's ability to heal?

President Horta: What happened was that too soon after our independence, personalities clash and visions overlap, mutual suspicions intervene, and leaders were not able to work together to address the simmering tensions in the country. I was a foreign minister so I was not involved in our domestic politics. I was not able to influence--I tried, even as foreign minister I tried always to caution my colleagues in regard to their behavior.

Sabine Heller: How are things today? What is it like to build the newest country in the world?

President Horta: We have made enormous progress in the last 2 years. Today, if you visit our country, you see bustling cities, thousands of people in the streets, hundreds of restaurants, shops, a lot of traffic. A recent survey done by the International Republic Institute, says the vast majority of the people are very happy with the direction the country is heading.

Sabine Heller: You have suffered a great deal of personal loss. Who pays the price for that, and have they paid? Has there been adequate retribution for the atrocities that have happened to your country in the last 30 years?

President Horta
: In an ideal world, everyone implicated in a crime, whatever it is, should face justice and pay. But we are not in an ideal world. In countries like mine, or anywhere, justice cannot be always the only option because institutions are very fragile, society is in transition. If you start chasing the culprits of the violence, the court system cannot handle it, the institutions are weak, and these people you are chasing have their supporters and friends. You never heard me after '99 criticizing Indonesia or the Americans or the Australians. I don't like to rub salt in the wounds of people who I know have lost. For me, the great principle is: in victory, be magnanimous. Be magnanimous toward adversaries who feel that they have lost. Try to make them feel like they didn't lose and that we all won. Why do I say that Indonesia won? I say that Indonesia won because they resolved a conflict, a problem that was costing them in their lives, in prestige and economically. So Indonesia won, they didn't lose.

Sabine Heller
: I know you've been vocal about Burma. What else is going on today that the public might not immediately see?

President Horta
: No, fortunately, today, 21st century, there are very few problems in the world, like massacres or genocide, that go unnoticed because of globalization and an international network of media, the internet. There are very few cases that are totally suppressed.

Sabine Heller: After the '08 assassination attempt on your life, do you live, more or less, in fear?

President Horta: I haven't had a single nightmare or bad dream of anything.

Sabine Heller: You've been through a lot of anguish, what is there left to fear?

President Horta: Death...is my biggest fear. I hate death. I don't like death.

Sabine Heller
: What's your biggest regret?

President Horta: A very personal one.

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