José Ramos-Horta, the President of Timor-Leste, was born on 26 December, 1949, in Dili, Timor-Leste (East Timor). He had 11 brothers and sisters, three of whom were killed during the Indonesian occupation.
Ramos-Horta began his career in journalism in 1969 in Timor-Leste.
Indonesian invasion of Timor
In 1974 after more than 400 years, the Portuguese began to dismantle their colonial territories, including East Timor, granting them independence. Led by the Revolutionary Front for an Independent Timor-Leste (FRETILIN), the people of Timor-Leste proclaimed their independence, as the Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste.
Ramos-Horta was one of FRETILIN’s co-founders. Appointed their Minister for External Affairs and Information, he was sent overseas to gain international support for the new country. He left for New York on December 4, 1975.
What they did not know at the time was that their independence would last only nine days. President Gerald Ford and Secretary of State Kissinger had been in Jakarta, giving the nod to Indonesia to invade and occupy Timor-Leste.
Three days later after Ramos-Horta left for New York, Indonesian warships arrived on the shores of his island.
The beginning of a 24 reign of terror, Indonesian soldiers began rounding up FRETILIN members and executing them on the docks of Dili. In cold war tactics reminiscent of Vietnam, they entered villages which were “sympathetic” to FRETILIN and exterminated entire villages, including women and children.
José Ramos-Horta did not realize on arriving in New York that it would be the beginning of 24 years in exile from his home. But he quickly became one of the only FRETILIN members whose life was safe — and virtually the lone voice that could still be raised.
Rising to the call, at 25 years old he pleaded the cause of his people and their right to self-determination at every international forum. In response to his passionate appeal to the United Nations, the Security Council adopted a unanimous resolution demanding that Indonesia withdraw its forces from Timor-Leste — a resolution that was ignored on the ground in Timor-Leste.
From 1975 to 1999, Timor-Leste became hell on Earth. One third of the Timorese population perished under the Indonesian occupation — executed, “disappeared”, or starved by forcible displacement. Torture centers arose in the cities. Women were forcibly sterilized or taken as sex slaves. Residents of Dili at times heard the screams of political prisoners dropped live from helicopters into the salt marshes.
With a ban on journalists on the island, few in the world even knew what was happening on Ramos-Horta’s small island. Yet at home, the Timorese were looking to him as their last hope.
During the entire occupation, Ramos-Horta was the permanent representative for FRETILIN at the United Nations — the youngest diplomat in the history of the UN. Starting with no allies, the mistaken perception that FRETILIN were a communist threat, and with the West aligned behind Indonesia, he traveled constantly, lobbying governments, creating networks of human rights supporters, and telling the story of his people to anyone who would listen.
With little and at times no financial support, he often slept on couches of human rights supporters or accepted a meal from a friend to keep going.
The BBC once said that the Indonesian army would have traded every life they took in Timor for his alone.
Nobel Peace Prize
In December 1996 José Ramos-Horta and Bishop Carlos Belo were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for “their work towards a just and peaceful solution to the conflict in Timor-Leste”.
In August 1999 his work paid off when the United Nations sponsored a referendum allowing the Timorese to vote for their independence. When the vote came in with 80% in favor of independence, armed militia gangs trained by the Indonesian military were unleashed.
85% of the buildings in Timor-Leste were burned — virtually every business, and every school. Hundreds of thousands of Timorese were forcibly displaced. In a systematic effort to bring the country to its knees, the buffalo used to work fields were slaughtered or stolen, trucks stolen or disabled, fishing nets burned.
Again the Timorese turned to their hope abroad — José Ramos-Horta. Again he spent sleepless nights on the phone, traveling, and pleading the cause of his people, until the phone call came — President Bill Clinton had authorized a UN Peacekeeping force in Timor. Indonesia had agreed to allow it.
Shortly Austrlian forces began to arrive on the island’s shores, followed by the UN forces, with units from around the world, to stop what was fast becoming a genocide. Surviving Timorese emerged
from hiding, came down from the mountains, and were able to walk in their country, free for the first time. Ships were sent to bring the hundreds of thousands displaced home again.
In December, 1999, José Ramos-Horta returned to his homeland for the first time in almost 25 years. The airport and the streets were filled with Timorese, many of whom had walked in from villages around the island to see him and to cheer him home.
With Timor-Leste now under UN Administration while being rebuilt, Ramos-Horta was appointed Senior Minister for the country’s interim government, helping to establish the elections, Constitution, financial management systems and international cooperation for the country.
The young democracy
In 2002, when the UN turned the reins of the country over and Timor-Leste became the world’s newest democracy, he was appointed Minister for Foreign Affairs and Cooperation, continuing to represent the country internationally.
On 10 July, 2006, José Ramos-Horta was sworn in as the Prime Minister of Timor-Leste, following the resignation of then Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri. He stepped into the post with violence erupting in the country, as a group of renegade soldiers had broken away from the army, taken to the mountains with arms, and begun to mobilize gangs to burn homes and create havoc in the country.
On assuming the position of Prime Minister, Ramos-Horta and then President, and former guerilla leader Xanana Gusmao, began to restore peace and return displaced to their homes. As they worked to negotiate a resolution to the conflict, they put the country back on the path to its hard-won peace.
In 2007 Ramos-Horta was elected President of the country by a 70% margin. He was sworn in as the second President of Timor-Leste on 20 May, 2007.
Ramos-Horta was critically injured and survived an assassination attempt by a group of the remaining renegade soldiers, on 11 February 2008. The event, and his survival, proved to be a turning point for the country, with the last of the rebels coming out of the mountains and turning in their arms. When he was released to come home to Timor from Darwin, where he had been flown for the emergency treatment that had saved him, throngs once again lined the streets of Dili. The last leader of the renegades had waited until his return, to ceremoniously lay down his arms before Ramos-Horta.
The country has remained at peace.
Today José Ramos-Horta is finishing his first term as President of the country he helped to free, as they are enjoying their first years under the democracy he helped to create.