Dili, Timor-Leste – Few individuals embody the spirit of democracy more than José Ramos-Horta. A founding father of Timor-Leste, Ramos-Horta has selflessly dedicated his life to fighting for freedom and independence for his fellow Timorese and for the cause of human rights worldwide. Throughout Timor-Leste’s tumultuous history, from Portuguese colonial rule through Indonesia’s brutal occupation and finally a decade of independence marked by internal upheaval, Ramos-Horta has been steadfast in his leadership of Timor-Leste’s pursuit of self-determination, peace, and democracy.
Ramos-Horta’s political involvement began in earnest at the age of 18, when he was exiled from Timor-Leste to Mozambique for criticizing the ruling Portuguese colonial government. When Portugal withdrew from Timor-Leste in 1975, Timor-Leste declared its independence on November 28. Age 25 at the time, Ramos-Horta was appointed the Minister of External Affairs and deployed abroad to seek support from the international community. Three days following his departure (and only nine days after the country declared independence), Indonesia invaded Timor-Leste in what became Indonesia’s largest ever military operation.
Ramos-Horta spent the next 24 years in exile, exposing the injustices of the Indonesian occupation and rallying the international community to support Timor-Leste’s struggle for freedom. He became the youngest person to address the United Nations Security Council in late 1975 when he successfully convinced the council to pass a resolution demanding Indonesia’s withdrawal from Timor-Leste. Ramos-Horta traveled frequently from one world capital to the next, keeping the plight of Timor-Leste’s suffering population on the agenda of international leaders. In 1996, Ramos-Horta was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize with his compatriot Bishop Carlos Filipe Ximenes Belo for “their work towards a just and peaceful solution to the conflict in East Timor.”
In 1999, Ramos-Horta returned home for the first time in nearly a quarter century. The devastation caused by the Indonesian military was horrific; the government of Timor-Leste estimates nearly a third of the country’s population perished during the Indonesian occupation due to killings and starvation. Three of Ramos-Horta’s 11 brothers and sisters were killed by the Indonesian military and a fourth died from a lack of proper medical care. Instead of vengeance, Ramos-Horta adopted a philosophy of non-violence, stating, “Never ever surrender to hatred. Never allow yourself to be a hostage of violence.”
Indonesia’s military withdrew from Timor-Leste in 1999 following a referendum that overwhelmingly favored independence. In the aftermath of the vote, pro-Indonesia militias joined Indonesian soldiers in a retaliatory scorched earth campaign, massacring nearly 1,400 people and forcefully displacing as many as 300,000 others.
In the precarious years that followed, Ramos-Horta was a leading figure negotiating Timor-Leste’s status with the United Nations, first as a provisional administration and then finally as an internationally recognized independent state. When Timor-Leste officially joined the United Nations in June 2002, Ramos-Horta became the new nation’s first Foreign Minister. He added the posts of Defense Minister and Prime Minister to his portfolio in the subsequent six years. When a crisis in 2006 nearly unraveled the political fabric of the nation, Ramos-Horta deftly secured the intervention of a foreign peacekeeping force to stabilize the situation.
In May 2007, Ramos-Horta was elected president of the Republic of Timor-Leste, earning 69 percent of the vote in a decisive run-off poll. His presidency suffered a shock when an assassin involved in a mutinous plot shot the newly elected president twice in February 2008. Though critically injured, Ramos-Horta made a full recovery and returned to office only months after the attack. Ramos-Horta ran for reelection in March 2012, finishing third in the poll, disqualifying him from the second round run-off. Gracious in defeat, Ramos-Horta demonstrated to both his supporters and opponents that peaceful relinquishment and transfer of power is crucial to democratic advancement.
Ramos-Horta is an inspiration to those struggling for democracy worldwide. For his tireless pursuit of self-determination, peace and democratic development, José Ramos-Horta truly is Democracy’s Hero.