Before serving his country as President, Dr. José Ramos-Horta was known internationally as a peacemaker. In exile from his country for the better part of three decades, he had been the international voice of the Timorese people while they fought for survival against one of the most brutal regimes of our time.
From 1975 to 1999 Timor-Leste, (formerly known as East Timor), a small island and former Portuguese colony at the bottom of the Indonesian archipelago, was invaded and occupied by Indonesia. Over the course of the 24 year invasion, one third of the Timorese population perished.
In exile for the entire occupation, José Ramos-Horta worked to build a human rights network to defend the rights of the Timorese — walking the halls of the UN, addressing the security council, and working tirelessly to ensure his people were not forgotten while they suffered.
In 1996, José Ramos-Horta and Timorese Bishop Carlos Ximenes Belo were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize “for their work toward a just and peaceful solution to the conflict in East Timor.”
In 1999 the United Nations sponsored a referendum, allowing the Timorese people to vote between independence, and remaining a part of Indonesia. The country voted overwhelmingly for independence.
But the story was not over. When the referendum results came in, pro-Indonesia militia who had been put in place across the countryside were unleashed, virtually burning the country to the ground. 85% of the buildings in Timor were set aflame. Hundreds of thousands of people were displaced – at gunpoint – to West Timor and other parts of Indonesia. An unknown number, including foreign journalists, and men, women and children taking refuge in Churches, were massacred.
The rampage was halted by the arrival of a UN peacekeeping force on September 20, 1999. The UN then established an interim government to administer the country and prepare the country for the transition to democracy.
José Ramos-Horta returned from exile on December 1, 1999. Throngs of Timorese crowded the airport and streets to greet him and celebrate his arrival home. Assuming the post of Senior Minister in the new government, he quickly began work to help build a new democratic government in his country, becoming one of the chief architects of the new country’s government.
In 2006, the island of Timor-Leste, still getting on its feet as a young democracy, exploded in new violence, when a group of more than 500 split from the army. Amid burning buildings and gangs rampaging in the streets, the Prime Minister was forced to step down.
José Ramos-Horta, at the time Timor-Leste’s Foreign Minister and Senior Minister, was asked to step into the vacant Prime Minister post. At the time the LA Times called him the young democracy’s “last hope”.
The hope was well placed.
Steadily, once Ramos-Horta took office, peace began to return to Timor-Leste. The camps of the internally displaced emptied as people returned to their neighborhoods and began rebuilding.
In May 2007 Ramos-Horta was elected President of Timor-Leste. Assuming the helm of one of the poorest nations in Asia, and a country devastated by conflict, his promise was to serve as the “President of the Poor”. He promised to remain dedicated to eradicating poverty in his country through improved public health and education, and by providing an environment where business can thrive.
In 2008 President Ramos-Horta survived an assassination attempt by members of the renegade military group. While the country prayed for his survival, the remaining members of the renegade group surrendered and turned in their arms.
On the President’s return to office, the country entered a new phase, a phase of putting conflict behind them, and building a new country.
In the years since, working with fellow Timorese hero Xanana Gusmao, and with an unfaltering love for and faith in the Timorese people, Ramos-Horta has seen many of his dreams for the Timorese people start to come to fruition, both in the city and countryside.
While serving as President and the international voice of the young government, he personally created peace initiatives ranging from a world class mountain bike “race for peace” to opening his office for youth from neighboring areas to come and peacefully resolve conflicts. His anti-poverty initiatives, including building homes for the neediest, lifted tens of thousands out of extreme poverty. His leadership and expertise have walked Timor-Leste toward a new era of peace, reconciliation and economic growth.
Today Timor-Leste is enjoying a well earned peace. With double digit growth for three years, the Timorese economy is today one of the strongest in Asia. Unemployment has plummeted, while the country is on track for 100% literacy by 2015. Youth have even been seen, working under Ramos-Horta’s “Dili City of Peace ” program, rebuilding homes they torched in 2006.
The government’s new motto, “Goodbye Conflict, Welcome Development”, is evident around the island.
José Ramos-Horta’s work in taking his country from devastating conflict to peace and economic growth in just over a decade serves as a model for building democracy in the twenty first century.
Now free to move back onto the international stage, in 2012 he accepted an appointment from the UN Secretary General as Special Representative of the Secretary General to the African nation of Guinea Bissau.