Wilson da Silva

Science journalist, feature writer and editor.

May 2, 1997
Published on: The American Reporter
3 min read
Ramos Horta in 1975 at the Darwin waterfront as more Timorese refugees arrive, far right

by Wilson da Silva
American Reporter Correspondent

SYDNEY, Australia – José Ramos Horta is an exile. He has no home, no furniture, no car, no driver’s licence. His bed is a sofa or a guest room in the homes of friends around the world, or an economy-class seat on an intercontinental flight.

His life is an eternal transit lounge. Three days in Sydney, a week in Lisbon, a month in New York. Forever travelling, yet never arriving at his true destination: his native East Timor.

For Ramos Horta, the public face of the Timorese struggle for independence, can never return while occupying Indonesian battalions roam his island homeland. A former Portuguese colony, it was an independent nation for a few weeks until an Indonesian invasion snuffed it out on December 7, 1975. It is an occupation that, to this day, is considered illegal under international law.

Not even the Nobel Peace Prize, which Ramos Horta was awarded last year along with East Timor’s Catholic Bishop Carlos Belo, has made a dent on that yearning felt by all political exiles: a yearning to return home.

Australia, as one of the few open liberal democracies in region dotted with autocratic and dictatorial regimes, is home to  thousands like Ramos Horta. People whose political views or activities would land them in a jail were they to return.

Patriots who still agitate for change, and dream of a day when they will be able to return.

Along with the Timorese, Australia is a safe harbor for Burmese escaping the military junta that took power in 1988, Tibetans who fled the Chinese occupation in 1951, Kurds escaping persecution in Iraq and Turkey and West Papuans who fought Indonesia’s takeover of the western half of Papua New Guinea, what is today the Indonesian province of Irian Jaya.

More recently, there have been those who chose exile rather than live in political turmoil: islanders from Bougainville, fleeing the conflict with Papua New Guinea, or Fijian Indians who left following the 1987 military coup by native Fijian army against an Indian-led Fijian government.  Then there are the exiles from scores of past political upheavals: from Chile, El Salvador and Hungary, and many other places too.

Under U.N. diplomatic conventions which came into effect in 1951, a refugee is anyone who has a well-founded fear of being persecuted on the grounds of race, religion, nationality, membership of a social group or because of a political opinion. Australia provides exile to some 15,000 annually under its humanitarian aid intake, one of the largest in the world.

They come from all part of the world. But it is East Timor that has given Australia its greatest number of exiles: an estimated 12,000 who fled the Indonesian invasion now live in Australia. About 8,000 live in the sprawling megalopolises of Sydney and Melbourne, the rest scattered through urban centres such as Darwin and Perth.

Jose Ramos Horta is the most prominent of these.

An official of the ruling Fretilin political party in East Timor, Ramos Horta had been appointed foreign minister on November 28,1975. He flew out of East Timor on December 5 to present his credentials to the United Nations. By the time his plane landed, Indonesia had invaded East Timor.

From the Timorese hinterland where he saw his first car at the age of 12, he had arrived in New York. He had never seen snow. He was 25. He was an exile.

“A very nice American couple took me to a nearby store to buy cutlery,” he told The American Reporter in an interview. “I bought only one of each – one fork, one spoon – and they were amused that I didn’t buy a set, which would have been cheaper.

“But I wanted to hang on to the illusion that I was just passing by New York and I was going back to Timor soon.”

Within days, Ramos Horta was slushing through the snow to address a meeting of the U.N. Security Council. News footage of the time shows a young man in an Afro haircut and an ill-fitting brown jacket sitting at the circular table of the council, reading from a prepared statement. He speaks English slowly and with a heavy accent. He demands Indonesia withdraw from East Timor.

A few days later, on 22 December, the U.N. Security Council condemned Indonesia’s invasion. The resolution was unanimous, despite strong lobbying by Indonesia and its diplomatic allies.

Ramos Horta was euphoric. Indonesia would comply, he thought, or else the Security Council, in accordance with the U.N. Charter, would amass a military force to drive it out.

Twenty years later, Ramos Horta is still waiting.

“I had expected to go back with a U.N. resolution in my hands in triumph,” he says. “Instead, I found out that piece of paper didn’t mean much.”

In the two decades since, Ramos Horta has travelled the world lobbying for his cause, speaking at international human rights forums, U.N. meetings, church gatherings, university conferences, political rallies – to anyone who would listen. He has cajoled and pleaded with politicians and party leaders, pop stars and journalists.

In the two decades since, his sister, Mariazinha, has been killed by shrapnel from Indonesian bombing, and his brothers – Nunu, a guerrilla fighter, and Gui – have been captured and executed by Indonesian soldiers.

Historians say that in the years following Indonesia’s invasion, some 200,000 Timorese have been killed by war, disease and starvation– one-third of the population.

They were the darkest years of our struggle, Ramos Horta says. “That’s when the largest massacres took place, when literally tens of thousands of people died like flies – of massacres, of hunger, fleeing bombardments, military onslaughts and encirclement, unable to cultivate the land.

“There were years when I thought, you know, we were defeated.  The odds were so great that I thought we were being deleted from history,” he says, pausing to bit his lip.

But, somehow, he did not lose hope. “I was probably the most irrelevant person walking around New York at that time,” he admits, a self-effacing grin crossing his face before disappearing. “I could have walked away. But never once I lost hope. Never once I thought of quitting altogether.”

These days, with the Nobel Peace Prize in hand and the access it provides to decision-makers, along with the higher profile and greater reportage of the issue in the world’s media, the ghost of East Timor is rising once again to diplomatic prominence. The U.S. has heightened the pressure on Indonesia, banning some arms sales and military co-operation. Even the Australian government, traditionally a strong ally of Indonesia,  has stepped up its criticism in the last few years.

The Timorese resistance movement survives on handouts and donations provided by relief groups and activist organisations in Europe, the United States and Australia, or by some of the 17,000 Timorese living in exile in Australia and Portugal. At times, a donation is offered to pay for an air fare here, a train fare there.

Being an exile is not all that financially rewarding. For 13 years, Ramos Horta lived in a cockroach-infested New York apartment near 55th Street and First Avenue. Another year was spent in Washington.

 These days, he shares his time between his mother’s modest apartment above a pizza parlor in the outer-western suburbs of Sydney, and the house of a surviving brother in Lisbon, both of whom escaped East Timor with the help of the Red Cross.

He has a “summer job” at the University of New South Wales, teaching diplomacy and the ways of the U.N., which he knows well after 21 years of plying the carpets.

“I am half-happy that we have succeeded in not being defeated, both militarily and diplomatically,” Ramos Horta says. “But, I tell you, I am burned out. It has taken an enormous toll on me, and I’m just amazed that, health-wise, I have no major problems.

“I’m still anxious to reach day one of independence,” he grins again. “Then I can hand in my resignation.”

Ramos Horta believes that, more than two decades after the invasion, the tide is turning against Indonesia as never before. And that it will be only a matter of time before it leaves the territory.

“My hope is that in the next two to three years the issue will be settled one way or another, and I can return to what I always wanted to do. To be a writer.”

But he is not the only exile waiting for resolution. Take Soe Soe. The 30-year-old has gone from studying Burmese history at Rangoon University, to becoming a small part of it.

He lives in Melbourne with his student sweetheart, Myint Myint San. Both pro-democracy activists in Burma, they have been exiled by the army crackdown in 1988 that installed a military junta.

“We cannot go back,” he says. “Every day, we are doing politics, working for Burma to be democratic. We are opposition to the junta.”

The two now run Burma Radio, a community news program on Radio 3CR in Melbourne. As well as community information and local news in Burmese, they provide a weekly diet of pro-democracy developments inside Burma, as well as news of moves around the world against the Rangoon junta, known as the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC).

At night, they correspond via the Internet with other exiled Burmese activists around the world. They help maintain a global newsgroup known as BurmaNet, with news and comment, and help organise rallies and talks, agitating for change in their country.

The couple are among more than 1,000 Burmese who fled the junta’s bloody 1988 crackdown and came to Australia. They have joined another 18,000 who settled in the country following an earlier army coup in 1962.

In Burma, Myint Myint was studying botany and Soe Soe had just completed high school and was preparing to take history at university when the military took power. Three thousand pro-democracy demonstrators, mostly students, were killed in the brutal crackdown.

Opposition leaders were arrested, including Aung San Suu Kyi, daughter of the revered Burmese independence leader. In 1991, she was also awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, which the junta did not allow her to collect.

Soe Soe and Myint Myint had been student leaders in the uprising. Like many involved in the protests, they fled to the mountains after the crackdown. In the panic, they were separated, for a time living in different student camps.

Some students brought weapons with them, and a ragtag guerrilla band was formed to fight the junta.

For two years, the small guerrilla force traversed the jungles, too ill-equipped to do more than mount sporadic ambushes against well-armed Government troops.

“We were not many people in the jungle,” says Soe Soe. “We were a student army . . . SLORC came and attacked us many times. We have to move around a lot.”

Soe Soe contracted malaria in 1991 and left the jungles for a hospital in Thailand. Myint Myint followed, and after recovering, they were granted U.N. refugee status and, finally, a scholarship and sanctuary in Australia.

Then there is Sandup Tsering. Two years after Mao Zedong led the communists to power in Beijing, Chinese troops invaded Tibet. It was 1951. Tibetan opposition to Chinese rule eventually exploded into a full- fledged uprising in 1959.

China cracked down hard. Thousands fled across the border to nearby India, including the parents of Sandup Tsering. He was a newborn then, two weeks old and smothered in swaddling- clothes.

“I have never seen my homeland,” said Tsering, a former Buddhist monk and now the leader of Melbourne’s small Tibetan exile community.

“Even though I live here in a free country and I am very comfortable materially, I always feel sad that my homeland is under foreign occupation. That my people there are undergoing suffering.”

Tsering is one of fewer than 100 Tibetans in Australia. He grew up in the south of India, in Mysore, where a large exiled Tibetan community now lives.

Before being relocated there, his parents lived for five years in a transit camp in eastern India. He came to Australia as a monk in 1984 to work at the Tara Institute in the Melbourne beach-side suburb of Brighton, a Tibetan Buddhist centre visited by Tibetans and non-Tibetans alike.

Tsering, who now has a job as a storeman, continues his work at the centre, translating the teachings of the Geshe Doga, the 62-year-old senior Tibetan monk, who speaks no English.

During the 1960s, there were U.N. calls for China to withdraw from Tibet.  But soon the world forgot the territory’s plight, and little news trickled out. These days the occupation is largely recognized in all but name.

Scholars now know that, in the years after the 1959 uprising, an estimated 1.2 million Tibetans died – one-fifth of the territory’s population. In the cities and fertile valleys, a steady influx of Chinese now outnumber Tibetans by two to one.

The government-in-exile, headed by the Dalai Lama, remains in Dharamsala, a northern Indian town near the Tibetan border.

 “My parents are now old,” says Tsering. “Every time I see them, I know that, even though their bodies are living in India, their whole mind and hope is in Tibet.

Despite the long years, despite the seeming intransigence of China and the polite dismissal of the diplomatic community, Tibetans still dream of returning one day to a free land.

“Most Tibetans here, and in India, think that one day they will go back,” says Tsering. “They do not think that Tibet will not be free one day, that there’s no hope. Still there is hope.”