Wilson da Silva

Science journalist, feature writer and editor.

Jul 28, 1997
Published on: Canberra Times
4 min read
South African president Nelson Mandela (right) meets with his Indonesian counterpart, Suharto, in Jakarta

By WILSON da SILVA 

The surprising intervention of South Africa’s President Nelson Mandela in the issue of East Timor had the tacit approval of Indonesia’s President Suharto, Timorese independence activist José Ramos Horta said.

Mr Ramos Horta, who was invited to Pretoria by Mr Mandela for a two- hour meet ing on Fri day, said yesterday that the involvement of the South African leader and fellow Nobel Peace laure ate could provide the necessary circuit-breaker to the 22-year diplomatic impasse over East Timor.

“If Suharto listens to anyone at all, it is not his ministers or to anyone younger than him, he listens to someone like Mande la,” Mr Ramos Horta told The Canberra Times from Pretoria. 

“Mandela is very willing to play a role in helping the dialogue ... He would not be doing this if he had not discussed it first with Suharto. His involvement injects a new dynamic into the process.” 

Mr Mandela, a 1993 Nobel Peace laureate, returned last week from a state visit to Indonesia during which he met at his request jailed Timorese guerrilla leader Xanana Gusmão. The July 15 meeting, revealed on Mr Mandela’s return, was held in the presidential Merdeka Palace with the approval of Mr Suharto.

Gusmão was captured by Indonesian troops in 1991, and an Indonesian court sentenced him to life in 1994, which Mr Suharto later commuted to 20 years.

Mr Ramos Horta, the Timor ese resistance’s overseas representative, shared the 1996 Nobel Peace Prize with East Timor’s Catholic Bishop Carlos Belo.

Mr Ramos Horta said Mr Mandela had also urged the Indonesian leader to release Gusmão so he could participate in a negotiated settlement of the territory’s future. “Suharto may be looking for a graceful way out of the problem of East Timor and Mandela is the vehicle,” Mr Ramos Horta said.

“He is not making concessions to the West, he is listening to a man with the moral and po litical authority of a statesman of the Third World.” Mr Mandela has said he is not circumventing the United Nations-led dialogue between Indonesia and East Timor’s former colonial administrator Portugal, chaired by UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, but hopes to give the talks extra impetus.

Portuguese President Jorge Sampaio has accepted an invitation to visit Mr Mandela in South Africa to discuss the is sue next week.

Mr Ramos Horta said it would be difficult for Indonesia to ignore someone of Mr Mandela’s stature.

“With Mandela’s involvement, if there is any setback, it will be known that it was because of Indonesia’s stubbornness and in flexibility, not of Portugal or anyone else, and it will be Indonesia that will wear the political cost,” he said.

Indonesia invaded East Timor in 1975 and annexed it a year later in a move not recognised by the United Nations.

Talks between Portugal and Indonesia under UN auspices have made little headway since.