Wilson da Silva

Science journalist, feature writer and editor.

Dec 12, 1996
Published on: The American Reporter
1 min read
Nobel Peace Prize winners: East Timor’s Catholic Bishop Carlos Belo and Timorese resistance leader José Ramos Horta

by Wilson da Silva
American Reporter Correspondent

OSLO, Norway – It was, at the very least, a break with tradition. For the first time in the 100 years since the death of Alfred Nobel, the Swedish industrialist whose will established the Nobel Peace Prizes, the two joint winners of the held separate press conferences this week.

They arrived in separate cars, even though they were staying at the same hotel. And Norwegian journalists reported some of the heaviest security seen at the annual event, surpassed only by that accorded to the 1993 winners: PLO chairman Yasser Arafat, the late Israeli Prime Minister Itzhak Rabin and former Foreign Minister Shimon Perez.

Outside the front door of the Nobel Institute, seven Norwegian police officers in jumpsuits covered the entrance. Inside, another four men in plain clothes and earpieces searched reporters, running a sniffer dogs through bags and folders.

Into the baroque drawing room crammed with more than 150 journalists entered East Timor’s Catholic Bishop, Carlos Ximenes Belo. But his co-winner, Timorese resistance leader Jose Ramos Horta, was nowhere to be seen.

Geir Lundestad, director of the Nobel Committee, was pointed in his introduction. “Bishop Belo is a spiritual and moral leader. Mr. Ramos Horta is a political leader. Bishop Belo lives in East Timor, and he is of course returning to East Timor. Mr. Ramos Horta operates on the international level, and lives abroad.”

The 48-year-old clergyman came to Norway on an Indonesian passport. On Sunday night, only hours after his arrival, he led a Catholic service in St. Olaf’s Church in Oslo before dining at the Indonesian ambassador’s residence. This is the same ambassador who is boycotting the prize-giving ceremony.

In his replies to questions, Belo was cautious to a fault. But he did not shirk from gentle criticism of the country that has occupied the former Portuguese colony for the past 21 years.

“I acknowledge the efforts of the Indonesian government toward the development of East Timor,” the Nobel laureate said.  “But please understand that no development can be fully appreciated when it is carried out without the responsible participation of the local people in its conception, in its execution and at the expense of their identity, freedom and dignity.”

When the questions about the reason for the break in tradition came, Bishop Belo became uncomfortable. He was asked about reports that the Indonesian government had barred him from appearing with Ramos Horta, on the threat of not being allowed to return home, and that he was being placed under great pressure to moderate his comments.

Belo smiled for a while at the journalist. “It is not totally true,” he finally said, the smile frozen on his face. “I am free to come here and I will be free to go back.” And that’s about as political as he got.

When it came to his turn, Ramos Horta was more forthright. But he too chose moderation. “I have no desire to engage in confrontation with Indonesia, at a time when the Nobel Committee has bestowed on us an even greater responsibility to search for peace. Together with all my colleagues in the Timorese resistance leadership ... I am willing to engage Indonesia in dialogue without pre-conditions, within the framework of the United Nations, in the search for a solution to the problem of East Timor.

“We are also prepared to be flexible, to be creative, to move step-by-step; to enable those who call us their enemy to find ways to disengage from East Timor in a gradual manner that would save face for them ... We are prepared to bend over backwards in order to accommodate Indonesia’s national interest.”

Belo is the 100th recipient of the prize, and Ramos Horta the 101st. While Belo will, as is traditional, visit Sweden on Friday, the 47-year-old Ramos Horta has declined – becoming the first peace laureate to do so. His reason? Sweden is one of the biggest sellers of arms to Indonesia, the country that invaded East Timor in 1975 and continues to occupy it, in contravention of United Nations resolutions. The U.N., like most of the world’s nations, does not recognise the annexation of East Timor.

By choosing the two men, the Norwegian Nobel Committee has made an obvious effort to propel the issue into the international spotlight. It has also severally embarrassed Indonesia. Nevertheless, committee chairman Francis Sejersted was blunt in his introduction at the ceremony on Tuesday.

“It has been said that Indonesia’s annexation of East Timor is a historic fact. But history has never established anything as a fact forever,” he said. “If we have learned anything in the past decade, it must be that the most repressive regimes are the most fragile. There are forces in history that are more powerful than the strongest military force.”