by Wilson da Silva
OSLO, Norway – Timorese resistance leader Jose Ramos-Horta, who received this year’s Nobel Peace Prize in Norway last week, has been the target of renewed death threats, with resistance sources inside the Indonesian-occupied territory of East Timor warning him that an attempt on his life is being prepared.
He said that since the announcement of the prize in October, he has received a number of death threats over the Internet, as well as threatening telephone calls while in Australia and Portugal. Three weeks ago, just after the latest threat, he received word from Timorese resistance operatives inside the former Portuguese colony that pro-Indonesian Timorese had been approached by elements of the Indonesian military to carry out the task. They said there was now “concrete evidence” an attempt on his life was being planned.
The Norwegian Nobel Committee, which awarded the 1996 prize jointly to Ramos-Horta and the Catholic Bishop of East Timor, Carlos Filipe Ximenes Belo, appears to also be concerned. It declined a request by Ramos-Horta to stay at the home of friends in Oslo, insisting that security concerns required that both he and Belo stay at the Grand Hotel, where the Norwegian government has arranged protection for the laureates. The Grand Hotel was the scene of secret peace talks in 1987 between American jewish peace activists and the P.L.O.
Co-recipient Belo has received at least two death threats in the past, but these were before the announcement of his selection as co-winner of the coveted Peace Prize. Ramos-Horta, a political activist and lobbyist for the past 21 years whose naming by the Nobel Committee was attacked by the Indonesian government, said there was nothing either man could do. But he questioned the notion that winning the prize made him untouchable; in fact, it made him more of a target, he said.
“Assassins have killed famous people, not insignificant people,” he said. “The record shows that the more visible you are, the more important you become. That’s when someone, sometime, gets to you.”
He said that although he has received threats sporadically before, the latest round have been more frequent, and matched by intelligence from underground resistance sources inside East Timor, something that had not happened before. “Now I take them more seriously,” he said.
This year’s prize marks the 100th anniversary of the death of the its founder, Swedish chemist Alfred Nobel, inventor of dynamite. It is only the eighth to be given in the Asian region; the first was North Vietnamese peace mediator Le Duc Tho in 1973, who declined the honor because he was to share it with then U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. Other Asians include Tibet’s exiled spiritual and political leader, the Dalai Lama, in 1989; Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi in 1991 and aid worker and nun Mother Teresa of Calcutta in 1979.
Belo and Ramos-Horta were given the Nobel gold medals and the US$1.12 million prize money for their efforts to find a peaceful solution to the 21-year-old conflict in East Timor. Human rights groups charge that more than two decades after Indonesia’s invasion, human rights abuses prevail, and a large Indonesian military force is stationed in the territory. In the mountains, a ragtag army of guerrillas regularly ambush and kill Indonesian troops. Indonesia recently estimated the number of guerrillas fighting in the hills had dwindled to less than 100, but also acknowledged that the guerrillas can quietly call on a 3,000-strong clandestine network of supporters throughout East Timor and Indonesia.
Indonesia invaded East Timor on December 7, 1975 and annexed it the following year in a move not officially recognized by the United Nations and most other countries. The U.N. still regards East Timor as a non-self-governing territory under Portuguese administration.
A senior official at the Nobel Institute told Reuters that there was evidence the prestigious prize could have political influence in the territory, ruled since 1975 by Indonesia in defiance of the United Nations.
“The Peace Prize has already had influence on the situation in East Timor. There is an increased eagerness by the Indonesian authorities to consider dialogue, but how far that will go and what form it will take is too early to say,” said Institute Research Director Odd Arne Westad.
Wilson da Silva is a former Reuters correspondent based in Australia