Jose Ramos-Horta on my mind

There was a time that His Excellency, Dr. Jose Ramos-Horta, President of Timor-Leste and Nobel laureate– was simply Jose to me.

I first met him over breakfast at a quaint hotel in Bangkok sometime in 1992.  We were both attending a conference called “Peoples Plan for the 21st Century” that, well, wanted to chart a common framework for the broad social movement in the region at the dawn of the new millennium .  He was there to speak on behalf of his forgotten people- some 600,000 East Timorese who were under the yoke of a then occupying force- Indonesia.  A third of his people –  around 200,000 – had been slaughtered, starved, killed or impaled by the military and police of the dictator Suharto who in 1975 sent in a Catholic army general to lead the invasion of this puny, gentle, territory.

There was a time that His Excellency, Dr. Jose Ramos-Horta, President of Timor-Leste and Nobel laureate– was simply Jose to me.

I first met him over breakfast at a quaint hotel in Bangkok sometime in 1992.  We were both attending a conference called “Peoples Plan for the 21st Century” that, well, wanted to chart a common framework for the broad social movement in the region at the dawn of the new millennium .  He was there to speak on behalf of his forgotten people- some 600,000 East Timorese who were under the yoke of a then occupying force- Indonesia.  A third of his people –  around 200,000 – had been slaughtered, starved, killed or impaled by the military and police of the dictator Suharto who in 1975 sent in a Catholic army general to lead the invasion of this puny, gentle, territory.   Jose was one of the Timorse resistance leaders and became the indefatigable spokesperson as he was sent abroad to gather international support for their lonely crusade.  He traveled the world under the auspices of activist or citizen supporters and some friendly governments or agencies, pounded the corridors of the UN, visited and cajoled diplomats, sought and strategized with solidarity activists; flew economy class, rode buses, slept in friends’ couches, ate cold, packed lunches, attended, spoke or organized symposiums, conferences; wrote treatises, articles, columns — tirelessly sat and planned how to project, promote Timorese self-determination with friends and supporters into the dawn.

Over coffee, eggs and Thai sticky rice, we talked about the need for the issue of East Timor to be highlighted in the region.  Because of his and other comrades efforts, the Timorese cause was slowly gaining mileage in the UN, in Western capitals specially in Europe where its former colonizer, Portugal, was also doing all it can to help its former colony achieve its freedom.  Portugal abandoned East Timor when it was invaded by Indonesia in 1975.

But virtually no one in Southeast Asia – even among activist circles- was aware that a carnage, a virtual genocide was going on right in its own backyard.  It was the best kept secret of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) then.  Suharto had convincingly used the ASEAN non-intervention tenet to the hilt by keeping it quiet about this atrocity.  The same principle has been lately challenged in ASEAN with another monstrosity that is Burma.   It was but natural then, nay, imperative to bring back “home” the story that was East Timor.

So Jose and I mulled over how to do it and decided to organize a conference in Manila first called the “International Conference on East Timor and Indonesia” or ICETI. The objective was to call attention to their plight and gather support from their own neighbors. Manila was chosen to be the venue of the conference as the Philippines was the only capital in the region that provided the most viable and proper “democratic” environment to host such a potentially controversial meeting.  The Philippines had just come out of its own dark years of dictatorship and was basking in its “democratic credentials”.  Together with other groups and friends, it took us two years to finally organize it as we meanwhile decided to focus just on East Timor.  Thus in 1994, the first Asia-Pacific Conference on East Timor (APCET) was held. The then Ramos government tried to stop it bowing to the intense pressure of the autocrat Suharto, and Horta was barred from attending it. APCET must have upset Jakarta and Malacanang so much. Many foreign delegates were deported but history cannot be denied as the conference proceeded and paved the way for the launch of the Asia-Pacific Coalition for East Timor, also APCET.  And the rest they say was herstory.

Eventually, East Timor gained its independence.  Thanks to the valiant struggle of the gentle East Timorese and the efforts and leadership of people like Jose who was co-awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1996 together with his compatriot, the humble Dili Bishop Carlos Ximenes Belo. And we continued to assist and support his people in whatever way we could. Not only by organizing APCETs around the region, but through internships, capacity-building, solidarity, relief and medical missions, humanitarian endeavors and lobbying the UN and the ASEAN governments. For our modest work, we got ourselves deported from Malaysia in 1996, tailed and harassed in Bangkok by intelligence and police operatives in 1998.  We finally held an APCET in East Timor in 2000 and transformed it into the Asia-Pacific Solidarity Coalition (APSOC) in 2005 that aimed to offer the same solidarity of APCET for other akin struggles in the region.  As we bowed out in Dili, the capital of this new-born country, Jose – who was now his nation’s senior foreign minister– and a godfather to my third daughter born in 1999– was there to accompany the transition of APCET. And the newly-liberated Timorese became part of APSOC and were ready to also offer their own solidarity for other peoples.

As is the case of emerging nations, the newly-minted Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste faced tough birth pangs, was beset by internal political wrangling among former comrades and Jose, the compleat diplomat and bridge-builder was called upon to become his country’s second Prime Minister.  He then became Timor-Leste’s second President after the other icon of the Timorese struggle, Xanana Gusmao, switched roles with him as Prime Minister.

Despite now being President of his country, Jose is as accommodating and accessible as he was when he was a fellow “activist” like us.  He was now returning to capitals of the world as a state guest, complete with all the trappings and protocols.  Jose seemed to be as comfortable wearing those power suits as he donned his faded jeans before.  Whenever we meet him, it is now either in his simple, but beautiful house near the beach in Dili, his Presidential office or in swank Presidential suites in six-star hotels. He now has to ride in bullet-proof limousines or SUVs.  He now has to dine in plush restaurants, eat at those exotic state banquets. I am sure he pines for that Thai sticky rice. We now have to meet with Presidential Security Guards (PSG), police and protocol officers, government functionaries, escorts, contend with some personalities and a cordon sanitaire naturally foisted upon a person of his stature.  Activists and peace advocates like us may have chosen to focus on working with Timorese civil society even as we continue to maintain warm relations with friends like Jose who are now in the center of political power.  A few of even our own erstwhile friends and many of those who were not visible during their long and tough struggle now swarm around them and try to eke out or curry favors or offer enticing investments.  I’ve also seen a number of “carpetbaggers”.

An attempt on his life in 2007 must have been one of those trying moments when we all ask “was all the struggle worth it?”  “Of course”, would still be the answer. I was mulling over this and other questions while I sat yesterday with the Ateneo de Davao president– who is hosting him in the city today–, the PSG, police, DFA, city officials and others planning his arrival.  My old friend Jose,, whom I now have to also address, Your Excellency, was coming for the first time to my city and I could not even host him.  But I count my blessings and thank my alma mater Ateneo for inviting me to assist, and my organization, the Initiatives for International Dialogue (IID) to attend his lecture. I was now sitting with these guys talking about convoys, protocols, security, how to handle media, SOPs, etc.  The PSG even had to request that an ongoing construction inside its premises be stopped for the day while Jose was around to give his lecture.

So President Ramos-Horta is visiting Davao today.  And it was now my turn to ask him for his solidarity. And asked him I did if he was willing to help in facilitating the stalled peace process here in Mindanao. He was of course willing, as he would with any other similar request from any part of the world. More so that his heart has a special place for Filipinos because of our role in their struggle. And he is willing to listen, read and learn more about the Mindanao situation. I asked him if he could help not because he is President of Timor-Leste but because he is a champion of peace. He is not a Nobel laureate for nothing.  But he is not only anymore the activist Jose who could outrightly offer his services and vast experience to help as much as he would want to. He is now the President of a young, proud and lovely nation and has first to be invited by both the government and the Moro front if he has to assist at all.  There are realpoltik to consider. And protocols. And we respect that, however urgent or desperate we may seem to seek help to solve our issues.

I relayed my proposal to the government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and asked them if they were interested. The MILF says it is thankful of his willingness and went further by requesting his help in convincing Manila to proceed with the talks based on the botched ancestral domain deal last August.  We are meantime awaiting government’s response to the proposal.

Welcome to Davao, Your Excellency!  But you will always be Jose to me.

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