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Scoop Audio: Jose Ramos-Horta Talks West Papua

Scoop Foreign Correspondent:
Scoop Audio Interview: Timor-Leste Foreign Minister & 1996 Nobel Peace Prize Winner Jose Ramos-Horta Talks West Papua

Interview & Report By Scoop Co-Editor Alastair Thompson on Assignment in Papua New Guinea and the Solomons – Images By Jason Dorday - Transcript by Rosalea Barker

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Timor-Leste Foreign Minister & 1996 Nobel Peace Prize Winner Jose Ramos-Horta attends the Pacific Island Forum Plenary Session On October 27th 2005

Listen to the interview with Jose Ramos-Horta (14 mins)

Timor-Leste Foreign Minister & 1996 Nobel Peace Prize Winner Jose Ramos-Horta knows more than most about independence struggles against Indonesian control.

Scoop took the opportunity of Mr Ramos-Horta's attendance at the 36th Pacific Island Forum to discuss the struggle for recognition by the independence movement from West Papua.

Mr Ramos-Horta had strong views on what he believed was the West Papua independence movement's best pathway to achieving an improvement in their very difficult situation. However his opinion on the best path to peace in the troubled region is likely to be something of a bitter pill for the West Papuans.

Mr Ramos-Horta suggests the West Papuan groups:
- moderate their demands to accept Indonesia's offer of special autonomy rather than full secession from Indonesia;
- negotiate directly with the newly elected Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono;
- Not attempt to enlist the assistance of Australia as that would likely be counter-productive in terms of dealing with Jakarta.

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Transcript by Rosalea Barker


Scoop: I'm just in the hotel with Hose Ramos Horta, Foreign Minister of East Timor. I'm going to conduct a brief interview. I would like to talk in particular, since we haven't got very much time, about the experience of East Timor in relation to the situation currently in West Papua New Guinea. The West Papuans, who are currently demonstrating down on the beach, are desperate have their issues considered by the Pacific Forum, and have seem to have failed to do so in this particular Forum. Do you have any--are there any lessons from how East Timor dealt with its struggle for the West Papuan movement?

Ramos-Horta: Each situation generally is different is from another. East Timor was a Portuguese colony for several centuries, which established East Timor's international boundaries, its historical identity, and then its legal status internationally, while West Papua was part and parcel of the so-called Dutch East Indies, which ruled the then Dutch territories of Indonesia. Therefore when Indonesia achieved its independence in 1949, it automatically claimed all territories under the Dutch to be part of the new Indonesia, and West Papua became part of that. Because of some conflicts persisting in West Papua at the time, the United Nations agreed with Indonesia to hold a referendum on the future of West Papua.

Scoop: In 1969.

Ramos-Horta: In 1969. The manner in which that popular consultation was held was subject to some controversy then and now, but the fact remained that West Papua was part and parcel of the Dutch East Indies and because of that there is hardly any country in the world that wishes to challenge Indonesia's sovereign claims to West Papua. That is the fundamental difference between East Timor and West Papua.

Scoop: However, the situation in terms of an armed group in the hinterland, and a different cultural base amongst the Melanesians as compared to the Indonesians, and the military occupation, and lots of other aspects of the current situation are very similar to those of East Timor.

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Ramos-Horta: Certainly there are similarities in terms of gross and systematic abuse of human rights in East Timor in the past, as with the reports of continuing denial of basic rights of the West Papuans. However, having said that, if, every time there is some gross injustice perpetrated on a particular community there is an outcome, the inevitable outcome is for that community to secede from the country of which it is part, then it would be a mess of chaos on the world. Indonesia is not alone in having secessionist claims.

Scoop: That said, even though their wish is secession, they are not even--I mean, they're in a similar situation to East Timor in the sense that the international community refused for years to even talk about their plight. So, in the case of East Timor, for example, the Australians refused for years to even discuss what was happening in East Timor. We now have the same situation.

Ramos-Horta: No. The difference is that East Timor was always on the list of the non-self-governing territories of the United Nations, going back to 1961. From Day One, when the United Nations listed a number of non-independent territories under the various European countries, East Timor immediately appeared there. And it remained there, unlike the case of West Papua, which was part and parcel of the new Indonesia. And because of that, West Papua was not listed in that list under the United Nations General Assembly Resolution 1541 of 15 December, 1960.

Scoop: How do you think--in this case I sort of get the impression that what you're saying is that the West Papuan struggle is much more difficult and possibly impossible. What should they do?

Ramos-Horta: Well, I believe that obviously the realities today in West--in Indonesia are different from what it was only five years ago. You have a more open society in Indonesia. A more dynamic, pluralistic political system that allows for dissent to be heard. I believe that the new, the government in Indonesia is very sensitive to the pressures from some regions like Aceh to grant even greater autonomy. And West Papua has a greater chance to negotiate a status similar to Aceh today, whereby the West Papuans would be masters in their own province, obtaining a greater share of their resources for the benefit of the people living there, as against in the past when the wealth of West Papua was squandered by elements in the central government in Java.

Scoop: In relation to that, in the current situation, West Papua seems to be a very large source of funds for the TNI. And consequently the conditions there are particularly bad, because it is seen as a sort of a cash cow for generating funds for the Indonesian military.

Ramos-Horta: I personally believe that if West Papuan leaders were to drop their demands for independence and lobby Jakarta and the international community for greater autonomy, for justice, for ending the corrupt and abusive behaviour of the Indonesian forces there, they will have a greater chance to be heard in Jakarta and in the international community.

Scoop: Won't they also have a greater chance of being heard in the United Nations and in Jakarta if the nations in the Pacific acknowledge the situation?

Ramos-Horta: Precisely because the perception, so far, in the region and around the world, is that West Papuans are demanding independence, and as long as there is a group that is the most active one that purports for the West Papuans and demands independence, you will find a lot of resistance among the international community because for this reason: If West Papuans are entitled to independence because of their current grievances, then why not the Tamil in Sri Lanka? Why not the people in Southern Thailand and in Mindanao? No government wants to open a can of worms.

Scoop: But surely, short of actually supporting the secessionist aims, there is a lot more--there's a discussion which can be had of the issues? I mean, if you wish the West Papuans to change their position on what they're seeking to achieve, surely the way to do that is to enter dialogue with them? What I'm wondering here is, Do you think that the Pacific Forum is a place where the West Papuans legitimately should continue to aspire to champion or to at least discuss their cause?

Ramos-Horta: Usually if you want to engage a government in dialogue, you try to engage them bilaterally before you move on to a regional or multilateral forum. And in the case of West Papua, nothing is stopping the West Papuans from lobbying Jakarta for greater autonomy. They will find a lot of sympathetic media, a lot of sympathetic Indonesians who know and who understand the injustices done on the West Papuans. And they know that if these injustices are not corrected, the problem is not going to go away. If anything, it will grow further. However, if, instead of starting true bilateral dialogue with Indonesian authorities, the West Papuans go to a multilateral forum to claim independence, they will not find too many sympathetic doors open to them.

Scoop: So in that case, what you're suggesting is they should appeal directly to Australia and New Zealand's governments for assistance.

Ramos-Horta: No. I am saying they have to talk directly to Indonesian authorities, and I can tell you I know President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. He is a very sensitive man and he will be sympathetic if he hears--

Scoop: As a former TNI, wouldn't he naturally have some conflicts of interest?

Ramos-Horta: Well, there are many other former army persons around the world who sometimes are even more sensitive than civilians. Civilians do not necessarily have a monopoly on virtues and President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has proven, in the case of East Timor, he proved in the case of Aceh, that he is prepared to go an extra mile to resolve a conflict through peaceful means. I met President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono in January this year, in Jakarta, and I could read from his eyes, his expressions, how genuine he was committed to resolving peacefully the conflict in Aceh. A few months later, even the Acehnese rebels--insurgents who are very radical in their demands--are praising the agreement that they reached with Indonesia.

Scoop: Can Australia play a positive role in these issues?

Ramos-Horta: I believe that at this stage it is best that countries outside the conflict itself refrain from getting involved because it would create resistance in Jakarta. It doesn't mean they should not take an interest. It doesn't mean they should not talk to the Indonesian government if there are gross and systematic abuses of human rights, but to deal with ideas about how to move forward in resolving this problem, it's better that you leave, give a chance to President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono to address it.

Scoop: In the case of East Timor, it was only after a very long period of public discussion in civil society in the West, in particular, that the Indonesians eventually agreed to grant a referendum

Ramos-Horta: But precisely because--as I go back to what I said earlier, the two issues are different historically and legally, and our equation was already on the UN General Assembly way back when Portugal was a colonial power, the UN was already challenging Portugal's colonisation of East Timor, and then it continued on after 1975.

Scoop: Thank you.

Ramos-Horta: Thank you.



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