East Timor's 21-year journey from hidden holocaust to world issue scored another success with the award of the 1996 Nobel Peace Prize to the country's Catholic Bishop Carlos Ximenes Belo and its tireless diplomat José Ramos Horta. The Nobel committee used this year's award to try to raise the profile of an oppressed people, rather than conferring it on the architects of a negotiated settlement. "This was about to become a forgotten conflict, and we wanted to contribute to maintaining momentum By awarding this prize, we hope to contribute to a diplomatic solution to the conflict," Nobel Committee chair Francis Sejersted told reporters in Oslo.
East Timor has been one of the prime examples of Western hypocrisy and the failure of the United Nations system since it was brutally invaded by Indonesia in December 1975, nine days after issuing a declaration of independence from Portugal. At least 200,000 are dead - one Timorese in every three. It's been an issue at various times for the Canadian peace movement, usually to highlight a double standard. That was never more true than after Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, a carbon copy of the Indonesian invasion of East Timor - but without the scale of carnage that has been the lot of the Timorese under the military occupation of Indonesia, a reliable U.S. ally.
For East Timor, it's hard to know if the Nobel will carry much weight. Indonesia has reacted much like China when the Dalai Lama won the Nobel, or Burma after the prize went to Aung San Suu Kyi, or Guatemala when Rigoberta Menchú was the laureate: with fury and anguished cries of "internal affair." Indonesia has the advantage of its (now tarnished) anti-colonial history and its eerie hold over many peace activists, based on its stand in support of the World Court Project.
Guatemala may be on the slow path to peace today, partly with the help of Menchú's Nobel clout. But China is harsher than ever on the Tibetans. Aung San Suu Kyi's Nobel probably saved her life, but democracy in Burma is no closer. In both cases, the international community has done nothing in the Nobel wake to help the Tibetans or the Burmese.
Bishop Belo, whose call for a referendum on self-determination in East Timor and sheltering of pro-independence protesters from Indonesian guns have won him widespread respect, has carved out a path very much like the Dalai Lama's. His acceptance speech praises the controversial Alfred Nobel and notes that "the world must do whatever possible to strengthen the United Nations in the months and years ahead, in the deepest interests of all the peoples of the world." Belo even recalled the people of Tibet, who he said were "never far from my prayers, nor are the communities of the indigenous peoples of the world who are increasingly being overwhelmed by aggressive modernity that presumes to call itself civilization."
For his part, co-winner Ramos Horta is championing a peace plan designed to allow the Indonesian regime to save face. The plan, issued by jailed Timorese resistance leader Xanana Gusmão, envisions three phases of staged withdrawal of the thousands of Indonesian troops in the territory, with U.N. supervision, culminating in a referendum.
(The moderation of this plan, coupled with the resistance promise that an independent East Timor would follow the lead of Costa Rica and Haiti and not have any armed forces, should lay to rest the Indonesian propaganda that Ramos Horta is a former fighter guilty of atrocities. Asked about his co-winner, Bishop Belo has responded simply: "He has the right to win. More than me, I think.")
Whether the new moral authority bestowed on those searching for a peaceful solution for East Timor (based on its U.N.-guaranteed right to self-determination) will have any effect in the world or realpolitik is a question that is being decided in Western capitals right now.
In Canada, the Chretien government should be the most sympathetic yet to East Timor - both Chretien and Foreign Minister Lloyd Axworthy made specific promises on East Timor while in opposition.
Ramos Horta, for one, hopes the Nobel will give the peace plan momentum in Ottawa. "I was very pleased to receive congratulations from the Canadian government," he said, but "I hope that the Nobel Peace Prize award will encourage Canada to actively support the Peace Plan, and freeze any prospective Canadian arms deals with Indonesia. More intense efforts of support for a solution of the [East Timor] problem are needed. Hopefully Canada will be prepared to make this increased commitment."
Canada's actions on East Timor have been a very mixed bag until now. There have been some positive signs, such as a 1993 unofficial arms embargo and aid freeze, and Canadian financial aid for an intra-Timorese dialogue meeting earlier in the year. For the most part, however, successive Liberal and Conservative governments have seen Indonesia as a profitable market for Canadian investors and exporters - none more so than the current government. Canadian investments in Indonesia have tripled to $9 billion since the Liberals took office.
Canadian supporters of East Timor were outraged in 1994 when the Liberal government decided to resume arms exports to Indonesia after a year of zero sales under the Tories. Although actual sales remained low, the government approved permits valued at $5.7 million in 1994 and a staggering $362 million in 1995. That has drawn a firestorm of criticism from churches, unions, and many other organizations.
Bishop Belo himself summed up the problem with getting Western governments to speak out two years ago, when he declared that "their lies and hypocrisy are in the cause of economic interests."
For more information, contact the East Timor Alert Network (ETAN) at P.O. Box 562, Station P, Toronto M5S 2T1; 416/531-5850. Or order the new documentary Bitter Paradise: The Sell-out of East Timor, from Snapshot Productions, 604/325-8350.
Letters asking for an arms embargo and Canadian support for self-determination for East Timor and for the Timorese peace plan can be sent to Lloyd Axworthy, House of Commons, Ottawa, Ont., K1A 0A6, and to your own M.P. at the same address. Copies to ETAN will help with lobbying.
David Webster is a member of the East Timor Alert Network in Vancouver.