Nobel Laureate Brings East Timor Home to Oberlin

Nobel Laureate José Ramos-Horta spoke to a crowd of over 700 in Finney Chapel February 17. An untiring activist for human rights the world over, he has for the last 22 years been an international spokes-person for the people of East Timor. East Timor has been suffering under Indonesian military occupation since 1975; according to Amnesty Inter-national; the occupation has claimed the lives of over 200,000 East Timorese, one-third of the original population.

Entitled "Peacemaking and the Power of Non-Violence," Ramos-Horta's talk, sponsored by Amnesty International, was one of the most powerful addresses given at Oberlin in recent years. He seemed to have forgiveness and reconciliation constantly in mind as he told the story of the U.S.-backed invasion of his homeland and the subsequent decades of struggle. His remarks were punctuated with reminders to consider all sides of the issue and to make a distinction between the Indonesian people and their government. He used situations in other countries, such as South Korea, to illustrate the complexities of peace-making when a society must simultaneously bring to justice abusers of human rights and heal the wounds inflicted by them.

Throughout the evening, Ramos-Horta maintained what seemed to be his characteristic poise and wry humor. Discussing the history of the U.S.-Iraq conflict, he lightened the tension in the Chapel when, feigning an attitude of pleased surprise, he remarked "I heard last night on CNN that the U.S. has always fought dictators. I was happy to hear that --we must always be open-minded to new facts." There was much laughter from the crowd.

After his speech, Ramos-Horta took questions from the audience, and then made himself available for more detailed discussion at a well-attended reception in Peters Hall. Many students, some from troubled areas such as Kashmir and Latin America, seemed to feel a personal connection to Ramos-Horta as they crowded around him asking for guidance. The most common concern was how to find the strength to work for justice without giving into anger or the desire for retribution. His gift for diplomacy was evident as he gave his full attention to each student, offering practical advice and encouragement.

Ramos-Horta is now the special representative of the National Council of Maubere Resistance (CNRM), an umbrella organization of pro-independence movements and activists inside and outside East Timor, and is the personal representative of imprisoned Timorese resistance leader Xanana Gusmao. He takes part in United Nations' deliberations regularly, and has formally presented the CNRM's three-stage peace plan to the European Parlia-ment. To enable former Nobel Laureates to coordinate their work and act together as a force for peace, Ramos-Horta has proposed the creation of a UN Secretariat of former Laureates.

When Ramos-Horta and Bishop Carlos Filipe Ximenes Belo were named co-recipients of the 1996 Nobel Peace Prize, the Nobel Committee cited their "sustained efforts to hinder the oppression of a small people," and presented the award in hopes that it would "spur efforts to find a diplomatic solution to the conflict of East Timor based on the people's right to self-determination." Ramos-Horta says he is optimistic about the prospects for such a solution -- but, as of now, the situation remains unresolved.