When Jose Ramos Horta won the 1996 Nobel Peace Prize jointly with his fellow East Tmorese, Monsignor Carlos Felipe Ximenes Belo, there were hopes he might be able to dispel the dark cloud of silence that has engulfed the genocide of his people.
It was not to be so. The Asian countries and various Muslim nations last week conspired to prevent Horta from bringing up the issue of atrocities commited by Indonesian troops before the UN Commission on Human Rights.
Ever since it invaded the former Portugese colony of East Timor in 1975, the Indonesian carmy has kept the lid firmly clamped down on the aspirations of a population that craves for freedom.
During his recent Paris visit, Horta seemed convinced the aura prestige surrounding the Nobel prize would make it possible for him to address the UN commission. He was prevented from doing so by the religious solidarity of many countries of the South, in whose eyes Indonesia enjoys the distinction of being the largest Muslim country in the world.
But although the Western nations came out in favour – at long last – of allowing Horta to express his view before the commisssion, the fact remains that they have never vigorously condemned the forgotten war in East Timor, which has resulted in 300,000 death since 1975. Why? Because realpolitik is paramount in all dealings with a country such as Indonesia, a big economic and strategic player with huge virgin lands and oil reserves.
The anguished appeal that Monsignor Belo, the bishop of the East Timor capital, Dili, has just addressed, in absentia to the UN commission on Human Rights shows that a courageous Catholic voice in that occupied country continues to denounce the Indonesian army's unjust treatment of the civilian population and a forgotten guerrilla movement.
To the east of East Timor, another divided island, New Guinea, is going through a peiod of alarming instability. Its western half, the Indonesian province of Irian Jaya, is slipping from the control of Jakarta, which regularly cracks down on tribal freedom movements there.
Sir Julius Chan, prime minister of the island's eastern half, Papua New Guinea, was forced to resign on March 26 by the parliamnetary opposition because, to the great irritation of his own army, he had recruited foreign mercenaries in an attempt to put down a separatist uprising on Bougaiville island.
It would be a mistake to dismiss such faraway upheavels as unimportant. Along the geostrategic dividing line between Australia and Asia, the forgotten freedom fighters of East Timor and Bougainville - in their different contexts, for the Bougainville rebels have suffered nothing approaching the tragedy of East Timor - are emblematic of the straggle by Oceanian civilisations to prevent themselves from being "pacified" (for which read "assimilated") and to defend the extraordinary cultural diversity that is their great hallmark.****