Documents on Democracy

Issue Date April 1997
Volume 8
Issue 2
Page Numbers 185-87
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East Timor

On 11 October 1996, the 1996 Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to Bishop Carlos Filipe Ximenes Belo and José Ramos-Horta in recognition of their work toward a just And peaceful solution to the conflict in East Timor, the former Portuguese colony invaded and occupied by Indonesia in 1975. Following are excerpts from Ramos-Horta’s acceptance speech, delivered on December 10 in Oslo, Norway:

It is with a deep feeling of humility that I join today with bishop Carlos Filipe Ximenes Belo to receive the 1996 Nobel Peace Prize that has been bestowed upon the people of East Timor. . . . God’s modest gifts of health and wisdom to me will always be put in the service of peace and justice not only for my country and people but also for the cause of peace, freedom, and democracy everywhere my faint voice can be heard. . . .

If, God willing, East Timor becomes independent, allow me to share with you our vision for our country’s future and role in the region. East Timor is at the crossroads of three major cultures: Melanesian, which binds us to our brothers and sisters in the South Pacific region; Malay-Polynesian, binding us to Southeast Asia; and the Latin Catholic influence, a legacy of almost five hundred years of Portuguese colonization. This rich historical and cultural existence places us in a unique position to build bridges of dialogue and cooperation between the peoples of the region. . . .

We will endeavor to build a strong democratic state based on the rule of law which must emanate from the will of the people expressed through free and democratic elections. All international human rights treaties will be submitted to the parliament for ratification. We believe that human rights transcend borders and must prevail over state sovereignty. . . .

No country, no matter how rich and endowed with natural resources, is an island unto itself. In an increasingly small world and competitive [End Page 185] age, where modern electronic communications break the barriers of silence erected by dictators, Indonesia cannot continue to flout the right of the people of East Timor to self-determination, and the rule of law in Indonesia.

The next two to three years will witness a transition in Indonesia. Australia, New Zealand, the United States, Canada, and the European Union can encourage a peaceful, evolutionary transition with a discreet yet firm policy of pushing for democratic reforms and rule of law in Indonesia and for a genuine act of self-determination in East Timor.

. . . We are not asking that Indonesia be punished with comprehensive economic sanctions. We believe that economic engagement with a country can at times foster positive changes through the development of a democratically conscious class. . . .

The peoples of Burma, Thailand, the Philippines, South Korea, and the democracy movements in china and Indonesia are telling the rest of the world that democracy and human rights are not an invention of the west. The thousands of Asians who died in the streets of Manila, Bangkok, Jakarta, Rangoon, and Beijing did not die for a so-called Asian value that denies the people of Asia the basic and fundamental freedoms enjoyed in Europe, Latin America, and an increasing number of countries in Africa.


On 29 December 1996, the government of Guatemala and the Unidad Revolucionaria Nacional Guatemalteca signed a comprehensive peace accord ending the country’s 36-year-old civil war (see the essay by Rachel M. McCleary on pp. 129–43 above). On the occasion of the signing of the accord, Guatemalan president Alvaro Arzú spoke at the National Palace in Guatemala City. Excerpts from his speech appear below:

Now is the time for peace, now is the time for peace for Guatemala. Part of our mission and our promises materialized today, and our commitment to the future of our people and our region was consolidated. Today we came to say: Mission accomplished! And at the same time, to point out with responsibility and realism and with joy and enthusiasm how much more we still must do.

Today a chapter of our history ended and we started to write another—perhaps a more difficult one, but a more encouraging and promising one. We have reached the formal moment of a transition, of a change, of a new phase. The heart of each Guatemalan harbors today many intense emotions, including feelings of the most diverse kinds…. There is the consoling relief of the definitive banishment of barbarism, and there is also the the hope for a future of prosperity and harmony. [End Page 186] Hopes for what is ahead are infused with the joy of having at last made official the definitive end of the internal armed struggle that for 36 years ripped open the very heart of our nation. . . .

Today, the widow, the crippled, the orphan are pursing their lips with mixed emotions while recalling the images of the pain suffered and the window of hope that is now opening up to them. . . . Although these personal, family, or community wounds will take very long to heal, we must all, as a society, take this time to forgive in order to move forward. . . . It is also clear that forgiveness does not mean that we will forget. It is one thing to forgive, in order to move forward with a positive and fraternal spirit along a path to rebuild our damaged society, and it is another thing to forget. We cannot forget, we must not forget. Besides being inhumane, this would also constitute an abuse of a people’s identity. As a people who are seeking reconciliation, we need to maintain memory of our full history intact. . . . We cannot ask an entire people to be born again . . . without a past or history. We must overcome our pain, our sufferings, and our fratricidal tragedy to move on and to redirect our energies to what is coming. And perhaps it is worth recalling that our cultural traditions—both Mayan and Judaeo-Christian—are based on the memory of good and evil.

We also recognize that this exercise of granting forgiveness without forgetting does not overlook or avoid justice. This fact was reflected in . . . the recently approved Reconciliation Law. As far as we know, this is the first time in Latin America that the causes of an internal conflict are not resolved through a full amnesty that closes the doors to complaints of abuses that may have been committed. . . .

We have officially signed peace today before all Guatemalans. This peace is, above all, our peace. It was not imposed on us by anyone. Contributions may be made from outside to complement the internal efforts of a people to develop their own ability to understand one another. . . . No one, however, absolutely no one, may impose on any people from outside a true and stable peace if that people do not want it, and if that people do not manage to consolidate from within, and on their own, their own internal reconciliation.

Firm and lasting peace is not an instantaneous change that is achieved as if by magic; it is not a photographic moment that is captured when the camera button is pressed. It is not an automatic change of realities obtained by decree. The peace agreements represent a set of complex and comprehensive commitments that contain a formidable national program. That is true, but in order to turn this into reality we need the active participation of the entire Guatemalan society, as well as their courageous and permanent work. The agreements are a promise and a commitment, and thus we must be prepared for a long process in which there will be no miracles, but only modest and progressive achievement based on work shared by everyone. . . .