This is Major General Taur Matan Ruak, Chief of the Defence Force of Asia’s youngest nation, Timor Leste. He hugged me enthusiastically on the sidelines of the Jakarta International Defense Dialogue. I was thrilled to see him again. Like most Timorese, he is warm, friendly, affectionate, Catholic – hinting back to nearly 350 years of colonial rule by Portugal.
The last time I spent time with him was in the jungles of Indonesia’s then 27th province – East Timor – in 1999. Taur Matan Ruak led the revolutionary force, the Falintil guerrillas.
It took us more than a day of travel – by car, by river, by foot – to reach their mountain hideout. It was a difficult time – in the middle of a push for independence supported by the United Nations – and a scorched earth policy carried out by the Indonesian military.
About 200,000 East Timorese are thought to have died in more than two decades of Indonesian rule. By 1999, an independence vote triggered massive destruction and violence, with pro-Indonesian militias killing thousands and destroying more than 70% of its infrastructure.
Hundreds of thousands of Timorese evacuated into Indonesian West Timor. More than a year after the independence vote (under UN auspices), more than 80% of Timorese still had no jobs. Today, that number is down to 30%. Timor Leste has no debt and has a 300% surplus, but it still struggles to control the culture of violence that was embedded in the fabric of its society.
I lived in East Timor on and off for nearly a year. After having seen our home/office torched, our messenger beaten, our team forced to evacuate the violence twice and return twice, after living through the conflict between the Indonesians and Timorese, I would never have been able to predict how quickly the two nations can put the past behind them – reconciliation to build the future. (It reminded me of what Bill Clinton told his Filipino audience in Manila last November about forgiveness and moving forward – “to abandon the grievance”).
In 2002, when Timor Leste became the world’s newest nation, the heads of states of its former rulers, Indonesia and Portugal, were invited – and attended. Its new president & former rebel leader Xanana Gusmao stated what they fought for and what they now have: “Independence! As a people, as a territory, as a nation! One body, one mind, one wish!
In the last week of May in Jakarta, it was wonderful to see Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao ask a hall of more than 1,000 soldiers and military officers from more than 34 nations to consider whether war is necessary and to speak philosophically about conflict and ways to deal with it. I remembered he was an artist and philosopher. The man who was jailed in Indonesian prisons was honored by Indonesian President Bambang Yudhoyono.
And Taur Matan Ruak hugged me, and we talked about old times and the cycles of history.