Anne Penketh: Nobel winner and voice of protest throughout years of oppression

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The Independent Online

For decades, Jose Ramos-Horta was the voice of East Timor in the West, even when there seemed no hope that the former Portuguese territory invaded by Indonesia in 1975 would ever gain its freedom. With Xanana Gusmao, the charismatic guerrilla leader known as the East Timor "Nelson Mandela", locked up by Indonesia, the diplomatic push was left to the exiled Mr Ramos-Horta, always instantly recognisable with his wire-rimmed spectacles and trademark bow tie.

His first appearance before the UN Security Council was in 1975, before the annexation of the territory the following year which was never recognised by the UN. I met Mr Ramos-Horta in the 1990s, when he was still lobbying the UN for a referendum on self-determination, and would meet journalists in nearby hotels to argue the case, armed with accounts of Indonesian atrocities against the indigenous population. Mr Ramos-Horta, an implacable critic of the Indonesian leader Suharto who considered him a traitor, finally gained the ear of the UN secretary general, Boutros Boutros-Ghali and negotiations began in 1994. His campaign was boosted when the Nobel Peace Prize was jointly awarded to Mr Ramos-Horta and the Catholic Bishop of Dili, Carlos Belo, in 1996.

When Portugal and Indonesia were negotiating under UN auspices, Mr Ramos-Horta was always in the wings. It seemed logical that he would become foreign minister in an independent East Timor, which he did in 2002 when the territory became fully independent after the 1999 referendum, in which pro-Indonesian militias launched a bitter fightback. But the attention span of the international community proved short-lived. Instead of maintaining sufficient numbers to keep the rebels at bay, the West declared "mission accomplished" in East Timor and turned its attention elsewhere. Mr Ramos-Horta became prime minister, and when Gusmao stood down as president to run for prime minister, took over as head of state after winning elections in May 2007. But violence returned to East Timor, and on Sunday it almost claimed the life of the man who won the territory's freedom.