Timor's link to a Saharan struggle
- Jose Ramos-Horta
- July 22, 2009
As I visit Australia again, to attend this week's opening of the Melbourne International Film Festival, I have been confronted by the outcry over the film Stolen, which will screen at the festival and which represents, in microcosm, the importance of truth in the struggle for justice. The film, which makes claims of widespread slavery in the Western Saharan refugee camps, represents many of the ugly realities of this central dynamic. It is a scenario I know only too well.
I have followed closely the question of Western Sahara for decades. In our years of struggle for independence, strong friendship and solidarity grew between the Timorese and the Saharawis. I have met many Saharawis and visited the Saharawi refugee camps and liberated areas twice. I did not see any form of slavery in those camps. Rather, what I know of the Saharawis is that they are enlightened and committed to their cause of freedom.
The situation of Western Sahara is perhaps not well known to Australians. For East Timorese, there are ties which make a mutual understanding easier to find. Both East Timor and Western Sahara were colonised by Iberian powers - Portugal and Spain, respectively; both have been identified by the United Nations as being ready for decolonisation; both were invaded, post-European withdrawal, by regional powers in 1975; both peoples have been subjected to widespread human rights abuses; and both have been caught up in global political trends not of their making.
But East Timor and Western Sahara have also diverged. We achieved independence in 1999, and the Western Saharans have not. This is inexplicable: before our independence we actually had less formal international backing, were less regionally recognised and were more internally divided than the Saharawis.
The other important difference between our histories is that East Timor is predominantly Christian, while the Saharawis are Muslims. As a result of this, Western Sahara has been erroneously cast as a hotbed of Islamic terrorism and as a potential base for al-Qaeda. This form of knee-jerk racism has ensured that Western Sahara's illegal occupier, Morocco, has been able to play the security card and has gained enough traction to deconstruct the UN's formal decolonisation agendas which served us so well.
Stolen emerges as a stark example of the implications of this reality. It is easy to cast societies seen through the lens of bigotry as backward and to manufacture spurious storylines to suit a certain need when the politics of the moment encourage it.
In the situation that Western Sahara finds itself now, and in which East Timor faced before independence, is one which tilts in favour of those who represent the status quo. Both Indonesia and Morocco were or are able to manufacture a range of reasons to deny these peoples a free and fair act of self-determination.
Australia's role in freeing the East Timorese from the yoke of Indonesian rule was, and is, central. I know from my many dealings with many Australians that this country promotes the very highest standards in human rights and democracy. I have no reason to change that view.
I also know that truth is a highly traded commodity in the market of decolonisation politics. The prevailing state interests of the ruling power of the day - Indonesia then, Morocco now - will always bend truth to suit the political imperatives of the day. The uneven balance of resources, as well as the ability to obtain better access to geo-political power structures, further benefit the coloniser.
As we are learning in East Timor, freedom demands responsibility. The ability to use democracy's openness can never be an excuse for shoddy views or irresponsible behaviour. Being nominally free to commit acts of injustice, artistic or otherwise, is not a reason to do so.
As a friend of the Saharawis, I ask all Australians to take the time to understand the issues surrounding Western Sahara. I implore all to search for the truth with vigilance and commitment, lest lies become manifest and the vested interests of certain powers be allowed free reign in the marketplaces of ideas and power.
The world must support the independence of Western Sahara as a bridge between the Maghreb and the rest of Africa and as an enlightened Muslim nation bringing the Islamic world and the western democracies closer.
The Government and the people of Western Sahara deserve at least that much. As for East Timor, the worldwide support of the people, quite apart from governments and world organisations, has been, and remains significant. Those connections count and the value of ensuring truth and fiction remain separate is vital.
Jose Ramos-Horta is President of East Timor.