Subject: AU: Phillip Adams on JRH et al

The Australian Magazine

November 17, 2007 Saturday

PHILLIP ADAMS: Jose Ramos-Horta has a carving of angry roosters on his roof. "Is that a symbol of East Timorese politics?" I ask.

"Discussing reincarnation with the Dalai Lama," the President laughs, "I told him I didn't want to come back as a dog in East Timor."

He's right. The Timorese are loving to their kids and kind to their cattle and pigs. But they neglect their dogs. There are multitudes of them, dingo-like, half starved and deeply suspicious of humans. There's no wagging of tails when you make encouraging noises and they scuttle if you whistle. Roosters, on the other hand, are treated like royalty. They're patted, pampered and taken for walks. All over the place you see men cradling them, stroking their feathers.

This is because cock fighting is a national sport. So I wasn't surprised to see that President Jose Ramos-Horta had placed a large carving of angry roosters on the thatched roof of his new house. "Is that a symbol of East Timorese politics? The endless scrapping between the three of you? You, Mari Alkatiri and Xanana Gusmao?"

He laughs, acknowledging that politics here is very personal. Sometimes it seems totally, unhealthily focused on the three of them. Friendships and alliances between these heroes of the resistance continue to fluctuate wildly. All three have been prime minister during the first five years of Timor-Leste's troubled independence, and two have been president. "Today a rooster, tomorrow a feather duster" doesn't apply up here.

Late Night Live in Timor-Leste

Late Night Live in Timor-Leste
In early October, Phillip Adams went to Timor-Leste to gather material for a special series of radio programs to be broadcast on Late Night Live starting on Monday 22 October 2007. Find out more...

I've been intrigued by Horta (as the locals call him) for around 20 years - since way back when he was a nomadic diplomat representing a nation that didn't exist, wandering the world with a battered suitcase, sleeping on floors or in fleapit hotels. While Xanana Gusmao led the insurrection against the Indonesians from caves in the mountains and later from a Jakarta jail, and a quarter or more of the population died in the struggle, Horta visited a hundred countries seeking help - and hung around the UN building in New York making a nuisance of himself.

I'd tell him the cause was hopeless. In 1975, when the Portuguese packed up and went home, East Timor was betrayed by both Henry Kissinger and the Whitlam government and given to Jakarta's generals. Despite the ongoing slaughter Hawke and Keating ignored the Timorese and, shamefully, foreign minister Gareth Evans would dismiss the 1991 Dili massacre in a Santa Cruz cemetery as "an aberration". This doubting Thomas saw the atrocity as a tipping-point. Cemeteries are where you bury the dead, not create the corpses. Around 300 kids were butchered there; hundreds more were hunted down and killed in the hospitals.

I visit Santa Cruz on our last day in Timor-Leste. Amid the masses of crumbling concrete tombs there's a black metal cross memorialising the slaughter, surrounded by flickering candles and thousands of bouquets. Flowers as fresh as the memories. As I try to record the closing comments for my radio program Late Night Live, a constant stream of mourners arrive with more. Handed a fragile bunch by a sweetly smiling man, I find myself weeping as I place them with the others.

This "aberration" gave Horta a final chance to galvanise world opinion. The generals were driven out, burning the country from one end to the other in a final act of vengeance. Finally, just five years ago, Timor-Leste became a nation. Whereupon the Timorese turned on each other, and the fires blazed again.

Yet the three roosters - Horta, Xanana and Fretilin leader Alkatiri - convince me of their determination to end the violence and build a prosperous nation. Horta, joint winner of the 1996 Nobel Peace Prize, now acts as much like a pope as a president, wholly and holy appropriate in this Catholic country. By far the most popular of the three (certainly the least unpopular), he negotiates between the other two, stroking ruffled feathers and touring the country.

As we ride in a short motorcade through Dili - just three Toyota Prados - he waves in a fatherly fashion to the people. They wave back, giving the dazzling Timorese smile, many teeth stained from chewing betel nut. I tell him what we've heard in the remotest villages: "We are sick of war, death and arson. We want Horta to come, to talk and to listen."

From guerilla war to graffiti war. Everywhere slogans brand Xanana a traitor. Yet when I talk to Alkatiri and members of Fretilin in the villages they back off the slander. When I tell a village leader that Xanana, who has given so much, is deeply hurt, she responds with: "He's hurt, we're hurt. It's good that he's hurt. But we still love him."

With a little help from a new generation of leaders, the three roosters can fix Timor-Leste. The new Parliament is sitting and the budget debate is impressive. And the Timorese are a heroic and determined people. I leave believing that everyone can be happy in this beautiful country. Then the dogs will wag their tails.

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