From left, Prime Minister Rui Maria de Araújo, RIC President Frank D. Sánchez and Minister of Planning and Strategic Investment Kay Rala Xanana Gusmão.
Rhode Island College received an historic visit on Sept. 26 by the leaders of one of the youngest democracies in the world: the Prime Minister of the Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste Rui Maria de Araújo and Minister of Planning and Strategic Investment Kay Rala Xanana Gusmão.
The dignitaries spent a week in the United States, speaking at the General Assembly of the United Nations in New York and congressional meetings in Washington, D.C. They also toured the two states that played a key role in their country’s War for Independence – Rhode Island and Massachusetts.
Their intent was to thank the people of Rhode Island, particularly the Portuguese-American community, who supported Timor-Leste’s struggle for freedom.
Araújo and Gusmão were welcomed by RIC President Frank D. Sánchez, along with more than 150 faculty, administrators, students and members of the greater Rhode Island community. The Institute for Portuguese and Lusophone World Studies (IPLWS) at Rhode Island College sponsored the event, with introductions given by IPLWS Director Marie Fraley and IPLWS Faculty Liaison Professor Silvia Oliveira.
Sánchez called the visit “a truly historic occasion,” an opportunity to hear first-hand from those “who heroically and with unwavering conviction led the fight for their country’s freedom and independence.”
Formerly a colony of Portugal for more than 455 years, Timor-Leste gained its independence in 1975 but was invaded nine days later by Indonesia. During two decades of Indonesian occupation, oppression and human rights violations, one-third of Timor-Leste’s population was killed.
Fraley described Gusmão as the heart of the Timor-Leste story – a freedom fighter, the father of the Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste, the Nelson Mandela of Timor-Leste, who suffered greatly for the cause. Gusmão is the country’s hero, she said.
As commander-in-chief of the East-Timorese armed resistance, a position he would maintain for 17 years, Gusmão was captured by the Indonesian military in 1992. Sentenced to life in prison, he studied law and languages (English and Indonesian); he wrote and published poetry, essays and letters; he painted; and was visited by international journalists, United Nations dignitaries and Nelson Mandela.
In 1999, after a U.N.-sponsored referendum in which the East-Timorese voted for independence, Gusmão was released from prison. In 2002 he was elected the first president of the Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste. In 2007 he was named prime minister; and in 2015 he stepped down from that post to become minister of planning and strategic investment.
Araújo was a young boy at the time of the Indonesian invasion and occupation. He used education as his path to resistance and was a long-term member of Timor-Leste’s National Student Resistance. He attended medical school in Indonesia and became a medical doctor-general practitioner in 1994. He later earned a master’s degree in public health in 2001. Following the end of the War for Independence, Araújo was made the first minister of health in 2002 and remained in advisory positions to the government until 2015, at which time he was inaugurated prime minister.
Araújo thanked Rhode Island for its past support of Timor-Leste. “We would hear over the radio and read in the newspaper the debates in the United States about what to do about the Indonesian occupation,” he said. “Rhode Island-elected leaders like [the late U.S. Sen.] Claiborne Pell and [U.S. Sen.] Jack Reed again and again stood up, when so few were willing, and advocated for the United States to do more, to push more, to lead more, to ensure an end to the occupation of our tiny country and the restoration of our independence.”
Araújo’s country is now engaged in a “final battle,” a maritime boundary dispute with Australia, specifically an area that contains an estimated $40 billion worth of oil and gas. Up until now, Australia has blocked negotiations but was recently forced into “compulsory conciliation” through a ruling by the permanent court of arbitration in the Hague.
Araújo requested the help of Rhode Islanders to talk to their government officials “to end uncertainty for our economy” and “to recognize our sovereign rights over our seas.”
“Elections don’t make democracies,” Araújo added, “and so, indeed, a democracy is not about having a flag, a national anthem or a postage stamp. True independence is about owning what belongs to us and having the right and the ability to determine the trajectory of our nation’s development.”
During a question-and-answer period following the address, Sánchez asked the dignitaries to speak to RIC students about the importance of managing differences, whether the differences be race, ethnicity, religion or politics.
“From Africa to Asia, to Europe and the South Pacific – we are all the same human beings,” Gusmão replied. He admonished faculty not to focus solely on teaching knowledge – “teach human value,” he said, citing the lack of value many people have for human life. One of the greatest resources for freedom is human solidarity, he said, and the power of community.