In 2021, a group of generals overturned an elected government in Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, starting a civil war that some conflict monitoring groups consider the most extreme in the world today. Many countries have looked away — much as they did for 24 years, East Timor’s leaders say, as Indonesian soldiers fought Timorese independence fighters.
“For so long, nobody paid attention to us,” Xanana Gusmao, the prime minister of East Timor, said during an interview in the capital, Dili. Gusmao led the insurgency against the Indonesian military, later serving two terms as East Timor’s president and now, his second as prime minister. At 77, with a head of white hair and a stiff back from years of imprisonment, he still remembers every person he saw killed or tortured in the jungles of Timor, he said.
“I do not accept the suffering of the Burmese people,” Gusmao said. “I cannot.”
Many in East Timor, even opposition politicians and civil society leaders critical of Gusmao on other issues, said in interviews that they agree. The country of 1.3 million, with an economy one-seventh the size of Vermont, has gone further than almost any other in supporting the Myanmar resistance, receiving its leaders as state representatives and openly advocating on their behalf at international forums. In the coming months, East Timor will let Myanmar pro-democracy groups open offices in the country to help coordinate resistance activities and take in a number of political refugees, officials say.
Increasingly, human rights activists say they see Dili as a voice of conscience, challenging more powerful countries that have been too distracted or too divided to press for change in Myanmar. “What the Timorese are doing is vital,” said Debbie Stothard, a Malaysian rights advocate.
The UU.N. Security Council has repeatedly called on Myanmar’s military government to comply with a peace plan adopted by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), and Western officials, including from the United States and the European Union, have also cited that plan for resolving the conflict.
But ASEAN, which operates on a principle of “noninterference” and includes Myanmar as a member, has largely failed to convince the junta to cooperate.
In 2021, ASEAN adopted the “Five-Point Consensus” on Myanmar, which calls for a cessation of violence and a dialogue among all parties. The junta signed the plan but has ignored it with little consequence. The military has ramped up airstrikes to a rate of nearly once a day, according to conflict monitoring groups, and faces mounting allegations from human rights groups of carrying out mass killings, beheadings and other atrocities. Myanmar has declined invitations from ASEAN to meet with resistance leaders.
“The five-point consensus has failed,” said Saifuddin Abdullah, who served until last year as foreign minister for Malaysia, an ASEAN member. The plan, which has no enforcement measures, is being disregarded not only by the Myanmar government but by other ASEAN members, Abdullah said.
In April, Thailand’s foreign minister traveled to Myanmar and met with junta leader Gen. Min Aung Hlaing without notifying other ASEAN members. Thailand, which borders Myanmar, has also hosted secret meetings with junta officials and mooted the idea of ASEAN “fully re-engaging” military leaders.
By normalizing relations with the Myanmar opposition, East Timor is trying to pull the region in the opposite direction — but at some risk to itself. The country is in the final stages of negotiating admission into the bloc and was allowed last year to attend meetings as an “observer.” Its outspoken stance on Myanmar could jeopardize its application or otherwise alienate some of its neighbors, analysts say.
East Timor can’t afford to be excluded from ASEAN, Gusmao admitted. With more than 40 percent of its population living in poverty, the country is in dire need of foreign investment. It has 15 years to find an alternative to its dwindling petroleum revenue, according to the International Monetary Fund, and has struggled since independence to feed its people, a problem set only to worsen with climate change.
At the same time, political scientists say, the country’s history has made it particularly sensitive to authoritarianism. East Timor has become probably the most robust democracy in Southeast Asia, according to experts. It’s the only country in the region ranked “free” by the think tank Freedom House and was recently listed 10th in the world for press freedom by Reporters Without Borders.
Smoking as he paced a meeting room in Dili’s government palace, Gusmao said that when he watches extensive coverage of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on television, he often thinks about suffering elsewhere, in Yemen, Somalia, Myanmar. Powerful countries aren’t obliged to care about crises that don’t affect them, Gusmao said.
Among small, fragile nations, he added, “all we have is our solidarity.”
When Gusmao was inaugurated in Dili two months ago, a visitor from Myanmar was seated in the front row alongside cabinet ministers and diplomats from various countries. It was Zin Mar Aung, foreign minister for Myanmar’s National Unity Government (NUG), formed in opposition to the junta after the coup.
That event marked the first time any country had formally received an NUG official and sparked indignation from Myanmar’s military government, which demanded that Dili cut contact with what it called “terrorist groups.” The following month, when East Timor hosted a second NUG official in Dili, the junta expelled Avelino Pereira, East Timor’s top diplomat in Myanmar.
While some countries have downgraded diplomatic relations with Myanmar, the junta had not thrown out any foreign representatives until Pereira and hasn’t since. When other governments meet with opposition officials, they’ve done so privately or informally. Dili’s actions were “public and senior level barbs” at the junta, said a Western embassy official in Yangon, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because that person had not been given authority to speak on the issue.
“It showed great courage,” said Aung Myo Min, the NUG’s minister for human rights, the second opposition official to visit Dili. “It empowers us to know we’re not alone.”
Some Timorese officials worry Pereira’s expulsion could affect the country’s ASEAN bid. But President Jose Ramos-Horta, who was behind both invitations to the Myanmar opposition figures, said he was unperturbed. “It was an honor,” he said, eyes crinkling behind dark Ray-Ban sunglasses during a recent interview as he was traveling between official engagements in Dili.
Ramos-Horta, who shares the 1996 Nobel Peace Prize with Bishop Carlos Filipe Ximenes Belo for his opposition of Indonesian oppression, led the “diplomatic front” for East Timor’s sovereignty. Over years, Ramos-Horta formed alliances with activists from other countries, including Myanmar.
In recognizing Myanmar’s opposition government, Ramos-Horta, 73, said he was paying back the support that Myanmar pro-democracy groups gave East Timor. But he was also, he said, acting in line with historical precedent: During World War II, the Allied powers recognized Free France, a government in exile, over the Vichy government that collaborated with Nazi Germany.
“Are we supposed to accept the norm that elections can be disregarded?” asked Ramos-Horta. “The answer, at least for us, is no.”
When Gusmao attended the semiannual ASEAN summit in August, he was feeling contrite, he said.
He’d been chided by his staff a few weeks earlier for saying East Timor would reconsider its ASEAN application if the bloc couldn’t end the violence in Myanmar. Those were “uncontrolled” remarks, he reflected later, and at the summit in Jakarta, he had intended to stick to his prepared speeches.
But faced with leaders from the United States, China and Russia, Gusmao decided again to go off-script. News reports had said Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s deposed civilian leader, was ill, Gusmao told the room. The junta should provide medical care, he appealed. No one responded.
“We will speak out, always. But we are a small country,” Gusmao said as he recounted the incident. “Who is listening?”
Diplomats and aid workers in Dili say Gusmao and Ramos-Horta might have a bigger impact than they know. The two leaders have allies in places from Europe to Africa, and they command respect as that rare breed of statesmen who fought for freedom and won, said Olufunmilayo Abosede Balogun-Alexander, the U.N. resident coordinator for East Timor. On the world stage, she added, “they have an outsize voice.”
Earlier this year, at the World Economic Forum meeting in Davos, Switzerland, Ramos-Horta said he watched as heads of state and chief executives rose one after another to lambaste Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and rally Western governments to supply Kyiv with weapons. He was stunned, he remembered, that virtually no one mentioned Myanmar.
“Next year, I will,” said Ramos-Horta, days before departing for the U.N. General Assembly session last month in New York, where he again met with the NUG. “I will say something,” he continued. “So at least people there will hear the word, ‘Myanmar.’”