Edinburgh International Culture Summit

Speech - Harold Mitchell AC

Harold Mitchell, AC
Philanthropist, Founder of The Harold Mitchell Foundation, Executive Chairman- Aegis Media Pacific

Edinburgh International Culture Summit 2012
The Chamber, Scottish Parliament, Holyrood, Edinburgh EH99 1SP
Tuesday 14th August 2012

Speech for reference only.

Cultural Diplomacy in Timor-Leste

A Story of Art, Forgiveness, Hope and the Difference one Individual Can Make

[Speaker paid tribute to yesterday’s summit speakers]

I want to share with you today a story about an amazing man, a conflict-torn country and an unlikely friendship.

My story is about cultural diplomacy, art, forgiveness and the difference one man can make. A story about how one piano, 300 recorders- I know them as tin whistles- and music books gave hope to people living on less than one dollar a day. 

[Speaker introduced a short film statement from Xanana Gusmao, first President of East Timor]

East Timor was colonized by the Portuguese in the mid 16th century, and it remained so until 28 November 1975 when the people declared unilateral independence from Portugal. Xanana mentioned the first tie geographically with the giant nation of Indonesia. 

Nine days later in December 1975, however, East Timor was invaded and occupied by Indonesian forces becoming Indonesia’s 27th province.  

The next two decades of Indonesian rule saw 200,000 conflict related deaths out of just 500,000 people – deaths from hunger, deaths from illness and deaths from murder. 

Much of the country’s infrastructure built up over all those centuries was destroyed as well. 

The landscape was marred by burned-out towns and villages, and bloodstained buildings one in particular, which is still there ,that had been the site of massacres.  Whole regions were almost empty of people who had fled or were forced to leave their homes. Xanana being one, left with just 20 minutes notice to his family. 

For all those years a small but resilient armed resistance movement kept the dream of an independent East Timor alive, supported by an equally resilient diplomatic effort at the UN.

Finally in September 1999 the people of East Timor got the chance to decide their future at the ballot box.  Over 78 per cent of the population voted for independence.  

Following  this vote the Indonesian backed militia ran amok. Thousands of people were killed, and roads, bridges, power stations, hospitals and schools across the country were destroyed. 

On 20 September 1999 the United Nation’s International Force for East Timor led by the Australians commenced operations to secure peace. 

Three years later, East Timor was finally recognised again as an independent nation.

But the people of this independent nation were scarred, traumatised from years of hardship. 

Now that you know a little about the country, let me tell you about one man, the man you just saw.

Xanana Gusmao, who has played such an important role in liberating his people and giving them so much hope for the future. 

Xanana was born on 20 June 1946. He was raised in a rural community with a brother and five sisters not unusual, when it is normal for families to have 8 children. His father was a school teacher. 

After leaving high school for financial reasons at the age of 15, something I share with Xanana, he continued his education at night school, while holding down a variety of unskilled jobs.

But Xanana was also increasingly active in the resistance movement, and he became its leader in 1978 – not long after the Indonesians almost wiped out the resistance forces – he was 32.  For the next 17 years he travelled the country to re-unite his people and give the struggle renewed impetus, living the life of a resistance leader, at one time for a whole year in a cave in the mountains.

His role in the resistance movement led to his capture by Indonesia in 1992. He was sent to prison and remained incarcerated there for 7 years. 

In prison Xanana did all he could to continue his support for the Resistance, while studying Indonesian, Bahasa, English and Law and Tetum, the local language.

He also painted incredible paintings- I have one. He painted the sea, but how can you see the sea when you’re in prison and wrote poetry, building on a talent that had been recognised in 1975, when he won the Timor Poetry Prize. 

Some of his paintings were sold, with the proceeds donated to the Resistance. 

When Xanana got out of jail in late 1999, retribution was the furthest thing from his mind.

Rather, his focus was on reconciliation. 

On the need to move on, come together and rebuild.

This national hero became Timor-Leste’s first president in 2002 and in 2007 Prime Minister. 

I am pleased to say that last month his party in the Democratic East Timor became the majority party of a three-party alliance government and Xanana has retained his job as the country’s leader.  

I first met Xanana in 2000 along with his wife Kirsty who came from my city of Melbourne, at the Melbourne International Arts Festival, just a year after his release from prison, and I was immediately struck by his compassion and drive.

It wasn’t easy as he didn’t have any English- we spoke in Portuguese. 

These qualities became even more apparent when I heard him read one of his incredible poems to an enthralled Melbourne audience, read in his guttural Portuguese. 

Let me read it to you. 

It’s called World Peace:

Violence, death
Blood and tears 

Intelligence in the service of destruction
The art of mobilising human beings to die
For principles, rights? 
or power, ambition? 

Suffering, grief
Despair, revenge 

The result eclipsing their dimension
The numbers alone recorded by history
While many die
Others sow a hatred 

Speaking of Peace
When a war rages 

Innocents, the defenceless oppressed
Interests, politics at the fore
Principles to justify
And rights do not exist 

Speaking of war
When peace prevails 

Human conscience in alienation
Dignity debased in the absence of morals
A truth is preached
Then violations down-played 

The violence screams
Dialogue the loser 

There are no causes, forgotten
Spirits aroused, force is the answer
A world of fear
In the media of trauma 

Justice, the claim
Punishment, a demand 

Dragged into the tide of emotions
The human side of life, twisted
Where there is no courage
And no place for forgiveness 

I sat and listened to the poem. I couldn’t believe it. When Xanana finished his poem, I reflected for a little while on his country. 

I knew that, like many of its neighbours, Timor-Leste faced daunting challenges.  

Based on today’s figures (and it was even worse when I met Xanana) 45 per cent of children are underweight, child mortality and maternal mortality are among the highest in the Asia Pacific region, only 50 per cent of the population is literate and 41 percent of the population lives on less than 88c a day.


I knew that Xanana and his country had a difficult journey ahead of them and I feared that they might well fail. Many around them have. 

I also thought there was a lot to be incredibly angry about. 

But Xanana is an exceptional person I was really struck by his warmth, his trust and his compassion. 

It gave me hope. 

I said to him, ‘Xanana, how can I help? ‘ thinking he would ask for some money to build a hospital or a school or a road.  

So picture my surprise when he said, ‘Harold, my first task is to rebuild the spirit of our people.  We cannot tackle any of our challenges unless our hearts are strong. I believe music is key! ‘ 

Incredibly he asked me to help him procure 300 of what I call tin whistles.

You probably know them as recorders. I did of course. 

Afterwards, whenever I heard his people sing, I could also hear the spirit of their hearts.

The story of the recorders was followed by a second incredible encounter, shortly after. 

I had heard there was a gifted young Timorese pianist, by the name of Antonio Soares, studying at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music. 

He was about to graduate and had many offers to progress his career both in Australia and around the world.  

But he instead chose to go back to his tiny war-torn nation to become a piano teacher and continue Xanana’s efforts to rebuild the spirit of his people through music. 

I met Antonio again at his home, which was a tent on the grounds of the cathedral in Timor’s war torn capital, Dili. He lived in a tent and played the grandest of grand pianos in the finest of styles and he lived in a tent.  

Antonio told me that his people had capacity, they had a future, but the one thing they didn’t have was a piano! 

I turned 70 this year and, looking back, I think it was one of greatest privileges of my life to buy Timor-Leste’s first piano.   

I have helped, over the years, in other ways. 

I have supported an impressive man named Steve Bracks whom I recognise is here today, the 44th Premier of my home state of Victoria and his wife Terry, to become an adviser to Xanana to assist him in the mammoth task of governing his nation. 

I have also had the privilege of helping Xanana’s wife, Kirsty Sword Gusmao, in her quest to improve maternal health and education. I agree with Kirsty- as do many I’m sure in this room-  that supporting women is critical to any efforts to alleviate poverty and achieve development.  But this is a topic for another speech.  

The Harold Mitchell Foundation recently agreed to fund an important program to improve education for primary school children. 

We are also raising money to help improve food security in Timor-Leste and address the terrible problem of stunting in young children, 40 percent of whom are malnourished. If you are interested in how you might support this important initiative, please let me know! We all need help. 

I have described many of the problems that Timor-Leste faces, but real solutions are at hand. This is a story of hope. 

I am pleased to say that, under Xanana’s leadership, lasting improvements are being made.   

When Xanana came to power Timor was caught in a cycle of conflict which flared every two years.

There were over 100,000 internally displaced people in makeshift camps, just one in six people by that stage. The economy was going backwards just in one decade, the civil service was highly politicised and a group of armed rebels wandered the country side. 

What Xanana did first was to secure the nation. 

Dili went from being a ghost town after dark to now a town where families walk the street together. Incredibly, Xanana returned all the displaced people back to their communities within two years-I saw it happen (after the UN said it would take at least ten).

The security he achieved meant that people had the confidence to invest. 

Since 2007 the economy has been growing at double digit numbers and Timor is able to direct its oil and gas resources  in which it’s rich in a way that gives real hope for the future. I’ve often heard Xanana say he doesn’t want there to be poor people in a rich country. 

The petroleum fund (which is now over 10 billion dollars) was conservatively invested and is now recognised as one of the best performing sovereign wealth funds in the world. 

The rate of absolute poverty, while still high, has fallen and the mortality rate for children under five has more than halved since Independence.

Xanana, for the first time in the history of the Timorese people, has built a power grid around the whole nation – that will open up access to refrigeration, electric stoves, light for reading and learning after dark, and all those other things we take for granted that require power.

As I close this speech I am reminded that my association with Timor-Leste began at the Melbourne International Arts Festival, which provides a clear example of how such festivals can forge diplomatic links. An incredible story. 

I am so very grateful to Jonathan Mills your director for extending the invitation to Xanana as he was in fact director of the Melbourne Festival at the time. 

I also think back to the celebration of Timor-Leste’s Independence where Xanana- Just consider a man who’d been in prison, lost his family- he walked up to the leader of that country with a big smile and open arms.

As he put his arms around the leader of the country that had been his dreadful enemy so recently, I thought about the spirit of a nation, and about the power of hope and forgiveness, rather than the alternative of hatred and war. 

I thought about Xanana’s poem and on how far his tiny nation has come.  

Xanana said,’There is so much we have to do,’ ‘we cannot burn any energy on anger or hate’

I admire him for his capacity for forgiveness, which reminds me so much of Nelson Mandela. 

Both men are models of inner strength – of resilience, of compassion, of forgiveness.  

They remind us that what does not kill us makes us stronger. 

The world needs these types of people and we need to do all we can to support them.  

I often reflect that some of the world’s richest people have bank accounts larger than the budget of some of the poorest nations. 

And I think of the wonderful example of Bill Gates. 

In a world where the rich are getting richer, the poor are getting poorer, I encourage the rich to give more and every single person to give according to their means. 

I am a true believer that each and every one of us has the power to make a difference.  

This is a story about a man, but it’s also a story about mankind.  

I hope that you are as inspired as I have been by this inspirational man, and the incredible tale of how music helped to heal a nation.   

I ask you to reflect on the idea that big organisations such as the United Nations which of course have a place, are not the only way to change the world. 

Minister Vaizey, who was here yesterday, deserves congratulations for a wonderful Olympic Games; 17 days each four years but culture is not every 4 years, it’s every minute of every hour, every day. That’s important. 

We need more personal connections: people to people, heart to heart, song to song. 

We need all the worlds 7 billion people want to sing.

And I ask each of you, what will you do to make that happen?

About the summit

The Edinburgh International Culture Summit 2012 will bring together Culture Ministers with prominent artists, thinkers and others responsible for formulating cultural policy. 

They will discuss how the arts enrich the lives of people around the world and contribute to the wellbeing of nations.

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