As a founder and former member of the Revolutionary Front for an Independent East Timor (FRETILIN), Ramos Horta served as the exiled spokesman for the East Timorese resistance during the years of the Indonesian occupation of East Timor (1975 to 1999). While he has continued to work with FRETILIN, Ramos Horta resigned from the party in 1988, and has since remained an independent politician.
He was actively involved in the development of political awareness in Portuguese Timor which caused him to be exiled for two years in 1970–71 to Portuguese East Africa. It was a family tradition as his grandfather had also suffered exile, from Portugal to the Azores Islands, then Cape Verde, Portuguese Guinea and finally to Portuguese Timor.
A moderate in the emerging Timorese nationalist leadership, he was appointed Foreign Minister in the "Democratic Republic of East Timor" government proclaimed by the pro-independence parties in November 1975
[in exile]. When appointed minister, Ramos Horta was only 25 years old. Ramos Horta left East Timor three days before the Indonesian troops invaded to plead the Timorese case before the United Nations.
Ramos Horta arrived in New York to address the UN Security Council and urge them to take action in the face of the Indonesian military onslaught which would result in over 200,000 East Timorese deaths between 1976 and 1981
. Ramos Horta was the Permanent Representative of Fretilin to the UN for the ensuing ten years.
In 1993, the Rafto Prize was awarded to the people of East Timor. Foreign-minister-in-exile José Ramos-Horta represented his nation at the prize ceremony.
In December 1996, Ramos Horta shared the Nobel Peace Prize
with his fellow countryman, Bishop Carlos Filipe Ximenes Belo. The Nobel Committee chose to honour the two laureates for their "sustained efforts to hinder the oppression of a small people", hoping that "this award will spur efforts to find a diplomatic solution to the conflict of East Timor based on the people's right to self-determination". The Committee considered Ramos Horta "the leading international spokesman for East Timor's cause since 1975".