Subject: AT: Exile returns to run East Timor

Asia Times September 21, 2001

Exile returns to run East Timor 
By Jill Jolliffe

The election victory on August 30 of Fretilin, the Revolutionary Front for an Independent East Timor, sent UN and World Bank officials in Dili into an instant policy huddle which lasted three weeks. The party had led a 24-year guerrilla resistance to Indonesia's occupation of the former Portuguese colony, and this was reflected in its resounding 57.3 percent of the vote. Its nearest rival, the student-led Democratic Party, polled a mere 8.7 percent.

The UN wanted a consensus government representing most of the twelve parties which won seats in the 88-seat Constituent Assembly, while Fretilin, which won 55 of those seats, argued it should take the lion's share of the portfolios. The parliament is an interim one, to draft a constitution and prepare for independence.

The outcome, announced in Dili by Sergio Vieira de Mello, head of the United Nations Transitional Administration in East Timor (UNTAET), was a predominantly Fretilin government led by 52-year-old lawyer Mari Alkatiri.

That the selection caused headaches for the UN planners was reflected in the fact that the Democratic Party was the only other major party to agree to participate with Fretilin, apart from a sprinkling of independents. The Social Democrat Party, third with 8.1 percent of the vote, refused to participate.

The diminutive Alkatiri is seen by his supporters as a dynamic man who has led the nationalist Fretilin party to deserved political victory after more than two decades of bitter struggle. To his detractors, he is a radical extremist attempting to impose the ideology of Mozambique's ruling Frelimo party - acquired during years of exile there - on a quite different situation.

The two contrasting views, of competent, principled nationalist versus radical extremist, are little different from those which were expressed in East Timor in December 1975 when Alkatiri also emerged as the most senior politician in the short-lived government of the Democratic Republic of East Timor, declared 10 days before Indonesia invaded.

In interviews conducted on that occasion, and on the eve of the UN-supervised election, I found Alkatiri to fit neither mold. Rather, he gave the impression of a man with a considered nationalist philosophy, who wouled tackle governance of this war-traumatized nation seriously but would also be unyielding in defending Timorese rights.

It is a defense that needs to be conducted skilfully with Australia and Indonesia, East Timor's two closest neighbors. In his view, both acted with total contempt for East Timorese human rights in the years after 1975. "Indonesia and Australia have to remember that our independence was won at great cost and that a Timorese is very proud to be Timorese," he states. If Alkatiri is seen as a hard man, it is because of this past. Nevertheless, he has a strong desire to build bridges.

As East Timorese chief minister, Alkatiri will be a Muslim at the head of a predominantly Catholic country (Islamic leaders at the Dili mosque confirmed that he is a practising member of their congregation). In his diplomatic dealings with Indonesia before 1999, the fact that he was Muslim didn't moderate Indonesian attitudes, but changing times may help. "If it helps, well and good, but it didn't previously," Alkatiri said. "I am foremost a Timorese who is a militant of Fretilin, and being Islamic didn't help much with former foreign minister Ali Alatas." Yet his family has established roots in Indonesia, in the Moluccan Islands as well as in West Timor. His cousin, Mar'ie Muhammad, was a finance minister in the Suharto government, who, according to Alkatiri, was known as "Suharto's incorruptible minister".

The Alkatiris emigrated to Timor from the south of Yemen three generations ago. From humble beginnings as rice planters, they consolidated agricultural holdings on the outskirts of Dili, and now own considerable real estate in the capital. Mari's father was a highly-respected leader of the minority Arab community, who died a few years ago at the age of 100. When Portugal announced in 1974 that it would decolonize its remote Southeast Asian territory, most of the 1,000-strong Islamic community, including some members of the Alkatiri family, supported the pro-Indonesian Apodeti party. Mari and his brother Djafar, however, opted for the radical pro-independence Fretilin. In the dying days of the colonial regime, Mari, Nicolau Lobato (founding commander of the guerrilla resistance), and Timorese diplomat Jose Ramos Horta had formed the advance guard of a wave of burgeoning Timorese nationalists.

"I remember him as belonging to one of the nationalist groups which met secretly in restaurants, hotels and in the city park," Fretilin central committee member Jose Luis Guterres said, "but I was in a younger group and didn't really know him well, because he was very introspective, as he is now."

In December 1975, after the Portuguese colonial administration had withdrawn from Dili during a brief civil war, it became clear that Indonesian invasion was imminent. Fretilin decided to send three emissaries out of the country to organize political support. Alkatiri, Ramos Horta and Lobato's brother Rogerio, nominated as defense minister in the newly-proclaimed republic, flew out of Dili two days before Indonesian paratroopers landed.

Alkatiri settled in Mozambique, where he married fellow-Timorese Marina Ribeiro and raised three children. Mozambique had recognized the Democratic Republic of East Timor, and he became part of the Maputo diplomatic corps. He learnt the protocol of international diplomacy and traveled widely. He also completed a law degree and taught for 10 years at Maputo's Eduardo Mondlane University, an experience which he enjoyed. "I haven't been seeking a career as a prime minister," he said, "and I hope to return to academic life in the future."

His critics say his ideas are frozen in the doctrinaire attitudes of 1975, when Fretilin, Frelimo and other fraternal parties in Portuguese Africa decared themselves "the sole legitimate representatives" of the nation, above other parties. But Alkatiri says he learnt a lot that was "positive and negative" in Mozambique. "It's easy for Westerners to assume revolutionary postures," he asserts. "It's not so easy to govern according to revolutionary principles when you don't have a refrigerator stuffed full."

He advocates a practical, moderate foreign policy, seeking to cultivate "best possible relations with Indonesia and Australia". Days after the election results were ratified by the UN he traveled to Jakarta with other Timorese leaders at the invitation of Indonesian President Megawati Sukarnoputri. It was a welcome sign of thaw in which Alkatiri's background undoubtedly helped. "The Indonesian president is very open and positive," he commented.

Alkatiri's reputation as a hard man has been underlined in his role as chief Timorese negotiator in talks over oil riches in the southern Timor Sea, to be exploited jointly between Australia and East Timor. This investment began in 1989, under an Indonesian-Australian treaty, but Indonesia ceded its share to East Timor in April 2000 after its troop withdrawal from the territory.

The Ohio-based Phillips Petroleum company is head of the investment consortium. Its US$1.5 billion project all but collapsed in July over Alkatiri's insistence on increasing Phillips's tax share from the revenues, despite an earlier promise not to do so. Phillips Petroleum president Jim Mulva flew into Dili for talks just before the elections, in a last-ditch attempt to save the company's deal to supply natural gas from the maritime field to Australia. The choice East Timor faces is between having oil revenues to cover its budget in its first years, or waiting almost another decade if Philips pulls out.

At the time of the poll Alkatiri said that he had told Mulva he was open to new proposals after the elections, but so far no date has been set for talks. The outcome will determine whether East Timor enters nationhood as just another impoverished Third World nation, or with a base-line prosperity which will grow with the years. It will be a first test of Alkatiri's desire to balance national pride with pragmatism.

(c) All Rights Reserved, Jill Jolliffe, Dili 2001

Back to September menu
World Leaders Contact List
Human Rights Violations in East Timor
Main Postings Menu

Note: For those who would like to fax "the powers that be" - CallCenter is a Native 32-bit Voice Telephony software application integrated with fax and data communications... and it's free of charge! Download from