Subject: FEER: East Timor's New Govt Faces A Challenge From Rebels

Far Eastern Economic Review Issue cover dated July 4, 2002

East Timor's New Govt Faces A Challenge From Rebels


AT JUST FOUR WEEKS OLD East Timor may be the world's newest nation, but its first big problem is how to deal with its past. Tensions over the treatment of veteran guerrillas who fought for its independence are challenging the authority of the country's new democratic government.

In demonstrations across East Timor, hundreds of uniformed men, many armed with knives and machetes and all claiming to be former members of the East Timorese resistance, have been demanding state welfare and official recognition for services rendered during 24 years of armed struggle against Indonesian rule.

The demonstrations were organized by Cornelio Gama, a dissident ex-guerrilla commander who goes by his old jungle code-name, L-7. Gama claims he has more than 5,000 supporters in a country of 800,000 people.

Their sense of entitlement is compounded by the fact that the new government is led by someone who was once among their ranks: President Xanana Gusmao, the former commander-in-chief of Falintil, which was the armed wing of pro-independence group Fretilin.

Gama and his supporters are angry at what they claim was a lack of transparency in the selection process that transformed certain former Falantil officers into senior commanders of the national army, the East Timor Defence Force, or FDTL. "It was a political demobilization. Xanana's friends got in and his enemies were left out. It's a politicized military. They are very much Xanana's boys," says a Western security analyst based in Dili.

Three groups, including Gama's -- mischievously named Falintil -- claim to represent former combatants and their families. Their noisy martial parades began in the lead-up to independence on May 20, and for many residents of the capital, Dili, they drew a scary parallel with the ugly pro-Jakarta militia rallies of 1999, a time of violence that left an estimated 1,500 people dead.

The parades served another purpose. Not only did a jittery United Nations offer Gama's followers temporary employment as security guards for Independence Day celebrations, but the demonstrations may have helped a prominent Gama ally, Rogerio Lobato, win the post of interior minister. Lobato also heads a veterans' organization with Gama as his deputy.

The government has also offered Gama the job of administrator for his home district, Baucau, and given him a new minibus, a senior government official told the REVIEW. Whether such rewards will placate or encourage the ex-guerrilla remains to be seen, but for his followers, no solution is in sight. The government has established an office of veterans' affairs, though with a budget of only $156,000 it is unlikely to provide any meaningful level of assistance. And granting benefits to all claimants won't be enough, given that their grievance has more to do with having been frozen out of the government decision-making process.

Gama's group has also been accused by the East Timor police of involvement in an armed stand-off with authorities in a southeastern village. Most recently, FDTL commander Brig.-Gen. Taur Matan Ruak reported, the homes of several government soldiers were set on fire.

Historical rivalries almost certainly lie at the source of the dispute. In February 2001 the legendary Falintil guerrilla army was demobilized as a prerequisite for the recruitment of 600 former fighters to form the core of the new 3,000-strong defence force. To ease the transition for those who were not recruited, a $2.65 million programme was implemented by the World Bank, the United States and Japan to help 1,300 ex-combatants return to civilian life.

Other claimants have stepped forward demanding recognition and assistance for their part in the independence struggle. But according to the police and the FDTL, Gama's supporters include imposters and deserters hoping for a free handout in a country where unemployment is rampant. Given the shadowy nature of the 24-year fight for independence, few records were kept of the resistance network.

Meanwhile the army has deployed the first FDTL battalion, not to the border with Indonesia but to the east of the half-island territory, where Gama's support base lies -- raising concerns that the new army sees its role as one of internal security in addition to national defence.

Back to June 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