Subject: East Timor's Premier Has Arab Ancestry

Gulf News July 21, 2002

East Timor's Premier Has Arab Ancestry

By Abdullah Al Madani

It is enough to read his full name to know that he is one of the descendants of those who emigrated several centuries ago from the south Arabia, specifically from Hadhramut, heading for South East Asia where they spread Islam and Arabic through persuasion and giving a good example of Muslims. They mixed with the local population and struggled patiently until they achieved the highest ranks in the world of science, business and politics and gained a good reputation that is unblemished in countries such as Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei.

This figure is Dr. Mari Alkatiri, the son of the poor Yemeni Amude Alkatiri who was the second Timorese born generation of the initial Alkatiri family, which migrated from Hadhramut at the end of the 19 th century. Alkatiri is one of the biggest and most famous Yemeni tribes. It is said that this tribe left Sanaa in the 15th century to Hadhramut where it established an entity called Alkathiri Sultanate, which only fell with the end of the British colonisation and emergence of the People's Republic of Democratic Yemen in 1967.

The occasion for the talk about this Muslim figure of true Arab origins is his presence today at the helm of the Government of newly independent East Timor, a country whose vast majority consists of Catholic Christians and where Muslims are only a small minority. However, this country did not find anything wrong in giving this senior executive post and the actual administrative power to a Muslim figure for the simple reason that the Timorese do not ask about the religion of their leaders as much as they question their academic qualifications, experience, history of struggle and the role they played in achieving independence.

What is indeed regrettable here is the fact that the Arab media have not made any mention of this piece of news even in terms of its value as a news item. The Arab media is famous for its particular interest in following and chasing prominent figures of Arab origin in the countries to which they emigrated whenever they become prominent or influential in a particular field.

Sometimes the Arab media tend to give the Arab character to people who do not declare in public their belonging to Arab origins as in the case of many political and economic figures in North and South America.

It seems to me that the Arab media have ignored this particular news item because otherwise they would have shown the false idea they had cultivated in the public minds. During the emergence of the issue of East Timor, the Arab media adopted slogans and positions that focused on the presence of a conspiracy backed by the 'hateful Crusading west' to weaken and undermine the Indonesian Muslim nation starting with the creation of an independent Christian entity for Christians in East Timor.

Mari Alkatiri is now 52 years old as he was born on November 26, 1949 in Dili, capital of East Timor where he was brought up and completed his primary education together with ten brothers and sisters before traveling to Angola to continue his university studies and to graduate as a qualified surveyor from the Angolan School of Geography.

Upon his return to his country, he started work as a civil servant at the Public Works Department under the Portuguese colonial authority. His political activities started when he was almost 20 years of age. At that time, his country's woes prompted him to participate with others in the formation of an underground organisation demanding independence in January 1970 under the name of Movement for the Liberation on East Timor. He is currently the only survivor of the founders of this Movement.

With the democratic and reformist changes in Portugal following the collapse of Salazar's dictatorial regime in April 1974 and the permission by the Portuguese colonial power for the Timorese to form political parties, Alkatiri hastened with a number of his compatriots to form a political party called the Timorese Socialist Democratic Association.

The ensuring rapid political developments forced it in September 1974 to merge within a broad based front called Fretilin. In this front and in its military wing, Falintil, ( formed in August 1975 to bring pressure upon the Portuguese to confront the Indonesian intervention) he held numerous senior and key positions such as chairmanship in November 1975 of the Committee concerned with drafting the Constitution of the newly independent state.

Immediately after Fretilin's declaration of independence and unilateral launch of the Democratic Republic of East Timor on November 28, 1975, Alkatiri was given the portfolio of the Ministry of State for Political Affairs.

In this capacity, he travelled to Africa on a diplomatic mission three days before the Indonesian military invasion of Timor took place ( December 1975).

Thus, he found himself a refugee forced to stay in Mozambique which gave him adequate care and fruitful employment opportunities. However, all this did not make him forget his occupied country and people. He was actively involved overseas in defending the issue of East Timor and mobilising official and popular support for it.

This role was enhanced by his selection in 1977 as a foreign minister of the government in exile, as a successor of his colleague Ramos Horta who was designated at that time to represent the Timorese at the United Nations. In such capacity, he participated in all the United Nations meetings and conferences of the Non-Aligned Movement and international human rights organisations.

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He was very much present and effective at the various stages of bilateral and trilateral negotiations that were held in the 1990s to find a way out for the Timorese cause.

However, Alkatiri's lengthy absence from his homeland to which he only returned before the date of the referendum on the right of self-determination under the auspices of the United Nations in 1999, was exploited by some Timorese today to challenge his presence at the helm of the Government.

They advocate the slogan of priority to senior positions should be given to those who have kept their steadfastness and experienced all kinds of repression at the hands of the Indonesian army, not to be given to those who were physically remote from the scene of daily events.

This slogan is upheld in particular by the current Parliamentary opposition that could only take 33 seats in the general elections against 55 seats for the Fretilin Movement that is now led by Mari Alkatiri after the President of the Republic Xanana Gusmao gave up this post given his principle that the nation's leader should be above all political parties.

The opposition reiterate many other things with the aim of undermining Alkatiri such as saying that his Government has one colour as its portfolios are dominated by his comrades who were with him in his African exile, and that this state of affairs does obstruct transparency and paves the way for dictatorship, favouritism and opposes the right of free speech.

In Alkatiri's biography we also see that once the great majority of the Timorese people opted for the independence option, formation of an interim administration to draft the Constitution and holding free Presidential and parliamentary elections, he was given by this administration the economy portfolio (he still maintains this portfolio in the current Government) through which he showed unique talents in terms of gaining economic support for his country from the donor powers and international organisations.

However, there are some who criticise him for his method of negotiating with the Australians over the division of the oil and gas wealth in the territorial waters separating East Timor and Australia, ending with his approval of the principle of getting 20 per cent of such wealth.

To this criticism, he responded by saying that this deal was imposed by the principle of the weakness of the emerging Timorese state and its inability to engage in a conflict with its powerful Australian neighbour, let alone the fact that adopting a hard-line position could deprive the Timorese of the sympathy of Australia's western allies and could delay the arrival of the promised aid.

Nevertheless, this incident should not be cited as evidence of Alkatiri's soft approach and his leniency in relinquishing his country's rights. Alkatiri has recently showed, in view of Canberra's refusal to mark the sea boundaries between Australia and East Timor, that he is not complacent nor willing to bargain in issues of sovereignty.

Another proof of his tough policies is his determined insistence upon putting on trial all those involved in cases of murder, extermination and terrorism by forming pro- Indonesia militias and opposition to independence from the latter.

Perhaps that is one of the reasons of his differences with his chief Xanana Gusmao who feels that the past should be forgotten and forgiveness shall be the order of the day to enhance national unity.

Abdullah Al Madani is a Gulf researcher and an Asia expert.

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