Subject: In shadow of violence, Asia's newest nation prepares for polls

In shadow of violence, Asia's newest nation prepares for polls

By ROD McGUIRK Associated Press Writer

DILI, East Timor, April 2 (AP) - Machete-wielding gangs roam the dusty streets of Asia's newest nation, torching homes and shooting each other as international troops struggle to keep order. Nearly 40,000 refugees remain in crowded camps, too afraid to return home.

Against this backdrop, East Timor is preparing for presidential elections that many hope will usher in an era of peace and stability. Others fear the vote will only add to tensions in the desperately poor country, triggering more violence.

"I'm ready to go home with my family and rebuild our house if our leaders make it safe for us," said Brigida da Conceicao, 27, whose has lived in a camp since her house was torched at the height of unrest one year ago. "But I have no idea how long that will take."

East Timor voted to end nearly a quarter century of brutal Indonesian rule in 1999 and formally proclaimed nationhood in 2002 in a lavish ceremony complete with fireworks and traditional dance. Then-U.N. chief Kofi Annan and former U.S. President Bill Clinton were among the celebrants.

But the tiny nation was pushed to the brink of civil war in May 2006 when then-Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri fired 600 soldiers, sparking clashes between rival security forces in the capital Dili that spilled into gang warfare. At least 37 people were killed and another 155,000 others fled their homes, leading to the fall of the government.

Though international troops curbed the worst of the violence, analysts note that the underlying causes remain unresolved -- intense political and regional rivalries dating back to Indonesia's occupation, economic stagnation and a failure to bring to justice perpetrators of past crimes.

"It's a very fragmented society," said Benjamin Reilly, a scholar at Australian National University who is helping carry out election training in East Timor. "It's a very volatile situation."

One of the leading presidential candidates is Jose Ramos-Horta, who was in exile during Indonesian occupation and shared the 1996 Nobel Peace prize with former East Timorese Bishop Carlos Filipe Ximenes Belo for keeping the spotlight on his people's plight.

He blames much of the population's anger on the government's failure to fight poverty despite rich offshore oil and gas fields. In a country of less than one million people, nearly half the children are said to be suffering from malnutrition.

"People have been waiting for more than five years for the fruits of independence," said Ramos-Horta, who thinks a fund created by parliament for oil and gas revenues should be used to create jobs and stimulate the economy. It's valued now at US$1.2 billion (euro900 million), but is being largely saved for future generations.

Around 3,000 foreign police and soldiers, most of them from neighboring Australia, are currently deployed to East Timor. They were invited by the government at the height of last year's crisis, but resentment against them is steadily rising.

Australian soldiers killed two East Timorese at a camp and another five during a failed bid to capture a renegade military leader from his jungle stronghold several weeks ago, sparking protests by street gangs and unemployed young men demanding foreign troops pull out.

Many of the gang members are common criminals capitalizing on a general sense of lawlessness to steal and extort, but politicians have also been accused of plying gangs with amphetamines and alcohol to continue the chaos.

Scores of people have been arrested over the violence but are often released without charge, giving them a sense of impunity, analysts say.

"We don't have a culture of peace. We have a culture of war," Belo said in a bleak assessment of the former Portuguese colony. "Since the 16th century we have been fighting each other. Fighting seems to be the only situation in which we are content. It's in our blood."

The April 9 elections will be followed by parliamentary polls in September that will decide who will become prime minister, a more important role than the largely symbolic president.

Ramos-Horta's main ally, independence hero Xanana Gusmao, said he would run for prime minister, setting the stage for a bitter political battle with Fretilin, Alkatiri's party and the country's largest political grouping.

Some observers say there is an urgent need for a national unity government.

"If Fretilin is sidelined there will be trouble, but if Fretilin stays in power there will also be trouble," said Olandina Caeiro, a respected female activist and ex-member of parliament during the Indonesian occupation.

The violence in the past year was the worst in East Timor since the independence referendum, when Indonesian soldiers and their militia proxies killed more than 1,000 people and left much of the territory in flames.

Brig. Mal Rerden, commander of Australian and New Zealand troops, said he was confident violence could be contained during the upcoming polls.

"The government, the U.N. and ourselves have a very strong election security plan," he said. "I think it's going to be robust enough to deal with the circumstances that we might find during the election period."

------------------------------------------ Joyo Indonesia News Service

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