Subject: AP: Attacks on East Timor's leaders are latest upheaval in young democracy

Attacks on East Timor's leaders are latest upheaval in young democracy

The Associated Press

Published: February 17, 2008

<>DILI, East Timor: East Timor declared independence six years ago after centuries of harsh foreign domination and conflict, its people dreaming of a life of peaceful self-determination.

When rebels launched attacks on the country's newly elected leaders on Monday, the infant democracy was thrust back into violent upheaval. It was a stark reminder that it may be years before stability takes hold in territory where militants enjoy significant support from the public.

The setback is part of a struggle to embrace democracy after more than four centuries as a Portuguese colony and 24 years of Indonesian occupation. It occurred despite intensive U.N.-led efforts to nurture the newly independent nation.

But the transition to democracy is never smooth, said Charles Scheiner of the nonprofit East Timor Institute for Reconstruction, Monitoring and Analysis.

"The overwhelming majority of countries in the world at this stage have instability, insurrections, dictatorships or coups," Scheiner said. "To see these things as being particularly unique to Timor Leste is wrong."

After generations of suffering, hope arrived as the United Nations guided the tiny Southeast Asian nation out of an era of darkness and began rebuilding from the ruins of a scorched-earth campaign by departing Indonesian troops in 1999.

East Timor declared independence in 2002, after three years of intense foreign humanitarian and military assistance, with a fanfare of fireworks and traditional dancing, in what was hailed as a textbook example of nation building.

But the euphoria was shattered in 2006, just as the U.N. was leaving, when the police and army disintegrated into warring factions and the government collapsed amid widespread looting, arson and gang warfare. The unrest left 37 dead and drove 155,000 from their homes.

Thousands of foreign police and soldiers had to be rushed back to restore calm, fueling criticism that the international community had packed up its bags before seeing the job through.

The revered icons of resistance during 24 years of Indonesian occupation, Jose Ramos-Horta and Xanana Gusmao, became president and prime minister in elections last year.

Last week, they found themselves under attack by rebels from their own army in a bizarre departure from their status as untouchable heroes.

It was a sudden escalation in a bitter dispute between the government with its loyalist troops and several hundred ex-soldiers who were fired in 2006 after going on strike to protest alleged discrimination.

Ramos-Horta, the Nobel Peace prize-winning president, was hit twice on the road to the presidential residence and expected to make a full recovery after several rounds of surgery in an Australian hospital.

Prime Minister Gusmao escaped unharmed from an ambush on his motorcade and declared a 12-day state of emergency. East Timor Defense Force soldiers and Australian-led forces are combing the rugged jungle mountains outside the capital for dozens of heavily armed assailants who fled after the attacks.

It is unclear if they were attempting a coup, or took a military gamble aimed at gaining an upper hand in negotiations with the government. Either way, it backfired with the killing of the popular rebel commander Alfredo Reinado and one of his bodyguards.

While shocking to outsiders, the bloodshed was taken in stride by most Timorese, a devoutly Roman Catholic people who have grown accustomed to hardship after enduring the 1975 Indonesian invasion and the death of roughly a fifth of the population in just over two decades.

"Our leaders always fight each other," said Maderia, a 58-year-old street vendor who has lived in a squalid tent camp for nearly two years with her four children after being driven out of her home by machete-wielding gangs. "Again our leaders made the same mistake of not solving the problems peacefully."

East Timor is a remote and impoverished nation of 1 million facing chronic unemployment of about 40 percent. It is heavily dependent on hundreds of charities feeding and sheltering tens of thousands of people too afraid to return to their homes.

There is virtually no rule of law and perpetrators of past atrocities walk the streets freely, perpetuating a cycle of retaliation and impunity.

Reinado, an Australian-trained former military police chief turned rebel, was indicted on murder charges for the violence in 2006, but over the past year was allowed to meet repeatedly with the president as he openly threatened to attack the government.

Hugely popular with the vast disillusioned youth, Reinado survived for more than a year as a fugitive with the help of a wide network that enabled him to slip into the capital last Monday and storm the presidential residence toting a machine gun.

The arrival of thousands of foreign troops, U.N. employees, aid and construction workers had brought a flood of capital into East Timor's ailing economy, much of it to business related to large offshore resources of oil and gas.

With concerns of ongoing volatility and increasing crime, one sector undergoing huge growth is private security.

Christopher Whitcomb, a former U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation agent, set up APAC Security three months ago and with 1,600 drivers, bodyguards and advisers he says it has become the country's largest commercial employer.

"There is always the destabilizing influence that keeps security at a high level here," he said. "We really see ourselves as becoming an integral part of the system.

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