Subject: Reinado to live on as vivid figure in Timor folklore

The Canberra Times

7 March 2008 - 8:48AM

Reinado to live on as vivid figure in Timor folklore

Steven Sengstock

A month has passed since the death of Alfredo Reinado in a fire-fight at the home of East Timor's President Jose Ramos Horta. There has been no backlash from his supporters and in the past week many rebel soldiers have surrendered peacefully.

Nevertheless, the power Reinado might wield over the populace in death should not be underestimated. Reinado's many admirers helped him remain at large for almost two years, and it was they who helped him to appear suddenly and unexpectedly at Ramos Horta's front door. They are the volatile, disenfranchised mass of East Timorese society who feel they can find neither voice nor representation in either the new Government of Xanana Gusmao or Mari Alkatiri's Fretilin opposition.

They are the young Timorese who, before Reinado's death, would draw you close and whisper, "Did you know Alfredo has very strong connections with the people of Manufahi? They say he's blessed with the spirit of Dom Boaventura."

Boaventura was the king, or liurai, of the Manufahi region in the rugged hills south of Dili. He died almost 100 years ago but his tenacious spirit lives on. He is the man many see as the father of East Timorese nationalism. In Timor there is an almost Arthurian sense of legend and mythology attached to his name. He is remembered as the archetypal Timorese warrior king in a country where archetypes rarely emerge from a complex cultural and ethno-linguistic puzzle.

Last year, just days before international troops launched their abortive attack on Reinado's hideout in the hills above the town of Same in Manufahi, rumours fanned out across the country that Reinado had been involved in a rare ritual ceremony. During the ceremony, presided over by Manufahi elders and described by some as a coronation, Reinado was said to have been endowed with the late Boaventura's supernatural powers.

Late in 1911, Boaventura had united many of East Timor's indigenous kingdoms in revolt against the repressive and exploitative Portuguese colonial administration. Employing guerrilla tactics akin to those used by Xanana Gusmao in the struggle against the Indonesian Army 70 years later, at one stage Boaventura came close to overrunning Dili. But the military odds were against him and ultimately he was forced back into the remote hills around Manufahi.

His resistance came to a dramatic and tragic end in August 1912. Surrounded and besieged on a mountain top, Boaventura led a courageous breakout. On horseback at the head of his warriors he plummeted towards Portuguese lines in a charge that one awestruck historian described as "a great avalanche down the side of the mountain". The warrior king escaped, but most of his estimated three thousand followers did not. They were rounded up by the colonial forces and systematically slaughtered over two nights and two days of concentrated killing.

Boaventura led a people suffering the exploitation of a colonial administration whose true authority projected little outside of Dili. Reinado, too, claimed to represent a growing population of youth and common folk disillusioned with a Government struggling to extend its judicial and administrative reach beyond the same city limits. And just as Boaventura relied on the support of influential kingdoms in central and western East Timor, Reinado and his men, too, moved freely about the same regions.

Boaventura enjoyed far less support in the east of the country, and Reinado could not venture there for fear of death. Both were known for their daring escapes and, as legend would have it, were impervious to the bullets of foreigners.

Nonetheless, Reinado's early 2007 attempt to draw parallels between his plight and that of Boaventura invited heavy criticism. Pointing to Reinado's part-Portuguese heritage, some said he was trying to appropriate a heroism and history that was not rightfully his.

Others judged it a cynical manipulation of sacred traditional beliefs and memories with the objective of winning over an ill-informed and vulnerable support base.

In fact, for many in East Timor, there will be little to lament in the passing of the fast-talking, handsome rebel leader. From the chaos of East Timor's crisis of mid-2006, the former military police major emerged as a serious embarrassment to East Timor's Government and the international forces it had invited to stabilise the country. By the time of his death Reinado had destroyed his relationships with almost all political factions, his notoriety growing with each of his anti-establishment stunts and daring escapes.

The innocent villagers who suffered from Reinado's destabilising presence in the mountainous interior will also have little to lament. Even in the western districts where Reinado was most popular, the arrogance and heavy-handedness of his men drew frequent complaints. His rebellion placed an incalculable burden on the East Timor economy, causing fear-induced delays to development projects and distracting officials from the crucial mission of rebuilding the conflict-riven nation.

Boaventura's ultimate fate has never been established. The colonial record has him facing court proceedings in the years after his rebellion but has nothing clear to say about his death. Nor did foreign bullets bring Reinado down. By all accounts his escape from last year's assault on his base in the interior city of Same was nothing short of miraculous and, in the end, it was a Timorese bodyguard and Timorese bullets that killed him.

Ultimately, only in death may Reinado find a true parallel with the warrior king. Just as the name Boaventura is revered in far more corners of the country today than he could have hoped for in his day, so the spectre has now appeared of a Reinado who, despite his failings, may live even more vividly in popular memory than he ever did in real life.

Steven Sengstock is a Masters candidate researching the history of East Timor in the Faculty of Asian Studies, ANU College of Asia and the Pacific.


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