Subject: East Timor At Flashpoint As Disillusionment Sets In
Sydney Morning Herald December 14 2002
East Timor at flashpoint as disillusionment sets in
Hopes for peace and stability are in tatters, Herald Correspondent Mark Baker writes in Dili.
It is a simple but splendid house with whitewashed walls and a high-pitched roof of traditional timber and thatch. It sits beside a village on the eastern outskirts of Dili with a view that sweeps across the harbour.
This is the place Jose Ramos Horta dreamt of in the long and lonely years in exile. Its construction was a cherished ambition that would become the measure of a job done, a homecoming that would mean East Timor was at last independent and free.
On Wednesday last week, the house of East Timor's new Foreign Minister almost became another casualty of the worst violence to shake the country since 1999, when the Indonesian military laid waste to the territory in a desperate effort to avert the inevitable end of Jakarta's brutal colonial adventure.
This time it was Timorese turning on their own and, as hundreds of rioters smashed, burned and looted their way through the capital, word spread that a section of the mob was heading for the Foreign Minister's house. Local villagers armed themselves with knives, machetes and sticks and took positions along the main road, prepared to confront any attackers. In the end, the rioters were halted a couple of kilometres away as Bishop Carlos Belo - the man who shared the 1996 Nobel Peace Prize with Ramos Horta - stepped out alone and turned them back..
Others were not so lucky. The homes of Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri, his mother and another owned by the family were razed.
Scores of terrified worshippers cowered in a mosque as the attackers tried to set it alight after burning eight houses within the grounds.
Earlier, at the parliament, MPs fled over a back fence as the mob smashed windows and vandalised cars. Along nearby streets dozens of shops, offices and restaurants were set upon.
By next morning, two young rioters were dead and 16 were in hospital with bullet wounds, two of them critically injured.
Most, according to witnesses, were hit when panicked Timorese police opened fire after the mob broke through their lines into the grounds of the police headquarters. But at least five claim they were wounded when police drove through the streets late in the afternoon firing at suspects.
Ramos Horta was in Madrid at the time. "I was very shocked when they told me what had happened," he said. "I didn't fight for 24 years for the independence of this country to see this happen. ... It has certainly set back our efforts to promote a new era of peace and stability."
Eight months after East Timor toasted the end of a quarter-century of Indonesian occupation the mood of celebration has largely disappeared, replaced by rising disillusionment, frustration and anger.
Triggered by the arrest a day earlier of a student suspected of involvement in a murder, the violence quickly became the focus for a range of long-simmering economic and political tensions that some senior members of the government believe could lead to more serious upheavals unless these grievances are answered.
Underpinning last week's violence is the grinding poverty and lack of opportunity confronting most rural and urban Timorese. Unemployment is estimated to be as high as 65 per cent. More than 40 per cent of East Timor's 800,000 people live below the poverty line, earning less than $1 a day, with average life expectancy at 56 years. Half the adult population is illiterate.
Already ranked among the poorest nations in the world, East Timor's GDP is forecast to contract by 1.1 per cent this year. A severe drought has compounded problems in the provinces, where the effective collapse of export markets for lower-grade Timorese coffee has left tens of thousands of farmers vulnerable. Vital revenues from the rich oil and gas reserves of the Timor Sea may still be years away - further delayed by Australia's failure to keep its promise to ratify the enabling Timor Gap treaty by the end of this year.
A temporary economic boom in Dili, built on the influx of UN personnel, which created thousands of service sector jobs is collapsing. The UN interim administration is gone and most of the remaining UN personnel are due to pull out over the next 18 months.
But poverty is nothing new in East Timor, and it is growing disenchantment with Alkatiri's administration that critics inside and outside the Fretilin Government say is providing a powder keg for further civil unrest. "Fretilin is failing to answer the people's aspirations and they have lost the confidence of the people," says Fernando de Araujo, leader of the Democrat Party, the largest opposition group, a former deputy foreign minister and one of many to accuse the Government of arrogance, nepotism and incompetence. "I'm sure that this is not the last demonstration. There will be more. The situation is very fragile."
Opposition MPs contest the legitimacy of a government which was shoehorned into power by a UN administration determined to force a rapid political transition after the historic 1999 referendum voted overwhelmingly for the country to break away from Indonesia.
They say that the 88-member assembly elected in August 2001 was chosen only to draft a new constitution and that Fretilin used its numbers to extend its rule for five years - while reneging, with the UN's acquiescence, on a pledge to form a national unity government.
Critics say Alkatiri has lost legitimacy and support by failing to address the humanitarian crisis in rural areas, tolerating corruption within his Cabinet and politicising the courts by overruling decisions. More seriously, he has challenged the authority of President Xanana Gusmao, the former guerilla commander. Though his post is largely ceremonial he is still revered by the vast majority of Timorese.
In an extraordinary speech on November 28, Xanana - long estranged from the political party whose small but determined military wing he led for more than ten years before being captured and jailed by the Indonesians - denounced the failings of the Government and called for the deeply unpopular Internal Administration Minister, Rogerio Lobato, to be sacked.
Alkatiri brushed aside the criticism and refused to dismiss the minister, steeling a public confrontation with Xanana that many believe added fuel to the anti-government anger of last week's violence.
But the conflict between the President and the Prime Minister is only one symptom of deep and more dangerous divisions within the ruling party.
"Last week's violence shows there is deep resentment towards the Prime Minister, and we cannot just dismiss it," says a senior government official. "If the Prime Minister insists on staying, I don't think this is going to stop."
There are fears that disgruntled veterans, with restive students and the growing ranks of the urban and rural unemployed, are ripe for exploitation in further unrest, either by elements within the Government seeking to foment violence to advance their own political ambitions or by leaders of the old Indonesian-backed militias living in refugee camps across the border in Indonesian West Timor.
There is substantial evidence that powerful Fretilin officials from within the Interior Ministry were involved in trucking in protesters from rural areas to join last week's unrest and then inciting the rioters once the violence began. Indonesian military officials also confirmed this week that they had identified a number of militia supporters who were in Dili last week and fled back across the border after the violence.
"We were united against the Indonesians, now we are divided. That is the responsibility of those who are in power and the dangers are great if we don't recognise where this could be leading," says Mario Carrascalao, who was governor of East Timor for 10 years under the Indonesians and is now an opposition leader.
Victims tell of Dili police shootings
By Jill Jolliffe, Dili
Five gunshot victims interviewed by The Age in the Dili hospital yesterday say they were shot by roaming groups of special police in the capital's outer suburbs after the main rioting last week had subsided.
Their claims contradict the widely held view at the time that all shootings occurred when police allegedly fired on demonstrators from their Dili compound around 9.30am as it was stormed by stone-throwing students.
Eighteen people were shot during the disturbances, two of them fatally.
"They drove by the (Dili) suburb of Colmera, got out and started shooting," said student Jose Luis Soares, 21. "There were seven or eight of them, facing me from about 50 metres . . . I was shot with a pistol, directly, without warning shots."
He said his foot wound had been inflicted by agents of the elite special police unit (SPU).
Mr Soares said he had been shot five hours after the compound shootings, which allegedly involved Timor-Leste Police Service regulars. TLPS officers were not seen again on Dili streets that day, leaving rioters to burn and loot at will.
The new testimony of the gunshot victims spoken to by The Age provides prima facie evidence that SPU agents followed rioters to outer suburbs, opening fire without warning.
Brick maker Alarico da Costa, 21, was shot in the buttocks around 2pm, also in Colmera. "The police got out of the car and shot at me and other people," he said. "They all shot simultaneously, with no warning."
Secondary student Jose dos Santos maintained he had not gone to school that day but stayed home until midday, then went to the suburb of Bairro Pite to buy a card he needed to sit his exams. He said he had been shot in the thigh around 2pm when several police opened fire on a crowd running towards him.
Some victims may have tailored evidence to conceal involvement in the disturbances, but two gave credible testimony that they were mere bystanders.
Marcel Ximenes, 23, and Hermenegildo Correia, 30, are stallholders at Comoro market, near Dili airport, and were shot after 5pm.
"There were demonstrators on the road and they ran into the marketplace with SPU police chasing them," Mr Ximenes said. "They got out of the car and began shooting. I wasn't in the demonstration. My life is just working to get enough to eat."
Mr Correia said he had been tidying his cigarette stall at the end of the day when "four or five" police arrived and started shooting.
The claims by the gunshot victims emerged as East Timor's UN administrator, Kamalesh Sharma, yesterday announced that six East Timorese police officers had been suspended for alleged discipline problems.
Mr Sharma said: "Some discipline problems were evident within the Timor-Leste Police Service during fourth of December."
This had resulted in the "suspension, pending investigation of conduct" of six officers.
SPU officers are not among the six people suspended.
Mr Sharma also said UN police had arrested seven suspects in the burning of Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri's residence during last week's riots in Dili.
Another seven people have already been remanded for 30 days for looting during last week's riots.
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