Subject: The Bulletin/E.Timor: Out and out madness

The Bulletin [Australia Newsweek] July 4, 2006

Out and out madness

Last week was politically insane in East Timor. And while Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri has resigned, the country's problems are far from over. Paul Toohey reports.

The man no one wanted to resign, President Xanana Gusmao, was offering to, despite neighbouring presidents and prime ministers pleading with him to stay. The man many dearly wanted to go, Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri, was refusing. Then Foreign Minister Jose Ramos Horta unexpectedly handed in his resignation, frustrated by Alkatiri's intransigence.

Last week was a politically insane one in East Timor. Thousands of protesters had moved on Dili hoping to force a people-power outcome. On Monday, they got what they wanted.

Acknowledging, finally, that his leadership had caused bloodshed and that his continued presence would only cause more, Alkatiri resigned after four years of stubborn, autocratic rule. While there were celebrations in the streets of Dili, his departure will not guarantee the country's immediate stability.

Seen by the people as mean and aloof, personally blamed by rebels for ordering the army to fire on unarmed protesters, a tide of filth had crept to Alkatiri's front door. His close ally, sacked Interior (police) Minister Rogerio Lobato, was arrested on Wednesday last week, charged with arming rebels in order to eliminate political rivals of the Fretilin party to which both belong.

In yet another humiliation, Alkatiri was this week ordered to answer prosecutors' questions on whether he helped or instructed Lobato to create the hit squad. Lobato faces up to 15 years in prison.

Lobato tried to board a Regional Link flight to Darwin last Tuesday, but was turned back. "We had no intention of letting him flee to Australia," said a foreign affairs spokesman.

Lobato had attracted the attention of the Immigration Department's Movement Alert List. MAL is interested in serious convicted criminals or people considered to pose a risk to the Australian community.

Given it was Wednesday when Lobato was charged - a day after he had tried to leave the country - why had MAL become interested in him?

It couldn't be about the allegations that Lobato pistol-whipped some fellow Timorese in a road-rage incident in west Dili, late last year. Dili prosecutor-general Longuinhos Monteiro confirmed that while the investigation into that incident was ongoing, Lobato hadn't been charged.

Some speculate Lobato became known to MAL after going to Cuba to learn the black arts of police administration. Maybe it was simply that the Australians had word charges were imminent and didn't want Lobato to claim refugee status in Australia.

Because, had he made it to Australia, on a plane, he would have been entitled to lodge a claim on the grounds he feared political persecution at home, which would have made it difficult for him to face trial in Timor.

In attempting to flee East Timor by air, Lobato's only choice was one of the daily flights to Darwin run by Australian-owned Regional Link. Indonesia's Merpati Airlines had cancelled its flights to Indonesia in April due to a lack of passengers (expat Indonesians have all but fled Dili in the past two months).

Lobato could have tried to enter Indonesia by land, or even taken a boat, but would not have been welcome there: his older brother, Fretilin's founding hero, was famously thrown from an Indonesian military helicopter to his death. He was trapped. So, too, was Alkatiri. Not so much by geography, but by his stubbornness.

Unlike Lobato, Alkatiri seems to have been spared some dignity by not being arrested, but told he could turn up to court of his own volition on Friday to answer allegations. This allowed him to drive east of Dili on Tuesday to meet his "supporters". They had come in truckloads from the east, trying to get to Dili. Peacekeepers prevented them from entering the capital in order to keep them at arm's-length from the more numerous anti-Alkatiri crowds.

There are questions about the provenance of this pro-Alkatiri group. Are they long-time Alkatiri fans or a Fretilin rent-a-crowd? Or are they people who have in recent weeks become aligned to soldiers and police - confined to barracks for their roles in several small massacres - from the east of the country? Or are they the ones whose houses were burnt in Dili by westerners?

Either way, they prove that East Timor is now truly divided.

The Australian peacekeeping effort is meanwhile facing a campaign of misinformation gaining circulation through activist networks in Australia and East Timor. Emails, dressed up as news stories and also distributed to journalists, claim Australian soldiers were interfering in the political process by urging Alkatiri's overthrow.

In one such "story", Australian trade unionist and long-time Fretilin supporter Peter Murphy, who is in Dili, wrote: "On June 9, two Australian helicopters flew to Los Palos at the eastern end of the island to tell people there to support the president and oppose the prime minister. They were surprised by a very angry reaction and had to make a hasty departure."

Murphy's are serious allegations. Asked if he could back it up, Murphy admitted he had simply "heard it from someone" and gone ahead and reported it.

"Getting something credible and reliable out is important," said Murphy, who claimed it was only one of "many incidents where soldiers tell people to support Xanana and oppose Alkatiri". Murphy admitted these, as well, were hearsay.

Joint Task Force spokesman Major James Baker checked manifestos of ADF movements and told The Bulletin: "No Australian helicopter, or any Australian forces, went to Los Palos on the 9th. The first time Australian forces went to Los Palos was the 13th."

It is understood Gusmao personally requested peacekeepers visit Los Palos because he was hearing rumours of unrest. Baker said Australians were received warmly, reported no trouble and departed. Baker insisted the Australians remained "completely impartial. We are completely separate from the political process".

The concern in the rumour-frenzied cauldron of East Timor is that misinformed reports could potentially expose peacekeepers to unnecessary danger.

Behind the misinformation campaign is an anguish felt by diehard Australian socialists and activists who delighted in Alkatiri's hardline leftist outlook and considered him an anti-imperialist (read: anti-Australian) regional hero. The people of Timor - most of them, anyway - did not share their view.

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

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