Subject: JP Op-Ed: A Failed Transition in Dili

The Jakarta Post Friday, July 7, 2006


A Failed Transition in Dili

by Aboeprijadi Santoso

Dili, Timor Leste

His Palacio da Cinzas (Palace of Ashes) is a reminder of Indonesia's latest legacy and his protection by foreign armies a sign of today's crisis. Nothing, however, reflects President Xanana Gusmao's and, to a great extent, his country's problem better than the myth, symbolism and real predicament of Fretilin. Once East Timor's icon, Fretilin is now hurt by the crisis -- so too is the country.

Nuno Guterres, 25, whose father was tortured to death by the Indonesian Army, inevitably recalled his childhood as he joined rallies against Fretilin leader and Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri. "I used to cry whenever I heard about Fretilin. Now I'm angry," he said. Still, for Nuno and many like him, it's difficult to be angry with Fretilin, the historic symbol of Timor's struggle for freedom.

Antonio "Mau Huno" da Silva, 57, Xanana's senior during the struggle against Indonesia, feels the same way. It was he who reportedly pointed to "Comrade Xanana" to succeed Fretilin's first leader, Nicolau Lobato, following the latter's death in 1979. Mau Huno is overwhelmed by the recent events. Physically half-paralyzed, he expressed himself not with words, but with a lot of gestures. He still admires Xanana, but is deeply disturbed and dismayed by the crisis, and chooses to stay aloof from Dili politics.

Xanana, too, who severely criticized Fretilin leaders in his June 22 speech, could not but recall the movement's historic role as he urged the party to reform itself.

It's a significant comment on Timor politics and Fretilin that various people of different positions, generations and experience should feel the same.

Nothing could be more a-historic and mistaken than to identify a spirit and a movement per se with a nation's struggle and a nation-state. That's precisely the danger for this poor, new democracy where nearly two-thirds of the population are younger than 27 and plagued by unemployment.

Proud Fretilin leaders claim the movement is the sole force that brought freedom, since they had led the resistance and paid a huge price as a result of Indonesia's military encirclement and Fretilin's strategic and ideological conflicts, including internal atrocities, during the 1970s. In 1986 they reluctantly joined the national coalition CNRM (later CNRT) and in 2001 they unilaterally jumped out shortly before the CNRT was dissolved.

Their claim as the force that brought victory grossly ignores and hurts those who contributed to the struggle, including the president, former exiled leaders, clandestine networks -- all were either founders or former members of Fretilin or former student leaders -- and the Church.

Fretilin runs the state with a big majority (55 of 88 seats in the parliament from the 2001 election) and has roots across the country. Nothing can get through without Fretilin's approval. Unlike Fretilin-the-movement, Fretilin-the-party has alienated many sectors of the society. Widespread dissatisfaction just waited to explode as one maverick Fretilin minister acted like a thug, acquiring and distributing weapons.

Hence, the dismissal of 596 members of the new army, mostly war veterans,triggered a crisis that made Timor Leste like hot iron. As long as you keep it hot, you can bend it the way you like. Once the rebels fled to the mountains and appeared in public with arms, followed by other armed group with political demands, it seemed clear that non-Fretilin politicians -- possibly supported by Church figures -- were playing the game targeting early elections.

Most unfortunately, age-old latent sentiments -- east versus west -- were revived and manifested among violent street gangs. While former Prime Minister Alkatiri claimed a coup was directed against him, which is not necessarily a lie, his achievements in terms of independent economic policy and improved terms for oil revenues were forgotten. And suddenly the man known for decades as a leftist-nationalist was being demonized as "a Kupang-born bin Laden". Various incredible rumors only made the locals suspicious of each other.

It seems likely, however, that Fretilin's second Congress last May, which re-elected Alkatiri as party chief, was as much a trigger for the crisis as the military affair. It was later widely condemned, including by the president, as "illegitimate". But, most crucially, the question remains: why did Fretilin leaders apparently need weapons to strengthen Alkatiri's leadership?

The fact nearly all of the 120,000 people from Dili, a strong base of Fretilin, took refuge either near the foreign troops inside the capital or close to the local army base near Hera, should send a serious warning about the credibility of the government.

The president may still be popular, but the transition has failed not only because the UN quit too early, leaving the security apparatuses prone to political manipulation. The Alkatiri administration waited too long to disburse oil revenue at the U.S. Federal Reserve to implement development projects at home. Political arrogance has shaped a climate of jealousy and enmity, as the ruling party began to lose trust among the common people. That made people like Nunu and Mau Huno disappointed.

Fretilin may have risked losing some of its platforms, original image and appeal, yet it will continue to cast a long shadow over the country. The next elections, possibly later this year, will be a test case for whether it's just a failed transition, or a failed state prone to foreign encroachment.

The writer is a journalist with Radio Netherlands.

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

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