Subject: SMH: Unanswered questions in power plays

Also Martinkus on A prime minister deposed, but at great cost


Unanswered questions in power plays

Damien Kingsbury July 10, 2006

THE appointment of Jose Ramos Horta as East Timor's interim prime minister is a move towards installing a unifying figure for a small nation that, for a moment, appeared to be in danger of fragmenting.

A fragmented nation, in this case, would have meant a failed state.

East Timor became a nation in response to a common Indonesian enemy. But like most other post-colonial states, it has had to construct a national identity that no longer relies on uniting against an oppressor, but uniting towards common goals.

Ramos Horta has the capacity to appeal across East Timor's political divide, and what was becoming a geographic divide. In particular, he will be able to support members of the ruling Fretilin party opposed to the leadership style of the former prime minister, Mari Alkatiri. Alkatiri is claiming parliamentary immunity from a charge of arming a hit squad, although this claim does not appear to be constitutionally supportable.

As well as appealing to Fretilin's so-called "reformation group" and across party lines, Ramos Horta will bring the government closer to the highly popular president, Xanana Gusmao. Gusmao and Ramos Horta have a strong personal and political bond, and while the presidency remains largely ceremonial Gusmao has huge legitimacy among ordinary East Timorese. Ramos Horta, too, is widely popular, and the alliance of these two will strengthen and stabilise East Timor's political environment.

Apart from the building trust and unity, Ramos Horta's first task will be to restore East Timor's security forces. The police will be retrained and probably restructured with international assistance. The future of the army, however, is in some doubt.

Since its inception in 2002, East Timor's Defence Force has lacked purpose and been prone to political intrigues. It is too small for meaningful defence but still drains 8 per cent of East Timor's small budget.

A retrained police could assume outstanding defence roles, such as sea boundary protection, as they already have border protection duties. However the military, still linked to the old resistance movement, the military is persuasive politically, and may survive.

As prime minister, Ramos Horta is not likely to alter Fretilin's fiscally conservative policies. East Timor has so far operated with a balanced or surplus budget and without international loans, committing receipts from oil and gas revenue to a long-term fund and moving into modest economic growth.

Rather than Alkatiri's highly centralised control of government spending, it will probably be more devolved to the districts, adding small stimulus to local economies.

Beyond that, Ramos Horta will continue to push for a petrochemical processing plant for East Timor, as well as extending the leasing of oil and gas fields. Other policies, such as food self-sufficiency, will likely continue untouched.

If there is a problem with Ramos-Horta's appointment, it is that there are some in Fretilin who remain unhappy with his role in Alkatiri's downfall. There is also the issue of the head of government not belonging to the majority party, which will affect Fretilin as it approaches next year's elections.

Fretilin would no doubt prefer to enter elections under the leadership of one of its own members. To that end, Ramos Horta will have to clarify his own political ambitions.

Ramos Horta will be weighing up three options. The first is to try to stay on as prime minister, the second to become president, and the third option is to bid to become secretary-general of the United Nations.

To stay on as prime minister, Ramos Horta will have to rejoin Fretilin, the party he left a decade and a half ago, and will require renegotiating his relationship with some party members. Fretilin is still likely to draw a strong, probably majority, vote next year, given its institutional strength and depth of support, especially outside Dili.

Ramos Horta would probably like to become president, but would not bid for that position unless his close political friend Gusmao fulfilled his long-standing wish to retire from public life.

There had also been speculation that Ramos Horta could replace Kofi Annan as head of the UN, although to be available for this he would be better positioned by resuming being foreign minister. That will in turn depend on whether Ramos Horta's prime ministership is indeed interim, or whether the logic of his appointment is seen as too strong to end.

Associate Professor Damien Kingsbury is director of international and community development at Deakin University. He is, with Dr Michael Leach, editor of the forthcoming book East Timor: Beyond Independence (Monash Asia Institute).



A prime minister deposed, but at great cost

July 10, 2006

Mari Alkatiri's resignation was the culmination of a long-planned attack, writes John Martinkus.

THREE weeks ago in East Timor I was given information from senior members of the East Timorese military that confirmed what the now deposed prime minister had been saying all along. There had been three attempts since April last year to get senior command figures in the East Timorese army to carry out a coup against the Government of the former prime minister, Mari Alkatiri.

In light of what has happened since it seems obvious a very well orchestrated campaign has been carried out to bring the Government down. And it has worked. For reasons best known to themselves the opposition to Alkatiri enlisted the support of a group of junior officers in the East Timorese defence forces, the F-FDTL, who broke with the army command and took their weapons with them. They attacked the F-FDTL on May 23 and 24 and precipitated the widespread unrest in Dili that led to the international forces being called in. Then came the destruction of property by the gangs from the west, mainly aimed at those from the east who are perceived as supporting the Fretilin Government, then the string of allegations presented to the foreign press, that finally led to Alkatiri's resignation.

There is no doubt that whoever has been behind this campaign has covered their tracks and it will be difficult to link the interests involved to the destruction that has led to 150,000 East Timorese now living in refugee camps around the capital, too afraid to go home. But it was the plight of these people that was used as an instrument by the opposition groups to call for Alkatiri's removal even though the same groups had initiated the violence in the first place. It was a very callous and cynical political manoeuvre to say the least, especially considering these people are now facing chronic food shortages.

But some obvious questions have not been answered by the Australian press who have been almost unanimous in condemning the ruling Fretilin party that, like it or not, did have an overwhelming mandate to govern until mid next year that had been granted in elections supervised by the UN and declared free and fair - with much fanfare, I remember, as I covered them.

First, who started the violence? Surely in any other country if a group of disaffected soldiers takes off with weapons and then launches two very open assaults on the army, as Alfredo Reinado's men did on May 23 and 24, then shouldn't they be arrested? Yet they were given Australian SAS bodyguards and remain free after handing back only a fraction of the weapons they took with them.

Second, who were these gangs that overwhelmingly targeted the homes of those from the east who were perceived as supporting the Fretilin Government? Brigadier Mick Slater, the commander of the Australian forces in East Timor, whose men had to deal with these groups, said: "There were definitely groups, let's call them gangs, that were definitely being manipulated and co-ordinated by other people from outside that gang environment."

Even after the resignation of Alkatiri, houses of Fretilin members and those from the east were still being targeted and refugees threatened. It revealed a lot about who had been behind the violence.

Third, who was making the allegations against Alkatiri and did they stand up? After the violence subsided, the opposition to Alkatiri seemed to take a different tack. There were the allegations and rumours of a mass grave with 60, 70, 80, or as many as 500 victims of an Alkatiri-ordered massacre - depending how far down the rumour chain you heard the story. There was supposed to be a list of dead held by a priest. Then there wasn't, and the story fell by the wayside. Next were the allegations by the so-called Alkatiri death squad. Other reporters had been to see this group and some had chosen not to report on it. They were located in the house of the Carrascalao family and their story didn't seem to be true. The Carrascalaos are an established family in East Timor were instrumental in the UDT party that fought a brief civil war with Fretilin in 1975 - people with axes to grind.

There were other things about the death squad allegations that didn't make sense. When the F-FDTL base was attacked on May 24, men from that same group participated in the attack alongside men from Reinado's group. It was an inconsistency picked up by Alkatiri himself, who told me in Dili: "What kind of secret Fretilin group is this that they are also fighting against the FDTL? This is contradictory."

In short those who had been trying to find East Timorese officers to act against the Government look like they have succeeded but at the cost of the dislocation of 150,000 Timorese. Surely it would have simply been easier to wait for next year's elections.

Journalist John Martinkus is the author of several books, including A Dirty Little War: An Eyewitness Account of East Timor's Descent into Hell 1997-2000 (Random House, 2001).

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