Subject: J. Dunn: Treating Timor Leste’s Breakdown

Treating Timor Leste's Breakdown: a Challenge before Australia and the International Community

James Dunn

Alexander Downer's whistle-stop visit to Dili was timely and appropriate. His impartiality in relation to the Timor Leste's political crisis was refreshing. In Australia a distinct bias has developed around the diminutive figure of Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri, who is perceived as the person most responsible for the Timor Leste's crisis. While he has apparently mishandled the problem, especially in its early stages, it is unfair to make him the scapegoat for a situation to which lots of others, including outside forces, have contributed.

I was also pleased to hear Mr. Downer's call for the return of a UN mission, one tailored to deal with the shortcomings in national development that the events of the past few weeks have exposed. We now have to acknowledge that it was the rushed transformation of East Timor from the ashes of 1999 to independence in May 2002 that is at the root of present crisis, and the UN therefore has a responsibility to repair the harm by renewed national capacity building, restoring the confidence of Timorese citizens in the viability of their new nation. This time we need to address those economic shortcomings that helped trigger the crisis. Timor Leste must have a capacity to provide the kind of employment opportunities that will minimize social discontentment and political stability. This breakdown is serious, but it is neither generalized nor terminal.

Restoring public order must come first, especially in Dili. It is encouraging to learn that security did not break down in the districts outside the region surrounding the capital. However, ending violence is proving much more difficult than in 1999. when Interfet troops enjoyed almost rapturous support from Timorese communities. This time they have to deal with anarchy, as well as an organized opposition which is persisting with looting and violence, despite the peacekeeper presence. As Downer has pointed out this time it is unlikely that the Indonesian government is involved, for Jakarta has enough communal discontent of its own hands to deal with. On the other hand, we should not dismiss the possibility that militia remnants still in West Timor, who have plenty of money and weapons, may be behind the violence, for they are bound to profit from a breakdown in relations between East Timor's western and eastern districts. Joao Tavares, the most senior and most notorious militia commander (who was at Balibo with TNI forces when the journalists were killed in 1975) is a man of wealth and influence in Indonesian Timor. In particular, I would like to know who was behind the forced entry into the crimes commission (CAVR) building, where documentary evidence of crimes against humanity by TNI officers was taken away. Could it have been an undercover TNI intelligence operation?

With unrest continuing, preventing thousands of refugees from returning to their homes, it looks is if our troops in East Timor may well be there for some time. Before Timor Leste's rehabilitation can get back on track, public order, and the confidence of the community in those responsible for it, needs to be reestablished.

While the Australian troops, the New Zealanders and the Portuguese enjoy a special popularity, it is important that this operation come under a UN mantle as soon as possible. A UN presence will serve to reassure the Timorese of the commitment of the international community to their nationhood, and also to reassure our Indonesian neighbours, who remain suspicious of Australian intentions, that we have no intention of making Timor Leste an Australian dependency.

While Timorese leaders seem to have worked out a modus operandi, serious differences persist, threatening to undermine that spirit of national unity so badly needed right now. The leadership question may not be resolved until the next election, which cannot take place until May next year. Clearly Jose Ramos Horta will now play a central role in bringing about reconciliation, and could end up as president or prime minister. Right now Mari Alkatiri remains prime minister, but his powers have in effect been reduced, with the departure of those two key ministerial colleagues, Roque Rodrigues and Rogerio Lobato.

As key peacemaker, Horta has a very challenging task ahead of him. While there may be some substance to the grievances harboured by the rebel leader, Major Alfredo Reinado, his role in this affair is unacceptable, under the constitution the East Timorese implanted at the centre of their democracy after extensive consultations. The defence force clearly needs retraining so that the rebellion led by Reinado and other officers, which triggered the collapse of public order, is not repeated.

To return to the position of Prime Minister Alkatiri, he may have a lot to answer for in this crisis, but there is more to this situation than meets the eye. It is a mix of number of factors, including the slow pace of Timor Leste's economic development, continued massive unemployment, and allegations of corruption, as well as defence force discontent. At this point, there can be no doubt about the legitimacy of Alkatiri's position, and we should respect that fact. His party is the dominant force in the parliament, and so far they have given him an overwhelming endorsement. His future should depend on the Timorese political process, and not on interference from outside. In this regard our media have often gone too far. An example was Kerry O'Brien's interview of Alkatiri on ABC's 7.30 Report last week. It came across as a paternalistic interrogation. Had it been President Yudhoyono today our relations with Indonesia would be in deep crisis.

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