Subject: East Timor riots expose a political divide

Asia Times

May 18, 2006

East Timor riots expose a political divide
By Loro Horta

It was a hauntingly familiar scene. Large-scale riots broke out in East Timor late last month, attended by looting, arson and the murder of five civilians. But rather than a rebellion against foreign occupation, the recent melee in the capital, Dili, was purely a domestic affair.

A group of nearly 500 soldiers, disgruntled about their dismissal from the national service for cost-cutting purposes, instigated the violence. The United Nations estimated that 75% of the capital's population fled the violence and sought refuge in surrounding mountains. Foreign governments were ready with plans to rescue their nationals, including neighboring Australia, which put its navy on alert for a possible commando-led evacuation mission.

Ethnic, religious and historical rivalries still boil beneath the surface in East Timor, which had experienced a relative calm since achieving independence and weathering the Indonesia-backed militia attacks in 1999 that resulted in the deaths of 1,400 Timorese and the destruction of 70% of the country's economic infrastructure. An estimated 100,000-250,000 individuals were killed under Indonesia's two and a half decades of violent pacification.

The heady days of East Timor's independence, officially recognized in 2002, have since yielded to internal rivalry and mistrust. That only 500 disgruntled soldiers could spark a national crisis demonstrates just how weak East Timor's Fretilin-led government still is, despite its overwhelming 57% control of parliament and nearly six years of UN-sponsored capacity-building support.

More significant, perhaps, the riots also demonstrate how willing competing interest groups are to resort to violence to push forward their agendas. While the protests never involved more than 2,000 people, they clearly demonstrated just how vulnerable the current government is to even small challenges to its authority. The country's riot police consist of a mere 50 men, none of whom possess even basic equipment; many of the country's 3,500 police officers do not have their own firearms - pistols are transferred from man to man during duty shifts.

Regional rivalries are an even bigger problem. The 500 soldiers who ignited the recent protests were predominantly from the western part of the country, and they had regularly complained about discriminatory practices in the allegedly eastern-dominated national army. When the riots broke out in Dili, many police officers from western areas refused to tackle the protesters, allowing what should have been an easy situation for a united force to control to disintegrate into a tragic circus.

Opposition desperation

There are clear indications that opposition parties hijacked the protests to discredit and destabilize the government. One day before the riots, the government and the leader of the disgruntled soldiers had announced that an amicable solution to their complaints was imminent. In a sudden about-turn, the next day the soldiers demanded parliament's dissolution - eerily similar to the demands recently made by the fragmented political opposition. (Soldiers actually read previous opposition statements word-for-word calling for the government's resignation.)

East Timor's weak political opposition is understandably desperate. In last year's regional elections, which were certified as free and fair by the UN, opposition parties won just one region out of the total 31 they contested. And there is no compelling reason to believe that their prospects for the country's first ever parliamentary elections, to be held by mid-2007, will be any different.

The dominance by Fretilin (Frente Revolucionaria do Timor Leste Independente, or Revolutionary Front of Independent East Timor), with a 55-seat majority in the 88-seat parliament, has recently stirred political resentments. Fretilin Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri, an Arab Muslim, has taken on various powerful interest groups in Timorese society, chief among them the historically influential Catholic Church.

Alkatiri's decision last year to make religious education in schools optional rather than compulsory put the church and his government on a collision course. When asked to comment on the street protests staged last year by the church against the policy, Alkatiri famously replied, "Well, I'm not worried since I know I'm going to hell. Who cares?"

The Roman Catholic Church, which counts 90% of the population among its adherents, has said it will campaign directly against Alkatiri if he is nominated as Fretilin's prime-ministerial candidate during next year's elections.

Alkatiri, who spent 24 years in exile in Africa after the Indonesian invasion and occupation of East Timor in 1975, is widely viewed as a patriot. As prime minister, he has been praised for brokering a perceived fair deal with Australia over rights to contested oilfields in the Timor Sea. His refusal to accept loans from the World Bank, despite a gross domestic product per capita of a mere US$400, stems from his personal experience in Africa, where many poor countries have become disastrously dependent on foreign aid.

Rival leaders

At the same time, Alkatiri's controversial leadership style has brought him into direct conflict with President and former rebel leader Xanana Gusmao, widely viewed as the father of East Timor's independence. The Alkatiri-Gusmao rivalry dates back to the country's first formative months after independence, when the two squabbled over drafting of a constitution.

At the time, Gusmao and other influential leaders, such as Nobel Peace Prize winner and current Foreign Minister Jose Ramos Horta, fought for the adoption of a presidential system. Alkatiri objected and leveraged Fretilin's superior numbers into the establishment of a parliamentary form of government. While largely a figurehead, Gusmao retains the power to veto legislation, dissolve parliament and call for national elections.

Gusmao has since openly supported the two main opposition parties, the Democrat Party and the Social Democrat Party, which hold seven and six seats in parliament respectively, against Fretilin. The political rivalry, somewhat dangerously, has seeped down into many government institutions, with the army and police both sharply divided between pro-Alkatari and pro-Gusmao factions.

Factionalism, coupled with the more ethnically driven east-west regional rivalries, has made effective police response and coordination with the army almost impossible, as demonstrated by the inability to contain the recent riots.

Some analysts say that the Alkatiri-Gusmao rivalry, at least partially, explains the president's rather passive conduct during the recent riots. If Gusmao had chosen to intervene decisively, government insiders say, it's unlikely that the crisis would have spun out of control. Instead, the president stayed cloistered in his official residence, doing and saying nothing - to teach Alkatiri a lesson, some insiders contend. That some foreign diplomats took sides during the crisis also added fuel to the fire.

Another source of instability has been the numerous martial-arts groups. During Indonesia's occupation, many young Timorese joined martial-arts groups as a way to defend themselves. Since independence, some of these groups have turned to crime, running extortion, protection, gambling and smuggling rackets. The largest of these groups, the Gorkas, is estimated to have some 10,000 members. Others are affiliated with certain powerful individuals who have well-known political ambitions.

For instance, the Sagrada Familia group has close links with a former guerrilla commander, Furai Bot, who has opposed the government since 2001. Others, such as Calimao 2000, are increasingly acting as professional thugs-for-hire. Endemic unemployment, which exceeds 50% nationwide and is as high as 70% in Dili, means recruiting is easy for such groups.

East Timor has by no means reached the political tipping point toward renewed civil conflict. But the post-independence honeymoon is clearly over, and old rivalries are palpably intensifying. A weak state, an opportunistic opposition, intense leadership rivalries, and the rising power of organized gangs all came together to create the explosive mix that led to the Dili riots.

Nearly 25 years of foreign occupation left behind many scars, including a deep-seated culture of violence and mistrust. As the state moves to assert its authority over East Timor's fiercely independent people, it's essential that the government, opposition and security forces all speak with one cohesive voice. The early days of nationhood, as East Timor is now clear demonstrating, are never easy.

Loro Horta is a master's degree candidate at Nanyang Technological University's Institute of Defense and Strategic Studies in Singapore. He previously served as an adviser to the East Timorese Defense Department. The views expressed here are strictly his own.


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