Subject: Age Editorial: East Timor's Faltering Steps [+The Australian: Wounds Stop Healing]

also: The Australian: Timor's wounds stop healing

The Age (Melbourne) Monday, August 13, 2007


East Timor's Faltering Steps

DEMOCRACY can be an untidy business. More so for a country and its people when neither is used to it. Expectations can be high and disappointments correspondingly great. Thus it is with the fledgling democracy of East Timor.

Last April, 500,000 East Timorese voted in presidential elections, their first autonomously run ballot. The winner, Jose Ramos Horta, subsequently has had to balance the competing interests and sides of politics following parliamentary elections that were held in June.

Fretilin, the biggest political party, won 21 seats out of 65, which was not enough to form government. However, a party formed by Xanana Gusmao, the National Congress for the Reconstruction of East Timor, won 18 seats and, with the help of several small parties, formed an alliance that Mr Ramos Horta has favoured to form government.

It is no secret that Mr Ramos Horta and Mr Gusmao are close, and it is understandable that Fretilin, which led resistance to Indonesian rule for more than 20 years, should be upset. However, for its leader, Mari Alkatiri, to promote a campaign of civil disobedience, even to talk of a "people-power coup", is extremely detrimental to the nurturing of democracy.

Fretilin had proposed the appointment of an independent prime minister, but as Mr Ramos Horta said, as president he had to ensure that parliament was not deadlocked and that the budget would be passed. Mr Gusmao has nominated Jose Guterres, from Fretilin, as his deputy. This is a good move. He has also promised to tackle the acute problems of poverty and to try to improve relations with the army.

In the past, violence has broken out all too often in East Timor as a side effect of political obstacles. An Australian-led security force is still needed. The elections were one milestone on the path to democracy. Another will be when foreign troops are no longer needed to keep the peace.


The Australian Monday, August 13, 2007

Timor's wounds stop healing

Stephen Fitzpatrick in Dili

AGUSTINO da Costa, a 13-year-old urchin selling souvenirs to aid workers and other foreigners in Dili, lost the little finger on his right hand recently when his house collapsed in heavy winds.

Agi, as he's known, doesn't complain about his injury -- covered by a filthy gauze bandage and still too painful to allow him to grasp objects properly -- as he wanders East Timor's capital, chasing customers prepared to pay US dollars for cheap trinkets.

The slight swelling across his palm will eventually go away, he hopes; and anyway, the injury happened so quickly -- the pinkie sliced clean off by a sharp piece of timber -- that he doesn't want to think about it too hard.

His plight could be representative of East Timor's body politic itself: dismembered, in search of healing but unprepared to adequately address the festering wounds that continue to break open, often at the slightest provocation.

New eruptions of violence in the past week, initially in the capital but spreading quickly to the country's east, included an unprecedented armed attack on a UN convoy, which resulted in four international police officers fleeing their vehicle moments before it was torched.

The apparently co-ordinated outburst was in response to President Jose Ramos Horta's decision to offer Xanana Gusmao's four-party coalition a chance to govern, after national elections in which no single party won the absolute majority required by the constitution.

Supporters of the former ruling Fretilin party believe they have been robbed blind: their team won 21 seats in the 65-seat house, against 18 for Mr Gusmao's National Congress for Timorese Reconstruction (although the Parliamentary Majority Alliance, which he now heads, accounts for more than 70 per cent of the house).

Particularly in the east, where Fretilin candidates came in well on top, the anger is palpable.

An unknown number of homes, probably in the hundreds, have been burnt across the region. In the country's second-largest town, Baucau, 125km east of Dili, government and NGO buildings have been torched, including warehouses and offices run by the Catholic Relief Service and the Catholic aid organisation Caritas.

A Fretilin central committee member from the town, Januario Joaqim Xavier, insisted at the weekend the violence was "natural and easy to understand".

"Look at this flag," he gestures at the Fretilin standard, which hangs off every wall in the sleepy seaside settlement, alongside graffiti reading "Austtralia f ..k off" and "Xanana traidor".

"Everyone who defended this flag, all those who defended democracy, is dead," Mr Xavier said. "The UN gave us electoral rights, so everyone chose to participate, but now that we've voted, nothing has been dealt with properly."

UN mission chief Atul Khare and Fretilin secretary-general Mari Alkatiri are at loggerheads. There's a particular frisson bubbling away there, since not one national leader has publicly condemned Friday's potentially deadly attack on Mr Khare's staff, even as the world body made 34 arrests in the matter.

And far from soothing its constituency and urging them to accept Mr Gusmao's administration for the good of the nation, Fretilin is holding meetings in the districts telling them the "new Australian Government" is illegal.

At one such meeting, senior Fretilin official David Ximenes told The Australian there was no point contesting the decision in court "because we all know what the result of that will be".

But obstinacy is far from a one-way street. Proving that East Timor's political inferno is a long way from cooling, one-time resistance military leader Ma'Huno scoffs at the crop of ideologues running his former party from Dili. "Everyone should just sit down together and talk, and then accept that Xanana is the one to follow," says the man who succeeded Mr Gusmao as supreme commander of Falintil -- the former military wing of Fretilin -- on the latter's arrest in 1992. "That Mari Alkatiri -- pfiff, he's got a tiny brain."


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