Subject: SMH/E Timor: Tired war horse battles for relevance in new landscape

Sydney Morning Herald August 29, 2000

Tired war horse battles for relevance in new landscape

By MARK DODD, Herald Correspondent in Dili

Behind the on-off resignations of resistance heroes Xanana Gusmao and Jose Ramos Horta from leadership of East Timor's main pro-independence coalition lies a debate over the grouping's future.

The National Council of Timorese Resistance, known by its Portuguese acronym CNRT, was formed in April 1998 to coordinate the struggle for independence from Indonesia.

It comprised the country's main independence parties, several of whom have changed their political allegiances since 1975. It ran a so-called "clandestine structure" in parallel with the Indonesian administration.

But one year after East Timor's historic vote for independence, the CNRT looks a tired old war horse, less and less relevant to the new political realities.

It was the butt of a joke by no less than Dili's Nobel Laureate Bishop Carlos Belo. "Who are we resisting?" he said, during opening remarks at the CNRT's national congress last week.

The CNRT's biggest stakeholder is Fretilin, East Timor's best known and largest political party, which has been at the vanguard of the struggle for independence since 1974. It is uneasy at talk of change and particularly suspicious about the leadership ambitions of the CNRT's vice-president, Mr Ramos Horta.

Fretilin faces two challenges. Support for a new middle-of-the-road Social Democratic Party being formed by CNRT Vice-President Mario Carrascalao is gaining momentum and is likely to permanently reshape East Timor's political landscape.

The new party is likely to draw heavily on dissaffected Fretilin members and will almost certainly spell the death knell for another old 1975-era party, the Timor Democratic Union, or UDT. Mr Gusmao's endorsement of the new party will also attract his supporters across the floor.

Momentum is also gathering for a vote to approve a new permanent commission of seven members - the CNRT National Congress - that will wield executive authority over the CNRT. It will be drawn from seven political parties. If the commission is approved, Fretilin's once powerful hold over CNRT policy-making would be history.

The senior Fretilin official, Mari Alkatiri, who holds the powerful economics portfolio in the UN coalition cabinet, was tight-lipped yesterday about Fretilin's future: "I've got nothing to say, no comment. Tomorrow we may have something."

Sunday's showdown was brinkmanship to secure the vacant middleground. Fretilin remained opposed to the continuing leadership of Mr Gusmao and Mr Ramos Horta, so both resigned.

Under pressure from the rank and file, they recanted and said they would stand as office bearers in a national unity body if that reflected the wishes of the people.

Yesterday, Mr Carrascalao along with several other senior CNRT officials denied that the decision by Mr Gusmao and Mr Ramos Horta to revoke their resignations meant both men had returned to high office.

"He [Mr Gusmao] has accepted to work with the people, but more importantly to wait until the result of the first commission on a new [national unity] structure," said Mr Zacarias da Costa, a senior CNRT official who is a close aide of Mr Gusmao.

"He has left everything open until there's a result on discussion of the new commission."

But, says Fretilin, it all smacked of showmanship. "You should not exploit emotions," said a Fretilin central committee member, Mr Estanislau da Costa. "We don't do that. Our position is clear - we want CNRT to continue."

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