Subject: Timor riot inevitable, says Aussie first lady [+Gusmao must take control]

also: AFR: Gusmao must take control

The Australian December 9, 2002

Timor riot inevitable, says Aussie first lady

By Paul Toohey

THE Timorese woman with the seen-it-all face, owner of a street stall in Dili, is joined by other local women as she demands in a maternal way that Kirsty Sword Gusmao hand over her baby boy.

Sword Gusmao obliges and passes four-month-old Kay Olok to the woman, who suddenly beams with pride at the opportunity to cradle the President's son.

The woman also uses the moment well, complaining to the President's wife that since the violent riots of last Wednesday, business has been slow, with empty streets and a sense of fear.

The Australian-born First Lady, new mother to Xanana Gusmao's children, listens and responds in Portuguese with sympathy.

The people know her, of course, but more than that, they seem to like her. A small crowd quickly gathers, but the three plain-clothes bodyguards nowadays assigned to protect Sword Gusmao full-time detect nothing from the group except delight.

"Yes, I do feel they have warmed to me," says the former Melbourne University student who became interested in the East Timorese struggle while studying Indonesian language in the 1980s.

"Someone in my position is going to have detractors, but on the whole I feel very much welcomed in spite of my background as an Australian.

"People appreciate I've been involved in the struggle for many years and continue to be interested in the well-being of East Timorese people."

Sword Gusmao believes Wednesday's riots, in which two men were shot dead and 16 wounded, were inevitable. With representatives of the 17 main donor countries meeting in Dili today to discuss and pledge ongoing aid commitments, she says now is not the time for the international community to judge the East Timorese.

Having visited East Timor in the bad days of early 1990s, she moved to Jakarta to immerse herself in the cause by secretly helping activist East Timorese students. From there she began communicating with her future husband in his Jakarta prison.

"I don't think (the donor countries) would have any reason to spit the dummy (over the riots)," Sword Gusmao says.

"Which country in the world, with such levels of poverty and unemployment, would you not expect this to happen in? I don't think anyone will wag the finger at the Timorese."

Sword Gusmao says there is room for improvement in the conduct of the police, who appear to have badly overreacted to protests. "But we have to remember that they're learning too," she says.

Room for improvement with the conduct of the rioters, as well. Sword Gusmao agrees, but says the population is largely unimpressed with their efforts.

"My colleagues saw truckloads of many who had just finished looting shops, who had armfuls of cigarette cartons and other goods they'd stolen. They were showing huge largesse, offering cigarettes to people in the streets below.

"They were amazed by the number of people who turned away and refused to take what they were offering, because they realised it was ill-gotten gain and they didn't agree at all with what these guys had done.

"That speaks volumes with the fact people really are fed-up with violence."

Sword Gusmao, 36, seems disarmingly unaffected. She is using her considerable influence to tackle violence against women in Timor, which she says is under-reported.

"It is an irony," she says, "that the emerging empowerment of women in free East Timor has caused men with very traditional ideas to lash out at them." She says prostitution is now entrenched in the capital, but it is the women who have suffered sexual abuse at the hands of Indonesians, including those who remain in West Timorese camps, who she is particularly trying to draw out.

Her Alola Foundation, run from a small office in central Dili, is named after Juliana dos Santos ­ a young woman known to most by her nickname, Allola. "She was taken by a militia leader as a kind of war prize over the border to west Timor from Suai in September, 1999," Sword Gusmao says.

"She remains in West Timor today. Her case, when I came to know about it, particularly touched me and I went about actually lobbying the Indonesian Government and UN agencies to have something done about having her repatriated and reunited with her family.

"But she's since had a child and I think is suffering from Stockholm syndrome, where she is really no longer able to think freely enough about what she wants for herself and her child."

Sword Gusmao is also working on maternal and child health. "Given my new role both as First Lady and mother of two small children (the other child is Alexandre, 2), I'm kind of the ideal role model if you like in terms of promoting campaigns like breast-feeding and immunisation, she says.

Keeping a sense of reality is important for Sword Gusmao, who lives outside Dili in a mountainside home. She was stabbed in the leg in April last year while visiting an isolated beach with her mother. She was not badly hurt and believes the incident had nothing to do with who she was ­ the attacckers were simply a couple of crooks wanting money.

She says she was stabbed because "when the guy came at me in a threatening manner, I lashed out. I aimed a kick at his chest and he didn't take to kindly to it".

With her home and life in Dili, she did not consider fleeing, as some other international citizens did on Wednesday. "There's no way I would've done that. I'm not suggesting that those that have evacuated are cowards by any means. Obviously this is my home, where I am oriented.

"I don't think there's any sense that this is the start of something that will be ongoing. The situation got out of control the other day and there are reasons for that. I think it was also possibly politicised by some groups, but I don't want to presuppose who they are."

Sword Gusmao saw footage of her husband caught up in the riots, but firmly believes none of the anger was directed at him. "I think they didn't realise he was there among the crowd in the chaos and confusion. I don't think there was any deliberate targeting of him. He's always been looked to as a mediator, someone who can intervene in conflicts and help to broker solutions."

The First Lady insists she is no pillow-talker who secretly rules the country. "I often share my opinions, particularly on the role of women in the process of nation building. Xanana does listen, but ultimately his word is what sticks.

"He knows these people better than anybody else could ever pretend to, including myself. I could never hope or desire to influence him in his decision-making. I have absolute faith in him, as the people do. I really believe he has their best interests at heart."


Australian Financial Review Decwmbwe 9, 2002


Gusmao must take control

Geoffrey Barker

Prime Minister John Howard's offer of extra aid to East Timor's police and judicial services was a necessary but hardly sufficient response to last week's violence in Dili.

Australia has a vital security interest in a stable East Timor and a neighbourly obligation to help the fledgling democracy entrench the rule of law after years of violence, and Howard was right to offer Australian help.

But the causes of the rampage during which dozens of buildings were burnt and looted only seven months after East Timor celebrated its hard-won independence will not be addressed only by more Australian aid for the country's inadequate police and legal services.

Those causes are deeply embedded in economic, political and social conditions which Australia has little, if any, capacity to address, and which East Timor's Fretilin government shows little inclination to address. The riots had been waiting to happen, and they are unlikely to be the last, unless things change.

The fact that the rioters burnt three houses owned by the Prime Minister, Mari Alkatiri, is a strong indication of how comprehensively Alkatiri has failed to communicate and to build public support since he became Prime Minister. It is also an indication of how quickly and how conspicuously East Timor's leaders have moved to hog the spoils of power.

East Timorese public affection is reserved mainly for President Xanana Gusmao, a political independent, who Alkatiri has tried to reduce to a figurehead.

There is widespread disillusion at the performance of Alkatiri and his clique of old Fretilin leftists, who have learned nothing and forgotten nothing since their days in Mozambique's failed socialist state more than 30 years ago.

The background to last week's riots was obviously rising frustration with increasing poverty since the withdrawal of the main UN interim administration, lack of economic progress and opportunity, government incompetence and corruption, and the country's long history of violence - a history that predates the bloody Indonesian era. Other issues included the drought affecting eastern East Timor and the imposition of the Portuguese language of the old gang from Mozambique.

No less significant was the immediate lead-up to last Wednesday's riots. Five days earlier, on November 28, the government trucked hundreds of Fretilin veterans into Dili from rural areas to celebrate Fretilin Day. Many were bitter that police and army jobs had been given to younger men and women rather than to veterans of the "liberation struggle".

Last Tuesday demonstrations occurred when - outside the main government and parliament buildings and opposite a high school where hundreds of students were sitting exams - Dili police charged in and arrested a student suspected of a crime. Protesting students were joined by other demonstrators hostile to the police, especially the police chief, Paulo Martins, a hold-over from the Indonesian era.

On Wednesday, as burning and looting intensified, Gusmao made a surprise speech accusing Alkatiri's government of laziness and calling for Martins' resignation.

In the aftermath of the riots, Alkatiri and Gusmao voiced their concerns at the events, called for order and pledged to investigate the causes. But their remarks demonstrated, above all, the fragility of their relationship.

There seems little doubt that UN peacekeepers and civil police were slow to respond to the riots and that underlying resentment towards the large (and significantly Australian) foreign population led to the destruction of the Australian-owned Hullo Mister supermarket, where foreigners buy goods far beyond the means of the impoverished locals.

For Australia, as opposition foreign affairs spokesman Kevin Rudd noted last week, the riots are a sharp reminder of the endemic instability across Australia's near-neighbourhood. They are a reminder of what could happen in Papua New Guinea if efforts to revive the deeply depressed economy do not quickly show results.

It is, of course, too soon to write off East Timor as a failed state, doomed to aid dependency and the political corruption of power and clan loyalties. But last week's riots will shake what little international confidence there might have been in East Timor, and set back the country's hopes for progress.

So what to do? If Alkatiri cannot lift his game and manage East Timor effectively, he should make way for somebody who can.

The President is a national hero, a modest and decent man, who communicates effectively with East Timorese and international figures.

Xanana Gusmao should be more than a national figurehead in these critical circumstances.

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