Subject: The Age: East Timor: Inside The Tinderbox

The Age December 14, 2002

Inside The Tinderbox

Achieving independence was a long, hard struggle, but that was only the beginning. Mark Baker reports from Dili.

It is a simple but splendid house, with whitewashed walls and a high-pitched roof of timber and thatch. It sits beside a village on the eastern outskirts of Dili with a view that sweeps across the harbour. An open-air dining room separates two wings of living quarters.

The orchard is planted and a team of workmen is putting the finishing touches to the courtyard garden with its ornamental pond.

This is the place Jose Ramos Horta dreamt of in the long and lonely years in exile, the years spent traipsing between hotel rooms and temporary apartments around the world as he struggled for a cause that many others thought lost.

Its construction was a cherished ambition that would become the measure of a job done; a homecoming that would mean East Timor was at last independent and free.

On Wednesday of last week, the house of East Timor's new Foreign Minister almost became another casualty of the worst violence to shake the country since 1999, the year that militias, armed and directed by the Indonesian military, laid waste to the territory in a desperate effort to avert the inevitable end of Jakarta's brutal colonial adventure.

This time it was Timorese turning on their own and, as hundreds of rioters smashed, burnt and looted their way through the heart of the capital, word spread that a section of the mob was heading for the foreign minister's house.

Local villagers armed themselves with knives, machetes and sticks and took positions along the main road, prepared to confront any attackers.

In the end, the rioters were halted a couple of kilometres away as Bishop Carlos Belo - the man who shared the 1996 Nobel Peace Prize with Ramos Horta - bravely stepped out alone and turned back the angry tide.

Others were not so lucky. The homes of Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri, his mother and another owned by the family were razed. A hotel billeting United Nations workers was stripped bare and torched - after the guests' bags were emptied along the street for swarms of looters to take their pick. Scores of terrified worshippers cowered in a mosque as the attackers tried to set it alight, after burning eight houses within the grounds.

Earlier, at the parliament, MPs were forced to flee over a back fence as the mob smashed windows and vandalised cars. Along nearby streets, dozens of shops, offices and restaurants were set upon. The Australian-owned Hello Mister supermarket was gutted by fire. Other random targets included the fortified ANZ Bank building and the Telstra office, where staff huddled inside as the attackers hurled rocks through the windows and attempted, unsuccessfully, to smash their way in.

By next morning, two young rioters were dead and another 16 were in hospital with bullet wounds, two of them critically injured. Most, according to witnesses, were hit when panicked Timorese police opened fire after the mob broke through their lines into the grounds of the police headquarters. But at least five claim they were wounded when police drove through the streets late in the afternoon firing at suspects.

Ramos Horta was in Madrid when news of the violence came. "I was very shocked when they told me what had happened," he says. "I didn't fight for 24 years for the independence of this country to see this happen. I am so disillusioned, so disappointed. It has certainly set back our efforts to promote a new era of peace and stability."

Eight months after East Timor toasted the end of a quarter of a century of Indonesian occupation to the rousing applause of the international community, the mood of celebration has largely disappeared, replaced by rising disillusionment, frustration and anger.

The Timorese are now wrestling with the bitter realisation that independence was not the answer to their problems, merely the beginning of a fresh and more complex struggle to secure the future.

Triggered by the arrest a day earlier of a student suspected of involvement in a murder, the violence quickly became the focus for a range of simmering economic and political tensions. Some senior members of the government and international observers believe there could be further and more serious upheavals unless urgent measures are taken to answer those grievances.

'The people have suffered for so long and now they want the good life that independence promised. They are impatient and they won't settle for promises any more. There are growing social divisions and if they are not addressed the situation will become serious," says Avelino Coelho de Silva, a former student activist and leader of the Timorese Socialist Party.

Underpinning last week's upheaval is the grinding poverty and lack of opportunity now confronting most rural and urban Timorese. Unemployment is estimated to be running as high as 65 per cent. More than 40 per cent of East Timor's 800,000 people live below the poverty line, earning less than $A1 a day, with average life expectancy at 56 years and half the adult population illiterate.

Already ranked among the poorest nations in the world, East Timor's GDP is forecast to contract by 1.1 per cent this year. A severe drought has compounded problems in the provinces, where the near-collapse of export markets for lower-grade Timorese coffee has left tens of thousands of farmers vulnerable. Vital revenues from the rich oil and gas reserves of the Timor Sea are still perhaps years away - further delayed by Australia's failure to meet its promise to ratify the enabling Timor Gap treaty by the end of this year.

A temporary economic boom in Dili built on the influx of UN personnel that created thousands of service sector jobs for Timorese is now collapsing. The UN interim administration is gone and most of the remaining UN advisors, specialists and peacekeepers are due to pull out over the next 18 months.

"We lack water, lack markets, lack transport, lack schools, lack health assistance. Our situation is very precarious in spite of the advances that have been achieved," Prime Minister Alkatiri told a gathering of officials from donor nations in Dili this week.

But poverty is nothing new in East Timor, and it is widespread and growing disenchantment with the performance of Alkatiri's administration that critics both within and outside the Fretilin Government say is providing a powder keg for further civil unrest.

"Fretilin is failing to answer the people's aspirations and they have lost the confidence of the people," says Fernando de Araujo, leader of the Democrat Party, the largest opposition group, a former deputy foreign minister and one of many to accuse the government of arrogance, nepotism and incompetence.

Opposition MPs contest the legitimacy of a government that was shoe-horned into power by a UN administration determined to force a rapid political transition after the historic 1999 referendum voted overwhelmingly for the country to break away from Indonesia. They point out that the 88-member assembly elected in August, 2001, was chosen only to draft a new constitution and that Fretilin used its numbers to extend its rule for five years - while reneging, with the UN's acquiescence, on a pledge to form a national unity government.

Critics say Alkatiri has lost legitimacy and support by failing to address the humanitarian crisis in rural areas, tolerating corruption within his cabinet and politicising the courts by over-ruling decisions.

More seriously, he has challenged the authority of President Xanana Gusmao, the former guerrilla commander whose post is largely ceremonial but who is still revered by the vast majority of Timorese.

In an extraordinary speech on November 28, Xanana - long estranged from the political party whose small but determined military wing he led for more than a decade before being captured and jailed by the Indonesians - denounced the government's failings.

"This is the disease that dragged many political parties and many recently independent countries into disarray, inefficiency, corruption and political instability, where the members of the government are well off, but their people live in misery," he said, while demanding the sacking of deeply unpopular Internal Administration Minister Rogerio Lobato, "on the grounds of incompetence and neglect".

Alkatiri brushed aside the criticism and flatly refused to dismiss the minister, igniting a public confrontation with Xanana that many believe added fuel to the anti-government anger of last week's violence. But the conflict between the president and the prime minister is only one symptom of deep and more dangerous divisions within the ruling party.

The government is dominated by exiles who fled the country after the Indonesian invasion in 1975 and only returned when the peace was won. Many of them, like Alkatiri, led relatively comfortable lives in Mozambique, another former Portuguese colony. They are bitterly resented by the Fretilin veterans and members of the urban resistance who stayed behind to fight and now feel marginalised and estranged.

"Last week's violence shows there is deep resentment towards the Prime Minister and we cannot just dismiss it," says a senior government official. "If the Prime Minister insists on staying, I don't think this is going to stop. The problem for Fretilin is that it needs to find a more consensual and competent person, but there is no obvious alternative and Alkatiri is determined to fight to hold on to the job."

There are fears that disgruntled veterans, along with restive students and the growing ranks of the urban and rural unemployed are ripe for exploitation in further unrest, either by elements within the government seeking to foment violence to advance their own political ambitions or by leaders of the old Indonesian-backed militias now living in refugee camps across the border in Indonesian West Timor.

There is substantial evidence that powerful Fretilin officials from within the Interior Ministry were involved in trucking in protesters from rural areas to join last week's unrest and then inciting the rioters once the violence began. Indonesian military officials also confirmed this week that they had identified a number of militia supporters who were in Dili last week and fled back across the border after the violence.

"There are thousands of these militia people still living in West Timor. These people are not sleeping. Their business is not finished and they are waiting for an opportunity to come back," says Mario Carrascalao, governor of East Timor for 10 years under the Indonesians and now an opposition leader. "We were united against the Indonesians, now we are divided. That is the responsibility of those who are in power and the dangers are great if we don't recognise where this could be leading."

Mark Baker is The Age Asia Editor.

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