Subject: SCMP: Bright hopes, bitter reality: E Timor after independence

South China Morning Post March 13, 2003


Bright hopes, bitter reality: East Timor after independence


Small boys play on a rusting warship off Dili harbour, the detritus of war that has become their home. On the beach, men scavenge for rubbish they can use or sell.

The East Timorese hoped for something better from independence. Out in the regions, most people are still subsistence farmers and death is a regular visitor. And by June next year, the UN support mission to the government will withdraw, leaving the tiny half-island in the hands of the Timorese political elite, many of whom missed the 24-year Indonesian occupation.

With anti-government riots late last year and now a new wave of militia incursions from West Timor, it already seems a world away from the bright hopes at independence last May. Then, it seemed that the United Nations' transitional administration had, more or less, held things together, despite the odds.

Now the Fretilin government is riven by internal dissent, with three separate factions vying for influence. Opposition groups accuse it of seeking to establish a one-party state while gaping holes remain in the law, which the national assembly appears in no rush to fill. Law and order is deteriorating, and all government institutions are regarded as weak except one - the military. During riots last December, police opened fire on unarmed protesters, an incident which has yet to be officially explained.

Meanwhile, the UN support mission is trying hard to take a back seat, to keep alive the impression that East Timor is a sovereign country running its own affairs. It is all a bit vague. As one UN source put it: "Everything is so artificial with the UN here, including the economy. I am not overly optimistic."

So who, if anyone, is making the real decisions? In the words of one analyst, around 500 people collectively make all the meaningful decisions these days in East Timor. He compared the new country to other small island-states. Many of the elite are inter-related, they harbour long-standing grudges against one another and their interests frequently conflict. A geneology might be revealing.

In a few years, they will also have something to fight over. East Timor has a horribly bloody past to get over, and faces a potential threat from West Timor, where 30,000 mostly anti-independence East Timorese still live. Further, within a few years, the hard currency proceeds of its single most important mineral resource - the oil and gas in the Timor Gap - will start to flow in. Although the government talks of using this money for development, if the experience of other poor countries is any guide, it could just as easily end up in private pockets.

Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri kept a tight hand on all negotiations dealing with the Timor Gap. Despite his Marxist past, the most powerful man in this Catholic country is a Muslim, the scion of a wealthy family of Yemeni origin. His family has huge landholdings in Dili.

In particular, they own the land around the main Dili mosque. Although he heads the government, Mr Alkatiri is not popular. He has no popular constituency as an individual. His strength is his control of the ruling party, Fretilin.

Mr Alkatiri was a member of the first Fretilin government in 1975 and attended the declaration of independence that year. But then he ran away to Mozambique. In December's riots in Dili, properties linked to him or his family were targeted all over the capital, and his house was burned.

UN officials who deal regularly with the government say that Mr Alkatiri, party president Francisco Guterres, better known as Lu-Olo, and Ana Pessoa, a former exile like Mr Alkatiri, are a triumvirate at the top of the government.

People who fought against Fretilin in 1975 are in political opposition now. The influential Carrascalao family members are the children of a Portuguese dissident of the Salazar dictatorship, exiled to East Timor, and his Timorese wife. Their son, Joao Carrascalao, staged the original 1975 coup that sparked the civil war.

Having lost the war, the family supported the Indonesian invasion, although by 1999 they were pro-independence. Mario Carrascalao was governor under Indonesian rule for 10 years and now leads one of the main opposition parties. Unlike Mr Alkatiri, he is very popular, remembered for his efforts as governor to blunt some of the worst aspects of Indonesian rule from within the system. Ever since the 1975 coup, however, relations between the two brothers have been frosty.

Like the Alkatiri family, the Carrascalao family has large landholdings in Dili.

Personal ties within the elite are often complex and confusing. Foreign Minister Jose Ramos-Horta is the childhood friend of former resistance fighter Cornelio Gama. Better known as "L7", Mr Gama has become a focus of dissent against the government among veterans. Attempts to bring him into government have so far failed.

But if anything, feelings are most bitter between Fretilin and its former supporters. In 1975, President Xanana Gusmao was politically a nobody, just a young journalist on the Voz de Timor newspaper. But a few years later he was a leader of the Falintil resistance and ultimately the most senior one that Indonesian forces had not managed to kill. Mr Gusmao took the former armed wing of Fretilin and re-modeled it in his own image, leading it away from Marxist politics and ultimately out of Fretilin altogether.

The new East Timor Defence Force is led by his former commanders and has adopted the Falintil name as its own.

Unfortunately, one of Falintil's early mentors is now back and eager to regain his former influence. Rogerio Lobato is minister of internal administration, a post which gives him control of the police. Within Fretilin, the name Lobato is one to impress with. The minister's brother Nicolau Lobato was a martyr to the cause and a major Dili street has been renamed after him. Nicolau Lobato died in 1978, apparently taking his own life after all his men were wiped out by the Indonesians. Although Rogerio Lobato spent the entire occupation overseas, his name and background has made him a rival centre of power to Mr Alkatiri within Fretilin.

But the past is also these people's Achilles' heel. The question many Timorese ask is why did they leave in 1975? Former president Francisco Xavier do Amaral has said that in 1975 he only recalls giving permission to one member of his government, Mr Ramos-Horta as foreign minister, to leave East Timor. Mr Alkatiri has claimed that he refused to leave East Timor and only went because of intense pressure, but such denials do not sit well with those who stayed. And while Mr Ramos-Horta spent two decades publicly campaigning for East Timor, ultimately winning himself a Nobel Peace Prize, others were a lot less vocal.

Such a volatile mixture would challenge the greatest of political thinkers. Mr Gusmao has been a stabilising factor, but many people ask what might happen if he was suddenly not there? Who would become president? And would the military, led by men with personal ties of loyalty to Mr Gusmao, accept their new commander-in-chief? Opposition leader Fernando de Araujo says the outlook is bleak: "We have had this situation since 1975, but we are still studying. I don't know when we can become clever. There are some who are clever."

Asked if any of Fretilin's cadres were among the clever ones, he said: "There are some, but the group that is not clever is stronger."

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