Subject: Bulletin: Trouble in Timor (Martinkus)

Bulletin, Australia. 14 May 2003


As East Timor prepares to mark the first anniversary of independence, John Martinkus reports there are few grounds for celebration.

General Taur Matan Ruak, the former guerilla leader who now heads East Timor's defence forces, has called on residents of the world's newest nation to ignore rumours that the first anniversary of independence on May 20 would be marked by militia attacks. Ruak is one of the few East Timorese leaders to acknowledge the continued threat from former militia operating inside the country. But it has resulted in the United Nations mission in East Timor (UNMISET) extending its mandate until late 2004.

It was Ruak who insisted that East Timorese troops be deployed following militia attacks in the mountain town of Atsabe in January. When his troops detained 130 villagers during their sweep, human rights groups in Dili were quick to denounce them for acting outside the new constitution. The UN peacekeeping force declined to blame the attacks on former militia aligned with Indonesia and simply referred to them as "unlawful elements" while implying that the attacks were linked to local corruption.

But in late February when gunmen attacked a minibus in the border region near Atabae - wounding five people and killing one - the peacekeepers responded with a huge operation. Three days later, Fijian troops exchanged fire with the militia after surprising them in their camp. The Fijians killed one and wounded two and found 1000 rounds of ammunition, a grenade and an Indonesian-issue automatic weapon. They reported that the group's equipment, the position of their camp and their ability to withdraw under fire pointed to extensive military training. Documents found at the camp and interviews with detainees indicated they were ex-militia living across the border in Indonesia. If evidence was needed that a destabilisation campaign was being conducted it was finally reported by the peacekeepers in April and used to extend the UN mandate.

When Dili erupted into rioting on December 4 after the deaths of two students, there were similar accusations that it was the work of Indonesian provocateurs. UNMISET refused to point the finger of responsibility and the East Timorese government has still not published its report into the incident. This has led to speculation that members of the government may have been behind the rioting, contributing to the growing sense of unease.

The riots rocked East Timor's already shaky economy by scaring away foreign investors and tourists, particularly Australians. And suspicions that Indonesian agents were behind the rioting saw the Fretilin government pass a new law allowing the deportation of any foreigners engaged in political activity. The law has been denounced by foreign NGOs as an attempt to silence government critics. Fretilin supporters say it is aimed at controlling what had been an unrestricted flow of Indonesian citizens across the border.

The government is already under fire for its economic mismanagement. "Ministers are not qualified, the government does not support investment, power is too centralised and decisions are made personally by the prime minister with no consultation," says Nelson Belo, a 28-year-old employee of the NGO, Judicial System Monitoring Program.

The autocratic style of Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri has alienated many of the younger generation of Indonesian-educated students who also resent the Portuguese-speaking leadership. With unemployment rife, dissatisfaction among the youth, who fought so hard for independence, is growing rapidly. And with the Timor Gap gas revenues not due until mid 2005 the threats to East Timor, both internally and externally, have only got worse. JOHN MARTINKUS


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