Subject: SBS Dateline: Timor's PM Under Siege

September 17, 2003

Timors President [sic] Under Siege

East Timor's Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri is today travelling to China, an old ally from his years in exile. The Prime Minister's critics say he's too close to the Chinese and too wary of foreign investment from Western sources. They're part of the growing list of criticisms levelled at the man who took over Timor's top job in 2001. He's a man who remains something of a mystery to most Australians. Maryann Keady has more.

REPORTER: Maryann Keady Graham Green would have loved Dili. UN workers mix with carpetbaggers, diplomats, hopeful locals, and the military boys in green.

Gone is the romantic terrain of the liberation struggle. Now, it's the hard reality of post-independent survival.

Timor became independent into 2002 and it's this man, Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri, who wields the power, not the internationally famous Xanana Gusmao or Jose Ramos Horta.

Alkatiri carries a heavy burden. He must oversee the reconstruction of his country, shattered by Indonesia's occupation. After decades of the independence struggle, Alkatiri makes it clear the struggle continues, but now it's about economic independence.

MARI ALKATIRI, PRIME MINISTER EAST TIMOR: We fought 24 years for an independent country and we are still fighting for an independent country. Independence means sovereignty over all our resources.

Mari Alkatiri led the Fretilin party to victory in countrywide elections in 2001. Before that, he viewed his country's tough struggle for liberation from the outside.

MARI ALKATIRI: Since the invasion of East Timor, Jakarta is facing a lot of troubles.

He spent 24 years in exile as part of the Fretilin diplomatic struggle abroad, living mainly in Mozambique, one of the few countries to provide generous support to the resistance.

He was a founding and well-regarded member of Fretilin. His tough negotiation skills a crucial asset, as the young leaders fought for diplomatic recognition around the world.

He's a Muslim in Catholic East Timor, so his elevation to the top job is no small feat after years overseas. But today, after only a year in the hot seat, he's under attack from critics both inside and outside the country. All political enemies are now jostling for power.

A short distance from the Prime Minister's office, one of his strongest political opponents, Mario Carrascalao, is being threatened with eviction from the house he's lived in since Portuguese rule. Carrascalao is crying foul, saying the government is playing dirty politics.

MARIO CARRASCALAO: In order to destroy this, you know, you have to destroy their political leaders, destroy politically by the creation, by creating the mistrust of the people, the non-confidence of the people, and then create situation like this.

Carrascalao and his supporters accuse Alkatiri's government of corruption and nepotism. It's political sledging time and Alkatiri's years in exile are used against him. He's cast as an outsider.

MAN, (Translation): If your true to this country and it's people, the ancestors protect you. No need to be afraid, even bullets wouldn't harm you. For a person like Mari, if we start shooting each other in Dili, even if he' s in hiding a bullet will get him, because he's not a son of this country.

Emotions are running high and the Cold War rhetoric is out in force. The political divide that existed before Indonesia invaded in 1975 has re-emerged, between Fretilin socialists and their opposition.

The Carrascalaos have always opposed Fretilin, calling them communists. In this political time warp, Mario's brother Manuel doesn't mince words.

MANUEL ALKATIRI: (Translation): Mari Alkatiri and Ana Pessoa both came from Mozambique where the political system is communist and totallt different. It 's oppressive and things are deteriorating.

Today in the district of Lautem, security is intense, ahead of a visit by the Prime Minister to meet the people.

It's part of something called 'open government', after critics accused him of being uncommunicative and out of touch. Alkatiri is also fending off criticism that he's running a government of exiles, people who've returned, but didn't stay to fight during the struggle.

It's not long before he addresses the issue of legitimacy.

MARI ALKATIRI: (Translation): There's propaganda that says the government is from outside East Timor. They came from outside but they're East Timorese. Some say they came from Mozambique. There are no Mozambicans in this government. I left Timor on December 4, 1975 and on that date in 2002 they burnt my house down. I left in 1975 I didn't run away.

Alkatiri's house was burnt to the ground during these riots on December 4 last year. Two people died in unrest that shocked the new nation - violence and looting carrying on for over six hours. Many saw it as a direct attack on the Prime Minister. The unrest, a rude wakeup call for this young government.

The Prime Minister also believes the riot was politically motivated.

REPORTER: Do you take the threats to your power seriously and I suppose I'm looking at December 4. Do you see that as an example of an attempt to lessen your power?

MARI ALKATIRI: Yeah. From a very few people in this country, they are trying, because they say at that time that I will really react negatively which means that I could do one of two things, to call to the Fretilin members to come out and to react - it will be a disaster, it will be a disaster - or simple, talk to the people, I'm going to choose another person to govern this country. I'm tired of. But I decided not to do either one of this options and to stay.

While there have been numerous investigations into the riots, no-one has been charged, leading to furious speculation in a country used to the whispers of an underground resistance.

Constant rumours of a military coup seem to preoccupy many of the locals, and today at Lautem, the head of the military, Tuar Matan Ruak, addresses them head-on. He says the army is with the government and that unrest is coming from groups outside the army.

TUAR MATAN RUAK, MILITARY HEAD: Who is not being part of the government, is not really the army. Maybe it's some bandits or groups.

The bandits he's referring to are ex-guerillas who, according to the constant rumour mill, are massing against the government. After lunch, the influential president of the parliament, Luolo, and a former guerilla leader, Lere, discuss the so-called third force.

It's hard to know in Timor today where to separate truth and fiction, however, these seemingly fantastical scenarios do play into some real political divisions.

For example, there is real discontent inside his party about Alkatiri's leadership. A petition is circulating within Fretilin to remove him and the party president, Luolo. And at this meeting, Alkatiri lets the comrades know what he thinks.

MARI ALKATIRI: (Translation): Every week they have meetings to make petitions. They make petitions and criticise the leadership. Some say the president and general secretary must go. Bring Congress better candidates and we'll change, no problem. But if there's a change we'll become militants and we'll be watching you.

And over lunch, at a resort built by the seaside, other urgent pressures are revealed. President Gusmao has recently rejected a controversial immigration bill put forward by Alkatiri's government. The bill is opposed by the international community in Timor, who say it reflects Alkatiri's suspicion of foreigners.

Gusmao's rejection has raised the ire of the government and added to existing tension between the two leaders.

The immigration law debate is just one of the pressures Alkatiri is facing. He's also coming under criticism for being protectionist over Timor's development, critics saying his cautious approach is hindering the country's future.

Here, he's visiting a stream earmarked for a hydroelectricity project and he makes it clear there will be no fly-by nights making money at Timor's expense.

MARI ALKATIRI: (Translation): That's why we asked our friends from Norway to do the study, so he who does the study won't be implementing the project. Sometimes a person says everything is okay just because he wants to make money.

Travelling across Timor, it's easy to see why the country is considered one of the world's poorest. Many are advocating fast-track development, saying concessional loans from large international institutions such as the Asian Development Bank and World Bank would kick-start the economy, but Alkatiri is resisting the pressure, saying future oil money is enough, and that loans would send the country down a dangerous path of recurring debt.

MARI ALKATIRI: Because loans, you have to pay back the loan and if you don't really use the money, the loans money, it will be a disaster for this country.

But this softly, softly approach isn't supported by other senior leaders in Timor. Foreign Minister Jose Ramos Horta says he wouldn't be so suspicious of loans or foreign investment. He'd do things differently.

JOSE RAMOS HORTA, FOREIGN MINISTER EAST TIMOR: I would move faster to enter into these matters which are a potential for investors, give them facilities, privileges, so that they beginning investing, you know. I wouldn't spend too much time worried about all the legal implications.

He does add, however, that there may be sense in a cautious approach.

JOSE RAMOS HORTA: The Prime Minister, he's a lawyer. He's a very suspicious character by nature. He's even suspicious of his own shadow. And I think - and it's positive, as we are building the country, somebody has to be extremely careful. And if things go much, much slowly, well maybe at least it goes slowly, but it goes safely, steadily, rather than we make quick decisions, improvising and creating a chaos, a mess.

Others are not so generous. Joao Saldanha is from the East Timor Study Group, a think-tank that advocates privatisation and free market ideals. I caught up with him after he'd met with the acting US ambassador.

JOAO SALDANHA, EAST TIMOR STUDY GROUP: We are trying to isolate East Timor from the rest of the world. We are a small country. I don't think we can afford to do that.

It's hard to see once-forgotten Timor shutting out the international community. There are plenty of players here in Dili - the World Bank, the UN and Australia, just to name a few. But it is the nature of connections that Alkatiri is forging that concerns Saldanha.

JOAO SALDANHA: There is a shift in this government. There's some attention, not much going to Australia, to the US, to Japan, but I think it's going to China.

When Alkatiri met with the Chinese delegation earlier this year, it gave more ammunition to his critics. They say the meeting was proof that the old Fretilin socialist hadn't changed his spots. But for Alkatiri, the meeting with a regional power just made good sense.

MARI ALKATIRI: One of the biggest corporations of some other countries in this region is with China, even for other countries from out of this region, United States and European Union, a market like China, which is more than 1 billion people, are looking for this market.

Alkatiri's Chinese connections are being closely watched by other regional players as the emerging superpower seeks to expand its influence in the Pacific. Timor's strategic position and oil and gas reserves make it an attractive ally for other powerful nations like Australia and the US.

GROVER JOSEPH REES, US AMBASSADOR: Do we want East Timor to be a force for good in this region? Sure we do, in lots of ways.

But according to the US Ambassador, Grover Joseph Rees, there's no big-picture politics involved. He's just keeping an eye on a new democracy.

GROVER JOSEPH REES: There are always temptations and they're always - whether you're talking about a government, whether you're talking about individuals - we all have tendencies in ourselves that we need to keep in check, and that's just as true of this government as it is of everybody else. And that's part of the reason that the international community is here in larger numbers than they would be, say, in another country this size, because this is a government in transition, and, you know, they were ruled for 24 years in a way that did include corruption and nepotism and brutality. And there are two lessons you can learn from that. One is - now that we have our freedom, we will never be like that. And you hear people saying that. And the other lesson you can learn without even knowing you learnt the lesson, is, "Oh, that's the way to behave when you get in charge."

For Mari Alkatiri, it's not about political morality, but a delicate geopolitical balancing act.

MARI ALKATIRI: East Timor is a very small country situated between two big regional powers. It's not easy to be a small country. That's the reason why you would only think so far the only way to survive in this condition is to be independent and to play a very active role as a bridge between the two giants.

But the looming battle between the great powers counts for very little alongside Alkatiri's immediate domestic struggles. The Prime Minister says he will continue the job he started long ago in the resistance, taking orders from the people and the party now running a liberated Timor.

MARI ALKATIRI: This is my obligation, I have to make my contribution for the liberation of the people, from poverty and from illiteracy, there are all kinds of things I have to do first. I am here, not because I love to be in power. I'm here because people are asking me, still asking me to stay. Once the central committee of Fretilin decides to choose another person, I will support it, and I will be happy.

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