Subject: JP: Many factors stoke Timor Leste violence

The Jakarta Post Saturday, December 23, 2006

Big challenges remain in little Timor Leste

Jonathan Dart, The Jakarta Post, Jakarta

Timor Leste had long been considered a United Nations success story, after it acted as a midwife in the birth of the new nation during the historic 1999 independence ballot.

The country had taken huge bounds toward self-dependence since then, having drafted its own constitution and created vital institutions such as the army and police forces.

But few people took notice when 600 Timorese soldiers abandoned their post in February of this year.

The cause of the revolt seemed slight: the soldiers were from western (loromonu) tribes and were protesting against perceived favoritism in the army toward easterners (lorosae).

The result, however, was gargantuan and eventually drew the world's media back to the small, seaside town of Dili.

The stories they told over the next three months were filled with violence and mayhem; on April 28 soldiers fired on a group of unarmed protesters in the streets of Dili, killing five.

Then came a sad milestone for Timor Leste on May 24, when the government was forced to ask for an international peace force -- comprising contingents from Australia, New Zealand, Malaysia and Portugal -- to restore order, under Operation Astute.

That force may have slowed the violence, but not the political intrigue. Allegations emerged in early June that Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri had been recruiting and arming local militias to eliminate enemies.

The allegations were never proved, and were not accepted by a recent UN inquiry into the crisis.

However, the allegations led to a very personal struggle between Alkatiri and President Xanana Gusmao: the two are rumored to have held a long-time grudge against each other, and Gusmao pressured Alkatiri into resigning.

On June 26, Foreign Minister Jose Ramos-Horta was addressing a press conference in Dili's Government Palace when he received a call and advised journalists to go to Alkatiri's residence: the prime minister had indeed decided to step down from his post.

Ramos-Horta -- a Nobel Peace laureate -- was then called upon to become Timor's second prime minister and fill the political and security vacuum left by his predecessor.

He was given perhaps one of the toughest jobs in the world, with much of Timor's infrastructure and institutions needing to be rebuilt almost from scratch. In many ways Timor Leste is now in a worse position than it was in 1999.

The international forces have not been able to stop the violence completely -- there are still sporadic outbreaks of unrest, such as in early December when a Timorese man was shot near Comoro Airport.

There was also an embarrassing incident in August, when rebel leader Alfredo Reinado and 56 other inmates were able to simply walk out of Becora Prison in Dili after it was left unguarded.

At the height of the crisis, an estimated 150,000 Timorese fled to makeshift refugee camps around the country -- in churches, public buildings, schools, hospitals -- and these camps were also seen as a target for local gangs causing mischief.

There is no more visual reminder of Timor's deterioration than the camp across the road from the expensive Timor Hotel. Australian and Malaysian police were attacked there in September, and a rock was thrown through a window of the hotel.

No simple explanation can account for these sporadic outbreaks of violence.

There have been rumors that gangs are being paid by political parties to undermine the current government.

Another possible explanation is that the population has relapsed back to a "war mentality", though the tribal tensions between the lorosae and loromonu seem to have appeared out of nowhere.

An Australian anthropologist, Matthew Libbis, told The Jakarta Post in September that hostility was absent just six years ago.

A number of factors have stoked the flames. There is a growing resentment of foreign troops, which remain in Timor Leste at the request of President Gusmao.

Poverty and unemployment are also a huge strain on Timor Leste's political stability. The country is ranked 142nd on the UN's Human Development Index and more than half of its population live under the poverty line.

Since independence, Timor Leste's small-scale industries have struggled and per capita income is now less than it was in 1999.

Anibal Lemos runs a refugee camp at Fatumeta, on the outskirts of Dili, and said that six months after the original crisis, people had still not left because they received three free meals a day at the camp.

If there is an end in sight for Timor Leste, it is the elections that are scheduled to be held in April 2007. Both President Gusmao and Prime Minister Ramos-Horta have resigned from the nation's largest political party, Fretilin, which is led by Mari Alkatiri.

Ramos-Horta has made an impassioned plea to the party to reform itself, for the health of the nation.

With a renewed popular mandate, a new government may be equipped to tackle Timor Leste's various ills -- the stagnated economy, questions over land titles and common assertions of corruption in the distribution of government contracts.

In all likelihood, Fretilin looks like sweeping back into power. It is the party that was at the forefront of the independence movement and garnered 57.4 percent of the national vote in the 2001 elections.

The country's second largest party, the Democratic Party, received just 8.7 percent of the vote.

The UN had been scheduled to pull out of Timor Leste in May of this year. Its mandate has now been extended to oversee next year's election and peacekeepers may stay on even longer.

In November, the head of the United Nations Office in Timor Leste (UNOTIL), Sukehiro Hasegawa, ended his term and called on the UN to accept Timor Leste into its Peacebuilding Commission -- an organization established to provide long-term support to conflict-affected regions. Hasegawa was appointed to his post in May 2004. At that time, he appealed to the UN not to forget the fragile new nation.

One of the cruel ironies that has developed over the past year is that only now are people starting to listen to him.

------------------------------------------ Joyo Indonesia News Service

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