Subject: AFP: East Timor protests fueled by more than anger

Friday, May 05, 2006

East Timor protests fueled by more than anger

By Marianne Kearney

JAKARTA: Last week’s protests in East Timor were sparked by a group of sacked soldiers, but a combination of disaffected youth, poverty and anger as the government turned them into deadly riots, analysts say.

At least four people were killed, dozens of homes were torched and thousands of people fled after a huge protest, apparently in support of the soldiers, degenerated into violence last Friday.

The government’s failure to quickly deal with the soldiers, who left their barracks in February complaining of discrimination and were dismissed a few weeks later, had allowed dissatisfaction to fester, analysts say.

“In the beginning the leadership was immature. They kept attacking each other,” said Dili-based human rights lawyer Aderito de Jesus Soares, arguing that the decision to sack the men before consulting with the military’s supreme commander, President Xanana Gusmao, had been unwise.

“They kept saying, ‘It’s not a big problem.’ When half the defence force deserts, that’s stupid,” he told AFP.

Nearly 600 soldiers left their barracks­about one third of the fledgling nation’s armed forces ­claiming that they were being passed over for promotion in favour of colleagues from the country’s east.

Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri’s pledge to launch an investigation into the claims and his offer to start paying the men again from March­if they turn themselves in­would assist in resolving the conflict, de Jesus Soares said.

But for the longer term, the government also needed to look at ways of keeping East Timor’s underemployed troops occupied, he said.

“If you have a whole lot of young guys in the barracks who are not doing anything, it will create trouble,” he warned.

Foreign Minister Jose Ramos-Horta in an interview with AFP before the unrest said that the sackings had already prompted a rethink of how the defence forces in Asia’s poorest nation should be structured.

The idea being floated was for East Timor to have a force of two battalions numbering around 500 men each, with one battalion trained mainly to serve on UN peacekeeping missions and the other prepared for civic duty, he said.

Ramos-Horta later blamed the violence on the Colimau Dua Ribuh gang, which claims links to the resistance movement that fought against Indonesia’s 24-year occupation but is accused of being no more than a criminal network.

Witnesses confirmed that members of the gang had joined the protests. Still, only 13 out of more than 100 people detained in the wake of the violence were former soldiers, suggesting a confluence of triggers for the unrest.

Analysts point to East Timor’s deeper problems­widespread poverty, high unemployment and dissatisfaction with the new nation’s first government­as helping to stoke the mob violence.

“Most of us after independence think we can have a house, everything is easy. But after independence. . . nothing has changed,” said Virgilio Gu­terres, the head of state broadcaster TV Timor Lorosae.

East Timor marks four years since its troublesome birth later this month.

The nation voted for independence in a UN-backed referendum in 1999, resulting in bloody rampages by Indonesian-backed militias who killed some 1,400 people and destroyed most of the nation’s infrastructure.


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