|Subject: East Timor riots expose a political
May 18, 2006
East Timor riots expose a political divide
By Loro Horta
It was a hauntingly familiar scene. Large-scale riots broke out in East
Timor late last month, attended by looting, arson and the murder of five
civilians. But rather than a rebellion against foreign occupation, the
recent melee in the capital, Dili, was purely a domestic affair.
A group of nearly 500 soldiers, disgruntled about their dismissal from the
national service for cost-cutting purposes, instigated the violence. The
United Nations estimated that 75% of the capital's population fled the
violence and sought refuge in surrounding mountains. Foreign governments
were ready with plans to rescue their nationals, including neighboring
Australia, which put its navy on alert for a possible commando-led
Ethnic, religious and historical rivalries still boil beneath the surface in
East Timor, which had experienced a relative calm since achieving
independence and weathering the Indonesia-backed militia attacks in 1999
that resulted in the deaths of 1,400 Timorese and the destruction of 70% of
the country's economic infrastructure. An estimated 100,000-250,000
individuals were killed under Indonesia's two and a half decades of violent
The heady days of East Timor's independence, officially recognized in 2002,
have since yielded to internal rivalry and mistrust. That only 500
disgruntled soldiers could spark a national crisis demonstrates just how
weak East Timor's Fretilin-led government still is, despite its overwhelming
57% control of parliament and nearly six years of UN-sponsored
More significant, perhaps, the riots also demonstrate how willing competing
interest groups are to resort to violence to push forward their agendas.
While the protests never involved more than 2,000 people, they clearly
demonstrated just how vulnerable the current government is to even small
challenges to its authority. The country's riot police consist of a mere 50
men, none of whom possess even basic equipment; many of the country's 3,500
police officers do not have their own firearms - pistols are transferred
from man to man during duty shifts.
Regional rivalries are an even bigger problem. The 500 soldiers who ignited
the recent protests were predominantly from the western part of the country,
and they had regularly complained about discriminatory practices in the
allegedly eastern-dominated national army. When the riots broke out in Dili,
many police officers from western areas refused to tackle the protesters,
allowing what should have been an easy situation for a united force to
control to disintegrate into a tragic circus.
There are clear indications that opposition parties hijacked the protests to
discredit and destabilize the government. One day before the riots, the
government and the leader of the disgruntled soldiers had announced that an
amicable solution to their complaints was imminent. In a sudden about-turn,
the next day the soldiers demanded parliament's dissolution - eerily similar
to the demands recently made by the fragmented political opposition.
(Soldiers actually read previous opposition statements word-for-word calling
for the government's resignation.)
East Timor's weak political opposition is understandably desperate. In last
year's regional elections, which were certified as free and fair by the UN,
opposition parties won just one region out of the total 31 they contested.
And there is no compelling reason to believe that their prospects for the
country's first ever parliamentary elections, to be held by mid-2007, will
be any different.
The dominance by Fretilin (Frente Revolucionaria do Timor Leste Independente,
or Revolutionary Front of Independent East Timor), with a 55-seat majority
in the 88-seat parliament, has recently stirred political resentments.
Fretilin Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri, an Arab Muslim, has taken on various
powerful interest groups in Timorese society, chief among them the
historically influential Catholic Church.
Alkatiri's decision last year to make religious education in schools
optional rather than compulsory put the church and his government on a
collision course. When asked to comment on the street protests staged last
year by the church against the policy, Alkatiri famously replied, "Well, I'm
not worried since I know I'm going to hell. Who cares?"
The Roman Catholic Church, which counts 90% of the population among its
adherents, has said it will campaign directly against Alkatiri if he is
nominated as Fretilin's prime-ministerial candidate during next year's
Alkatiri, who spent 24 years in exile in Africa after the Indonesian
invasion and occupation of East Timor in 1975, is widely viewed as a
patriot. As prime minister, he has been praised for brokering a perceived
fair deal with Australia over rights to contested oilfields in the Timor
Sea. His refusal to accept loans from the World Bank, despite a gross
domestic product per capita of a mere US$400, stems from his personal
experience in Africa, where many poor countries have become disastrously
dependent on foreign aid.
At the same time, Alkatiri's controversial leadership style has brought him
into direct conflict with President and former rebel leader Xanana Gusmao,
widely viewed as the father of East Timor's independence. The
Alkatiri-Gusmao rivalry dates back to the country's first formative months
after independence, when the two squabbled over drafting of a constitution.
At the time, Gusmao and other influential leaders, such as Nobel Peace Prize
winner and current Foreign Minister Jose Ramos Horta, fought for the
adoption of a presidential system. Alkatiri objected and leveraged
Fretilin's superior numbers into the establishment of a parliamentary form
of government. While largely a figurehead, Gusmao retains the power to veto
legislation, dissolve parliament and call for national elections.
Gusmao has since openly supported the two main opposition parties, the
Democrat Party and the Social Democrat Party, which hold seven and six seats
in parliament respectively, against Fretilin. The political rivalry,
somewhat dangerously, has seeped down into many government institutions,
with the army and police both sharply divided between pro-Alkatari and pro-Gusmao
Factionalism, coupled with the more ethnically driven east-west regional
rivalries, has made effective police response and coordination with the army
almost impossible, as demonstrated by the inability to contain the recent
Some analysts say that the Alkatiri-Gusmao rivalry, at least partially,
explains the president's rather passive conduct during the recent riots. If
Gusmao had chosen to intervene decisively, government insiders say, it's
unlikely that the crisis would have spun out of control. Instead, the
president stayed cloistered in his official residence, doing and saying
nothing - to teach Alkatiri a lesson, some insiders contend. That some
foreign diplomats took sides during the crisis also added fuel to the fire.
Another source of instability has been the numerous martial-arts groups.
During Indonesia's occupation, many young Timorese joined martial-arts
groups as a way to defend themselves. Since independence, some of these
groups have turned to crime, running extortion, protection, gambling and
smuggling rackets. The largest of these groups, the Gorkas, is estimated to
have some 10,000 members. Others are affiliated with certain powerful
individuals who have well-known political ambitions.
For instance, the Sagrada Familia group has close links with a former
guerrilla commander, Furai Bot, who has opposed the government since 2001.
Others, such as Calimao 2000, are increasingly acting as professional
thugs-for-hire. Endemic unemployment, which exceeds 50% nationwide and is as
high as 70% in Dili, means recruiting is easy for such groups.
East Timor has by no means reached the political tipping point toward
renewed civil conflict. But the post-independence honeymoon is clearly over,
and old rivalries are palpably intensifying. A weak state, an opportunistic
opposition, intense leadership rivalries, and the rising power of organized
gangs all came together to create the explosive mix that led to the Dili
Nearly 25 years of foreign occupation left behind many scars, including a
deep-seated culture of violence and mistrust. As the state moves to assert
its authority over East Timor's fiercely independent people, it's essential
that the government, opposition and security forces all speak with one
cohesive voice. The early days of nationhood, as East Timor is now clear
demonstrating, are never easy.
Loro Horta is a master's degree candidate at Nanyang Technological
University's Institute of Defense and Strategic Studies in Singapore. He
previously served as an adviser to the East Timorese Defense Department. The
views expressed here are strictly his own.
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