Subject: AP: East Timor: A new wave of violence


East Timor: A new wave of violence

Why has violence returned to East Timor? PAUL CHAVEZ puts the developments into historical context and looks into why the rest of the world should be concerned.

Thursday, 25 May, 2006, 18:29 EDT, US []

Deadly violence once again has erupted in East Timor -- the world's youngest nation -- as renegade troops battle government forces. Twelve people have died over the past few days, including nine unarmed police officers who were shot and killed Thursday in the capital Dili, a U.N. spokesman said Thursday.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan plans to send an envoy to the troubled island and the U.N. Security Council has scheduled a consultation over the crisis.

The first planeload of 130 Australian commandos have landed in East Timor to help quell the violence and Portugal, New Zealand and Malaysia also are sending small contingents of troops.

The strife pits the country's 800-member army against a band of about 600 soldiers who were dismissed in March after complaining of alleged discrimination.



East Timor was colonized by Portugal in the 16th century and declared its independence in 1975. It was promptly invaded and occupied by Indonesia. During that brutal occupation, an estimated 100,000 to 200,000 East Timorese died.

In 1999, the U.N. oversaw elections in which the people of East Timor voted for independence. In retribution, militias supported by Indonesia embarked on a scorched-earth campaign and destroyed most of the country's infrastructure.

East Timor is one of the poorest countries in the world.


Professor Joseph Nevins of Vassar College, author of 2005's "A Not-So Distant Horror: Mass Violence in East Timor," explains the new violence and puts it into historical context.

asap: What's the cause of the latest violence in East Timor?

Nevins: In January, a petition from a small group of military people was presented to President Xanana Gusmao that made allegations of discrimination based on the fact that they are from the western part of the country. They were arguing that the military is dominated by people from the east and as a result of that there were levels of favoritism for easterners.

Gusmao did not act quickly enough for the soldiers, and about 400 of them showed up outside his headquarters -- "The Palace of Ashes," which is called that because it was burned down by Indonesians in 1999. They refused to return to their base and remained AWOL.

By the end of February, this group of 400 was joined by nearly 200 and they became known as the "591 Group." In the middle of March, the head of the military formally discharged all 591 of these soldiers for failing to report to duty.

2nd Lt. Gastao Salsinha, spokesman for the dissident soldiers, announced five days of protest in Dili in April and this led to an outbreak of violence on April 28. It appears not only to involve these military dissidents but various groups critical of the government. Who these groups are and what their motivations are is not clear.

As a result, there was rioting and a number of houses were burned down in Dili, and some people were killed. The situation became more intense after a military police official took 25 of his officers up in the hills to protest the military's alleged heavy-handed reaction.

Dissident military personnel on Tuesday shot at unarmed police officers who were getting their pay, and that has led to this sort of back-and-forth violence.

asap: So who exactly are the players in all this?

Nevins: There are three factions at work.

There are the military dissidents who are critical of the government; the majority of the military, about two-thirds of it, who are loyal to the government; and the police, who are also pro-government, but they are specifically targeted by these anti-government dissidents. The police are seen by some people as having cooperated with the Indonesian government during the occupation.

This is what I'm piecing together based on reports and conversations with people in East Timor.

asap: What's the history of violence in East Timor?

Nevins: The Indonesians invaded in 1975 and withdrew under intense international pressure in 1999. During this period, East Timor became known as the one of the worst cases of mass killings in post-World War II history.

A truth commission report that came out in late November 2005 estimated that anywhere from 100,000 to 200,000 people lost their lives as a direct result of the Indonesian invasion and occupation. This, in a country with a population at the time of the Indonesian invasion of under than 700,000.

You're talking about a significant portion of the population who were killed or died as a result of the invasion and occupation. In addition to that, many thousands of women and girls were raped and thousands were tortured and lands and homes were taken away.

After the people of East Timor voted in 1999 for independence, Indonesia's military and its paramilitary proxies engaged in a scorched-earth campaign and destroyed about 80 percent of its buildings and infrastructures. You have a society that has been traumatized in addition to being impoverished.

asap: What about the U.N. and its role?

Nevins: The U.N. administration that took over in 1999 and ruled until May 2002, when East Timor became fully independent, was dominated by Western interests. As such, they had a standard blueprint for what a postcolonial country should look like and, according to this logic, they should have a military. East Timor is the poorest country in Asia and arming people in such a situation makes for a dangerous chemistry.

The U.N. transition was in a number of ways inadequate in terms of its length and inadequate in its levels of consultation with East Timorese society, and it was inadequate with how it dealt with the military situation.

I don't blame only the United Nations as an institution, but we have to situate the United Nations in an international context. Western powers largely dominate that international organization, so they are in a significant position to shape what the United Nations does on the ground.

asap: Why should we care about East Timor?

Nevins: We wouldn't even be talking about East Timor had it not been for the West, most importantly the United States, agreeing to the Indonesian invasion. We now know the Western powers, specifically the U.S., Australia and Britain, acquiesced in Indonesia's desire to invade.

All these Western governments bankrolled the Indonesian army and provided them with weapons and trained them. In a just world, there would be some sort of accountability for this.

The truth commission report specifically called for reparations from Indonesia and from the Western powers that backed it, so East Timor can break out of these chains of poverty. It's been almost totally ignored in the United States. In the press as a whole, it's been ignored. It's not unrelated to the violence we see today. It's a place where people are trying to get by. It's a tough place to survive.


Paul Chavez is an asap reporter based in Los Angeles.


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