Subject: The frictions that ignited the troubles in East Timor

Also Canberra Times: A missed chance in East Timor

The Courier Mail (Australia)

October 21, 2006 Saturday

The frictions that ignited the troubles in East Timor

Tim Johnston

EAST Timor used to be the poster child for international intervention, but a report published this week by a group of United Nations investigators illustrates just how shallow the veneer of success was and just how difficult getting the country back on track is going to be.

The report investigates the spasm of violence that rocked the country in April and May this year: the police and army fought pitched gun battles with each other, and the civilians they illegally gave guns attacked ordinary people, and in one case burned down a house with six people inside, four of them children.

By the time Australian troops had flown in and imposed a semblance of law and order, at least 38 people were dead, 69 injured, 1650 houses burned and almost 150,000 people driven from their homes. And all this in a country with a population two thirds the size of Brisbane.

It is a murky story of rampant political opportunism, the settling of old scores and the sullen anger of a disappointed and frustrated population. And the result is a schism that has split society down the middle and will be extremely difficult to heal.

But Jaoquim Fonseca, the human rights adviser to the new Prime Minister, Jose Ramos Horta, remains optimistic. ''This provided a big political lesson to the people,'' he says, and not one they are going to forget in a hurry. ''The consequences of this crisis are very real for ordinary people.'' He says that in future East Timorese will take a more cynical view of politicians and politics.

The UN report, by an international commission of experts, is scathing about almost every one of Timor's small political elite. It recommends that the then interior minister, Rogerio Lobato, and the head of the army, Taur Matan Ruak, be prosecuted for handing out weapons to civilians, and that the former prime minister, Mari Alkatiri, be further investigated.

East Timor has weathered problems before, but it has relied on President Xanana Gusmao and the influential Catholic Church to be mediators, and this time they are both seen as having taken sides.

It wasn't supposed to be this way. After the trauma of escaping from Indonesia in 1999, the international community -- with a huge contribution from Australia -- nurtured the infant nation, providing millions of dollars worth of aid, training and assistance. But it was only a matter of months after the bulk of the international advisers left that the country all but collapsed.

The immediate tension was a split between eastern residents and those from the west, but Fonseca says that was merely the way much deeper problems bubbled to the surface.

''The systems were not strong enough, so that when the people were confronted by these issues, their national identity as Timorese was not strong enough to overcome the division,'' he says.

A recent report by the International Crisis Group (ICG), headed by former foreign minister Gareth Evans finds slightly different roots in the clashes of personality and politics among Timor's elite, many of whom have disliked each other since the 1970s.

But many East Timorese say that although these provided the friction that finally ignited the conflagration, the real fuel was much more basic: East Timor is still one of the poorest countries in Asia. It will take generations to build the economy, and after this week's report it seems they are going to have to do it without much of the political elite, almost all of whom have been tarnished.

Both the UN and ICG reports are scathing about Lobato.

The ICG says he had been building up the police force into a personal militia, trying to divide society to create a personal power base regardless of the risk to the country's fragile democracy.

His contribution after a demonstration outside Government House was particularly unhelpful. He arrived at police headquarters wearing body armour, yelling ''kill them all''. The police then issued him with a machinegun and 2000 rounds of ammunition, although there is no indication he used it.

Lobato is under arrest and being prosecuted. Ramos Horta says the head of the army has accepted the findings of the commission, but one of the most violent rebels is still hiding out in the hills, heavily armed and trying to dictate terms.

The UN special envoy to East Timor has said the country is not a failed state but a democracy trying to find its feet, and Fonseca agrees, saying that although the upcoming trial process will be difficult, it is something the young nation has to go through in its search for a mature identity.


October 20, 2006 Friday

A missed chance in East Timor

The Canberra Times

THE EAST Timorese Government was handed a heaven-sent opportunity this week to begin the long overdue process of healing the rifts so vividly exposed by last May's wave of violence. But to the dismay of many, Prime Minister Jose Ramos-Horta, appears to have put loyalty to the military ahead of the long-term interests of East Timor, and with it the possibility that the yawning gulf between the ordinary people and the governing elites can be bridged.

A United Nations Special Commission of Inquiry - established at the direct invitation of Ramos-Horta when he was still senior minister and minister for foreign affairs - delivered its report on Tuesday, with one of its findings being that the chief of the country's armed forces, Brigadier-General Taur Matan Ruak, be prosecuted for his role in the violence that killed more than 30 people and displaced more than 150,000 people from their homes in Dili. Also recommended for prosecution were former interior minister Rogerio Lobato, renegade army major Alfredo Reinado and umpteen other rebel soldiers, civilians and security force members suspected of direct involvement in the violence. Shortly after the report was issued, however, Ramos-Horta issued a public statement saying he had full confidence in Ruak and his leadership.

He went further, saying that "Throughout the crisis, the senior command of F-FDTL [East Timor's defence force] showed zeal and discipline."

Ramos-Horta's defence of Ruak, while disappointing, is not surprising insofar as the defence force, for historical reasons, plays a substantial, even pivotal, role in East Timorese politics. But what is extraordinary is that Ramos- Horta, who has largely appeared be above the factional cronyism that characterised the administration of his predecessor, Mari Alkatiri, should now be implicating himself in the worst aspects of an incestuous political culture that has brought Asia's smallest and poorest nation to its knees barely four years after its independence.

The UN commission is well aware of the fragility of East Timor's state institutions and the weakness of the rule of law. This might explain why it chose to reserve judgment on the role of Alkatiri. Instead, it called for further investigations by Timorese authorities to determine whether the former prime minister should face criminal charges over the transfer of defence force weapons to civilians who used them to commit assorted crimes and violations of human rights during the worst days of the crisis.

Whether the country's legal system is sufficiently independent to investigate one of the country's most powerful politicians remains unclear. Certainly, the Parliament, which is dominated by the powerful Fretilin faction (and the one which Alkatiri controls), seems unwilling to take a leading role, with the head of the faction, Elizario Fereira, saying on Wednesday that legal action should be left to the judiciary. As for the role of President Xanana Gusmao during the troubles -during which time he appeared to remain largely above the fray - the UN commission cleared him of allegations that he'd ordered Reinado "to carry out criminal actions" but he was criticised for his failure to show "more restraint and respect for institutional channels in communicating directly with Reinado after his desertion". Under the constitution, Gusmao's ability to directly shape future events in East Timor as president is limited - his response to the report was to call on the Parliament to "quickly take political and legislative or legal actions". Fereira's comment showed this is likely to be a forlorn hope because the country's judiciary, like East Timor's other institutions, simply has not had the time to develop the robustness of the legal systems associated with democracies that carefully observe the doctrine of the separation of powers.

East Timor's inability to abandon the most corrosive aspects of its colonial heritage, as well as the legacy of the armed struggle for independence that led to the creation of an expensive and unnecessary army and which simply exacerbated political and ethnic rivalries, are at the heart of its malaise, and only the country's elites can rectify them.

Earlier this month, the International Crisis Group issued a report on East Timor, in which it iterated the need for reforms in the security sector before the country's political crisis could begin to be resolved. But the authors were insistent on the need for "enormous political magnanimity on the part of a few key actors".

The recommendations of the UN represent an ideal means of strengthening East Timor's fragile foundations: "Justice, peace and democracy are mutually reinforcing imperatives. If peace and democracy are to be advanced, justice must be effective and visible." That the country leaders seem, at this early stage anyway, to be reluctant to embrace hard truths, is regrettable. The East Timorese themselves, who were promised so much at the time of independence, have every right to feel aggrieved.

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