Subject: JT: Back into the vortex?

Japan Times

Sunday, Feb. 25, 2007

Back into the vortex? Jeff Kingston reports on violence-ridden East Timor in the run-up to elections

By JEFF KINGSTON Special to The Japan Times

East Timor is an ill-starred land that has endured more than its share of violence, neglect and deprivation.

News photo News photo Coffee-growing in the beautiful uplands of Maubisse (above) holds out one hope for East Timor's rural poor, whose womenfolk do most of the trading at the Sunday market in Maubisse (below). JEFF KINGSTON PHOTOS News photo News photo News photo A fisherman sells his catch on the beach in Dili, presenting at least one sign of normality in troubled East Timor. A boy holds his fighting cock in the market at Maubisse, where the women seem to work while males desport themselves.

In 2006, only four years after it gained independence, violent clashes erupted yet again on the streets of Dili, East Timor's capital. The troubles began in February with a small-scale mutiny in the military over pay and promotion grievances. That ignited a simmering feud between President Xanana Gusmao and Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri.

After the prime minister dismissed the mutineers, violence flared between military units and subsequently the police. The clashes were linked to the political conflict at the top, but were also driven by ethnic tensions between easterners and westerners.

By June, amid the gathering chaos, roaming gangs had torched and looted their way around most of Dili and driven many easterners out of their homes into the refugee camps where many still remain.

At that time the loss of life was relatively small, 37 -- but the toll of the violence was far greater, undermining the fragile sense of stability that had slowly emerged in the wake of the Indonesian military's bloody farewell in 1999. This is a society that still bears the scars of losing nearly 200,000 people to the famines and killing caused by Indonesia's 24-year occupation.

In June 2006, Australian security forces arrived and restored calm. The unpopular Prime Minister Alkatiri was forced to resign over allegations that he and Interior Minister Rogerio Lobato had distributed weapons to a hit squad targeting political opponents.

In July, the Nobel Peace Prize-winner Jose Ramos-Horta -- founder of the Revolutionary Front for an Independent East Timor, who was the spokesman in exile for resistance to the 1975-99 Indonesian occupation, and has just announced he will run for president in April 9's elections -- became prime minister after serving as foreign minister under Prime Minister Alkatiri. Then, in the following month, Japan sponsored a resolution establishing UNMIT (United Nations Integrated Mission in Timor Leste [East Timor]).

The resumption of the UN presence in East Timor reflects widespread recognition that the world body declared "mission accomplished" too soon back in 2002, and prematurely left East Timor to its own devices. Former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan acknowledged the UN's responsibility, and UNMIT reflects the desire to get on with the unfinished business of nation-building.

Meanwhile, East Timor's moribund justice system creaks under the backlog of cases from the crimes of 1999, and now faces elevated public expectations demanding accountability for high-ranking perpetrators involved in the fresh crimes of 2006.

Escalating gang violence adds to this disturbing portrait of a nation on the brink. With elections approaching in April, many observers fear a downward spiral. Omens

At the close of 2006, there were ominous signs that East Timor was facing continued crisis.

An ongoing drought, for one, heightened already unhappy spirits and led to more hunger.

People were also anxious about the birth of a one-eyed pig with an elephantlike snout. In a country where troubles pile one upon another, nobody took it as a good sign. Then, when a lake outside Dili suddenly turned blood red, many saw it as a harbinger of violence.

These omens reflect and feed anxieties in a society with good cause for fear; 2006 was the year that the dreams launched with independence in 2002 were shattered by widespread violence. The promise and hope of self-determination that had buoyed sentiments through four lean years suddenly went up in smoke -- along with more than 2,000 homes. Small confrontations escalated out of control, unleashing a pent-up malevolence fed by bitter disappointment over post-independence realities.

As things went from very bad to far worse, neighborhoods were "cleansed" and ransacked, driving an estimated 150,000 people into refugee camps across the island -- a staggering 15 percent of the entire population. With all that, the delicate work of restoring trust and stability lay amid the ashes left behind by those fortunate enough to flee to safety. Dispossessed

Despair peered at me through the chain-link fence separating the airport from a refugee camp of nearly 8,000 internally displaced people (IDP). And from behind this forlorn facade of despair, angrier IDPs threw rocks at security personnel and their vehicles guarding the air terminal. This was an intriguing welcome for visitors just walking off the tarmac, but forced to dash to the safety of taxis with shattered windscreens and scarred bodywork amid a cacophony of projectiles pinging off metal.

My taxi driver explained that the government had declared the next day the deadline for the IDPs to leave the airport refugee camp.

It is a sign of the desperation in Dili that this miserable, flood-prone tent encampment along the bleak fringe of the runway is deemed worth fighting for. And it's further telling that those being asked to leave had nowhere to go.

The internally displaced were being encouraged to return to their homes or extended families, as the government worried that having settled in, the IDPs were becoming far too comfortable, with running water and regular meals.

Luiz Viera of the International Organization of Migration (IOM) told me that the government did not want to build alternative IDP sites because it feared sending the wrong message. The camps have become a tangible symbol of the government's failure to protect the public, and its inability to ease fears that violence will erupt again. Building new camps would make it seem that the government was also resigned to this situation.

Viera pointed out, however, that returning to their homes was not an option for people who had been driven from them, often by neighbors and gangs of young toughs. Some of their houses have been burned down, others have been occupied, and fear remains a formidable obstacle to resuming life as it was.

Although the number of refugees has declined to around 100,000 or so, Viera said his organization is braced for an influx this year, reflecting widespread pessimism about election-related violence.

Kerry Clarke from Oxfam said that the "fear factor" that prevails among IDPs, many of whom have lost everything, has become part of East Timor's social fabric. In her view, the east-west divide was "whipped up out of the blue" for political purposes, but now it has become reality because most of the IDPs are easterners, and dealing with their situation has become a divisive political issue.

Jeff Kingston is Director of Asian Studies, Temple University Japan Campus.


The Japan Times: Sunday, Feb. 25, 2007


Law and disorder


Special to The Japan Times

I was surprised when Jaime Xavier Lopez, the head of Sacred Heart, a notorious "martial-arts" group, told me to meet him at the government's Office of Cadastral Surveys and Property, where he has his day job. Or that's where he did work, since he is now imprisoned.

Lopez is well-educated, soft-spoken and unassuming, not quite what I expected from a gang boss. According to him, Sacred Heart has 6,000 members and 10,000 students enrolled in a four-year course of training.

One eye locks on me while the other wanders off as he denies that his martial-arts group has links with prominent political opposition parties.

But he does admit that many members may have overlapping memberships. Lopez complains that some rioting gangs wear Sacred Heart's distinctive uniforms trying to discredit it, but he does acknowledge that in some cases its members engage in violence -- but only for self-defense. The police see this differently, explaining why he is in jail.

The omnipresence of these so-called martial-arts groups and gangs in Dili reflects the bankruptcy of the judicial system, and contributes to a cycle of retaliations and police confrontations. Arrested gang members know that in no time they will be back on the streets.

Meanwhile, UNPOL (the 1,300-strong international police force in East Timor under UN command) expresses frustration that there is no law banning the carrying of dangerous weapons like machetes, darts, knives or slingshots. The gangs know the rules of engagement for the international police units, and act accordingly -- pushing street melees perilously close to the edge.

Culture of impunity

Gangs are thriving because a culture of impunity prevails. Law enforcement is lax, prosecutors are overwhelmed, there is no witness-protection program and the courts barely function.

Only the Portuguese police units inspire fear among criminals. They are a scary- looking, musclebound bunch, bristling with menace and weapons. I was told that if these Portugese officers need to get out of their air-conditioned patrol vehicles, they get pissed off and find some heads to bang just on principle. Their no-holds- barred approach to policing is lamented by human-rights activists, but for many people they are a welcome pit bull to cope with the breakdown of law and order.

Nonetheless, a U.S. Embassy source said that gang violence is escalating, and gangs have become a much more visible and menacing presence on the streets since the middle of 2006. The government has at times brokered what amount to ceasefires among the gangs, but these have all fallen apart.

An Australian federal police officer agrees that the situation on the streets has worsened considerably since UNMIT [United Nations Integrated Mission in Timor Leste] took responsibility for security in August. He was withering in his criticism of the UN bureaucracy and endless red tape that made effective policing far more difficult than it should be.

"The UN has been long on promises, but has not delivered, sapping morale among police units," he said. When told that two Japanese officers were coming, he chuckled, saying, "That should do the trick."

This officer said the gang violence has reached a new stage, and that it shows signs of coordination. Whereas previously gang attacks seemed random, they are now being choreographed. He cited an evening when three melees broke out simultaneously in different parts of Dili, in a move that seemed designed to test the responses and capabilities of the overstretched security forces. He said this is all the more worrisome in view of this year's upcoming political campaigns.

There is concern, too, that political parties are mobilizing and funding gangs in preparation for this year's elections. Police report that many young gang members they arrest carry sums of cash that are beyond what they could possibly earn on the streets. The source of the gangs' cash, mobile phones and motorbikes is uncertain, but suspicions focus on political parties. For example, Korka, one of the largest martial-arts groups, has ties with the ruling Fretelin party.

According to some estimates, as many as 70 percent of Dili youth are gang members. For many unemployed youth with no prospects, the gangs seem to be their only option, and they join for status, reputation, money and illicit thrills. The emergence of a youth-gang culture is yet another symptom of the deep social malaise that prevails, and a further impediment to stability. Scarification

There is a proliferation of gangs that distinguish themselves by scarification of upper arms with razor blade cuts in numerical patterns such as 77, 21 or 55, while some of the martial-arts groups favor distinctive tattoos. These martial-arts groups distinguish themselves from gangs because of their organizational hierarchies, training and discipline, and many members hold regular jobs. However, it does seem that some members engage in typical gang activity, and are often involved in violent confrontations with other gangs and security forces.

The gangs maintain checkpoints in Dili where they shakedown citizens and check for gang membership by having people roll up their sleeves. One young woman who studies in Australia was home on holiday and described a harrowing experience of being stopped by drunken, metal-bar brandishing gang members who told her to take off her jacket so they could check her arms. She escaped on her motorbike when they lurched into the road to wave down a potentially more lucrative passing car. Many people experience such harassment and modify their routines to avoid it.

After 7 p.m., it is very difficult to find a taxi anywhere in Dili because drivers fear being robbed or having their vehicle damaged. I was told by several people never to walk around at night, especially alone. Japanese NGO workers spoke of their embassy requiring all nationals to return home by 8 p.m. unless they had informed others and had their own car and driver. They were strongly advised not to ride in taxis under any circumstances for fear of kidnapping or random violence.

This self-imposed curfew makes Dili an eerie place in the evening; gangs control the nights. The pervasive fear of gang violence creates a culture of intimidation that haunts the city's residents.

Back to February menu

January 2007 menu  
World Leaders Contact List
Main Postings Menu