Subject: A harsh passage to democracy. East Timor reacted calmly after shots were fired at the president

The Asia Pacific Times, March 2008

A harsh passage to democracy


East Timor reacted calmly after shots were fired at the president ­

By Henriette Sachse

The recent attacks on East Timor’s president and prime minister are a severe setback on the path to democracy. They highlight the country’s most urgent problems: poverty, high unemployment and an inadequate system of justice.

In its sixth year of independence, Timor-Leste’s path to a stable democracy has, yet again, experienced a harsh setback: President José Ramos-Horta was shot and wounded in front of his house in Dili in the early morning hours of Feb. 11. One of the attackers, Major Alfredo Reinado, a former commander of the military police turned rebel, died in the exchange of fire with the president’s security guard. The motorcade of Prime Minister Xanana Gusmão was attacked soon afterward, though he remained unhurt.

Gusmão, who called the incident a failed coup attempt, immediately declared a state of emergency and appealed to the population to remain calm. The international security force of nearly 2,500 has the situation under control and is working with the Timorese police; no riots have been reported so far. It remains unclear whether these incidents were in fact a coup attempt or a failed kidnapping.

A total of 17 arrest warrants were issued for the suspected participants in these attacks; they are in hiding and being sought by a special Australian unit. Acting President Fernando Lasama de Araújo has called on the rebels to surrender: “The assassination attempts against President Ramos-Horta and Prime Minister Xanana closed the way to dialog,” he said. “There is only one path now and that is… to submit themselves to justice.”

On the one hand, these events come as a surprise. After the peaceful presidential and parliamentary elections last year, it seemed as though the country’s 2006 crisis had been overcome. On the other hand, in recent months Reinado had repeatedly announced he would attack the government if his demands were not met. They included reintegrating all soldiers dismissed from the army in March 2006, as well as immunity from punishment for himself.

Reinado was involved in violent clashes between the military and the police in April and May 2006, sparked by protests over poor working conditions and promotion rules in the army. This situation led him to desert the military in early May but he was soon after captured again. Briefly imprisoned, he then escaped and fled into the mountains outside Dili. He became de facto spokesman for the dismissed soldiers, gave interviews to journalists and had been negotiating with President Ramos-Horta over the conditions for his capitulation since the end of last year. Whether those conversations were linked to the events of Feb. 11 remains unclear.

The incidents could rekindle discussions whether or not Timor-Leste is a “failing state.” With respect to this young, post-conflict state, however, the debate seems wide of the mark.

First, the country’s institutions are still being established, so it is inappropriate to pass judgment just yet on their performance. Since the 1999 referendum on independence from Indonesia and the subsequent devastation of the country by pro-Indonesian militias, investment has been primarily in infrastructure. Poverty, high unemployment and low education levels have not been successfully addressed.

Second, the international community was negligent in developing adequate or sufficient institutional and personnel capacities during the UN transitional administration (from 1999 to 2002) as well as during the subsequent, ‘leaner’ missions to Timor. To find fault only among the Timorese would be inappropriate, and too readily absolve the international community of its obligation to stay engaged over a longer time period. Therefore, the extension of the UNMIT mission for another 12 months by the Security Council on Feb. 25 is a promising sign.

Third, a learning process seems to have started in the political leadership with respect to addressing crises in a democratic manner. “The government has reacted in a very mature, sober and responsible manner,” said Atul Khare, UN special envoy for Timor-Leste, after the attack on Ramos-Horta. “Decisions are being made according to the constitution and applicable laws of Timor-Leste. This was one of the challenges noticed by the International Special Commission of Inquiry, which was formed to look into the events of 2006.”

However, the situation of Reinado does point to one of the most urgent problems in Timor-Leste: impunity from justice. The reasons for this lie in a weak judiciary, inadequate resources for the courts and the vested interests of certain politicians who, though they publicly call for a strengthened justice system, ignore it in practice. As a result, few criminals are actually prosecuted. Gangs of youths, for which Reinado has set an example, have repeatedly used violence. In the absence of sanctions, inhibitions against criminal behavior are substantially weakened.

Additionally, criminal offences from the era of the referendum have yet to be fully addressed. The UN has now revived a Serious Crimes Investigation Unit that ceased operations in 2005, in order to investigate 600 of the 1,300 killings carried out at the time. Because the courts are swamped with work, most of those so far indicted have been waiting years for their trials. The recommendations made in 2005 by the independent Commission for Reception, Truth and Reconciliation have been neither implemented nor even discussed in the legislature. This is regrettable, for they could help defuse deep-seated conflicts in Timorese society and strengthen the state’s legal foundations.

­ Henriette Sachse is a doctoral candidate at the Institute of Asian and Africa Studies at Humboldt University in Berlin, researching “Transitional Justice and Reconciliation in Timor-Leste.”

Copyright © 2008 The Asia Pacific Times 

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