Subject: IPS: East Timor on the precipice

East Timor on the precipice

Inter Press Service/Asia Times - October 30, 2006

By Mario de Queiroz

LISBON - After centuries of Portuguese colonialism and more than two decades of Indonesian military occupation, instability and violence continue to plague East Timor, simultaneously one of the world's newest and poorest nations.

Since East Timor won independence in May 2002, grave uncertainty has marked the future of the small, resource-rich island nation. Violent clashes that started this April and peaked in June are now kicking up again, indicating that the island's long struggle for freedom has now morphed into a violent fight for power among competitive armed groups.

Last week rival groups of marauding youths primitively fought one another with knives, machetes and bows and arrows, set fire to houses and, significantly, attacked the 1,600-strong foreign peacekeeping contingent, which landed in May and is made up mainly of Australian troops, with smaller contingents of Malaysians, New Zealanders and Portuguese. At least four people have died in the latest surge in violence.

That augurs ill for those who hoped foreign intervention and the July 8 appointment of former Nobel Peace Prize winner Jose Ramos-Horta would quell the violence and help to reconcile competitive groups inside the police and military. Rather, the recent disturbances have been interpreted by Brigadier-General Taur Matan Ruak, the current commander-in-chief of the armed forces, as an attempt to overthrow the new government.

He says the main objectives of the violent gangs are "the collapse of the executive branch, the dissolution of parliament, and the establishment of a government of national unity". Matan Ruak, a Ramos-Horta loyalist, was a legendary guerrilla leader who fought against the occupying Indonesians for 25 years.

Rioters have recently targeted international peacekeepers, notably after Australian troops shot tear gas last week into an improvised refugee camp, which injured a child near the airport in Dili, the capital. Australian troops also reportedly opened fire that same day when a man approached them in a perceived threatening manner. The director of the Dili hospital, Antonio Calere, told Portuguese reporters that four people were killed and 47 injured last week. Two Portuguese soldiers and one Australian were among the injured.

The United Nations Office in East Timor (UNOTIL) has since called for the replacement of Australian troops with UN police officers, who would be led by Antero Lopes of Portugal and include soldiers from Portugal, Malaysia and Bangladesh. Acting Police Commissioner Lopes told the Portuguese press that the violence last Wednesday reached the worst level since June, when more than 20,000 Timorese fled the capital for the nearby hills.

Ramos-Horta said by telephone from Rome - where he was visiting the Vatican to invite Pope Benedict XVI to visit East Timor - that "different groups in Timor are trying to manipulate the foreign military forces, alternately accusing the Portuguese and the Australians".

"Members of a group that was neutralized by the Australians accuse them of supporting the other side, and members of a group neutralized by the Portuguese accuse the Portuguese of favoring the other side. It's a never-ending story," said Ramos-Horta, who concurrently serves as the country's defense chief.

"The Australian, New Zealand, Malaysian and Portuguese forces went to East Timor at the request of the presidency, parliament and the government. In general, the troops have behaved in an exemplary manner. Incidents have occurred, but they have never been deliberate," he said.

That's not necessarily how the UN Independent Special Commission of Inquiry for Timor-Leste, which was established to investigate the causes and culprits of the recent violence that led to at least 40 deaths and triggered the ongoing crisis, views the situation. Released last month, the UN inquiry recommended that some 90 high-ranking Timorese officials and others be investigated and, if the evidence warranted, prosecuted in local courts. One top official named by the UN commission: army commander-in-chief Matan Ruak.

Ramos-Horta said in the interview that the armed forces and Matan Ruak had already "presented public apologies" after the UN special commission issued the results of its investigation. "It is very rare for a military force anywhere in the world to show such integrity, courage and humility, an attitude that will help cure many wounds in our society," he stated.

In late June, East Timorese President Xanana Gusmao asked for the resignation of prime minister Mari Alkatiri and defense minister Roque Rodrigues, and named then-foreign minister Ramos-Horta to both posts. The reason given for the move was alleged discrimination against the Loromunus ethnic group from the western part of the island by the Lorosae from the east, who significantly have much greater representation in the armed forces and police.

But analysts in Portugal and Australia say the problem is not so much ethnic as economic. They point in particular to the competitive interest for political control over the country's vast oil and natural-gas reserves. Once brought online, those reserves are expected to lift significantly the country's gross domestic product per capita of about US$400 and help solve the country's endemic unemployment.

"We do not have a middle class in the real sense of the word, nor any significant private sector, and I say that because no country develops without a private sector and a middle class," Ramos-Horta said. "As everyone knows, this takes many years to develop. Sometimes people forget that we are only in our fourth year of independence."

For his part, Matan Ruak has said a parliamentary investigation commission should be set up "to guarantee a rapid return to peace". The aim of the commission would be "to determine the objectives and strategies" of the violent groups "and identify the moral and intellectual authors behind the crisis - and, above all, to hold them accountable".

Ramos-Horta said it was "only natural" that the UN would call for further investigations. "It is the responsibility of the attorney general to determine whether or not that is necessary," he said, adding: "For my part, I continue to have full confidence in Brigadier-General Taur Matan Ruak."

Unfortunately, not everyone else that matters is in agreement. Major Alfredo Reinado, who deserted the armed forces with a group of his military followers in June, is still holed up in the jungle. Ousted prime minister Alkatiri is still disgruntled and politically powerful. And the prognosis from the streets is for more violence in the weeks ahead.