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EAST TIMOR: Arrest, Weapons Handover Move Crisis Management Forward

Analysis by Mario de Queiroz

LISBON, Jun 20 2006 (IPS) - Few would have predicted that April’s protests in East Timor would spiral into a deadly spree of ethnic and personal settling of scores in yet another blow to the world’s youngest country.

However, analysts hint that the unmistakable shadow of oil looms behind the instability of this ex-Portuguese colony – population 880,000 – whose 15,007 square kilometres are rich in fossil fuels.

The Community of Portuguese Speaking Countries (CPLP), which met in Lisbon on Sunday, has decided to send a mission to Timor to assess the situation. A violent backlash against alleged discrimination in the island country’s army and police forces has left a death toll of 40, but the street-fighting between rival gangs, which prompted 130,000 residents of the capital city Dili to flee, has been easing.

The envoys will study the possible stabilisation measures to be taken by Angola, Brazil, Cape Verde, Guinea-Bissau, Mozambique, Portugal, and Sao Tomé and Príncipe, which together with East Timor form the CPLP. These measures will include sending, in addition to ministers, experts in various areas to help define future Community assistance.

Portugal’s foreign minister, Diogo Freitas do Amaral, noted that the CPLP must work with the United Nations, “and help overcome the notion that Timor is a failed state.”

The Community’s final statement called for positioning U.N. military and police forces in the territory, an appeal backed by East Timor’s foreign minister, José Ramos-Horta, winner of the 1996 Nobel Peace Prize.

Well-respected by the security forces, Ramos-Horta has also just been appointed defence minister, in an attempt by President José Alexandre Xanana Gusmão to calm tensions.

In a telephone interview with IPS, Ramos-Horta confirmed that the U.N. mandate – which has continued beyond its May 19 expiry date due to the violence – will be extended another two years, and that the current Australian-led international peacekeeping force, which currently numbers 2,700 troops, could be increased.

He also said that Portugal’s Republican National Guard battalion, sent two weeks ago, would remain in the country.

The violence broke out on Apr. 27, sparked by an intense political-military crisis aggravated by the disintegration of the national police force and by divisions within the fledgling armed forces, which are composed largely of former guerrillas who fought against the Indonesian army.

At the root of the conflict is alleged ethnic discrimination against the Loromunu (from the West) by the Lorosae (of the East). The former say they are oppressed by armed forces and national police authorities.

When the infighting spilled from the barracks to the streets in April, general panic broke out. The police deserted the city and people who were left could only watch helplessly as Loromunu civilians torched Lorosae houses. Vast numbers of Lorosae citizens fled Dili to take refuge in the nearby mountains.

Although their ranks never swelled to more than 200, guerrilla forces, led from 1975 to late 1978 by Nicolau Lobato and from 1979 by Xanana Gusmão, kept up the fight against Indonesian occupying troops, who killed a third of East Timor’s then population of 660,000 – one of the worst per capita genocide cases of the 20th century.

Many of the former guerrillas joined an official army advised by Portugal, which also had the support of nearby Australia, Malaysia and New Zealand.

Major Alfredo Reinado led the recent rebellion; however, President Xanana Gusmão on Sunday, speaking from the Indonesian Island of Bali, stated that the major was not to blame and that he “is not a rebel, even though he brought arms against government forces.”

Major Reinado deserted his official post in the armed forces on May 3, along with 20 military and police troops, engaging in combat with forces loyal to Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri, head of the Revolutionary Front of Independent East Timor (FRETILIN), the party that took power with 71 percent of the vote following independence in May 2002.

The crisis had begun a few days earlier, with a harsh crackdown on a protest organised by some 600 soldiers fired by the government. Reinado blamed Alkatiri for the violence and demanded his resignation. But the FRETILIN leader has vowed to remain in his post until the 2007 elections.

Several times over the past three weeks, the prime minister has said that approximately 200,000 of his supporters have stayed in their homes at his urging, in order to avoid the “civil war” that some “foreign interests” in East Timor would like to provoke..

In a recent interview with the Lisbon daily Público, Alkatiri said it was too early for him to explain just what those interests were, but he did make some insinuations. “Perhaps a multilateral U.N. presence is not as appealing as a bilateral presence?” he asked, in a clear reference to Australia, whose troops, armed-vehicle street patrols and Blackhawk artillery helicopters are ubiquitous sights on the island.

Canberra and Lisbon began their silent struggle for influence over East Timor during the U.N. protectorate period (1999-2002). Portugal had historical and linguistic ties in its favour, but was all-too-aware of Australia’s proximity, economic and military power, and technical capacity to exploit the oil and natural gas in the seas around the island.

Hence Portugal’s backing of U.N.-channelled assistance for East Timor, while Australia, although not opposed to that strategy, seems to lean towards a bilateral relationship with its tiny neighbour.

Diplomatic incidents, while slight, have been occurring between Lisbon and Canberra. For example, in late May, the Portuguese foreign minister told Australian Prime Minister John Howard to stay out of other countries’ internal affairs, when the latter said that Timor was suffering from serious governance problems.

However, Lisbon is not Howard’s only critic. The World Socialist Web Site (WSWS) wondered why “In all the Australian media coverage of the Howard government’s latest armed intervention in East Timor, the words ‘oil’ and ‘gas’ are hardly mentioned.”

The publication calls Alkatiri a born negotiator, who has significantly reduced the damage resulting from Australian imperialist attitudes regarding resources in Timor’s seas. It also noted that Alkatiri was working on partnerships with China, which is keen on securing enough oil and gas to supply its dizzying growth, when the crisis exploded.

Analysts say the complex network of complicity and silences entwined in East Timor’s political situation could jeopardise the U.N. investigation into the violence, even though the inquiry was requested by all parties: the president, prime minister, opposition, rebels, police and military.

In a statement to reporters from Radio Televisión Portuguesa (RTP), a group of rebels under the command of notorious former guerrilla Vicente Railos da Conceição said they were armed by ex-minister Lobato, in a kind of “death squad” to eliminate political opponents, on orders from Alkatiri.

Alkatiri denied the accusations, calling it another smear tactic. “They are trying to tarnish my image,” he said, recalling that on the weekend he gave the green light to the U.N. to proceed with the investigation into the violent acts, including the activity of armed groups to discover who had distributed the weapons.

Yet despite his prestigious standing as the brother of Nicolau Lobato – Timor’s most celebrated martyr – Rogério Lobato, former interior minister, was unable to avoid an arrest warrant issued by East Timor’s prosecutor-general Tuesday, accusing him of arming civilians during the recent violence.

A U.N. official reported that the former minister is now under house arrest. Lobato is also the main target of international investigators, as a primary suspect in an attempted coup d’etat and arms trafficking.

The latest reports from East Timor say Reinado, complying with government orders, began handing over weapons to Australian military providing him with protection in Maubisse, 70 kilometres south of Dili.

The hope for peace lies in the fact that the latest reports seem to indicate that the three main leaders, Xanana Gusmão, Alkatiri and Ramos-Horta, are prioritising national reconciliation above all else, which explains the head of state’s tolerance of Reinado and his rebels.

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