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EAST TIMOR: Doubts Linger on New PM’s Ability

Kalinga Seneviratne

SYDNEY, Jul 17 2006 (IPS) - East Timor’s new Prime Minister Jose Ramos Horta has been warmly welcomed by Australia’s foreign minister Alexander Downer as a leader who could help solve the country’s political crisis. But analysts in the region doubt if Horta can deliver the goods, where his own country is concerned.

A major reason for this lingering doubt is the belief that Australia may have played a role in the downfall of the former prime minister Mari Alkatiri, who was pressured to resign, late last month, after the Australian media claimed that he has been secretly arming the militia to eliminate his opponents.

Horta, who is known to be a close ally of Australia, was thrust into the prime minister’s role even though he is not even a member of Alkatiri’s Fretilin Party, which holds 55 of the 88 seats in parliament, with opposition benches divided among 12 smaller parties.

Horta, speaking on ABC Radio, after his installation on Monday, said his government’s immediate role was to consolidate security in the country and indicated that Australian forces currently in the capital Dili will remain until the end of the year.

More than 2,200 foreign troops, mainly from Australia, were sent to Dili to restore law and order after rioting broke out in the capital between rival military factions leaving 21 people dead.

Horta wants a foreign troop presence in the country for a while. He said that with the agreement of the United Nations Security Council, at the end of the year, the remaining Australian forces would come under the UN umbrella as a peacekeeping force, “but, preferably for us, retaining Australian command leadership”.

However, one of his two deputy prime ministers, Estanislau da Silva, Fretilin member of parliament and a close ally of Alkatiri predicted that there is a tough road ahead for the new leadership. When pressed by ABC radio for a statement of support for the new prime minister, he responded saying: “I don’t support any person.”

Alkatiri, said da Silva, did not resign. ”His dismissal took place in very special circumstances, so the wounds, all the problems have not been healed properly”.

Human rights activist Francisco da Silva Gari speaking with IPS from Dili said that Ramos Horta’s appointment may help to restore order in the short term, but, he will have huge challenges in the long term. He said there is a perception that Alkatiri’s dismissal was engineered by Canberra because “he was tough in negotiations with Australia on the oil and gas deals, (because) he was trying to defend the rights of Timorese (for their natural resources)”.

Without naming names, he said that some political leaders have used the so-called conflict between people from the east and west to serve their own political goals and “received support from a foreign country that has interest in Timor oil”. Gari argued that during Indonesian occupation “we did not distinguish our people from east and west, we were together for the struggle for independence”.

Damian Grenfell, a researcher at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology who focuses on security issues in East Timor, agrees that there is no history of an east-west conflict. “Rather this is a conflict between access to state resources and political control, that has seen parts of the community mobilised on an east-west basis” he told IPS in an interview., ”This is a potential cause for future instability”.

He argues that while there will be no tears in Canberra over Alkatiri’s departure, ”the risks for Australia of triggering such a crisis are huge, and include creating the space for a new leadership within Timor Leste (as East Timor is known in Portuguese), that would be far more antithetical to Australian national interests”.

But, the head of the Department of International Relations at the University of Indonesia, Haryadi Wiryawan, sees it differently. He was quoted in the Jakarta Post recently as saying that ” Alkatiri’s socialist outlook is seen as not in line with what they (Australia) want East Timor to be”, and his closeness to China did not please Canberra either.

Just before the crisis erupted in Dili, Alkatiri’s government had awarded a major oil exploration contract to Petro China and was also reported to be close to signing an agreement with Beijing to build a petroleum refinery in Dili which would have undermined Australia’s plans to build one in the northern Australian city of Darwin to process oil and gas resources from the disputed Timor Gap – which has an estimated 30 billion US dollars worth of resources.

”There is no doubt that the Australian government has never liked Alkatiri and spreads unfavourable information about him, attributing him with being responsible for imposing Portuguese and accusing him of being a Marxist,” Australian academic Helen Hill, author of ‘Stirring of Nationalism in East Timor”, told IPS.

Hill argued that the Australian media is probably even worse, and they have played a role in Alkatiri’s downfall by accusing him of being born in Yemen, not being TImorese, not speaking the Tetum language, of wanting to install a ‘one-party’ system and of nepotism and corruption.

“They fail to realise that Alkatiri’s great achievement of getting a much better deal for the Greater Sunrise Unitisation Agreement and setting up the Petroleum Fund, is widely praised as is his bringing in of Cuban doctors to work in the rural areas and his policy of saving Timor-Leste from international debt,” Hill noted.

”He is, unfortunately, one of the few ministers who can get Timorese to focus on economic issues and push the country towards the (U.N. prescribed) Millenium Development Goals (MDGs). If he is not re-appointed as a minister it will be very difficult for Timor-Leste to get back on this path”.

 
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